April 27, 2014 —
On Oct. 5, 1775, General George Washington writes to the president of the Continental Congress, John Jay, to inform him that a letter from Dr. Benjamin Church, surgeon general of the Continental Army, to Lt. Gen. Thomas Gage, British commander in chief for North America, had been intercepted. Washington wrote, “I have now a painful tho’ necessary duty to perform respecting Doctor Church, Director General of the Hospital.”
Washington described how a coded letter to a British officer came into Washington’s possession by a convoluted route from “a woman who was kept by Doctor Church.” Washington interrogated the woman at length until she finally “was brought to a confession and named Doctor Church” as the letter’s author. Washington learned that Church had been spying for the British since 1772.
Church’s letters to British Gen. Gage divulged intelligence regarding American munitions, military plans and equipment that would later prove critical to the British march on Concord.
After the discovery of his espionage, Church faced an army court martial. Because Congress had not yet authorized the hanging of spies, Church evaded the death penalty and was instead charged with treason, convicted, sentenced to life in prison, and held in solitary confinement. After Church became ill in prison, Congress ordered him exiled to the West Indies in 1780. In a twist of fate, the schooner upon which Church was being transported never reached its destination. The schooner, its crew and Church were never located.
Editor’s Note: This article is the third of a series highlighting the origins of American military intelligence and how it led to the birth of DIA. The American military intelligence system during the Revolutionary War was an active and effective instrument that helped counterbalance British numerical and operational superiority by informing American generals about their movements while it also deceived the British into making strategic errors. From the Revolutionary War to the early years of the Cold War interest in and resources devoted to military intelligence surged during wartime and diminished or disappeared during peacetime. This lack of a sustained commitment to military intelligence contributed to several intelligence failures. These issues were not resolved until the establishment of DIA in 1961, which would serve as the centralizing hub of all military and defense intelligence.