Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

Women of Washington is an educational organization with a focus on understanding local, national, and global issues that are critical to our world today.



By Judy Leithe

George Washington's alias was "Agent 711."  Of all of the venerable titles bestowed upon Washington, he was known as The Spymaster to only a select number of people.  These people were part of a small network of spies, double agents, and informants whose intelligence Washington used to gain the upper hand with the British.  He knew that from the beginning of the Revolutionary War, the British held every advantage, including their well-tested spying techniques.  They even had a significant number of American Colonists, known as loyalists, who readily spied on the Continental Army's movements for the British. 

Espionage was extremely dangerous work for Americans.  If caught, agents faced torture and certain death.  However, that didn't prevent Patriots from literally risking their lives to covertly gather pieces of military intelligence, large or small, to inform Washington about enemy activities. 

The Revolution was not just fought on battlefields, it was also conducted, precariously, in cities and towns where Washington's spies had to perform a battle of wits in order to operate within societies which were saturated with enemies.  As such, agents needed to use subtle clothing accessories so they could recognize their counterparts, who may or may not be known to them.   

The most effective espionage network of the American Revolution was the "Culper Spy Ring."  In the midst of the crucial battles of 1778, Washington commissioned New York native, Benjamin Tallmadge, to organize an efficient spy ring to serve as a much-needed arm of intelligence against the British, who were in control of the whole of Long Island.  Using the assumed name of "John Bolton," Tallmadge recruited his childhood friends to aid in collecting intelligence on the enemy army. 

Tallmadge had already served with distinction in multiple battles against the British.  In his new capacity as spy chief, he developed the Culper Code Book as a means for agents to transmit coded messages, which would ultimately be delivered to Washington.  This coding system was instrumental in keeping the Culper Spy Ring undetected for the duration of the Revolution.

 Note: The Culper Code Book consisted of ciphers, ranging from numbers 1 to 764, which replaced key words used in agent's correspondence -- hence, "711" was code for General Washington.  

Various other tactics were used by agents to pass along crucial information.  Both the British, and the Americans, used secret "dead drop" sites in towns and remote locations, where agents could exchange messages.  For their secret correspondence, the British had used invisible ink which became legible by applying heat to the page.  Washington, however, wanted his own ink formula which could only be read by his spy ring.  He commissioned Dr. James Jay, brother of Founding Father John Jay, to create a new invisible ink, which Jay called "Sympathetic Stain."  Jay's ink consisted of one chemical with which to write invisible coded messages, written between sentences of ordinary texts, whose contents were revealed only when the page was washed with his second secret chemical. 

There were dozens of volunteer Patriot spies, but only a small number persons became official members of the Culper ring.  The first person Tallmadge enlisted was Abraham Woodhull, who would go by, "Samuel Culper, Sr."  After Woodhull sensed that the British began to suspect some of his activities, he asked his friend, Robert Townsend, to take his place as, "Samuel Culper, Jr."  Townsend was a quiet man who went about his business affairs drawing little notice to himself.  His unassuming countenance, and his intelligent networking, proved to be an enormous asset to the Revolution's cause.  One of his most brilliant acts of espionage was his discovery that the British were planning to flood the colonies with counterfeit money, which would have bankrupted the country, as well as Washington's war efforts.  Once their scheme was made known, the British scrapped this plan. 

Note: Robert Townsend agreed to join the Culper Spy Ring on the condition that his real name would remain a secret throughout his lifetime.  Even Washington knew him only as, "Agent 723" through his coded letters, all of which the general kept for posterity.  Townsend's true identity was not discovered until the 1920's when historians were given the family archives of personal letters written by the Townsend family, including those by Robert Townsend.  Experts familiar with Agent 723's penmanship, hired a hand-writing expert, who positively identified that the personal letters and the spy agent's were penned by the same person. 

Truly inventive systems of secret signals were ones that could be used in plain sight.  When the British arrested the husband of Anna Strong, she joined the Culper Spy Ring.  She worked out a plan with Agent Caleb Brewster, a boatman willing to take coded messages, between Tallmadge and Washington, back and forth across the Long Island Sound.  Since the British often had boats patrolling the sound, Brewster's job would be very dangerous.  Mrs. Strong's home overlooked the Sound and could be easily seen from the water.  When it was safe for Brewster to cross in his boat, she would signal him by hanging a black petticoat on her clothesline, along with her other laundry.