CHAPTER 1 CONTINUED
Among the many spies the British recruited and placed inside the American
Commission in Paris under Benjamin Franklin, was one who had access to
every secret move, conversation and agreement negotiated between the American
delegation and the intermediaries representing the French government.
French support and aid was critical to the American revolutionary cause,
without it the dream of American independence would have expired. Yet,
despite the British intelligence success, the government of Lord North
was ineffective in stopping American-French activities. The spy, Dr. Edward
Bancroft, was never discovered until seventy years after his death when
the British government provided access to its diplomatic archives.
Bancroft was born on 9 January 1744 in Westfield, Massachusetts. When
he was two years old his father died of an epileptic seizure leaving his
mother to care for the family. Five years later, his mother, Mary, remarried
and the family moved with her new husband, David Bull, to Hartford, Connecticut.
Bull owned "The Bunch of Grapes" tavern which, on 23 May 1781,
hosted a meeting between George Washington and General Jean-Baptiste de
Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, to plan their siege against British General
Lord Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown.
While growing up in Hartford, Bancroft studied under Silas Deane, after
the latter's graduation from Yale. Two years later, at age 16, Bancroft
was apprenticed to a physician in Killingsworth, Connecticut. Then, on
14 July 1763, Bancroft left the colonies for Surinam where he found employment
as a medical chief on one of the plantations. Bancroft expanded his medical
practice to several additional plantations and also found time to write
a study of Surinam's environment. Bancroft soon grew weary of Surinam
and in 1766 began one year of travel between North and South America before
sailing for England.
After his arrival in London, Bancroft became a physician's student at
St. Bartholomew's Hospital. He also published, in 1769, a book titled,
"Natural History of Guiana," which brought him to the attention
of Paul Wentworth, the colonial agent for New Hampshire in London. Wentworth
hired Bancroft to survey his plantation in Surinam with the hope that
Bancroft could uncover ways for Wentworth to increase his profits from
the land. Bancroft returned to Surinam for several months and then returned
Also in London at the time was Benjamin Franklin, who was the colonial
agent for several colonies. Franklin met Bancroft and they became friends.
Franklin used Bancroft as a spy to support several of Franklin's colonial
activities.20 When Franklin returned to America,
it is unknown if Bancroft continued his spying for Franklin but evidence
exists that this may have been the case. For example, when the Committee
for Secret Correspondence sent Silas Deane to Paris to examine the political
climate of France, Franklin provided Deane instructions to contact Bancroft.
Deane was told that to arrange the meeting:
If Bancroft was not an agent, why is it suggested that the letter be
sent to a cover address rather than to Bancroft directly. Deane had been
Bancroft's teacher, so it would be natural for a teacher to try to contact
a former successful student. Also, Deane's instructions to devise a contact
plan to meet with Bancroft adds further proof of some clandestine relationship.
A day after Deane arrived in France, 7 June 1776, he mailed a letter
requesting Bancroft come to Paris to discuss some assistance to Deane
in procuring goods for Indian trade and enclosing 30 pounds to defray
travel expenses. Bancroft agreed and on 8 July both men met in Paris.
Deane and Bancroft quickly established a close rapport, so much so that
Deane informed Bancroft of his true mission in Paris.
He told Bancroft that he was attempting to devise a clandestine relationship with the French to obtain military aid for the colonies. Bancroft declined an invitation to attend the negotiations between Deane and the French but agreed to serve as Deane's assistant and interpreter during meetings with French agents, Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais and Monsieur Donatien le Rey de Chaumont. It was at these meetings the details of transferring to the Americans some forty thousand strands of arms, including two hundred cannon with French markings removed, as well as four million lives credit for miscellaneous military supplies. 22
Deane informed Bancroft that the American objective was to motivate a
Bourbon-Prussian coalition against England on the continent to force the
British to redirect their power to a continental conflict and leave the
colonies alone. The Americans expected the French to agree to the alliance.
In fact, French Foreign Minister, Charles Gravier, the Comte de Vergennes
was leaning towards war with England when he learned that General Sir
William Howe evacuated Boston but wanted to enlist Spain's assistance
and agreement to go to war with Portugal, England's ally. The situation
changed when the French learned that Britain defeated Washington's forces
on Long Island on 27 August 1776. 23
Bancroft, saying business matters obliged him to return to London, left
France on 26 July 1776. Before departing, he agreed to provide Deane with
intelligence gleaned from his contacts in England. Despite his agreement
to cooperate, Bancroft was troubled by his new role. He had always supported
the British Empire's interest but also adhered to the belief that the
colonies and the crown had to reconcile their positions through some compromise.
He now realized that this was impossible and that French entry into the
conflict would destroy the British empire. Bancroft considered informing
the British government about Deane's efforts because he was convinced
"that the government of France would endeavor to promote an absolute
separation of the then United Colonies from Great Britain; unless a speedy
termination of the revolt by reconciliation, or conquest, should frustrate
this project." 24
Before Bancroft had an opportunity to contact the British, he was met by Paul Wentworth. Wentworth was recently recruited by William Eden, chief of the British Secret Service,25 who assigned Wentworth the task of meeting with his old friend to obtain full details of Bancroft's visit to Paris. Wentworth informed Bancroft that the British knew he met and spent several days with Deane. Wentworth asked Bancroft to meet with Eden. Bancroft agreed and shortly thereafter a meeting was held between Bancroft, Eden, and Lords Suffolk and Weymouth to discuss the colonial rebellion. At this meeting, Bancroft was recruited as a double agent for the British. He later wrote of his decision:
When Benjamin Franklin arrived in Paris to take over the negotiations
with the French, Lord Suffolk told Bancroft to move to Paris and inject
himself in Franklin's circle. In return for his service, Bancroft was
offered a life pension of 200 pounds per year, increasing to 500 pounds
per year. Bancroft left England on 26 March 1977. After his arrival in
Paris, it was not difficult for him to find a position with Franklin,
his former friend and mentor. Bancroft was made secretary to the American
commission. Also arriving in Paris was Paul Wentworth, who was sent to
be Bancroft's handler.
To communicate with the British, Bancroft was instructed in the use of
a timed deaddrop. He was told to compose a series of cover letters about
gallantry which he was to address to a "Mr. Richards," and sign
each with "Edward Edward." Between the lines of his letters,
he was to write in secret ink the information he acquired on the French-American
partnership. When the letter was complete, he was to place it in a bottle
with a piece of string around the bottle's neck. Each Tuesday evening
after 9:30, Bancroft was instructed to proceed to the south terrace of
the Jardin de Tuilleries where he was to place the bottle in a hole in
the roots of a certain box tree. The bottle was retrieved by Thomas Jeans,
secretary to British diplomat Lord Stormont, who removed the contents
and usually replaced it with taskings for Bancroft. Bancroft later that
same evening returned to the drop site to recover the bottle. It is reported
that Bancroft provided copies of hundreds of documents to his handlers.
For example, it is said that the French-American treaty was in King George's
hand 48 hours after its signing, courtesy of Bancroft.
Compliments of Franklin and Deane, who sent Bancroft on frequent secret intelligence missions to London, Bancroft had the luxury of sitting down in a relaxed atmosphere to be debriefed by Lord Suffolk and others. There is some suggestion by historians that Franklin was aware of Bancroft's betrayal, citing Franklin's comment in response to a friend's warning about British spies:
Whether Franklin knew and used Bancroft to pass false information to
the British or never knew Brancroft's true status is subject to interpretations
of the facts because Franklin did not write about it and Bancroft's personal
papers were later destroyed by a family member. No matter what the truth
is, the fact remains that the British had placed an excellent double agent
within the American Commission in Paris who provided a wealth of information
on the French-American alliance. Even with Bancroft and the other British
agents inside the Commission, the British were unable to take more effective
action to destroy or diminish the negotiations and support which lead
to the American-French Alliance and the final defeat of the British at
While serving in Paris as an agent of the Committee of Secret Correspondence,
Silas Deane is known to have used a heat-developing invisible ink, compounded
of cobalt chloride, glycerin and water, for some of his intelligence reports
back to America. Even more useful to him later was a "sympathetic
stain" created for secret communications by James Jay, a physician
and the brother of John Jay. Dr. Jay, who had been knighted by George
III, used the "stain" for reporting military information from
London to America. Later he supplied quantities of the stain to George
Washington at home and to Silas Deane in Paris.
The stain required one chemical for writing the message and a second
to develop it, affording greater security than the ink used by Deane earlier.
Once, in a letter of John Jay, Robert Morris spoke of an innocuous letter
from "Timothy Jones" (Deane) and the "concealed beauties
therein," noting "the cursory examinations of a sea captain
would never discover them, but transferred from his hand to the penetrating
eye of a Jay, the diamonds stand confessed at once."
Washington instructed his agents in the use of the "sympathetic
stain," noting in connection with "Culper Junior" that
the ink "will not only render his 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,
almanacs, or any publication or book of small value." Washington
especially recommended that agents conceal their reports by using the
ink in correspondence: "A much better way is to write a letter in
the Tory stile with some mixture of family matters and between the lines
and on the remaining part of the sheet communicate with the stain the
Joseph Hyson 34
After Hyson was recruited by Carmichael, he was approached by Reverend
John Vardill, a British agent of William Eden, an under-secretary of state,
who directed British intelligence during the early years of the American
Revolution. The meeting took place on 12 February 1777 and Hyson agreed
to work for British intelligence. A plan, briefed to the British Admiralty
which gave its approval, was devised whereby Hyson would slip out of England
for France. After Hyson's arrival in France, he was to collect coastal
and other maritime information on the country while waiting to take possession
of one of the ships. Once he commanded a ship, he was to use elaborate
signals, worked out with the British navy to make it appear that the ship
was captured rather than Hyson having sailed it into British hands.
Hyson safely arrived in France and, while his ship was being fitted,
he spent a great deal of time with Carmichael and the American Commissioners,
Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane. Hyson also began to collect data on
French ports and shipping which he passed to Lt. Col. Edward Smith, a
British intelligence officer. Carmichael detected Hyson's spy activities
for Smith but did not reveal them to any of the American Commissioners.
In fact, Carmichael offered to help Hyson obtain American dispatches,
an offer Smith believed could help the British recruit Carmichael.35
The British did try to recruit Carmichael but he rejected there
Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane decided to send the Commissioners'
important dispatches to the Continental Congress earlier than expected
and selected a Captain Folger to take them aboard his ship. To get the
dispatches to Captain Folger, Captain Hyson was selected as the courier.
Hyson traveled to Havre, France where he turned over the dispatch pouch
to Folger. Folger, after his arrival in America, gave the pouch to the
Committee of Correspondence of the Continental Congress. When the Committee
opened the pouch, they discovered a wad of blank paper. While the substituted
pouch was on its way to America, Hyson delivered the real pouch to Lt.
Col. Smith in London, who immediately turned it over to William Eden.
Eden, in turn, displayed the entire pouch contents to King George III,
who was often a harsh critic of the spies, alluding to his mistrust of
Hyson was paid for his services. Lord North gave him 200 pounds and a
promise of 200 pounds a year. "He was an honest rascal, and no fool
though apparently stupid."36 An apt remark
considering that Hyson returned to France to renew his contact with the
American Commissioners. He could not understand why the Commissioners
rejected any contact with him. The only one who came to visit him was
Carmichael. He failed to realized that Carmichael was directed to make
contact with him in order to get Lt. Col. Smith to come to Paris to meet
with the Commissioners.
The Commissioners wanted to use Smith as a broker to determine if the
British government was agreeable to negotiating a peace. When word was
received on 30 November 1777 that General John Burgoyne surrendered, this
plan was shelved. Hyson's value to the Commissioners was ended although
he was offered the job of taking some dispatches to America. He refused.
The French told him to leave their country or be arrested as a spy.
Hyson requested funds from Smith, who sent the request to Eden. Eden
responded that he would support giving Hyson 40 pounds if Hyson would
set sail and try to overtake either Silas Deane or Carmichael who had
departed France in separate ships carrying dispatches. Hyson left for
England, where he signed on a man-of-war, the Centaur, in which he was
a key player in betraying an American munitions ship to the British. This
is the last anyone heard of Hyson.
She reported that there would be 5,000 men under General William Howe,
13 pieces of cannon, baggage wagons and 11 boats on wheels, or pontoon
equipment. The British did pull out of Philadelphia with more than 5,000
men on the night of 4 December, rolled through the city going in the wrong
direction toward the Schuylkill River. Washington's intelligence and estimates
were correct. He had strengthened the front, not the rear, and the British
After a day of confrontation, Howe withdrew to Philadelphia "like
a parcel of damned fools." It was to his report of the Whitemarsh
fiasco that General Charles Cornwallis first appended his view that the
conquest of America was impossible. On other occasions, Lydia concealed
reports in shorthand only her older brother, Lt. Charles Darragh could
read, and covered them as buttons which her 14 year-old son wore on his
clothing when traveling on regular visits to her brother. Charles would
then decode the shorthand and deliver the report to Washington.
As a courier between Lafayette and American agents in the Norfolk area,
Armistead won this accolade from Lafayette: "He properly acquitted
some important communications I gave him." But, the most valued role
of this agent involved deception. Posing as a refugee, he crossed Cornwallis's
lines, where he was recruited as a British spy and dispatched back against
Lafayette prepared a false order from himself to General Daniel Morgan,
in which Morgan was instructed to move non-existent troop replacements
into certain positions. With the properly crumpled and abused letter in
hand, Armistead returned to the British, reporting that he had found no
changes in the American position, but displaying the torn paper that he
claimed to have found along the roadside, but could not read.
Cornwallis accepted the bait and did not learn he had been tricked until
Lafayette completed the military operation. Cornwallis, during a courtesy
visit to Lafayette after the British defeat at Yorktown, recognized Armistead
on Lafayette's staff, and realized for the first time that his trusted
agent, had, in actuality, been an American agent.
Following the war, the Virginia Assembly voted James Armistead his freedom
and in later years approved both a bonus and a lifetime pension for his
intelligence work, conducted "at the peril of his life." James
reciprocated the honor, adopting the new surname, Lafayette.
Honeyman, would of course, subsequently manage to escape back to British
lines and provide deception information, as he did in telling the Hessians
that Washington was not prepared to attack Trenton on Christmas.
In August 1781, Lt. Col. Robert Harrison, Washington's aide-de-camp,
dispatched Bissell into New York to gather intelligence. Finding he could
not exfiltrate the city, he masqueraded as a Loyalist and joined Benedict
Arnold's provincial regiment. For over a year, Bissell gathered intelligence,
committing it to memory.
In September 1782, he was able to escape through British lines and report
to Washington. Not only was Bissell able to report first-hand on British
fortifications, and intelligence gathered from others, he was able to
present a twelve-month analysis of the British method of operation, which
Washington commended him on.
Bissell's ideological motivation became clear when he refused both an
honorable discharge and a pension for his work as an intelligence agent
for Washington; he felt the nation could ill-afford the loss of his services,
and he believed the nation should not be tasked with the pension payments.
In 1798 a political scheme by three emissaries from French Foreign Minister,
Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, outraged the American public, when it surfaced
in the United States. The three emissaries, known by the initials, X,
Y, and Z, attempted to bribe three American commissioners, who were seeking
a treaty of commerce and amity with France. The uproar cause by the attempted
bribe led to a complete break in relations with France and an undeclared
naval war for two years.
The French, upset by the Jay Treaty of 1794 between the United States
and Great Britain, giving Great Britain favored-nation status, felt the
Americans were becoming too pro-British. The French were at war with Great
Britain and began to seize American ships on the high seas looking for
contraband believed headed for British ports. Suffering staggering financial
losses, American ship owners demanded reprisals against the French.
In December 1796, the American minister to France, Charles C. Pinckney,
tried unsuccessfully to present his credentials to the French Directory.
This diplomatic slap in the face resulted in a heated outcry in America
against the French. John Adams, the newly elected President, desired better
relations with France and to avoid war. On 31 May 1797 he named a three-member
commission, Pinckney, John Marshall and Elbridge Gerry, to negotiate with
the French government. However, when they arrived in Paris in October
1797 to begin negotiations on a new commercial and friendship treaty,
the French Directory refused to meet them. Instead, Talleyrand sent three
emissaries to meet with them.
The emissaries advised the American commissioners that a "gift"
of $25,000 to the Foreign Minister and a loan of $10 million to France
was a prerequisite to any negotiations. Two other conditions demanded
by the emissaries was an apology by the President for his past critical
remarks about France and a reaffirmation by the United States of the old
Franco-American Alliance of 1778. Although diplomatic bribes were customary,
Pinckney, furious from twiddling his thumbs waiting for an appointment
with Talleyrand, said, "Not a sixpence." His diplomatic note
to President Adam was more articulate, "Millions for defense but
not one cent for tribute."
The American commissioners decided to appeal to Talleyrand directly in a diplomatic note. Talleyrand did not respond for two months and when he did, his reply was terse. He blamed the Americans for the problems, said the President should have sent only Republicans (Pinckney and Marshall were Federalists) to negotiate and stated he would deal only with Gerry. Talleyrand also said that if Gerry left France, war between the two countries was likely. Although the commissioners made no concessions to the French, Pinckney and Marshall returned to the United States, leaving Gerry in France. Gerry's presence in France did not sit well with the Americans and President Adams recalled him.
President Adams informed Congress about the failed mission and provided
Congress with the XYZ correspondence. The Federalists were overjoyed by
the news. Alexander Hamilton suggested raising an army of 10,000 men.
George Washington said he would come out of retirement to lead the new
army, but in title only. Washington wanted Hamilton as his second-in-command.
President Adams, fearful of promoting Hamilton over several Revolutionary
War officers, who then might lead a coup against him, decided to authorize
the building of 40 frigates and lesser warships. An undeclared naval war
ensued for two years (1798-1800) in which American naval forces captured
84 armed French ship while only losing one. The Convention of 1800 ended
the fighting. The diplomatic dispute ended six months later when Napoleon
Bonaparte officially received the American commissioners to France.
19. This article is copyrighted by Eric Evans Rafalko and used with his permission.
20. Secret New England Spies of the American Revolution, ed. by Edmund R. Thompson (The David Atlee Phillips New England Chapter, Association of Former Intelligence Officers, Kennebunk, Maine, 1991, p. 73).
21. Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, ed. by Francis Wharton, U.S. Department of State, 6 vols., Washington, Government Printing Office, 1889, pp. 78-80.
22. Silas Deane to the Secret Committee of Congress, August 18, 1776, in The Deane Papers, ed. Charles Isham, 5 vols, New York Historical Society Collections, Vols. XIX-XXIII, New York, 1886-1891, XIX, p. 206.
23. Bemis, Samuel F., The Diplomacy of the American Revolution, New York, D. Appleton Co., 1935, pp. 44-45.
24. Dr. Edward Bancroft to the Most Honorable Marquis of Carmarthen, September 17, 1784, Samuel F. Bemis, British Secret Service and the French-American Alliance, American Historical Review, XXIX, No. 3 (April, 1924), p. 493.
25. There was no organization within the government known as the British Secret Service. Intelligence collection was conducted by major figures within the Foreign Ministry or military for their own purposes. In this respect, Eden was probably in charge of a small group of intelligence collectors for Lord Suffolk.
26. Dr. Edward Bancroft to the Most Honorable Marquis of Carmarthen, September 17, 1784, op. cit., p. 493.
27. Secret New England Spies of the American Revolution, ed. Edmund R. Thompson, op. cit., p. 80.
28. Jacob Bankson was one of Washington's spies.
29. Thomas Shanks, formerly an ensign of the Tenth Pennsylvania Regiment. He had been cashiered Oct. 12, 1777, for stealing shoes.
30. The board voted 10 to 4 that he was a spy and 8 to 6 that he ought to suffer death.
31. Elijah Hunter, assistant commissary of forage, at Bedford, N.Y.
32. Elijah Hunter. In the draft he is designated "H------."
33. Lieut. Gen. Frederick Haldimand, Governor of Canada.
34. This article was written by Frank J. Rafalko, Chief, Community Training Branch, National Counterintelligence Center.
35. Smith obtained this information which he communicated to Eden in "Information obtained by Lt. Col. Smith during the six weeks of his intercourse with Capt. Hyson, in February and March 1777," Mar 27-28, 1777, Stephens's Facsimiles of Manuscripts in European Archives relating to America, 1773-1783, no. 670.
36. William Eden to George III, Oct 20, 1777, Stevens, op. cit., no. 275.