Writing About Espionage in the 18th Century

Not the easiest research subject since much of the tactics used then are still active today. Weird considering how the advancement of technology has evolved drastically over the last 235 years.

Today’s date is 7-11-11. Your history tip of the day, George Washington’s code for secret operative messages was 711.

When writing in the historical genre you have the job of putting puzzle pieces together. You have your basic information (the corner pieces) then you have to start adding pieces of information and finding out which area of the puzzle it fits. This requires a little strategy.

Me in my ‘ah-ha’ moment – my main character in my current WIP is a secret operative. This is where finding the piece to go in that one spot takes hours, days and months to locate and a lot of patience. A huge amount of patience. I want to write a compelling story that is accurate to the time period. Finding secret operative strategies in the Revolutionary War is not easy. Reading stories about how this or that happened is a quick search on the internet. Finding routes, and how they maneuvered through the forest, where did they sleep, who was involved, where did they get their meals. This isn’t the spies of today who have fake passports and huge bank accounts. Back then they spied from scratch.

When dealing with espionage – a really hot topic right now – most books, TV series and movies are created/written by someone, somehow connected to or knows someone in the agency. If you are like me, just an average person with a wild imagination, who has no clue where to begin, add a different century to the mix and you have your work cut out for you.

One of the biggest misconceptions in our “well documented”  history is that George Washington hated women. That is not true. It’s a lie. Yes, in the beginning of the Revolutionary War he was a little annoyed at women who followed their husbands into the battlefield, known as camp followers, but he worked it out and used it to his advantage. He was one smart man after all.

He figured with the women in camp the men hung around fought, stayed focused and didn’t become deserters. Also, women because of the era took care of the men; cooked, cleaned and assisted the wounded. The biggest advantage to having women around – he could use them as messengers and operatives who reported on the enemy. Smart move. See, back then (I use the reference  loosely) men didn’t see women as a threat. They didn’t hold an important place (so it’s been written) and could move around freely without being bothered. Men didn’t see women as players in the war. They served no purpose as far as the men were concerned, this attitude was exercised on both sides. This information is also not written about in many history books and there are countless books I have researched on the Revolutionary war.

Some women were left at home while their man went off to fight in the war. Women were strong, smart and determined. When British soldiers wandered around the forest fighting and they came upon a home that was occupied, they kicked out the residents, hankered down and stayed OR they killed, pillaged and burnt the place down. Women weren’t stupid, they figured by cooperating they could stay alive and keep their home – and listen. This method of listening is in part how women played a key role in the Culper Spy Ring of the Revolutionary War.

Washington’s Culper Spy Ring wasn’t known about until 1935. The super secretive operation came into the public eye when someone purchased a home and found a trunk in the attic. That trunk contained a mound of papers with secret codes, messages and procedures. I don’t know about you, but I would have loved to get a gander at the contents.

This began the puzzle piecing. All the “wonders” of how did Washington know this or that, gain intelligence on the enemy, strategically place soldiers in the right place at the right time, find out what hill would be best to strike and take over? Because he had spies. He had many spies and they weren’t all men. More than 50% of the Culper Spies were women. Not plainly admitted, it takes putting pieces together.

My work in progress does not surround the life of Agent 355. But Miss Deborah Sampson Gannett who is the inspiration behind my work of fiction did know her and had encountered her a time or two.

The most famous spy discovery of the Revolutionary War was Benedict Arnold – a hero in the Revolution, A general, commander of West Point, a high ranking respected officer. Until he got passed up for a promotion and then it was gloves off – he put a price tag on West Point and hung up the for sale sign. Except his allies made the mistake of confiding in a woman. That woman was not his beloved Tory gal Peggy Shippen.

It was “Agent 355” (355, code for lady). The most unknown famous operative in CIA history. The true identity of the famous lady is unknown, speculated by many, but no proof exists of who she really is. The CIA of today are probably the only ones who know her true identity and they aren’t letting anyone in on the secret. Agent 355, got word of Arnolds plans and she relayed the information through her contacts, that ultimately ended up with Major John Tallmadge, Washington’s head of the  Culper Ring Spy organization . And well the rest is written in several history books, sans Agent 355.

 image Only existing portrait of Agent 355 Source: National Women’s History Museum Website

http://www.nwhm.org/online-exhibits/spies/1.htm  Read about all the women spies from the Revolutionary War to current today.

I write and celebrate incredible women in American History and I am excited about writing their stories. Writing about how women played a major role in the formation of our country is an honor.

Happy Writings and Reading

All my best

Teresa L. Watts


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About teresalwatts

Fascinated with Women in US History, Lover of Photography, Fashion, Shoes, Chocolate, Drinks Way too much coffee, Mother, Grandmom (to the four legged kind).
This entry was posted in Masque of the Revolution, Research writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Writing About Espionage in the 18th Century

  1. Nice post! Very informative and a pleasure to read.

  2. Wow – your writing is extremely informed and intellectual. I’m not sure I’m smart enough to read it! Allie

    • teresalwatts says:

      Hahaa you’re funny. Thank you so much for reading. This is all new to me 😉 Decided to learn about history in my 40s. Now I’m hooked.

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