As the nation celebrates 240 years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, historians still debate how it is even possible that the Continental Army beat the world’s most powerful military of that time. Some argue fighting on home soil was the key; others believe French intervention secured it. Most likely it was a combination of many influences.

But for me, the interesting factor in the upset victory was George Washington’s use of military intelligence. I suppose this should be no surprise, since I saw the power of good intelligence first-hand while serving in the Marine Corps; work in the corporate investigations world; love American history; and – full disclosure – am unmistakably on the patriots’ side of what happened in 1776.

Washington knew that his ragtag Continental Army would have trouble beating British regulars in an conventional, open-field battle. This point was driven home in the opening salvos of the war at the Battles of Lexington and Concord and even more so later in August 1776 with the crushing American defeat at the Battle of Brooklyn Heights.

Washington came to realize he had to outwit and outmaneuver his adversary until the British figured out the Americans were in it for the long haul and that it was not worth the casualties or expense to keep their army fighting 3,500 miles from home. Key to this strategy was knowing what England’s next move was, and for this Washington relied heavily on an elaborate system of intelligence gathering.

Intelligence Collection in Action

Due to the relative lack of technology at the time, Washington relied almost exclusively on human intelligence gathered from spies and military intelligence from reconnaissance missions. Although Washington did not have today’s technology at his disposal, he was ahead of his time in his preference for written reports, rather than verbal ones, which could be used to archive information and connect dots that verbal report could not. He was also advanced in his use of cypher codes, code names and other instruments now synonymous with spy craft. At the same time, he sought trusted advisors such as Alexander Hamilton, who helped interrogate prisoners and recruit spies in areas held by the British, and Thomas Knowlton, who led the famous Knowlton’s Rangers to gather information on British troop sizes and movements and, pre-Google Maps, identify the best routes for Washington to march his army.

Washington made important decisions regarding how to best use his outnumbered soldiers based on the information he gained from his intelligence operations. Units such as the famed Culper Spy Ring, based in occupied New York City, included undercover patriots such as tailors, journalists and members of well-to-do loyalist families. Members of the ring would work to get themselves within earshot of British officers discussing their next moves, often at coffee houses or social events. Sort of the open source and social media intelligence of the day. They would then feed the valuable intelligence they learned to Washington through an elaborate system of secret messages and codes. The Culper Ring also included one of my favorite spies, known to history simply as Agent 355, which was code for Lady Spy. This patriot heroine provided valuable counterintelligence to uncover Benedict Arnold’s treason. Later arrested, she died in captivity.

Today, the CIA refers to Washington as the country’s first Director of Central Intelligence, since he was more deeply involved in ensuring he had access to good intelligence than just about any other top general until Dwight Eisenhower. According to one British intelligence officer opining on how his side lost the war, “Washington did not really outfight the British. He simply out-spied us.”[1]

Intelligence is Still Important Today

Although I personally do not think the comparison is usually appropriate, I am hardly the first to compare military strategies to those used in the business world. However, this Independence Day is a good reminder that sometimes even a smaller, less-prepared force can overcome all odds and win when they have the right information to make good decisions. In our Founding Father’s own words, talking of his experience in the French Indian War and written in a letter 10 years before the outbreak of the Revolution: “There is nothing more necessary than good intelligence to frustrate a designing enemy, and nothing requires greater pains to obtain.”[2]

The benefits of knowing as much as possible before acting are hardly limited to just military action though. I think it is likely that Washington, who at his eulogy was said to be “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” would seek accurate and insightful information and intelligence to help make the right decision, whether that be in war, politics or business. And even though technology has come a long way since Washington’s time and provides a wealth of data, sometimes the most valuable information is still insight gained through old-fashioned gathering of intelligence from people in the know.

due diligence

[2]  George Washington to Robert Hunter Morris, 5 January 1766, from The Writings of George Washington (Washington, DC, US Government Printing Office, 1931-1944, Vol. I, p. 268)