George Washington was not just an American Revolution general: he was also his own spy master, focused mostly on New York City. When people think of America’s War of Independence, the city that usually first comes to mind is Boston. Among other things, we have the Boston Tea Party, the Boston Massacre, John and Samuel Adams, the nearby opening engagements at Lexington and Concord. The Patriots’ first major military success was to force the British to leave Boston. However, New York also played a major role in the Revolutionary War.
After the war’s first few months when Boston was the focus of attention, New York took center stage for the rest of the conflict. In the summer of 1776, the British descended upon New York in force, and the war’s biggest battle was fought at Long Island on August 27th, 1776. Washington and the Continental Army were defeated, and the survivors had to hole up in Brooklyn. They only avoided capture by a miraculous escape. The British then proceeded to consolidate their hold on the city and its surroundings.
The Big Apple Was Extremely Important in the American Revolution
The Big Apple became the main British military base in North America, the headquarters of their high command, and their administrative center. In addition to being vital to commerce, New York’s central position made it a key strategic point. It had a great anchorage, and its harbor usually looked like a forest of masts from all the sailing vessels that came, docked, and went. It was also conveniently located relatively close to Philadelphia, capitol of the insurgents and a locale they had to try and defend. The region between and surrounding Colonial America’s two greatest cities saw the war’s most intense and concentrated military activity. It was similar to what happened in the area between Washington and Richmond in the American Civil War.
New York City was thus bound to become a hotbed of espionage. Compared to the Patriots, the British already had the deck heavily stacked in their favor, with a vast disparity in professional troops, materiel, and resources that the rebels could not hope to match. Advance notice of British intentions and an insight into their plans could reduce that disparity’s impact. To know what the British were up to in New York was extremely important to the Patriots. George Washington, deemed the collection of intelligence from there a vital task upon which the war’s outcome depended.
Emanuel Gottleib Leutze, a German-American artist, painted in 1851 what came to be the American Revolution’s most iconic image: Washington Crossing the Delaware. Leutze actually painted three copies, one of which was housed in Germany and was destroyed in World War II. The other two survive, one in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the other in the Minnesota Marine Art Museum. The oil on canvas paintings, which measure twenty one feet and three inches by fourteen feet and five inches, captured imaginations ever since they were unveiled.
The event depicted, a surprise attack in late 1776 against an enemy garrison at Trenton, New Jersey, was dramatic. It came at the heels of a series of disastrous American defeats, and its success prevented a complete collapse of the Patriot war effort. Leutze depicts George Washington at a boat’s prow, staring determinedly straight ahead as it is rowed towards the enemy bank, while flanked by other Patriot-laden boats. It is a great work of art, but is historically inaccurate: as seen below, Washington’s actual crossing of the Delaware looked nothing like Leutze’s depiction.
The historical inaccuracy’s of Leutze’s painting is understandable. It was intended as a dramatic work of art, with all the artistic license that goes with that. Also, Leutze painted it seventy five years later: as much time separated him from the event depicted, as separates us in 2023 from the Allied invasion of Sicily or the Battle of Kursk. On top of all that, Leutze did not paint Washington Crossing the Delaware anywhere close to the site of the event, but in Germany.
The flag is the first inaccuracy. Leutze painted an early version of the Stars and Stripes – a design that did not exist in 1776 when Washington crossed the Delaware. The flag depicted was designed six months later, in June, 1777, and flew for the first time that September. The flag that Washington and his men would have used in 1776 would have been the Grand Union Flag – basically today’s US flag, but with a British Union Jack instead of stars. The most inaccurate bit about the painting though, as seen below, is its depiction of the very crossing.
As Leutze depicts it, Washington crossed the Delaware in the dawn’s early sunlight. That is inaccurate. The whole idea was to surprise the enemy. So the Patriots crossed the river around midnight on the night of December 25-26, 1776, not at the break of dawn. Sunlight, however, gives the painting a nice glimmer that adds to the drama. From an artistic perspective, its addition – even if inaccurate – was good. The actual crossing, as depicted above by Mort Kunstler, known for the historic accuracy of his work, was not as picturesque as Leutze’s depiction. Washington did not cross the Delaware standing at the prow of a rowboat. Had he done so, he probably would fallen in the river or swamped the boat. Instead, he and his men crossed in flat boats.
Rather than small boats that carried just a few men, the Patriots crossed in barge-like flat boats, packed with men, horses, and cannons. And they did not row across, but were pulled by wires strung across the river, helped along by men who pushed poles into the river bottom. Another dramatically brilliant but historically inaccurate bit about Leutze’s painting is the presence of mini icebergs on the river. In reality, the Delaware would have been cluttered with ice sheets. Even on a more secure flatboat, Washington would not have crossed in a heroic pose at the boat’s front, one leg dramatically placed in front of the other. Instead, he would have crossed in a more sensible manner, well balanced and probably grasping something like a well-secured cannon.
Most American presidents have been dog people. Even the ones who might not have liked dogs have often found it convenient to keep a mutt or two in the White House for appearances’ sake, and to project a wholesome image. However, few American presidents were as fond of Man’s Best Friends as George Washington. America’s first president was a big time dog lover. During his lifetime, he had dogs from just about every group recognized by the American Kennel Club today.
Greyhounds, French hounds, Newfoundlands, spaniels, terriers, and Briards were just some of the breeds kept by Washington at one time or another. He maintained a pack of fox hunting hounds in a well-kept kennel that had a spring running through it to supply the dogs with fresh water. He personally inspected it twice it a day, every morning and evening. As seen below, Washington’s love of dogs even led him to temporarily halt the war in order to return an enemy’s lost dog.
George Washington was a great leader, but only a so-so general. As a matter of fact, he lost more battles than he won. Fortunately for him, the battles he won included the American Revolution’s final and most important battle: the Siege of Yorktown, that ended with the surrender of a British army. The fights he lost included the Battle of Germantown, near Philadelphia. There, a British army led by Sir William Howe defeated Washington and his forces on October 4th, 1777.
After the loss, the Americans were forced to retreat. They discovered that their ranks included an unexpected addition: a clearly well-kept terrier. When they inspected the dog’s collar, Washington’s men discovered that it belonged to Sir William Howe. The British commander’s dog had wandered into the battlefield, and in the confusion attached itself to the Americans. The Patriots wanted to keep it in order to taunt Howe and the British, but Washington would not stoop so low as to keep another man’s dog.
Washington Refused to Stoop So Low as to Take Another Man’s Dog
George Washington resisted his men’s desire to keep Sir William Howe’s prized terrier. Instead, he sent a messenger under a white flag of truce, across the lines to the British commander. The messenger delivered the dog to Sir William, along with a note that read in relevant part: “General Washington’s compliments to General Howe. He does himself the pleasure to return to him a dog, which accidentally fell into his hands, and by the inscription on the Collar appears to belong to General Howe“.
When the British occupied New York in 1776, George Washington realized the importance of intelligence about his enemies’ troop movements and intentions. After he was defeated and forced to evacuate the city in the summer of 1776, Washington directed that a “channel of information” be established on Long Island. It was an ad hoc and poorly run affair, without permanent agents on the ground. It ended with the capture of Nathan Hale, a young Continental Army officer who volunteered to gather intelligence behind British lines. He was hanged as a spy.
That convinced Washington that civilians would make less conspicuous spies than military officers. So in February of 1777, he requested the aid of a Nathaniel Sackett to spy on the British. He appointed a Major Benjamin Tallmadge (1754 – 1835), a New Yorker and Yale graduate, as military liaison and point of contact. Sackett’s information was hit and miss, accurate at times, and inaccurate at others. Even the accurate intelligence lacked both the quantity and timeliness to satisfy Washington, so he sacked Sackett.
Washington Went to Great Lengths to Ensure That He Was Informed
George Washington was disappointed with espionage operations in 1777. His frustration with the inability to set up a reliable intelligence pipeline continued into 1778. Then in August, 1778, a Connecticut lieutenant named Caleb Brewster offered to furnish intelligence from behind enemy lines. By the end of the month, Brewster had sent in accurate reports about British troop movements, as well as the condition of Royal Navy ships after a storm and battles with the French. Encouraged by Brewster’s success, Washington ordered a General Charles Scott to handle the new intelligence pipeline, and assigned him Major Tallmadge as an assistant. Scott had a full plate, however, and was uninterested in espionage. So Tallmadge ended up as the de facto spy master in charge of Brewster’s activities.
Tallmadge’s responsibilities grew when Washington ordered him to recruit more New York spies. He recruited Abraham Woodhull, a friend and neighbor with whom he had grown up in Setauket, a Long Island small community. Woodhull gathered the intelligence and delivered it to Brewster, who then delivered it to Tallmadge and thus to George Washington. Washington, who was exceptionally hands-on for a general when it came to espionage, gave Woodhull the codename “Samuel Culper” – a play on Culpeper County, Virginia. With its key players in place and its tasks defined, the Culper Ring was now operational and ready to shape events and make history.
George Washington’s Involvement With the American Flag
American schoolchildren are familiar with Betsy Ross (1752 – 1836), the woman who sewed America’s first flag. A Philadelphia upholsterer and seamstress, Ross made tents, and sewed uniforms and flags for the Continental Army and Navy. In 1776, she reportedly received a visit from Colonel George Ross, a relative, accompanied by George Washington and financier Robert Morris. They asked her to make a flag based on a sketch that featured thirteen six-pointed white stars, and thirteen red and white stripes. Ross accepted, but suggested some changes: reduce the star points from six to five, and arrange them in a circle. On July 14th, 1777, Congress adopted that design as the national flag.
Nice story, but unfortunately, the Stars and Stripes was not America’s first flag, and Betsy Ross probably didn’t sew it, anyhow. There is no contemporary documentary support to back up that story. Indeed, the first mention of Betsy Ross and the original Stars and Stripes only came a century later. In 1870, her grandson William Canby claimed that Ross had relayed that account to her daughter, niece, and granddaughter. Harper’s New Monthly Magazine published the story in 1873, and it was uncritically accepted and made it into schoolbooks. So, what are the origins of the Stars and Stripes?
George Washington Never Commissioned Betsy Ross to Make the Stars and Stripes
Betsy Ross made Patriot flags during the American Revolution, but she was not the only one. For example, Rebecca Young sewed the Grand Union Flag, which featured the British Union Jack where the stars are today and served as the national flag from 1775 to 1776. It is possible that Betsy Ross’s relative, Colonel George Ross, might have recommended her to sew the Stars and Stripes. And she might have been acquainted with George Washington and Robert Morris, both of whom attended her church. However, there is no proof – other than her grandson’s assertion a century later – that she made the original Stars and Stripes. Furthermore, William Canby’s account that his grandmother sewed the original Stars and Stripes has some serious holes.
He claimed that a Continental Congress committee had commissioned a new flag in 1776. No records of such a committee exist. He claimed that said committee was headed by George Washington. Washington had left Congress to head the Continental Army in 1775, so he could not have served on a congressional committee in 1776. The first documented congressional discussion about a national flag did not take place until 1777. The only flag payments made to Betsy Ross in 1777 were from Pennsylvania’s State Naval Board for Pennsylvania naval flags, not for the Stars and Stripes. It is thus highly likely that the tale of Betsy Ross and the first Stars and Stripes is just a myth.
In November, 1775, Lord Dunmore, the governor of Virginia where George Washington’s plantation Mount Vernon is located, issued a proclamation that offered freedom to slaves who served the British. Washington was livid. Within weeks, hundreds of slaves escaped their American owners and joined his troops in Norfolk. Hundreds more arrived each week. As the number of runaways steadily grew, so did the fear and fury of American slave owners. Lord Dunmore’s proclamation did not win many hearts and minds amongst colonial whites, but it certainly won the hearts and minds of many colonial blacks. It also addressed a severe manpower shortage that had confronted Virginia’s British governor. It increased his side’s manpower, and simultaneously reduced that available to rebellious colonists. Dunmore armed and hastily trained the escaped slaves, and doubled his available forces within a few weeks.
Unfortunately, diseases – particularly smallpox and typhoid – devastated the escaped slaves. The standards of medical care and sanitation in those days were generally low even in ideal conditions, and conditions in the camps hastily thrown up for the new recruits were far from ideal. Epidemics swept the runaways’ camps, killed them off almost as fast as they were assembled, and prevented Dunmore from raising the vast slave armies he had once envisioned. Nonetheless, the survivors were assembled in Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment, led by white officers and sergeants. On November 15th, 1775, the new soldiers got their first taste of combat in the small scale Battle of Kemp’s Landing. It was a British victory in which one of the rebel militia colonels was captured by a former slave fighting for Britain. As seen below, the slaves who joined Dunmore included one of Washington’s.
The Slave Who Fled From George Washington to Join the British
Among the slaves who fled their rebel masters in response to Lord Dunmore’s promise of freedom was Harry Washington. In 1776, he ran away from Mount Vernon, George Washington’s Virginia plantation. He successfully evaded pursuit, and made it to safety behind British lines, where he enlisted in the Ethiopian Regiment. Harry was born in the Gambia River region in West Africa, circa 1740. He was enslaved and transported across the Atlantic, and survived the horrific Middle Passage to disembark in Virginia around 1760, where he was bought by a plantation owner.
After his master’s death in 1763, Harry was purchased by George Washington, who put him to work draining swamps in southeast Virginia. After years of toil in horrible conditions, enveloped by heat, humidity, and clouds of mosquitoes, Harry was taken to Washington’s plantation, Mount Vernon, and tasked with the care of horses. In 1771, he was demoted from his skilled tasks to grueling manual labor, prompting him to flee. However, he was recaptured a few weeks later, and restored to slavery.
When Virginia’s governor offered slaves their freedom if they fought for the British, Mount Vernon’s manager assembled the plantation’s slaves. He urged them to trust the benevolence of slavery’s paternalism over the precarious dangers of freedom. Harry preferred the dangers of freedom over the benevolence of slavery. At risk of savage penalties if caught, he fled, along with two other slaves. Harry evaded the slave patrols and pursuit, and made it to British lines, where he enlisted in the Ethiopian Regiment. He survived the epidemic diseases that wracked the unit, as well as combat in Virginia. In 1776, the British position in Virginia became hopeless, so the state was evacuated and the Ethiopian Regiment was disbanded.
Harry then sailed to New York, where he joined the Black Pioneers, and served in a company attached to a British artillery unit. He rose to the rank of corporal, and accompanied Henry Clinton’s British army in its invasion of South Carolina. There, Corporal Harry Washington was placed in charge of a pioneer unit attached to the Royal Artillery Department in Charleston in 1781. After the war, he was evacuated to Nova Scotia. He later joined the first group of colonial black migrants who were returned to Africa, and settled in Sierra Leone. In 1800, he joined a brief rebellion against British rule, that was swiftly crushed. Harry was arrested, convicted of sedition, and sentenced to internal banishment. He died of illness soon thereafter.
George Washington’s Skills as a Spymaster Helped Win Him the War
George Washington’s most important spy, Robert Townsend (1753 – 1838) was probably America’s greatest spy, ever. With the alias “Samuel Culper, Jr.” and codename “723”, he became the key player in the Culper Ring. His espionage had a greater impact than that of any other single clandestine operative from the country’s birth to the present. For somebody whose actions played such a great role, Townsend is remarkably little known. He does not get anywhere near the recognition that his historical contributions warrant. That was how he wanted it, however. Townsend never sought acclaim. Indeed, he insisted that his real identity be kept secret even from George Washington. After the conflict, the few who knew his identity – whose numbers by then included Washington – respected his wish to remain anonymous.
Washington personally spelled out Townsend’s tasks in a letter with detailed instructions that directed him to work out of New York City and: “… collect all the useful information he can – to do this he should mix as much as possible among the officers and refugees, visit the coffee houses, and all public places. He is to pay particular attention to the movements by land and water in and about the city especially“. He added that Townsend should send him thorough reports. Washington wanted the number of troops in New York and its environs, their units, and any information about British defensive fortifications. He also wanted to find out as much as possible about the security measures in place to protect transports, the state of supplies and provisions, and the morale of the military and civilians.
George Washington Was Very Hands-On When it Came to Spy Work
George Washington’s instructions to Robert Townsend ended with: “There can be scarcely any need of recommending the greatest caution and secrecy in a business so critical and dangerous. The following seem to be the best general rules: To entrust none but the persons fixed upon to transmit the business. To deliver the dispatches to none upon our side but those who shall be pitched upon for the purpose of receiving them and to transmit them and any intelligence that may be obtained to no one but the Commander-in-Chief“. Washington could not have known just how well Townsend would perform. Nor could he have predicted just how well positioned Townsend was to come across some of the war’s most sensitive information. Townsend used invisible ink to write his reports on seemingly blank reams of paper that were delivered to Culper Ring spy Abraham Woodhull in Setauket, NY.
Woodhull delivered the intelligence to Caleb Brewster, who delivered it to their handler Benjamin Tallmadge, who in turn delivered it to Washington. The general read the reports after he developed the invisible ink with a chemical agent, and often responded to Townsend with invisible ink messages of his own. To help fulfill his tasks, Townsend got a gig as a columnist for a Loyalist newspaper, and visited coffeehouses to hobnob with British officers. Many of them opened up to the spy, in the hope that they would thus see their name in print. That was how Townsend learned of a British plot to flood America with counterfeit dollars to wreck the economy. His warnings enabled the Continental Congress to avert disaster in the nick of time with a recall and replacement of all bills in circulation.
Another great success resulted from the unwelcome, but as it turned out fortuitous, quartering of British officers in the Townsend family home in Oyster Bay. One of Robert Townsend’s sisters overheard an officer, John Andre – Benjamin Tallmadge’s British counterpart in charge of intelligence – mention the defection of a prominent American hero. She passed that on to her brother, and from there it worked its way through the Culper Ring to Tallmadge. It eventually contributed to the discovery that Patriot hero General Benedict Arnold was a traitor. It came in the nick of the time, in the late stages of a plot to betray the important American fortifications at West Point to the British. Andre was arrested in civilian clothes with incriminating documents and hanged as a spy, while Arnold fled to the British.
Townsend also discovered that the British knew that the French, who had joined the war on America’s side, were about to send a fleet to land soldiers in Rhode Island. The powerful British Royal Navy planned to intercept and capture or sink the French at the sea before they disembarked their troops. Armed with Townsend’s report, George Washington fed the British false information about a nonexistent plan to attack New York City. As a result, the British stayed put in New York and prepared to defend it against an attack that never came, while the French safely landed their forces in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1780. That link up between French and American armies ultimately doomed the British. The allied Franco-American forces won the war in 1781, when they trapped a British army in Yorktown, Virginia, and forced its surrender.
Washington Wanted His Runaway Slaves Returned at War’s End
In October, 1781, America’s War of Independence reached its climax in Virginia. An allied Franco-American force trapped, besieged, and forced the surrender of General Charles Cornwallis’ British army at Yorktown. It was the war’s final major pitched battle. The British, exhausted by years of fruitless fighting and high costs in blood and treasure, threw in the towel. Defeat at Yorktown led to the fall of the pro war government in London, and its replacement with one that sued for peace.
From the perspective of the escaped slaves who had fought for Britain, that was calamitous news. The side that had offered them freedom had lost, and their former masters had prevailed. Thousands of slaves-turned-freedom-fighters were bottled up with the British in enclaves such as Charleston and New York, unsure whether the Crown would honor its promises to them. They had good reason to worry: American negotiators, strongly urged by slave owners like George Washington, added a last minute clause to the 1783 Treaty of Paris. It forbade the British from “carrying away” American property. That “property” included the escaped slaves who had fought for the British.
Washington Was Furious When the British Refused to Hand Over Escaped Slaves
After the war ended in 1783, the fate of the escaped slaves became a bone of contention between the Patriots and British military commanders. Per the terms of the treaty, the British were bound to deliver their black comrades in arms to their former masters. However, the British on the ground refused to do so. In addition to honor and basic decency, the contest over the fate of the escaped slaves offered the British an opportunity to demonstrate moral superiority over the victorious Patriots. As the British commander in South Carolina put it: “those who have voluntarily come in under the faith of our protection, cannot in justice be abandoned to the merciless resentment of their former masters“.
The British commander in chief concurred, and directed that: “such that have been promised their freedom, to have it“. That enraged George Washington, and it was touch and go for a while whether hostilities would erupt anew over the issue. The British in New York finally resolved the issue, to the ire of the slave owners, by issuing thousands of “Certificates of Freedom” to the escaped slaves. The documents entitled their bearers to decamp to British colonies such as Nova Scotia “or wherever else He/ She may think proper.” In South Carolina, the British also honored their commitment to the slaves who had fought for them, and took them with them when they evacuated the state.
To hear some sources, George Washington wasn’t done even after he shuffled off the mortal coil. His home, Mount Vernon, has been the site of numerous ghost stories. The best ones involve the ghost of the great man himself. One such is attributed to members of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, America’s first national historic preservation organization, and the country’s first women’s patriotic society. The MVLA raised money to purchase a dilapidated Mount Vernon in the nineteenth century, in order to restore and preserve it for posterity. In the early years, when members were in the area, they slept in the mansion, sometimes in the four poster bed in which Washington died.
Many who slept in Washington’s bed were adamant that they felt the presence of his ghost, often described as “a strange and brooding spectre“. On one occasion, as two MVLA members shared Washington’s bed one night, they saw a figure as their bedside candle went out with a noise. Alarmed, one of them told her friend: “You are on the side of the bed where Washington died!” Her friend replied: “No, I’m not. He died on your side!” That killed their sleep that night. Both got up, dressed, and sat around wide awake until sunrise, terrified by every squeak. As an 1890 newspaper article put it: “They all agree that Washington visits his chamber in the still watches of the night“.
In the first half of the nineteenth century, Josiah Quincy III (1772 – 1864) was one of Massachusetts’ more prominent figures. He served in the US House of Representatives from 1805 to 1813, as mayor of Boston from 1823 to 1828, and as President of Harvard University from 1829 to 1845. In 1806, he visited Mount Vernon, inherited by George Washington’s nephew Bushrod Washington. Quincy stayed overnight, and Bushrod hosted him in George Washington’s bedroom – the one which the great man had died. By then, rumors already abounded of spooky encounters with Washington’s ghost in that bedroom. Quincy, who like most Americans of his generations revered George Washington, was not afraid.
Quincy actually hoped “that he might be found worthy to behold the glorified spirit of him who was so revered by his countrymen“. As his son Josiah Quincy Jr. recounted decades later, his father was not disappointed. At some point that night, he reported that he did, indeed, meet the ghost of George Washington. Frustratingly, however, Quincy Jr. gave no details, other than inform readers that his father’s “assurance in this matter was perfect“. We are thus left to wonder what might have passed between the Massachusetts bigwig and the spooky ghost of America’s first president.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading