Saturday, December 23, 2017

General Washington's Spies and 'Victory or Death' in New Jersey

It is that time of year when you might see a story about reenactments of General George Washington crossing the Delaware River so that his army could attack an isolated garrison of Hessian troops located at Trenton, New Jersey. It is history and Christmas and New Jersey.

I watched AMC's television series TURN: Washington's Spies. (now on Netflix) and I have always enjoyed studying American history and the Revolutionary War is one of my favorite periods. I must credit my 7th grade history teacher in Irvington, Mr. Skirbst, for igniting my interest. He railed against the "dry bones" of teaching history as dates and facts and focused on telling stories of the people and places in history.

Certainly part of my interest in the Revolutionary War was that it was fought in new Jersey and I recognized many of the places mentioned in the textbook. Mr. Skirbst would love this show - though he might quibble with any historical inaccuracies or fictional creations. Espionage played a big part in the Revolutionary War and the series brings out the idea that George Washington was one of our nation's first spymasters.

Washington was known as Agent 711 in the Culper Ring. The Culper Ring was a spy ring organized by American Major (later Colonel) Benjamin Tallmadge under orders from General George Washington in the summer of 1778 during British occupation of New York City at the height of the American Revolutionary War.

Under Washington, several networks of spies operated with agents who were merchants, tailors, farmers or had other ordinary day jobs. They stayed at distances from each other and maintained secret identities. In some cases, spymaster Washington himself didn’t even know the identities of the men who worked together in secret to aid the cause.  

Photo by Zeete - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

I get that old 7th grade delight when I hear New Jersey locations used on the show. One of those is the Middlebrook encampment. This was a seasonal encampment of the Continental Army near Middle Brook in Bridgewater Township, New Jersey (between Martinsville and Bound Brook) in 1777 and again in 1778–79.

Using part of the ridge of the First Watchung Mountain, this position provided a natural fortress not only protecting the Continental Army but also overlooking the plains towards New Brunswick, where the British forces were stationed in 1777.

During the winter of 1776–77, Washington initially camped near Morristown, but after his outpost garrison at Bound Brook was routed during the Battle of Bound Brook in April 1777, Washington moved the encampment closer at the Middlebrook encampment from late May to July 2.  there were 8,298 soldiers housed there, but it was recorded that 2,660 of them were sick, disabled, or unable to fight. The British maintained a strong force of about 17,000 near New Brunswick.

Washington returned to the Middlebrook grounds again in the Winter of 1778–9. He brought about 8–10,000 troops to the camp site by November 30, 1778. Soldiers constructed cabins from logs covered with clay similar as they had done at Morristown.

Washington himself rented the Wallace House (now converted to a museum) in Somerville for four months and paid Wallace $1,000. General von Steuben lived at the Staats House in South Bound Brook. General Henry Knox lived at the Jacobus Vanderveer House near Pluckemin with the Continental Artillery camped at the Pluckemin Continental Artillery Cantonment Site.

A portion of the encampment site, known as the Washington Camp Ground, was added to the National Register of Historic Places on July 3, 1975.

Statue of Nathan Hale in New York City's City Hall Park. 
Nathan Hale was an American soldier and spy for the Continental Army who volunteered for an intelligence-gathering mission in New York City. Hale is considered America's first spy. He was caught by the British. According to the standards of the time, spies were hanged as illegal combatants. On the morning of September 22, 1776, Hale was marched along Post Road to the Park of Artillery (at modern-day 66th Street and Third Avenue), and hanged. He was 21 years old.

One of Hale’s best friends, Major Benjamin Tallmadge, never got over his death. Washington assured him that once they got the protracted war under control, all espionage would be handled from Army headquarters, and no spy’s life would be wasted the way Hale’s had been.

Most spying was done to gain intelligence about troop movements, supplies, and battle plans was General Washington's highest priority. Washington had Tallmadge equip all his spies with cipher codes, invisible ink, and aliases.

British and American forces both used spy networks and spycraft and supplied the British with misinformation that purposely misled his enemies as to his true intentions.

Ciphers and secret codes were used to ensure that the contents of written communications could not be understood if captured. In some,  letters were written in intricate secret codes where numbers and special characters replaced letters, a method most notably practiced by the Culper Spy Ring.

Not unlike my own amateur spycraft as a kid, they sometimes used invisible ink. This was usually a mixture of ferrous sulfate and water. The secret writing was placed between the lines of an innocent letter and could be discerned by treating the letter with heat or a chemical substance. The recipient placed the paper over the flame of a candle or treated it with a chemical reagent, such as sodium carbonate, which would reveal the letter’s hidden contents. Another ink was made from tannic acid and Washington himself instructed his agents in the use of what was referred to as the "sympathetic stain," noting that the ink "will not only render. . .communications less exposed to detection, but relieve the fears of such persons as may be entrusted in its conveyance." Washington suggested that reports could be written in the invisible ink "on the blank leaves of a pamphlet. . . a common pocket book, or on the blank leaves at each end of registers, almanacks, or any publication or book of small value.”

One method shown in the TV series is mask letters. You would view a letter through a shaped template placed over the full letter and the actual message would appear within the boundaries of the “mask.”

Washington was forced to abandon first New York and then New Jersey, and he issued orders in December 1776 to all his generals to find “some person who can be engaged to cross the river as a spy” and added that “expense must not be spared” in securing a volunteer.

They found a former British soldier named John Honeyman, who was living in Griggstown, New Jersey. Honeyman pretended to again be loyal to the king and by selling cattle to several British garrisons along the Delaware, gained confidence of Col. Johann Rail, who was in command of three German Hessian regiments in Trenton.

Honeyman was "captured" by an American patrol and taken to Washington’s headquarters where he was interrogated by Washington and put in the guardhouse awaiting a hanging the next day. Honeyman had given Washington a professional soldier’s detailed description of the routine of the Trenton garrison and the location of the picket guards.

Honeyman escaped from the guardhouse with a key supplied by Washington and made his way back to Trenton on December 24. He told Colonel Rall the story of his narrow escape and assured him that the Americans were falling apart. They were half-naked and freezing, and they lacked the food and basic equipment, such as shoes, to make a winter march.

Colonel Rail was pleased with the news and prepared to celebrate Christmas with the feasting and drinking that were traditional in his Germany.

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze, 1851

Why did Washington, with a beat up Continental Army, try to cross an ice-choked Delaware River on a cold Christmas Eve in 1776?  He needed something to boost morale and he hoped that a surprise attack on the Eve upon a Hessian garrison of roughly 1,400 soldiers located in and around Trenton would do be that boost. He needed some good news and hope that the Continental Army could defeat the British to encourage more men to join the ranks in 1777. he hoped that the intelligence Honeyman had supplied and the false information he gave to the Hessians would ensure a victory.

The plan originally included three separate river crossings, but only one made it across. Colonel Cadwalader was to lead his force of 1800 across near Burlington in order to harass and prevent the British and Hessian units from racing north to support the Hessians at Trenton.

General James Ewing’s force of 800 Pennsylvania militia was to cross the river at Trenton and take up defensive positions along the Assunpink River and bridge and prevent a retreat.

Washington was to take 2,400 soldiers and cross at McConkey’s and Johnson’s ferries, roughly 10 miles north of Trenton. They would march south to Trenton to surprise the garrison at dawn.

Cadwalader and Ewing’s forces were unable to cross the ice-choked river, but Washington’s main force managed a crossing three hours later than planned.

Washington had been worried by intelligence reports that the British were planning their own crossing once the Delaware was frozen over, so he wanted to move quickly. The soldiers were told that they were departing on a secret mission. When they reached the crossing point in Pennsylvania, it was after sunset and the rain had increased and was changing to sleet and snow.

Besides the men, they transported eighteen pieces of artillery and the horses to move them. Floating ice in the river increased the hazards.

Washington was among the first to cross, going with Virginia troops led by General Adam Stephen. These troops formed a sentry line around the landing area in New Jersey, with strict instructions that no one was to pass through. The password was "Victory or Death".

The amount of ice on the river prevented the artillery from finishing the crossing until 3 am on December 26 and the troops were not ready to march until 4 am.

There was a British spy within Washington’s headquarters who has never been identified. The spy communicated to British Major General James Grant that Washington’s army was looking to attack north of the river. Though they had that information, Colonel Rall at Trenton did not believe Washington would attack. With the storm building, the Hessian defenders had a false sense of safety.

On the morning of December 26, Washington split the Army into two columns, one under the command of himself and General Greene, the second under General Sullivan. The Sullivan column would take River Road from Bear Tavern to Trenton while Washington's column would follow Pennington Road, a parallel route that lay a few miles inland from the river.

In the battle, only three Americans were killed and six wounded, while 22 Hessians were killed with 98 wounded. The Americans captured 1,000 prisoners and seized muskets, powder, and artillery. In spite of Washington's explicit orders for its destruction, casks of captured rum were opened, so some of the celebrating troops got drunk in the celebration after the battle.

But they still had to cross the river gain to to Pennsylvania and the drinking probably contributed to the larger number of troops that had to be pulled from the icy waters on the return crossing. They also had to transport the large numbers of prisoners across the river while keeping them under guard. Most of Washington’s soldiers stood during the crossing since the bottoms of the Durham boats they used were neither comfortable nor dry.

Marquis de Lafayette, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington in the Green in Morristown, New Jersey.
This group of statues is called The Alliance, and it represents the moment when Lafayette told Washington
and Hamilton that the French were coming to support the American cause on May 10, 1780, in Morristown.

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