During the American Revolution, George Washington and a small group of people committed to the rebels’ cause broke social and political barriers and gave rise to America’s intelligence community. Even before the War broke out, it was evident that the North American colonies lacked the military power to defeat the British Army. Washington, who served under the British during the Seven Years War, sought to outsmart the enemy through different means. How were rebel forces supposed to keep their strategies a secret? In 1778, Washington enlisted the help of Major Benjamin Tallmadge to establish the Culper Spy Ring which was made up of military officials and some civilians. Since people traveled long distances over dangerous terrains to deliver letters or messages, the Continental Army ran the risk of having sensitive information fall into the enemy’s hands. In fact, some letters were intercepted by the British. The astute Washington and his resourceful spies, however, used a variety of groundbreaking tools and strategies to outsmart the British. For example, Washington spread misinformation to confuse the enemy which became vulnerable to the Continental Army’s attack. The spy ring also used an invisible ink and a secret code to transmit sensitive information. Washington broke social and political barriers by using these tactics which proved beneficial to the cause and instrumental in the development of America’s intelligence community.

Rebel Spies

The Culper Spy Ring

The Culper Spy Ring

The spy ring was made up of six military officials and some civilians. Each member had a pseudonym and an important mission to complete, in order to pass along communication to all the ring members including Washington (Agent 711).

One woman operated in the spy ring. Anna Strong conveyed information to other spies by hanging her petticoat in a certain way. There was at least one female British spy too. Female spies perhaps had an advantage over their male counterparts. Since they were not considered a significant threat to either side, they were able to move around unsuspected. However, this activity was very dangerous for both male and female spies. 

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Different Tactics

Sympathetic Stain

Sympathetic Stain

Washington enlisted the help of James Jay, a physician who was also John Jay’s brother, to create what was then called a sympathetic stain (invisible ink) out of tannic acid and other chemicals. Washington employed the ink to write hidden messages to members of the spy ring.

Primary Source: Letter from George Washington to Benjamin Tallmadge, 1779
Most letters were not intended to fall into the enemy’s hands, but at times they did. Before Washington and his spies employed the use of invisible ink, this letter was intercepted by the British. In the letter, Washington discussed the possibility of welcoming a new informant– George Higday. The British raided Higday’s home, but found no incriminating evidence, because Washington had alerted him that the British were coming.

Letter from Bazaleel Keer to Mrs. Keer, 1779

In this letter written in invisible ink, Kerr discussed the possible culmination of the War. A hopeful Kerr was convinced that British forces would prevail. As opposed to the visibly bold writing at the top, the secret message is barely visible at the bottom of the page.

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