News | April 14, 2022

From the strategic crossroads of the American Revolution

By DIA Public Affairs

On April 5, DIA received the third in a series of letters on loan from the Library of Congress that traces the Agency’s legacy of defense intelligence to George Washington and the American Revolution. 

Rachel Waldron, Library of Congress senior exhibits registrar, and Simonette de la Torre, associate registrar, delivered the letter to DIA Headquarters for exhibit in the History and Heritage Gallery. 

The letter, dated July 18, 1780, is from Col. Elias Dayton to Gen. George Washington, and reports on the departure of the British fleet from New York Harbor to Newport, Rhode Island. Dayton was an officer in the New Jersey militia and a member of the Mersereau Family spy ring who operated an intelligence-gathering network in New York and New Jersey. 

From his position in Elizabethtown, New Jersey, Dayton informs Washington that the British fleet embarked to attack the French fleet in Newport under the command of the Compte de Rochambeau. 

Dayton then provides estimates of volunteers and marines aboard the British ships.  These figures, according to DIA historian Lisa Temple, make the letter valuable to the history of American defense intelligence.  

 “This is a brief, but great letter and clear example of how timely human intelligence was significant and sought after by Washington during the Revolutionary War, just as it is sought after by today’s military leaders,” said Temple.  

In its broader context, the letter reveals the critical role of intelligence in Washington’s decision making process. Washington read the letter 20 miles away from Dayton at his headquarters in central New Jersey, where he addressed the British campaign in the south and the protection of West Point, the American stronghold 60 miles up the Hudson River under Benedict Arnold’s command. 

Dayton’s intelligence informed Washington that British ships were headed south, and not north toward West Point. Unknown to Washington, on July 15, Arnold wrote to British spy leader Maj. John Andre and promised to surrender West Point in return for 20,000 pounds, reducing the need for a British naval advance up the Hudson.   

Dayton’s letter captures a revolution in stalemate, but also heralds the turning point in its fortunes. Over the next year, the tide turned on several fronts.   

Washington ended mutinies in New Jersey and Philadelphia in January 1781, at which point the British Army started to overextend itself in the South and lose battles against militias in the Carolinas. Washington and Rochambeau strategized to end the war between May and September 1781, and launched a combined force victorious at the Battle of Yorktown on October 19, 1781. 

> Arnold formally defected to the British in September 1780, but British commanders refused to take him seriously as an officer because of his turncoat status. His input was thus absent from British strategy in the final act of the war.  

The George Washington Papers consist of nearly 77,000 documents kept by Washington between 1745 and 1799, including correspondence, diaries, and financial and military records. Held by the Library of Congress, it is the largest collection of Washington papers in the world. 

Dayton’s letter illustrates the significance of human intelligence in America’s first major conflict with a global power. Just as Dayton and his spy ring provided the intelligence required for revolutionary strategy against the British, DIA provides warfighters and decision makers the intelligence required to defend the Nation in an era of strategic competition.