George Washington's Secret Spy War: The Making of America's First Spymaster
by John A. Nagy
New York: St. Martin's Press, 2016
Review By Walt Giersbach
George Washington is many things as an iconic leader in the formation of our country, but rarely is he remembered as our first spy extraordinaire and most imaginative of tacticians. “George Washington’s Secret Spy War” increased my education in our country’s Revolutionary history soon after I met Ida Nagy, a neighbor and member of an editorial team on which I serve. She and I both share an interest in history, and she gifted me this copy of her late husband’s book.
Ida told me her husband John spent 20 years of research and nine months writing the book. It was somewhat intimidating to note a 13-page index, a 10-page bibliography, and a 61-page section of notes. This is a book that’s both an educational experience and an authoritative reference, Tragically, Nagy died the day that his manuscript was delivered to his publisher, St. Martin’s Press.
I was surprised to learn that our founding father had been a major tactician when the British were fighting against the French and Indians in 1753 near what is now Pittsburgh. As a 22-year-old adjutant, he was able to use an innate ability to organize intelligence to learn what the enemy was doing. And he was successful in battle again and again.
Washington made his first trek into the Northern District in1753 as a major in the Virginia militia. He knew this area from his earlier work as a surveyor. The area west of the Allegany Ridge was disputed, as the French had “invaded” the Ohio Country and were building forts there. Successive forays into the area in the following years brought Washington the tactical intelligence he needed and to cement relations with Indians.
“George Washington’s Secret Spy War: The Making of America's First Spymaster” is not only a masterful work of research, but a detailed tactical story on the creation of our nation.
The publisher calls the author John A. Nagy “the nation’s leading expert on the subject, discovering hundreds of spies who went behind enemy lines to gather intelligence during the American Revolution, many of whom are completely unknown to most historians.”
Nagy, who passed away in 2016, was a Scholar-in-Residence at Saint Francis University in Loretto, Penn, and a consultant on espionage to The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington and the William L. Clement Library. He was also the program director for the American Revolution Round Table of Philadelphia. He received a Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies fellowship to study Thomas Jefferson and cryptology.
Yes, the Colonials paid their spies. In one example. the rebels were chased out of New York in 1776. Washington moved his small army from Trenton across the Delaware River to the safety of Pennsylvania. Then, Washington intercepted a letter written in invisible ink indicating that Gen. Howe intended to take Philadelphia. (Curiously, Washington’s inquiring mind had earlier read a 1763 encyclopedia entry on invisible ink. Perhaps as a result of this information, Washington wrote Col. Cadwalader of the Pennsylvania militia authorizing him to hire and pay spies.) On Dec. 14, 1776, Cadwalader sent someone to Mount Holly, N.J., who discovered the Hessian mercenaries had five brass field pieces.
Washington pulled his boats to the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware, foiling a British crossing. He knew the British would cross as soon as the river had frozen, and so devised a plan to cross back over the Delaware in three places the night of Dec. 25.
Cadwalader got his men across, but without artillery he had to abandon the attack. Washington crossed and headed south to Trenton, Then he split his army, with Gen. John Sullivan’s division attacking Trenton from the north and Gen. Greene going inland to attack from the northern high ground. Three Hessian regiments quickly formed to a drumbeat as the force led by Washington attacked. The gamble worked, giving him in one hour a crucial victory and strategic advantage. Nine hundred Hessians and their arms were captured.
The book continues with an emphasis on how both sides used spies. Throughout, Nagy’s entries are footnoted, making for a thorough and academic work, but one that is often intimidating in its detail and lack of storytelling.