Invisible Ink: Spycraft of the American Revolution
The recent popularity of the AMC show “Turn” has increased awareness of the little-known spy networks that helped Washington defeat British forces during the Revolutionary War. James Armistead Lafayette was a highly educated slave whom the Marquis de Lafayette recruited to spy at Yorktown. John Nagy’s 2010 book “Invisible Ink: Spycraft of the American Revolution” proves that truth is stranger than fiction.This selection focuses on the spycraft of the Quaker Darragh family of Philadelphia during the British occupation of the city in 1777 and their assistance in helping Washington prepare for what became the Battle of White Marsh on Dec. 5, 1777.
–Courtesy of the Museum of the American Revolution, Philadelphia
Hiding messages in buttons was done by the Darraghs, a Quaker family, of Philadelphia. After the British took possession of Philadelphia on September 26, 1777, General Howe occupied the house of John Cadwalader opposite the two-story wooden frame residence of William and Lydia Darragh at 177 Second Street. The Darraghs attended the old Arch Street Meeting and then switched to the Free Quaker meeting. William Darragh, a school teacher, wrote messages in shorthand on small pieces of paper which were then placed between the wooden button and its cloth cover. His Dublin-born wife, Lydia, would sew the messages in the coat buttons of John, their fourteen-year-old son. Being a child, John was permitted to pass and re-pass the sentries out being stopped. Once he reached American-held ground, he went to his older brother, Charles. There he delivered the messages which were hidden in his cloth-covered buttons.
General Howe’s staff used the back room of the Darragh residence as an adjunct meeting space to Howe’s quarters across the street. On the evening of December 2, 1777, General Howe held a staff meeting at the Darragh’s house. Lydia was told the meeting would run late and “they wished the family to retire early to bed. When they were going away, they would call her to let them out, and extinguish their fire and candles.”
Because of the unusual request her curiosity was piqued and she “put her ear to the key-hole of the conclave.” Lydia overheard General Howe’s staff meeting. The forthcoming attack on the evening of the 4th on the American troops at White Marsh was discussed. When she overheard this, she went to her room as if she had been there all evening. When the officers knocked on her door she waited for the third knock, “having feigned to be asleep.”
On December 3rd she obtained a pass from General Howe to travel out of the city to get flour. She was able to get through the lines.
The American troops were ordered to stop farmers who were sneaking into the city to sell their goods for hard currency instead of the worthless continental currency. The troops were to detain anyone leaving the city and send them to headquarters. Most of the run-ins between the American and British patrols consisted of little more than firing some lead at each other.
Colonel John Jameson advised Washington that the mills at Pennypack and Frankford were furnishing great quantities of flour to the British. He was powerless to stop it unless he was with the men on their side of the river day and night. He called them “a set of the greatest villains I ever heard of. Many of them have received bribes to let inhabitants pass. Captain Howard took about 100 people going to market last week, mostly women.” With such a porous situation, Lydia would not have had much difficulty getting to the Frankford Mill.
Adjutant General Major Baurmeister of the Hessian forces confirmed that on December 3, 1777, “the highways from Philadelphia to Germantown and Frankford, and the road to Trenton by way of Jenkintown, are open to anyone. Some Philadelphians have been appointed to give passes to loyalists, who are then permitted to pass the pickets. When returning, these people always bring foodstuffs with them. The rebel light dragoons on their horses as far as their vedettes. From these people we receive most of the news about the rebels.”
On December 5 when the British army arrived at White Marsh to attack, they found the Continental army well prepared. After a few skirmishes on the 6th and 7th, the British returned to Philadelphia. Although Darragh’s information was not the only report of impending British attack, it did confirm other intelligence that Boudinot had received and helped Washington and the Continental army to fend off the British attack. She was read out (disowned) of meeting in October 1782 for not attending meeting and for “joining with a number of persons, associated under a pretense of religious duty, so far as to attend their meeting.” Many histories claim it was for her spying ways, but it could not have had anything to do with her spying activities, which were not publicly known in 1782.
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Museum of the American Revolution
Invisible Ink: Spycraft of the American Revolution