Espionage: The British Empire and the American Rebels
The use of espionage and intelligence during the Revolutionary Period was used to varying effect by both the American and British forces at the time. Over the course of the American Revolution the British military forces gradually began to realize the usefulness of intelligence gathering. However, they were overconfident in their abilities and looked down upon the rebels. The British also encountered problems such as unfamiliarity with the geography, lack of useful maps, and reluctance to trust spy information from sources that they deemed “unreliable,” such as loyalist colonists or turncoat soldiers. Overall, the British took longer to effectively utilize spying techniques to battle the Continental Army.
On the other hand, Americans employed espionage, perhaps more fully than their British foes, through correspondence and spy rings instituted by notable figures such as Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. They also enlisted the help of less prominent agents such as a slave named James Lafayette. When France became an ally of the Americans, the British made efforts to halt this relationship making it easier to defeat the colonists, while also protecting themselves from their new opponent. The British and American efforts in the colonies were mainly for military purposes and they used a variety of methods and agents to meet their desired needs.
The value of espionage was recognized by all sides during this revolutionary time period and it became increasingly important to military and diplomatic efforts of the time period.
Robert Kaplan, “The Hidden War: British Intelligence Operations during the American Revolution,” The William and Mary Quarterly 47, no 1 (1990), 119.
Kaplan, “The Hidden War,” 121.
Written by Sasha Beatty, Nick Bodnar, and Sam Keenan.