We might think that spies have been a more recent situation, but the truth is that spies have existed for as long as there were battles, conflicts, and wars. Today we watch movies about spies and see all kinds of high tech gadgets. Still, you might be surprised to know that during the Revolutionary War, they had their own types of technology for spying, and some were incredibly ingenious.

We are used to being able to communicate instantaneously by phone, text, email, and facetime. However, during the time of the Revolutionary War, they had to rely on long processes of communication that often took weeks and months. This meant that spies had to create methods of getting important information across miles and using ways that would be hidden from anyone that might capture them.

Technology of the Revolutionary War spies:

  • The use of invisible ink was developed by Doctor James Jay and was very popular during the American Revolution. The invisible ink could only be revealed by the received through the use of a special stain that was only known to the colonists.
  • Using secret codes in messages were popular for spies and needed to be used with a “cipher” so that the messages would be illegible or not understood by anyone else. These weren’t very sophisticated, and the enemies often figured them out.
  • Mask letters were a bit more complicated as they included a way to hide a message using a specific mask on what looked like a regular letter. Underneath the mask, the letter hid a secret message.


Spy Groups:

During the Revolutionary War, the colonists enlisted groups of people into what they called “spy rings.” The largest of these groups was the Culper Spy Ring. George Washington had a man called Benjamin Tallmadge that was a spymaster, and he organized the Culper Spy Ring. This was a tight-knit group whose purpose was to get information about the movements and plans of the British Army in New York City to George Washington. The group had two secret agents: Robert Townshend and Abraham Woodhull. One of the most notable successes of the group was in exposing Benedict Arnold as a traitor. There was one female member of the Culper Group, but her identity was only known as “355.”

Undercover Disguises:

One of the best ways to get information by the enemy was by using undercover disguises. The British would often never suspect someone such as a local farmer, a merchant, or even the wife of one of the vendors. The intrigue of which people were on which side was often revealed as those that were loyal to the British crown joined the groups of rebellious colonists, and colonists joined groups that were loyal to Britain.

Most well-known Revolutionary Spies:

In addition to Tallmadge and Woodhull who was part of the Culper Spy Ring, there were a few others that made their names famous as spies during the Revolutionary War:

  • Nathan Hale was a spy for the colonists who were caught during the time that he was gathering information against the British in New York City. The British hung him, but he is known for the famous last words that carried through to reinforce the desire for freedom: “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”
  • Lydia Darragh was a gracious hostess to many of the British officers that used her home to talk about battle plans. Lydia listened and then sent the information to the colonial soldiers.
  • Benedict Arnold was once a colonial patriot that turned traitor. The colonial forces caught him before he succeeded in selling the Fort West Point and turning it over to the British.
  • Nancy Hart is the center of quite a few stories regarding her participation as a spy. She dressed up as a man to infiltrate the camps of the British as well as using her home to capture British soldiers.
  • Daniel Bissell played a critical role as a spy when he pretended to be a deserter of the Continental Army and joined the British. His duration of one year serving as a British soldier let him collect and send information to the colonists.
  • Daniel Mulligan was a clothing store vendor in New York City. He was known and trusted by British officers who often shopped in his store. Mulligan would chat with the British officers and then send any information that he gathered to George Washington.



What was the secret name of the only female member of the Culper Spy Ring?

What were the three types of technology used by spies during the Revolutionary War?
Invisible ink, secret codes, mask letters

What was the goal of the Culper Spy Ring?
Collect information about British plans and movements and get it to George Washington

What was the spy Nancy Hart known for?
Dressing as a man to infiltrate the British camps and using her home to capture British soldiers

What was the famous quote by colonial spy Nathan Hale before the British hung him?
“I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”

Which man became a traitor and tried to sell Fort West Point to the British?
Benedict Arnold