george washington's deception -- 9/26/16

Today's selection -- from George Washington's Secret Spy War by John A Nagy. During the Revolutionary War, George Washington spent a considerable amount of time concealing the limited number of troops and lack of supplies of the Continental Army. A particularly tricky situation developed on August 3, 1775 when he realized that due to a clerical error he had "not more than 9 cartridges [of gunpowder] a man." An american deserter conveyed that information to the British:

"Washington had found that due to a misunderstanding in reporting on the amount of gunpowder, the amount available was in short supply. He informed the generals at a war council on August 3at the Cambridge headquarters. The report indi­cated there were approximately ninety barrels of powder in the magazines at Cambridge and Roxbury. A suggestion was put for­ward to make an attempt with 300 men on the British maga­zine in Halifax. This was not acted upon. The other suggestion was to get supplies from the neighboring provinces of Connect­icut, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island.

"The next day Washington wrote to Congress, 'But on order­ing a new supply of cartridges yesterday, I was informed to my very great astonishment, that there was no more than 36 Bbbl [barrels]. in the Massachusetts store, which added to the stock of Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Connecticut makes 9940 lb. not more than 9 cartridges a man.'

Revolutionary War cartridge box and cartridges

"He checked into what caused such a monumental deficiency, 'The Committee of Supplies, not being sufficiently acquainted with the nature of a return or misapprehending my request, sent in an account of all the ammunition which had been col­lected by the Province [of Massachusetts], so that the report included not only what was on hand but what had been spent.' He went to the speaker of the House of Representatives to ob­tain a supply from the neighboring towns, 'in such a manner as might prevent our poverty from being known. As it is a secret of too much consequence to be devulg[sic], even to the General Court.' He was afraid the British would find out how desperate the situation was. He was going to write to the governors of Con­necticut, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island 'urging in the most forcible terms the necessity of an immediate supply if in their power. I need not enlarge on our melancholy situation it is sufficient to say that the existence of the army and Salvation of the country depends upon some thing being done for our relief both speedy and effectual and that our situation be kept a profound secret.'

"The story is told that Washington had barrels of sand marked gunpowder and placed in the military powder magazines. It makes a great deception story. However I have not been able to find any period documents to back it up. There is no direct evidence of a disinformation campaign involving gunpowder. Mrs. Cooke, the British spy, had reported that forty tons or over 880 barrels of gunpowder had arrived from Rhode Island. With this large supply the Americans would certainly be able to main­tain the siege. Or were some, or even all, of the 880 barrels some filled with sand?

"Elias Boudinot Elizabeth of New jersey, wrote in his journal,

When our Army lay before Boston in 1775 our powder was so nearly expended that General Washington told me that he had not more than eight rounds a man, although he had then near fourteen miles of line to guard, and that he dare not give an evening or morning gun. In this situation one of the Committee of Safety for Massachusetts, who was privy to the whole secret, de­serted and went over to General Gage, and discovered our poverty to him. The fact was so incredible that Gen­eral Gage treated it as a stratagem of war, and the infor­mant as a spy, or coming with the express purpose of deceiving him and drawing his army into a snare, by which means we were saved from having our quarters beaten up.

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John A. Nagy


George Washington's Secret Spy War: The Making of America's First Spymaster


St. Martin's Press


Copyright 2016 by John A. Nagy


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