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Allen McLane, Intelligence Officer and Spy

By Tom Welch, historic-site interpreter, Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs

[Editor’s note: Allen McLane (1746-1829) of Duck Creek Crossroads (now Smyrna, Del.) was a hero of the American Revolution, speaker of the state House of Representatives and delegate at Delaware’s Constitution Ratification Convention.]

After a series of overwhelming defeats by British forces, Gen. George Washington realized that he needed much better intelligence in order for the Continental Army to avoid more embarrassing defeats such as the battles of Long Island, Brandywine and others. Intelligence regarding the enemy’s strength, location and movements was a missing component.

Ethel P.B. Leach, portrait of Allen McLane, 1942. From the collections of the state of Delaware.
Ethel P.B. Leach, portrait of Allen McLane, 1942. From the collections of the state of Delaware.

Washington knew that he needed dependable sources of military information regarding personnel, number of artillery, leadership and when possible, advance information about the enemy’s plans. He needed to recruit persons with proven abilities to help gather this information and get that data back to command headquarters as quickly as possible.

After observing Allen McLane’s bravery and outstanding performance on the battlefield, especially at Long Island and Princeton, Washington handpicked McLane and promoted him to captain. After McLane journeyed to his home area of Duck Creek Crossroads where he recruited 98 persons for his new company, Washington designated his unit as a light horse cavalry company. His instructions always included the directive to observe the enemy as closely as possible, to harass them and to report back to the commander as often and quickly as possible. From early 1777 until 1782 this was McLane’s main charge.

James Peale, “The Ambush of Captain Allan McLane,” 1803. From the collections of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.
James Peale, “The Ambush of Captain Allan McLane,” 1803. From the collections of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.

McLane’s responsibilities grew as his performance sparkled. During the British occupation of Philadelphia, he set up a spy network in the city and traveled there in disguise to gather first-hand intelligence.

Here are two other well-documented intelligence-gathering assignments that deserve noting:

Immediately after the British vacated Philadelphia in June 1778, Washington needed intelligence on the enemy’s strength and disposition. Were they going on through New Jersey to New York, or were they going to double back and surprise the American army as they dismantled the Valley Forge camp and headed east into Philadelphia? Washington wanted to attack the British if they headed toward New York. In a war council, only three of 20 generals supported his proposal to attack. Needing pertinent military intelligence, he chose McLane for this major responsibility. McLane donned a disguise as a farmer and loaded with produce, chickens and eggs, he and another officer wandered close to the British encampment at the Haddon Field in New Jersey where they were challenged by sentries but then admitted into the camp. They were taken to meet with a dapper young British officer, Capt. John Andre (two years later caught and hanged in the plot by Benedict Arnold to turn over West Point to the British). We do not know the nature of the intelligence gathered by McLane in that spying episode, but just a few days later, Washington did order the successful attack on the British at Monmouth Courthouse.

A year later, Washington felt that the support of the press, fellow generals, Congress and the general population had faltered, and was convinced that a victory was necessary to revive the morale of the military and civilian population. He asked Gen. “Mad Anthony” Wayne to propose a target. Stony Point Fort, having recently been taken by the British, was selected. Needing intelligence to prepare for a successful attack, McLane was chosen for the task. Disguising himself as a country bumpkin and a member of the local militia, he accompanied a mother into the fort under a flag of truce as she was there to see her two sons working for the British. While there, McLane gathered information on the number of troops, artillery, trenches, etc. From his report, a battle plan was put together that took the fort in a bayonet-only charge in only 25 minutes. The result that Washington was seeking was achieved. Congress, the press and the public all applauded and crowned Wayne a “national hero.” McLane remained in the shadows. Although his achievements have been often overlooked by historians, one place that has duly noted his prowess is the CIA, which refers to his Stoney Point mission in an article on Intelligence Techniques—Disguise.

Tom Welch portraying Allen McLane.
Tom Welch portraying Allen McLane.

Tom Welch has served as a historical interpreter for the Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs since 2007 after a successful 27-year career as an administrator at Wesley College in Dover. His interest in Allen McLane began in 2008 when he was asked to portray the Revolutionary War hero as part of a proposed Delaware Day living-history performance. After discovering how little was popularly known about this worthy Delawarean, he began a personal campaign to learn as much as he could about McLane, and to share his knowledge with visitors to Delaware’s state capital. Since then, Welch has portrayed McLane on numerous occasions at events throughout Delaware and the region.

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