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News | June 1, 2014

Female spies of the American Revolution

By DIA Public Affairs

It’s often noted that many important women of history are distinctly absent from history textbooks. That is not to say, however, that women haven’t made significant contributions to the trajectory of the United States. During the American Revolution, female spies conducted some of the most successful covert operations of the era.

While her husband fought in the war, Nancy Morgan Hart took care of her household and children alone on the Georgian frontier. Her domestic responsibilities didn’t stop her, however, from sneaking away to spy on behalf of the Patriots. Taking advantage of her scarred face, crossed eyes, and tall and muscular physique, Hart often disguised herself as a crazy man and entered British camps in order to collect intelligence.

In her most famous display of Patriot resistance to the British Crown, Hart successfully held at gunpoint six British soldiers who entered her home. Hart subsequently witnessed the hangings of the men.

Another female Patriot spy of the American Revolution was so adept at preserving her cover that historians still don’t know her true identity to this day. A member of the Culper Ring network, only known as “Lady,” reported in July 1780 that the British planned to attack French forces that had landed in Newport, R.I. After a tip-off from Lady, Washington planted misleading information to known British agents that implied he planned to move on New York City.

The ruse worked, and the British commander held back the troops headed for Newport. This in turn allowed the French forces to move to Yorktown unimpeded, where they would aid in the American victory. 

Editor’s Note: This article is the eighth 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.