Spy network gave Washington victory



The father of our country also was a 'spymaster extraordinaire,' according to a retired CIA executive.


George Washington defeated the British empire , not with his "ragtag Army," but with his extensive network of spies.

That's according to Eugene Poteat, a retired senior CIA executive who began to research the history of espionage decades ago.

" Washington had his spies everywhere," said Poteat, who helped establish the International Spy Museum in Washington . "He set up the most effective intelligence operation this country has ever seen."

Poteat lives in McLean, but was in Fredericksburg Saturday to address a group keenly interested in the exploits of the father of our country.

He spoke to the Col. Fielding Lewis Chapter of the Virginia Society of the Sons of the American Revolution, at the Fredericksburg Country Club.

Poteat told the 15 members that Washington was a "spymaster extraordinaire" whose first exposure to military intelligence--or lack thereof--went back to the French and Indian War.

More than 1,500 soldiers and officers in Washington 's company were killed or wounded in an ambush because their opponents knew their every move.

" Washington learned a hard lesson that day," Poteat said. "Never again would he engage in battle without proper intelligence."

During the Revolutionary War, Washington 's first foray into spying ended badly. A young teacher who stood over 6 feet tall, with flaming red hair, volunteered for spy duty, even though he hardly blended in a crowd.

"I've heard a lot of history discussed among this group today, so you know where this is going," Poteat said.

He added what many already knew: that Nathan Hale--whose only regret was that he had but one life to give for his country--was the volunteer who was caught and hanged by the British.

"But the story didn't quite end the way we think," Poteat said,

As upset as Washington was over Hale's death, he continued his quest to establish a spy network. He stressed the importance of secrecy and assigned three-digit numbers to agents, officers and conflicts.

Washington was No. 711; New York City was No. 727.

From fellow members of the Masonic Lodge, he gathered information from every major city, where the British set up headquarters in the finest homes.

Patriots from all walks of life helped.

A Presbyterian preacher wrote and broke coded messages.

An Irish haberdasher and his banker brother, who dealt regularly with British officers in New York , told Washington about their comings and goings.

A Polish Jew who spoke several languages came to America to help the colonists, then got a job with the British, translating for German soldiers.

" Washington now had his fox in the German hen house," Poteat said. "He had this place wired."

A woman in Philadelphia owned the home where the British gathered to plan a surprise attack at Valley Forge, when Washington seemed most vulnerable.

She overheard every word. The next morning, she told her husband she needed more flour--even though she had a kitchen full already--and headed toward a mill near Valley Forge to warn the Continental Army.

"The British left Philadelphia , and along the way to Valley Forge , guess who was behind every other tree, sniping at soldiers? George Washington's men," Poteat said.

They did to the British just what the French and Indians had done to Washington in the earlier war. The British called off the surprise attack of Valley Forge .

One of Poteat's favorite stories involves a woman whose identity has never been revealed. Known as No. 355, she was a Quaker who helped uncover Benedict Arnold's treachery. She also identified the head of British intelligence, which eventually led to the officer's capture.

There's a monument at Arlington Cemetery that speaks to the contributions made by women. A passage mentions the efforts of No. 355, who was captured, then died aboard an enemy ship.

"If you ever get up that way, go by there and see the monument," Poteat said.

"And lay some flowers on it," added Steve Atkins from the audience.




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Max Strozier


Web Page Created:

20 March 2009


Web Page Updated:

20 March 2009