In 1777, the American colonies were badly losing their fight for independence from Great Britain. The British Army had captured New York City’s crucial port. Expecting further advances, the Continental Congress was evacuated from Philadelphia. It seemed that the war was lost.
Then George Washington, then Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, wrote a letter that changed the course of the war.
Washington was desperate to discover what was happening inside New York, but military scouts couldn’t get close enough. The general needed someone to penetrate enemy lines, but when he asked for volunteers, few of his troops raised their hands.
“Spying wasn’t seen as gentlemanly,” says Vince Houghton, resident historian at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.
Finally, a young army captain named Nathan Hale volunteered for the dangerous assignment. He was caught a week later and hanged, the first known American spy to be executed on the job. (He’s memorialized with a statue outside CIA headquarters.)
Washington realized that the mission was too big for untrained volunteers, so he set about building an espionage organization.
John Jay, later the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, had been running counterintelligence as head of the New York State Committee and Commission for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies. One of Jay’s operatives, a merchant named Nathaniel Sackett, had experience in secret writing and codes.
In February 1777, Washington wrote a letter to Sackett in which he offered him $50 a month—out of his own pocket—to establish the first formal apparatus for the “advantage of obtaining the earliest and best Intelligence of the designs of the Enemy.”
“Without the organization that Sackett set up, it would have been very difficult for us to win the war,” says Houghton. “We had a ragtag army and [the British] had the greatest army, greatest navy, and greatest economy in the world. We had no real business winning this war.”
But America’s spy service got off to an inglorious start. Most of Sackett’s agents failed at their jobs—including Sackett himself, who was fired after just six months.
Fortunately for the infant nation, Sackett’s replacement, 26-year-old Benjamin Tallmadge, created what is considered one of America’s greatest espionage operations: the Culper Spy Ring. Comprised of childhood friends from Long Island, the group included a shop owner inside New York City who gathered information, a traveling trader who smuggled it out of the city, and a whale boat captain who delivered it to Washington’s camp.
Employing the tools and tricks of the 18th-century spy trade—hiding secret messages in hollow feather quills, using “dead drops” to transport letters—the Culper operatives unmasked enemy spies, busted a money counterfeiting plan, and stopped the British from sabotaging a French aid mission to the colonies.
After important letters were lost during an enemy raid, Tallmadge invented a “numerical dictionary” code that matched 763 cities, names, and words to numbers. (Washington’s code name was Agent 711.) Washington also asked physician James Jay (brother to John) to invent an invisible ink that could be revealed only with another chemical and would “relieve the fears of such persons as may be entrusted in its conveyance.”
Washington’s espionage experiment paid off. In 1781 the British surrendered, thanks in part to the intelligence gathered by the Culper Ring and their networks. “Washington didn’t really out-fight the British. He simply out-spied us,” a British intelligence officer allegedly said after the war.
None of the Culper spies were ever caught, and even Washington himself never learned exactly who was in the group. The ring’s very existence wasn’t discovered until the 1900s, and to this day no one knows for certain how many members it had.
After the war Washington asked Congress to reimburse him $17,000—nearly half a million dollars today—for his espionage expenses. The lawmakers obliged.