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The rise and fall of a forgotten revolutionary hero: Silas Deane

By DIA Public Affairs

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May 18, 2014 — In March of 1776, the Committee of Secret Correspondence appointed Silas Deane, a former delegate to the Continental Congress, as its covert agent in France. Along with John Adams, Deane had been instrumental in the creation of America’s navy. 

On March 3, Deane set sail for France with instructions to pose as a Bermudian merchant dealing goods from India, he was tasked with making secret supply purchases and gaining covert assistance from the French. Through Deane’s efforts, the French agreed to provide military supplies including cannons, ammunition and tents to the Continental Army. Just as significantly, Deane recruited French officers, including the Marquis de Lafayette, to help train and lead the Continental Army. This assistance was critical to the American effort against the British.

Deane, along with Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee, later became official commissioners to France. Lee accused Deane of financial misconduct and making personal gains during his secret mission. As a result, Deane was recalled to America and John Adams took his place as commissioner. The French, however, refused to release the financial records documenting Deane’s activity in France because doing so would reveal their support of the American Revolution prior to the establishment of a formal alliance. Because of these circumstances, Deane was never allotted a fair trial. 

Coincidentally, both Adams and Deane had a relationship with an intelligence source named Edward Bancroft, who sold them information about the British. Neither Adams nor Deane knew that Bancroft was actually working for the British as a double agent.

In 1781, Deane returned to Europe, going bankrupt and living in poverty. He eventually decided to return to the United States in 1789. In an unfortunate twist of fate, Deane fell ill and died before his voyage home. Some historians argue that the suspicious circumstances of Deane’s death were not a coincidence, and instead trace back to Bancroft, who was fearful that Deane's potential testimony would expose him.

Deane was never found guilty of Lee’s accusations. Fifty years after his death, Congress paid Deane's granddaughter a sum of $37,000 in reparation for the injustice.

Editor’s Note: This article is the sixth in 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.