Army sergeant fakes desertion, becomes spy, earns coveted medal
Aug. 13, 1781
“The General, ever desirous to cherish a virtuous ambition in his soldiers, as well as to foster and encourage every species of Military merit, directs that whenever any singularly meritorious action is performed, the author of it shall be permitted to wear on his facings, over his left breast, the figure of a heart in purple cloth, edged with a narrow lace or binding. Not only instances of unusual gallantry, but also of extraordinary fidelity and essential service in any way shall meet with due reward …”
So wrote George Washington on Aug. 7, 1782, when he established the Badge of Military Merit by general order.
The commander-in-chief of the Continental Army understood better than anyone the importance of military intelligence. He exhausted every possible avenue of obtaining information about the enemy, analyzing all of it personally. Often, he relied on spies to get behind enemy lines and report on the enemy’s strength, position and weaknesses. It was a job which was not respected, was extremely dangerous, and for which the certain consequence of capture was death by hanging.
It was on one of these spies that General Washington bestowed the coveted honor. But in August of 1782, Sgt. Daniel Bissell was surely feared dead.
Born in 1754 in East Windsor, Connecticut, Bissell enlisted as a fifer with the 8th Connecticut Regiment of the Continental Army on July 7, 1775. Two years later, he reenlisted as a corporal in the 5th Connecticut Regiment. In September 1777, he was promoted to sergeant and transferred to the 2nd Connecticut Regiment. By 1781, at 29, he was already a seasoned combat veteran and known for his personal courage, self-reliance, prudence, and strict integrity.
1781 was a critical year for the American forces. They had been at war for six years, and morale and resources were at an all-time low. The British forces were divided between New York and Virginia. Washington had convinced the French to join him in a combined land and sea assault against the British. But he had to know if General Henry Clinton had any plans to evacuate New York City and move his forces south. He needed a man inside.
The man he chose was Sgt. Bissell, and Washington gave him explicit instructions. Since deserters had up to that point been offered protection in order to entice others to leave their formations, Bissell was told to pose as a deserter and convince the British he was a loyalist who had been forced to fight with the patriots.
Only a few senior officers from Bissell’s own regiment knew of the plan, meaning his fellow troops considered him a traitor. All the while, Bissell was expected to learn all he could about Clinton’s plans, spread rumors to mislead and delay troop movements, and bring back details of the number and disposition of troops in the city. He had 11 days until his extraction.
Nothing went according to plan. Upon arriving in the city, Bissell learned that General Benedict Arnold was raising a new corps, recruiting heavily. No protection was to be afforded to deserters — only forced conscription against his fellow Americans. He managed to avoid the press gangs for three days, but became stricken with fever.
In order to receive medical treatment, he was forced to join Arnold’s regiment after all. He transferred to a hospital which was nothing more than a barn where he spent the winter — cold, hungry, and filthy. Bissell couldn’t walk, had to share his only blanket with another patient, and, unable to even change his clothes, became infested with head and body lice. He nearly blew his own cover when he talked deliriously about his mission to his attending physician.
When the doctor mentioned the incident, Bissell knew he had to find a way out. In all, Bissell spent 13 months behind enemy lines looking for his chance to escape.
Bissell had made a friend who also wanted to escape. In September 1782, the two men made their move, pretending to go on a pig hunt. They swam across one river, commandeered a boat to cross another, and were pursued by British light horse and bloodhounds. They spent hours hiding in a swamp and spent the night in a tree, but on Sept. 29, 1781, they finally reached Washington’s camp.
One can only imagine the delight the commander-in-chief had in seeing his long-lost spy again. Bissell spent the next several days recounting from memory everything he could from his time behind enemy lines, an account for which Washington himself personally vouched and which is maintained today in the Library of Congress.
The following year, once the end was in sight and there was no chance of reprisals, Bissell was presented with his reward. On June 10, 1783, he was presented the Badge of Military Merit for conspicuous gallantry and sustained outstanding conduct related to his espionage mission.
His citation read in part that he had “… performed some important service within the immediate knowledge of the commander-in-chief, in which fidelity, perseverance, and good sense of the said Sergeant Bissell were conspicuously manifested. …”
Washington’s presentation of the badge to Bissell represented the first formal recognition of the role Military Intelligence soldiers have played in combat operations. The Badge of Military Merit fell out of disuse for a number of years but was resurrected as the Purple Heart in 1932.
Bissell died in August 1824. He was inducted in the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame in 1988. Both the Bissell Room at Fort Meade, Maryland, and Bissell Street at Fort Huachuca, Arizona are named in his honor.