History Podcasts

Philadelphia nurse overhears British plans to attack Washington’s army

Philadelphia nurse overhears British plans to attack Washington’s army

Legend has it that on the night of December 2, 1777, Philadelphia housewife and nurse Lydia Darragh single-handedly saves the lives of General George Washington and his Continental Army when she overhears the British planning a surprise attack on Washington’s army for the following day.

During the occupation of Philadelphia, British General William Howe stationed his headquarters across the street from the Darragh home, and when Howe’s headquarters proved too small to hold meetings, he commandeered a large upstairs room in the Darraghs’ house. Although uncorroborated, family legend holds that Mrs. Darragh would eavesdrop and take notes on the British meetings from an adjoining room and would conceal the notes by sewing them into her coat before passing them onto American troops stationed outside the city.

On the evening of December 2, 1777, Darragh overheard the British commanders planning a surprise attack on Washington’s army at Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania, for December 4 and 5. Using a cover story that she needed to buy flour from a nearby mill just outside the British line, Darragh passed the information to American Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Craig the following day.

The British marched towards Whitemarsh on the evening of December 4, 1777, and were surprised to find General Washington and the Continental Army waiting for them. After three inconclusive days of skirmishing, General Howe chose to return his troops to Philadelphia.

It is said that members of the Central Intelligence Agency still tell the story of Lydia Darragh, one of the first spies in American history.

READ MORE: How George Washington Used Spies to Win the American Revolution

Valley Forge

Valley Forge functioned as the third of eight winter encampments for the Continental Army's main body, commanded by General George Washington, during the American Revolutionary War. In September 1777, Congress fled Philadelphia to escape the British capture of the city. After failing to retake Philadelphia, Washington led his 12,000-man army into winter quarters at Valley Forge, located approximately 18 miles (29 km) northwest of Philadelphia. [1] [2] They remained there for six months, from December 19, 1777 to June 19, 1778. [3] At Valley Forge, the Continentals struggled to manage a disastrous supply crisis while retraining and reorganizing their units. About 1,700 to 2,000 soldiers died from disease, possibly exacerbated by malnutrition.

Today, Valley Forge National Historical Park protects and preserves over 3,500 acres of the original encampment site. [4]

Revolutionary War: The Turning Point, 1776-1777

In 1777, the British were still in excellent position to quell the rebellion. Had it not been for a variety of mistakes, they probably could have won the war.

During early 1777, British officials considered a number of plans for their upcoming campaign. One they apparently decided upon was to campaign through the Hudson River Valley and thereby cut off New England from the rest of the colonies. General William Howe was to drive north from New York City while General John Burgoyne was to drive south from Canada. Meanwhile, British General Barry St. Leger would drive down the Mohawk Valley in upstate New York. The major problem was not with the plan but with its execution. Historians continue to debate whether Howe was ill-informed or simply acted on his own. Whatever the reasons, Howe decided to capture Philadelphia, the seat of the Continental Congress, rather than to work in concert with Burgoyne and St. Leger.

Howe hoped that by seizing Philadelphia, he would rally the Loyalists in Pennsylvania, discourage the rebels by capturing their capital, and bring the war to a speedy conclusion. Washington tried to thwart Howe's plan, but Howe out-maneuvered him at Brandywine Creek and then at Germantown. While Howe's forces settled into winter quarters in Philadelphia, the Continental Army went into winter quarters at Valley Forge. There, the army faced deprivation in the extreme.

Meanwhile to the north, Burgoyne and St. Leger suffered significant defeats at Oriskany, New York Bennington, Vermont and finally at Saratoga, New York. These American victories were critical for they helped convince France to recognize American independence and brought the French directly into the war as military allies. The French Treaty was also a result of a new British peace proposal, announced by Lord North in late 1777. The French were concerned that the Americans would agree to North's proposal since it offered them virtual autonomy within the British Empire. The French Alliance changed the face of the war for the British the American war for independence was now in essence a world war. Even so, as many of the documents listed to the right suggest, winning the war even after the French Treaty was still not a certainty.

Spies, Dead Drops, and Invisible Ink: An Interview with John Nagy

Interest in the subject of spying and espionage operations during the American Revolution continues to grow in popularity. John A. Nagy, one of America’s leading scholars on the subject sat down with us to share his observations on the important role that espionage played during the war.

Spying seems like such a James Bond/Cold War topic. Did the Revolutionary War involve much espionage?

John A. Nagy: The earliest written record I found of spying dates back to the 6th century BC. So James Bond and the cold war is just the latest and therefore the most well known. After studying espionage in the American Revolution for the last twenty-two years, I have discovered that both the American and British relied heavily on espionage. In the eighteenth century each general was responsible for developing his own intelligence network. Obviously some were better than others. So far I have published 160 spies and have more than double that currently left in my database to be published.

Who were some of the more famous or effective spies of the Revolutionary War?

The most well-known spy is Nathan Hale who was hanged by the British. The best spy of the Revolutionary War depends on the criteria. The spy with best exploits would be James Moody, a New Jersey born British spy, was able to steal Washington&rsquos mail almost at will. He almost stole the secret documents of the Continental Congress. He liberated a British officer from the Sussex County New Jersey jail. He operated as a spy for four years in New Jersey with a bounty offered for his capture. The one time he was captured he escaped.

The spy with the most nerve has to be Lieutenant Lewis J. Costigan of the 1st New Jersey Regiment. He was captured in January 1777. He was placed on parole in New York City which allowed him to walk around the city in his Continental army uniform. A parole was a promise from a prisoner of war that if he was released from jail that he would not take up arms or carry out any military acts until he was exchanged. He was exchanged on September 17, 1778 and no longer bound by his parole. At the request of Major General Lord Stirling and Colonel Matthias Ogden, Costigan did not leave New York City as he should have. He continued his usual travels around New York City in plain sight in his American military uniform collecting information and sending his correspondence through Colonel Ogden and Lord Stirling to George Washington using a code name. If his espionage activities would be discovered, he could not be treated as a spy since he was in uniform. He would have been a prisoner of war. He remained in New York City gathering intelligence for four months until January 17, 1779.

One of the most well known is Robert Townsend, known as Samuel Culper Jr., of the Culper Ring. He operated in New York City. There are other American spies living in New York City at the same time as Townsend but have not gained his level of notoriety.

We hear a good deal about the Culper Spy Ring. Were there other spy networks in operation during the war?

The first spy ring was the Mercereaus which began operating in 1776 when the British military first landed in New York. It operated between Staten Island, New York and New Jersey. Some of the participants of the Mercereau spy ring continued operating to at least October 1780 but with Elias Dayton as the case officer. The British ran the Molesworth spy ring in Philadelphia in the spring of 1777 to entice ship captains who knew the underwater defenses in the Delaware River to help them bring British warships to Philadelphia. Washington had a stay behind intelligence network established when Philadelphia fell to the British. It was the Clark spy ring which operated in the fall of 1777. Because of the success of the Clark spy ring, Washington in 1778 directed that a similar operation be established in New York and it resulted in the third American spy ring, the Culpers.

How would you evaluate George Washington as a spymaster?

Washington was an excellent spymaster. Spies were always paid in hard currency that is gold and silver. The British had more spies in operation during the war because they could pay more. They obtained more information. Obtaining hard currency was always a problem for Washington. He was always at a disadvantage in the volume of information collected because of the lack of hard currency. He worked diligently to make sure that he was not deceived. He always compared the intelligence gathered by one spy with that provided by other spies and information obtained from British deserters and locals. He was better in the military application of intelligence than the British.

Washington learned his spycraft during his service in the French and Indian War. He recruited and managed spies. He provided French spies with misinformation. He served under British Major General Edward Braddock who used a cipher and Washington may have used it. Braddock&rsquos cipher is published in my book Invisible Ink Spycraft of the American Revolution.

Did Washington&rsquos spies ever uncover anything of great value?

Washington&rsquos spies (the Clark spy ring and the Darraghs) in Philadelphia provided intelligence that the British army was coming out in force (10,000 men) to attack the Continental Army at White Marsh. Washington prepared for the attack and after three days of skirmishes and not being able to engage Washington in a major battle, the British returned to Philadelphia. The Culpers warned Washington of the British plan to attack the French as they landed in Rhode Island. Spies by reporting the type of supplies being loaded on British transports were able to indicate the length and probable destination of the troops.

As you detail in your book, both sides used invisible ink. How sophisticated was the secret ink? Was it all just lime juice?

Lime juice as well as milk, vinegar, lemon juice, and anything acidic will weaken the fibers of the paper. When heat is applied to the document, the weakened fibers turn brown faster than the fibers that are not weakened and the message is visible. They also used sympathetic inks. You would write with one chemical and the writing would disappear. By applying a second chemical to the first would cause a chemical reaction and the writing would be made visible again. There were several sympathetic ink formulas available at the time of the American Revolution. George Washington believed that he and Royal Governor William Tryon used the same formula of sympathetic ink. Washington in 1780 had a log building constructed at Fishkill, New York to manufacture the &ldquomedicine&rdquo as they called sympathetic inks.

Tell us more about some of the more prominent secret codes used during the war.

One of the methods used in the Benedict Arnold conspiracy was a one letter shift. Where the letter A is represented by Z, B by A, and C by B. Construct a chart then decode &ldquoHAL&rdquo which was the name of computer in the movie &ldquo2001 a space odyssey.&rdquo Answer at Bottom

The most universally used cipher is the pigpen or as we would call it a tic-tac-toe cipher. It was used by the American, British, French, and there is even a Hessian diary that used it. You make up a tic-tac-toe table and place three letters in each box. Say the upper right is GHI then L would represent G, L` would be H, and L`` would be I. They liked to use dictionaries because at the time they had two columns to a page and they were readily available. A dictionary code written as &ldquo9 4&rdquo would represent the 9th page, first column, and the 4th word down. To represent the second column place a dot above the second number.

How do these secret codes hold up to today&rsquos practices in the intelligence world?

The modern intelligence world still uses most of the intelligence methods from the American Revolution but with more sophistication in its encryption. During the American Revolution they used dead drops where a message is left at a location and the intended agent comes and picks it up. Robert Hanson, the FBI agent who was spying for the Russians, left his messages under a wooden bridge in Vienna, Virginia. When he was caught in 2001, he reportedly used the dead drop twenty times. In the 1950&rsquos a Russian spy in New York City used a hollowed out coin to hide messages. Modern British spies were alleged to have used an electronic rock as a receiver and transmitter of messages. Codes and ciphers are still being used today. We use them more then we realize. Your computer can encrypt your messages and banking transactions on line for you.

About the Author

John A. Nagy was an award-winning author and a scholar in residence at Saint Francis University. He served as a consultant to Colonial Williamsburg and the University of Michigan on espionage. He was a founder and past President of the American Revolution Round Table of Philadelphia. He appeared on radio and television such as the History Channel, C-SPAN, and local educational TV. He was the subject of two one-hour interviews on the Pennsylvania Cable Television Network. Podcasts of his talks are available at Youtube, Itunes, C-SPAN, Scientific American Magazine, and New York Military Affairs website.

Mount Vernon hosted an Evening Book Talk by Nagy in the Rubenstein Leadership Hall at the Fred W. Smith National Library.

The Shops

Spies and Spycraft

Check out our extensive collection of books and products related to America's espionage efforts during the Revolutionary War.

World War II Photos

This is a representative sampling of photographs from World War II that can be found in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration. For more information on materials from World War II visit our World War II Records page.

Many images and other records can be located online in our National Archives Catalog.

For additional select images of WWII, see:

Hitler accepts the ovation of the Reichstag after announcing the `peaceful acquisition of Austria. It set the stage to annex the Czechoslovakian Sudetenland, largely inhabited by a German- speaking population. Berlin, March 1938. 208-N-39843.

Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in Munich, Germany, ca. June 1940. 242-EB-7-38.

A Frenchman weeps as German soldiers march into the French capital, Paris, on June 14, 1940, after the Allied armies had been driven back across France. 208-PP-10A-3.

USS SHAW exploding during the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor. December 7, 1941. 80-G-16871.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signing the Declaration of War against Japan, December 8, 1941. 79-AR-82.

We Can Do It. Color poster by J. Howard Miller. 179-WP- 1563.*

Stars over Berlin and Tokyo will soon replace these factory lights reflected in the noses of planes at Douglas Aircraft s Long Beach, Calif., plant. Women workers groom lines of transparent noses for deadly A-20 attack bombers. Alfred Palmer, October 1942. 208-AA-352QQ-5.

Officer at periscope in control room of submarine. Ca. 1942. 80-G-11258.

Howard A. Wooten. Graduated December 1944 from Air Corps School, Tuskegee, AL. Ca. December 1944. 18-T-44-K-17.

Back to a Coast Guard assault transport comes this Marine after two days and nights of Hell on the beach of Eniwetok in the Marshall Islands. His face is grimey with coral dust but the light of battle stays in his eyes. February 1944. 26-G-3394.

Landing on the coast of France under heavy Nazi machine gun fire are these American soldiers, shown just as they left the ramp of a Coast Guard landing boat. CPhoM. Robert F. Sargent, June 6, 1944. 26-G-2343.

Nurses of a field hospital who arrived in France via England and Egypt after three years service. Parker, August 12, 1944. 112-SGA-44-10842.

Cpl. Carlton Chapman. is a machine-gunner in an M-4 tank, attached to a Motor Transport unit near Nancy, France. 761st Mt. Bn. November 5, 1944. Ryan. 111-SC-196106-S.

Flag raising on Iwo Jima. Joe Rosenthal, Associated Press, February 23, 1945. 80-G-413988.

Standing in the grassy sod bordering row upon row of white crosses in an American cemetery, two dungaree-clad Coast Guardsmen pay silent homage to the memory of a fellow Coast Guardsman who lost his life in action in the Ryukyu Islands. Benrud, ca. 1945. 26-G-4739.

Pfc Angelo B. Reina, 391st Inf. Regt., guards a lonely Oahu beach position. Kahuku, Oahu. Rosenberg, Hawaii, March 1945. 111-SC-221867.

Col. Paul W. Tibbets, Jr., pilot of the ENOLA GAY, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, waves from his cockpit before the takeoff, 6 August 1945. 208-LU-13H-5.

New York City celebrating the surrender of Japan. They threw anything and kissed anybody in Times Square. Lt. Victor Jorgensen, August 14, 1945. 80-G-377094.

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Drilling with von Steuben:

On February 23, 1778, Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben arrived in the camp. A former member of the Prussian General Staff, von Steuben had been recruited to the American cause in Paris by Benjamin Franklin. Accepted by Washington, von Steuben was put to work designing a training program for the army. He was aided in this task by Major General Nathanael Greene and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton.

Though he spoke no English, von Steuben commenced his program in March with the aid of interpreters. Beginning with a "model company" of 100 chosen men, von Steuben instructed them in drill, maneuver, and a simplified manual of arms. These 100 men were in turn sent out to other units to repeat the process and so on until the entire army was trained. In addition, von Steuben introduced a system of progressive training for recruits which educated them in the basics of soldiering.

Surveying the encampment, von Steuben greatly improved sanitation by reorganizing the camp. This included the repositioning kitchens and latrines ensure they were on the opposites ends of the camp and the latter on the downhill side. His efforts so impressed Washington that Congress appointed inspector general for the army on May 5. The results of von Steuben's training were immediately evident at Barren Hill (May 20) and the Battle of Monmouth (June 28). In both cases, the Continental soldiers stood up to and fought on equal footing with the British professionals.


Influenza sailed with American troops across the Atlantic and when it exploded in late August and September in Europe and the United States, medical officers found themselves on the front lines of an epidemic worse than any of them had ever seen or imagined. Many were among the most knowledgeable and skilled physicians in the country and had just recently entered military service. They did their best to save those stricken by influenza, but could do little more than provide palliative care of warmth, rest, and a gentle diet, and hope that their patients did not develop pneumonia.

One of the tragedies of the influenza epidemic is that by the 1910s, the medical profession held many of the scientific and epidemiological tools to understand the nature and extent of the damage influenza and pneumonia were wreaking on their patients, but lacked the tools to effectively fight them. While virology would not emerge until the 1930s, physicians could identify many of the bacteria causing the deadly pneumonias that were killing their patients, but without antibiotics they could do little to fight the infections. Thus, as the epidemic struck their camps, hospitals, ships, ports, or divisions, many medical officers documented what they saw, as if trying to define that which they could not control. They ran tests and did autopsies, recorded their laboratory and clinical findings, compared morbidity and mortality rates across time and with other units, and tried to stay healthy themselves. They wrote detailed reports to their superiors and published myriad articles on the influenza of 1918�. These studies and reports would provide some of the most extensive documentation on the pandemic, informing civilian and military researchers alike as they struggled for years after the war to understand what had caused the epidemic and its widespread suffering. 2 , 4 , 5 , 7

As they conducted their analyses, military medical officers soon understood that the wave of influenza that had run through many U.S. training camps during the spring of 1918 constituted a first wave of the pandemic. Fourteen of the largest training camps had reported influenza outbreaks in March, April, or May, and some of the infected troops carried the virus with them aboard ships to France. 12 In the late spring and summer, influenza visited all of the armies of Europe, including the AEF, but because influenza was common in the military, and few patients became critically ill, medical officers were not alarmed. But by the late summer some saw the emergence of a new, lethal influenza.

Captain Alan M. Chesney, medical officer with an AEF hospital at Valdahon, an artillery training camp behind the front lines in France, documented the evolution of a more virulent influenza from his vantage point. A physician who was later dean of the Johns Hopkins Medical School, Chesney noted that three different infantry brigades of 4,000 men occupied the post in succession, “thus every three or four weeks there occurred a marked change in the population of the post.” He theorized that “the history of the epidemic, therefore, resolved itself into distinct periods corresponding to the various brigades which entered the post,” and “the frequent changes in the population of the post, brought about by the short stay of each brigade, exercised considerable influence upon the course of the epidemic of influenza.”

During Chesney's first documented period, the month of June to July 27, the 5th Artillery Brigade had 77 “relatively mild” cases of influenza. During the second phase, July 27 to August 23, 200 men of the 58th Artillery Brigade became ill, about 6.5%. None of them died, but the outbreak was serious enough that the next brigade cleaned out the barracks, even washing the walls, before they moved in. Despite this precaution, during Chesney's third phase, August 23 to November 8, more than one-third of the 6th Artillery Brigade, 1,636 soldiers, contracted influenza and 151 died. Chesney concluded that “…these successive outbreaks tended to be progressively more severe both in character and extent, which would speak for an increasing virulence of the causative agent.” 13

Medical officers such as Chesney wanted clean barracks and also worried about crowding. Surgeon General Gorgas had recommended that Army housing provide 60 square feet per man, but did not often prevail. As Gorgas told one training camp commander, “We know perfectly well that we can control pneumonia absolutely if we could avoid crowding the men, but it is not practicable in military life to avoid this crowding.” 14 The Medical Department even asserted that “there is to be expected a definite relation between the degree of crowding and the amount of respiratory infection.” 2 (p. 111) But if it was difficult to control crowding in the training camps, it was impossible in the battlefields. Evolutionary biologist Paul Ewald has argued that trench warfare and its crowded conditions enabled an especially aggressive and deadly influenza virus to gain footing in humans. 15 As soldiers in the trenches became sick, the military evacuated them from the front lines and replaced them with healthy men. This process continuously brought the virus into contact with new hosts—young, healthy soldiers in which it could adapt, reproduce, and become extremely virulent without danger of burning out. From there, according to a Navy report, “It is reasonable to suppose that late in August influenza of severe type was spread from French, Spanish, and Portuguese seaports to the Orient, South Africa, the United States, and South America.” 5 (p. 2427) As Chesney and Ewald suggest, the influenza of 1918 was a product of trench warfare, and the influenza that attacked the 6th Artillery at Valdahon would travel the highways of war, circling the globe.

Philadelphia nurse overhears British plans to attack Washington’s army - HISTORY

A Massively Collaborative Open U.S. History Textbook

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Yawp yôp n: 1: a raucous noise 2: rough vigorous language
"I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world." Walt Whitman, 1855.


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