Revolutionary War Spy Tools. George Washington was a strong strategist during the American Revolution. On its website, Revolutionary War, the state of Delaware documents Washington's use of "disinformation" to mislead British troops. Spies and espionage also played an integral part in the success of the American Revolution. This war took place over…
Revolutionary War Spy Tools
George Washington was a strong strategist during the American Revolution. On its website, Revolutionary War, the state of Delaware documents Washington’s use of “disinformation” to mislead British troops. Spies and espionage also played an integral part in the success of the American Revolution. This war took place over 200 years ago, but in his article “Spies and Scouts, Secret Writing and Sympathetic Citizens,” Ed Crews claims tools and strategies used by operatives in the revolution are the same today.
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Espionage agents used codes when passing written messages. They used letters and numbers in place of words to minimize chances of detection if someone intercepted messages. The recipient used a code key to decipher the message. Agents also used ciphers or a series of numbers to write coded messages. PBS-World of Influence explains that these ciphers would replace a word with the number of a page, line and word position where the desired word was found in a selected book.
Some agents used invisible ink to pass intelligence in seemingly innocent messages. The real message was invisibly written “between the lines of another message” according to PBS-World of Influence. The type of ink determined what method would be used to reveal the message. “Spy Letters of the American Revolution: Secret Methods and Techniques” published by the University of Michigan shows that documents would have some form of “F” or “A” to indicate whether fire or acid should be used to reveal the message. “Intelligence in the War of Independence,” a CIA publication, explains Dr. James Jay’s development of invisible ink that used one “chemical when writing the message and another one for developing it.”
A delivery system that would avoid detection of secret communications was essential. The University of Michigan, in “Spy Letters of the American Revolution: Secret Methods and Techniques,” explains the use of both Mask letters and Quill letters. Mask letters involved a template shape placed over a blank page. The intended message was written within the template’s borders. When the template was removed, the rest of the letter was carefully constructed around the secret message so that the entire letter made sense. The template concealed the real message until the recipient placed the template over it. Usually letter and template were sent by different routes as further protection. Quill letters were messages cut into very thin strips and concealed inside the quill of a feather, hopefully avoiding detection, but easy to destroy if need be. PBS-World of Influence explains the process of a blind drop being used when an agent left the message at some prearranged location, and then someone else picked it up. Agents used hollow objects like balls or bullets for concealment and delivery. The objects could be swallowed easily if necessary.
“Central Intelligence Agency: Intelligence in the War of Independence” relays one of the most notable uses of spy technology in the Revolutionary War. David Bushnell’s “turtle” promised to be revolutionary as well. This one-man, wooden vessel was the forerunner of the submarine. It was created to attach explosives to the bottom of enemy ships. Bushnell’s attempts, however, were thwarted; first by a storm, and then by the copper hull of the enemy ship. Information provided by “Central Intelligence Agency: Intelligence in the War of Independence” indicates Bushnell’s craft did blow up a nearby “schooner.” It does not, however, indicate whether it was an enemy ship. The revolutionairies lost the “turtle” when the enemy sank the ship to which it was moored, taking the turtle with it.
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