Martyrs and Heroes In The Revolutionary Period

    Nathan Hale is probably the best known but least successful American agent in the 
    War of Independence. He embarked on his espionage mission into British-held New 
    York as a volunteer, impelled by a strong sense of patriotism and duty. Before leaving 
    on the mission he reportedly told a fellow officer: "I am not influenced by the 
    expectation of promotion or pecuniary award; I wish to be useful, and every 
    kind of service necessary to the public good becomes honorable by being 
    necessary. If the exigencies of my country demand a peculiar service, its 
    claims to perform that service are imperious." 
    But dedication was not enough. Captain Hale had no training experience, no 
    contacts in New York, no channels of communication, and no cover story to 
    explain his absence from camp-only his Yale diploma supported his contention 
    that he was a "Dutch schoolmaster." He was captured while trying to slip out of 
    New York, was convicted as a spy and went to the gallows on September 22, 
    1776. Witnesses to the execution reported the dying words that gained him 
    immortality (a paraphrase of a line from Joseph Addison's play Cato: "I only 
    regret that I have but one life to lose for my country." 
    The same day Nathan Hale was executed in New York, British authorities there 
    arrested another Patriot and charged him with being a spy. Haym Salomon was 
    a recent Jewish immigrant who worked as a stay-behind agent after Washington 
    evacuated New York City in September 1776. Solomon was arrested in a 
    round-up of suspected Patriot sympathizers and was confined to Sugar House 
    Prison. He spoke several European languages and was soon released to the 
    custody of General von Heister, commander of Hessian mercenaries, who 
    needed someone who could serve as a German-language interpreter in the 
    Hessian commissary department. While in German custody, Salomon induced 
    a number of the German troops to resign or desert. 
    Eventually paroled, Salomon did not flee to Philadelphia as had many of his 
    New York business associates. He continued to serve as an undercover agent, 
    and used his personal finances to assist American patriots held prisoner in 
    New York. He was arrested again in August of 1778, accused this time of 
    being an accomplice in a plot to burn the British fleet and to destroy His 
    Majesty's, warehouses in the city. Salomon was condemned to death for 
    sabotage, but bribed his guard while awaiting execution and escaped to 
    Philadelphia. There he came into the open in the role for which he is best 
    known, as an important financier of the Revolution. It is said that when 
    Salomon died in bankruptcy in 1785, at forty-five years of age, the government 
    owed him more than $700,000 in unpaid loans. 
    Less than a year after Nathan Hale was executed, another American agent 
    went to the gallows in New York. On June 13, 1777, General Washington 
    wrote the President of Congress: "You will observe by the New York paper, 
    the execution of Abm. [Abraham] Patten. His family deserves the generous 
    Notice of Congress. He conducted himself with great fidelity to our Cause 
    rendering Services and has fallen a Sacrifice in promoting her interest. Perhaps 
    a public act of generosity, considering the character he was in, might not be so 
    eligible as a private donation." 
    "Most accurate and explicit intelligence" resulted from the work of Abraham 
    Woodhull on Long Island and Robert Townsend in British-occupied New York 
    City. Their operation, known as the Culper Ring from the operational names 
    used by Woodhull (Culper, Sr.) and Townsend (Culper, Jr.), effectively used 
    such intelligence tradecraft as codes, ciphers and secret ink for communications; 
    a series of couriers and whaleboats to transmit reporting; at least one secret 
    safe house, and numerous sources. The network was particularly effective in 
    picking up valuable information from careless conversation wherever the British 
    and their sympathizers gathered. 
    One female member of the Culper Ring, known only by her codename "355," 
    was arrested shortly after Benedict Arnold's defection in 1780 and evidently 
    died in captivity. Details of her background are unknown, but 355 (the number 
    meant "lady" in the Culper code) may have come from a prominent Tory family 
    with access to British commanders and probably reported on their activities and 
    personalities. She was one of several females around the debonaire Major Andre, 
    who enjoyed the company of young, attractive, and intelligent women. Abraham 
    Woodhull, 355's recruiter, praised her espionage work, saying that she was 
    "one who hath been ever serviceable to this correspondence." Arnold questioned 
    all of Andre's associates after his execution in October 1780 and grew suspicious 
    when the pregnant 355 refused to identify her paramour. She was incarcerated 
    on the squalid prison ship Jersey, moored in the East River. There she gave 
    birth to a son and then died without disclosing that she had a common-law 
    husband-Robert Townsend, after whom the child was named. 
    One controversial American agent in New York was the King's Printer, James 
    Rivington. His coffee house, a favorite gathering place for the British, was a 
    principal source of information for Culper, Jr. (Townsend), who was a silent 
    partner in the endeavor. George Washington Parke Custis suggests that 
    Rivington's motive for aiding the patriot cause was purely monetary. Custis 
    notes that Rivington, nevertheless, "proved faithful to his bargain, and often 
    would provide intelligence of great importance gleaned in convivial moments 
    at Sir William's or Sir Henry's table, be in the American camp before the 
    convivialists had slept off the effects of their wine. The King's printer would 
    probably have been the last man suspected, for during the whole of his 
    connection with the secret service his Royal Gazette piled abuse of every 
    sort upon the cause of the American general and the cause of America." 
    Rivington's greatest espionage achievement was acquiring the Royal Navy's 
    signal book in 1781. That intelligence helped the French fleet repel a British 
    flotilla trying to relieve General Cornwallis at Yorktown. 
    Hercules Mulligan ran a clothing shop that was also frequented by British 
    officers in occupied New York. The Irish immigrant was a genial host, and 
    animated conversation typified a visit to his emporium. Since Mulligan was 
    also a Patriot agent, General Washington had full use of the intelligence he 
    gathered. Mulligan was the first to alert Washington to two British plans to 
    capture the American Commander-in-Chief and to a planned incursion into 
    Pennsylvania. Besides being an American agent, Mulligan also was a British 
    counterintelligence failure. Before he went underground as an agent, he had 
    been an active member of the Sons of Liberty and the New York Committees 
    of Correspondence and Observation, local Patriot intelligence groups. 
    Mulligan had participated in acts of rebellion and his name had appeared 
    on Patriot broadsides distributed in New York as late as 1776. But every 
    time he fell under suspicion, the popular Irishman used his gift of "blarney" 
    to talk his way out of it. The British evidently never learned that Alexander 
    Hamilton, Washington's aide-de-camp, had lived in the Mulligan home while 
    attending King's College, and had recruited Mulligan and possibly Mulligan's 
    brother, a banker and merchant who handled British accounts, for espionage. 
    Another American agent in New York was Lieutenant Lewis J. Costigin, who 
    walked the streets freely in his Continental Army uniform as he collected
    intelligence. Costigin had originally been sent to New York as a prisoner, and 
    was eventually paroled under oath not to attempt escape or communicate 
    intelligence. In September 1778 he was designated for prisoner exchange 
    and freed of his parole oath. But he did not leave New York, and until January 
    1779 he roamed the city in his American uniform, gathering intelligence on 
    British commanders, troop deployments, shipping, and logistics while giving 
    the impression of still being a paroled prisoner. 
    On May 15,1780, General Washington instructed General Heath to send 
    intelligence agents into Canada. He asked that they be those "upon whose 
    firmness and fidelity we may safely rely," and that they collect "exact" 
    information about Halifax in support of a French requirement for information 
    on the British defense works there. Washington suggested that qualified 
    draftsmen be sent. James Bowdoin, who was later to become the first 
    president of the American Academy of Arts and Science, fulfilled the 
    intelligence mission, providing detailed plans of Halifax harbor, including 
    specific military works and even water depths. 
    In August 1782, General Washington created the Military Badge of Merit, 
    to be issued "whenever any singularly meritorious action is performed... 
    not only instances of unusual gallantry, but also of extraordinary fidelity 
    and essential service in any way." Through the award, said Washington, 
    "the road to glory in a Patriot army and a free country is thus open to all." 
    The following June, the honor was bestowed on Sergeant Daniel Bissell, 
    who had "deserted" from the Continental Army, infiltrated New York, 
    posed as a Tory, and joined Benedict Arnold's "American Legion." For 
    over a year, Bissell gathered information on British fortifications, making 
    a detailed study of British methods of operation, before escaping to 
    American lines. 
    Dominique L'Eclise, a Canadian who served as an intelligence agent for 
    General Schuyler, had been detected and imprisoned and had all his 
    property confiscated. After being informed by General Washington of the 
    agent's plight, the Continental Congress on October 23, 1778, granted 
    $600 to pay L'Eclise's debts and $60, plus one ration a day "during the 
    pleasure of Congress," as compensation for his contribution to the 
    American cause. 
    Family legend contributes the colorful but uncorroborated story of Lydia 
    Darragh and her listening post for eavesdropping on the British. Officers 
    of the British force occupying Philadelphia chose to use a large upstairs 
    room in the Darragh house for conferences. When they did, Mrs. Darragh 
    would slip into an adjoining closet and take notes on the enemy's military 
    plans. Her husband, William, would transcribe the intelligence in a form 
    of shorthand on tiny slips of paper that Lydia would then position on a 
    button mold before covering it with fabric. The message-bearing buttons 
    were then sewn onto the coat of her fourteen-year-old son, John, who 
    would then be sent to visit his elder brother, Lieutenant Charles Darragh, 
    of the American forces outside the city. Charles would snip off the buttons 
    and transcribe the shorthand notes into readable form for presentation to 
    his officers. Lydia Darragh is said to have concealed other intelligence in 
    a sewing-needle packet which she carried in her purse when she passed 
    through British lines. Some espionage historians have questioned the 
    credibility of the best-known story of Darragh's espionage-that she 
    supposedly overheard British commanders planning a surprise night 
    attack against Washington's army at Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania, on 
    the 4th and 5th of December 1777. The cover story she purportedly 
    used to leave Philadelphia-she was filling a flour sack at a nearby mill 
    outside the British lines because there was a flour shortage in the 
    city-is implausible because there was no shortage, and a lone woman 
    would not have been allowed to roam around at night, least of all in the 
    area between the armies. 
    Many other heroic Patriots gathered the intelligence that helped win the 
    War of Independence. Their intelligence duties required many of them to 
    pose as one of the enemy, incurring the hatred of family members and 
    friends-some even having their property seized or burned, and their 
    families driven from their homes. Some were captured by American 
    forces and narrowly escaped execution on charges of high treason or 
    being British spies. Many of them gave their lives in helping establish 
    America's freedom.

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