George Washington’s Secret Spy War

Title:                      George Washington’s Secret Spy War

Author:                 John A. Nagy

Nagy, John A. (2016). George Washington’s Secret Spy War: The Making of America’s First Spymaster. New York: St. Martin’s Press

LCCN:    2016021588

E279 .N339 2016


  • French lessons — Drinking, flashing the ladies, and grave robbing — Desperate times — Pools of blood — Quaker chicanery — We danced the minuet — Double agents — Traitors and licensed spies — Black chambers and the medicine factory — Petite guerre — Deception battle plan: the objective — Deception battle plan: enemy assumptions — Deception battle plan: method — Deception battle plan: the sting-executing the plan — Deception battle plan: exploitation — Conclusion.


Date Updated:  April 21, 2017

Reviewed in The Intelligencer[1]

(From the publisher)—Drawing on Washington’s correspondence and diary, Nagy, an American Revolution specialist, follows Washington from his participation in the French and Indian Wars, where he cut his teeth in the ways of espionage, to his great deception in the American Revolution that secured colonial victory. Having learned in his 1758 campaign in Ohio that “there is nothing more necessary than good intelligence to frustrate a designing enemy,” Washington used several methods with great success to deceive his enemy in almost every military encounter in which he engaged. He created false troop information; he standardized the means by which his spies gathered information; he and his forces regularly intercepted and read mail; and he used invisible ink in his letters to his own leaders, who had various ways of making the ink visible. Washington’s greatest tool was the “Deception Battle Plan”: Washington fooled the British into thinking he would attack the British front line in New York City when instead he moved his troops to Virginia, attacking the British rear flank and securing Cornwallis’s surrender and American victory.



One intriguing, little-known facet of the first general of the Continental Army: his wholehearted embrace of the art of deception against the British.

A cryptology specialist of the Colonial period, Nagy (Dr. Benjamin Church, Spy: A Case of Espionage on the Eve of the American Revolution[3], etc.), who died this year, found that the Founding Father famed for his inability to tell a lie actually embarked on wartime espionage “with childlike glee.” Working with a ragtag army that was no match for the professionalism of the enemy, Washington used espionage to “level the playing field and then exploit it to the best advantage possible.” He honed these skills as a young lieutenant colonel working for Gen. Edward Braddock in the war against the French, rebuffing French raiding parties and making allies with the Indians. As war against Britain became inevitable by 1775, Washington, now the Virginia “gentleman farmer” chosen by the Continental Congress to “lead the mob of Massachusetts malcontents surrounding Boston,” needed spies to infiltrate British ranks in Boston so he could be prepared for their attacks. One of his methods was to use the observances of local fisherman. Uncovering spies for the British presented another problem—e.g., the revelation of Massachusetts revolutionary leader Dr. Benjamin Church Jr.’s traitorous cipher; he had apparently been playing both sides. On the other hand, an important seeker of intelligence on British positions in New York, young Nathan Hale was caught and hanged by the British as a spy. Washington fed false information to British spies, prepared a standardized set of questions to root out real spies, used misdirection in attacking the British, and promoted the ingenious fabrication of invisible ink. Over several chapters, Nagy effectively lays out Washington’s “Deception Battle Plan”—i.e., obscuring where exactly he would attack New York City in 1781, a plan similarly executed so many years later in Operation Overlord (1944) and in Operation Desert Storm (1990-1991).

A knowledgeable study of Washington’s extensive “bag of tricks” to secure victory.

[1] The Intelligencer (22, 2, Fall 2016, p. 139.

[2] Kirkus Review, downloaded November 9, 2016

[3] Nagy, John A. (2013). Dr. Benjamin Church, Spy: A Case of Espionage on the Eve of the American Revolution. Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing


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