If you employ spies, it is very likely that your enemy also has spies. One very effective means of concealing the true conditions or plans in a sea of false options and making those false options more likely and more true. Today, we call this “fake news” but “fake news” isn’t something recently developed. It has been a staple of spies and generals for millennia.
One example of example of effective use of disinformation is how George Washington handled the gunpowder shortage in Boston in 1775. One month after George Washington took command of the Continental Army, he asked for an inventory of powder, and the report came back with “303½ Bbbl’s of Powder.” This was a disastrously low supply and if the British discovered how little ammunition the Continental Army had, they could have easily marched out of Boston and ended the Revolution before it even really began. To combat this, Washington dispatched a series of letters which he knew would be intercepted by British spies reporting “I am told so that I rely on it, that our Army now have Fifty Tons of Powder.” Before the British were able to discover this deception, new supplies of gunpowder arrived in camp from colonies to the south, ending the immediate crisis.
In December of 1776, Washington needed a spy to cross the Delaware to gain information about Col. Johann Rall’s German troops in Trenton. No one would risk hanging for Continental Congress money so Robert Morris, the financier of the Revolution, obtained 410 Spanish dollars, 2 English crowns, 10 shillings, and 2 sixpence from Philadelphia to pay a former British soldier, John Honeyman, to spy on Rall’s troops. Honeyman gained the confidence of Rall and found out detailed information on the routine of the Trenton soldiers, the location of picket guards, and other information necessary to a successful assault. On December 22, 1776, Honeyman deliberately got himself captured by an American patrol which took him to Washington’s headquarters. After obtaining the information about Rall’s encampment, Honeyman was thrown into the guardhouse from which he escaped with the help of a key provided by Washington. He supposedly ran away through a hail of bullets, designed to miss, and went back to Trenton on December 24 where he conveyed his misinformation to Rall who delighted to learn that the American Army was sorely in lack of sufficient men, material and arms to wage and effective assault on Trenton. Subsequently, Rall was killed and his troops routed in the successful American attack made possible by misinformation.
In order to keep Henry Clinton’s troops in New York instead of helping Cornwallis in Yorktown, Washington spread rumors that the French Expeditionary (Expédition Particulière), lead by Rochambeau was remaining Newort, Rhode Island. To keep the French from becoming entrenched within easy striking distance of his headquarters in New York, Clinton mustered six thousand troops and sailed to Huntington Bay off the north side of Long Island. Washington quickly generated a “top secret” detailed plan stating that the Continental Army would attack New York with every available soldier in the middle states. An American double agent in New York let the plan fall into British hands claiming it was captured from a courier. When Clinton heard about the plan, not knowing it was a fake, he immediately returned to New York and stayed there awaiting the American assault that never came.
When Washington’s army marched south through New Jersey to join the French at Yorktown, Benedict Arnold wanted to attack the long column with six thousand British troops. However, British spies were led to believe the Americans were building large cooking ovens at several locations around New York providing evidence of an anticipated attack on New York. Clinton decided to keep every available man in New York. By the time he realized Washington’s plan to join the French for an attack on Charles Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, it was too late to send reinforcements.