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

Contents

  • 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.

Subjects

Date Updated:  October 4, 2017

Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[1]

Much has been written about George Washington’s use of intelligence during the Revolutionary War; the late John Nagy himself contributed several other books on the subject.[2] Nagy justifies this level of attention because Washington’s “skill as a spymaster provided for the opportunity to win the American Revolution and independence from Great Britain.” (1) (Whether the opportunity came first and Washington’s skills then increased the chances of victory is another matter.) In any case, George Washington’s Secret Spy War takes a different approach to the subject by focusing on how Washington acquired his intelligence skills.

Nagy’s account shows how Washington learned on the job when serving in the British army during the French and Indian War. His mission was to learn what the French were doing in British territory. To answer this question, common military sense necessitated

  1. Before his death in April 2016, Mr. Nagy wrote prolifically on the American Revolutionary War. His four other books include Dr. Benja-min Church, Spy: A Case of Espionage on the Eve of the American Revolu¬tion (2013), Spies in the Continental Capital: Espionage Across Pennsylva¬nia During the American Revolution (2011); Invisible ink: Spycroft of the American Revolution (2011); and Rebellion in the Ranks: Mutinies ofthe American Revolution (2007), all published by Westholme Publishing.

 

sending scouts—Nagy calls them spies—into French territory and recruiting personnel working with the French—in some cases, Indians —who would provide additional, corroborating intelligence. Nagy gives details of Washington’s not always successful efforts during this period that have not been written about before, and in some cases his research identifies agents not previously known.

The balance ofthe book describes Washington’s gradual application of espionage, counterespionage, codes and secret writing, and deception during the Revolutionary War. At one point, he digresses a bit to show how similar deception techniques are still used today, givingWWII and Operation Desert Storm examples.

Nagy’s descriptions of Washington’s use of and personal involvement in intelligence operations during the Revolutionary War are interesting but they are not new—though his extensive footnotes do add material not mentioned elsewhere.

There can be no doubt that Washington’s inherent grasp of military intelligence was a positive factor in the success of the Army during the war. George Washington’s Secret Spy War is a fine summary of his contribution.

 

KIRKUS REVIEW[3]

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[4], 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] Peake, Hayden in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (23, 1 Summer 2017, pp. 127-128). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence, Other reviews and articles may be found online at http://www.cia.gov

[2] Before his death in April 2016, Mr. Nagy wrote prolifically on the American Revolutionary War. His four other books include Nagy, John A. (2013). Dr. Benjamin Church, Spy: A Case of Espionage on the Eve of the American Revolution. Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing; Nagy, John A. (2011). Spies in the Continental Capital: Espionage Across Pennsylvania During the American Revolution. Yardley, PA: Westholme; Nagy, John A. (2011). Invisible Ink: Spycraft of The American Revolution. Yardley, PA : Westholme Publishing; and Nagy, John A. (2007). Rebellion in The Ranks: Mutinies of The American Revolution. Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing.

[3] Kirkus Review, downloaded November 9, 2016

[4] 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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