7 Year Tea Party Winners: Susan Craft's winner of her trilogy novels - The Chamomile, Laurel, and Cassia is: Lucy Reynolds, The winner of a copy of The Backcountry Brides is: Tammy Cordery, the winner of a silver quill charm is: Kathy Maher, Choice of one of three books by Carrie Fancett Pagels in paperback: Joy Ellis, A Bouquet of Brides Collection by Pegg Thomas winner is: Becky Smith, Janet Grunst's Selah-Award winning novel, A Heart Set Free, is: Sherry Moe.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Espionage in Early America

I've blogged about my different discoveries in historical espionage before, but I've never put them all together before for the Colonial Quill. And since this fall I'm teaching a home school class to my local group about the different historical methods of spying, I figure it'll be fun to get a head start here. ;-)

By the time of the Revolution, spying in Europe had reached some rather hilarious levels. It was so common in the different courts that they all knew other countries' men were intercepting their messages and copying them. The "Black Chambers" of these master spies were located nearby the courts. The spies would steal incoming correspondence, make a copy, and slip the original back into the post. Codes had become common too, but these dudes got their jobs by being able to break them, quickly and efficiently. So it was just all one big puzzle that they were playing, knowing well their opponents were evenly matched.
A page from the real Culper Ring's code book

One story I read and loved was of a spy who mistakenly sent along his copy instead of the original message. The recipient knew right away what had happened and sent it back to him, demanding his original in its place--proving that they all knew exactly who was doing what and took very little issue with it after so long.

But in America, espionage was like so many other things--new and experimental. And when the Revolution was in full swing and General Washington found himself in need of reliable intelligence, he had no Black Chamber to rely on. He had only a few trusted men with no background in spying and no training in the covert. They dubbed themselves the Culper Ring and answered to one of Washington's most trusted officers, Benjamin Tallmadge.

My personal experiments with heat-developed inks
Today we look at the cyphers and codes that the Culper Ring developed and shake our heads at how amateur they were. But they did the job, and because of the ingenuity of the brothers Jay and their "sympathetic stain" (invisible ink), the British never even saw the code to crack it. Until then, they had to use heat-developed inks for messages, which anyone with a flame could develop. But this stain required a particular counter agent. This level of security is what kept their secrets throughout the war. And what made my Ring of Secrets a lot of fun to write. ;-)

By the War of 1812, another intelligence tool had made its way to America--the mask, or grille. This was a piece of paper with a shape cut out of it. The writer of a message would put this mask down upon a blank piece of paper, write his true message within the hole, and then remove the mask and fill in the lines around the message so that the real words would be innocuously hidden within innocent sentences. In order to know what the message was, the recipient would have to also have the mask, which would be sent in a separate batch of correspondence.

In the Civil War, codes were the feature of the day, and there were a lot of them. Members of the Knights of the Golden Circle, for instance, would come up with codes for each occasion. Simple phrases to let each other know if a particular outcome had happened as expected or not. Other codes used a key--a book, usually a dictionary, that both sender and receiver had. They would use numbers to indicate words. So you might see something like this: 192.15.26

These numbers stood for page, line, word on line. If they were encoding something like a name that wouldn't be in a dictionary, they would spell it out using a forth number to indicate a letter within the word.

Now my question to you today:

Do you think you could have been a spy in early America?

Roseanna M. White pens her novels under the Betsy Ross flag hanging above her desk, with her Jane Austen action figure watching over her. When she isn’t homeschooling her small kids and writing fiction, she’s editing it for WhiteFire Publishing or reviewing it for the Christian Review of Books, both of which she co-founded with her husband.


  1. Great post! I am so intrigued with all the espionage history. I just finished the fantastic "Whispers From the Shadows" and am inspired to study this time period and it's espionage with my kids for our homeschooling year! I'm foreseeing many secret letters being passed around. :) Thank you!

    1. And to answer your question - I think I might have been able to help out or at least be a part of the spy arena back then. ;)

    2. Oh, what fun! Next week is my first "spy" class with my homeschool group, and I'm in full prep-mode. Just bought some quills which I need to trim, and we'll be mixing our own invisible ink and then developing it in the class. We'll be doing masks next month. =) So glad you enjoyed Whispers!

  2. So interesting! Don't think I could have been a spy, not that good at secrecy - patience isn't my best virtue either.

  3. Very interesting Roseanna. I have my Jane Austen action figure above my writing space, too. I can't imagine why some folks think that's an oxymoron.

  4. The Masking idea is very cool. I'd love to see that done/used. Didn't we all play with secret codes and covert note making in our youth? Fascinating stuff, Roseanna, which is only part of the draw of this great series!


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