Most have seen Emanuel Leutze's painting of Washington's crossing of the Delaware. How many know the story about the lead oarsman, taken to be Prince Whipple, a black man from a wealthy family in Africa sent to America for education but who instead was sold into slavery? Actually, Whipple wasn't in the boat that night but did serve valiantly in the war, later being freed and settling in New England with a wife and family.
Of course the story of Nathan Hale is told to all school children and he's generally recognized as the first spy killed in action. His death was perhaps the lowest point of the war as Washington had lost badly in the battle of Brooklyn and was being chased out of the New York area by a superior British force. Washington needed information but many New York residents were siding with the British. As a result, far too many of his ragtag band of patriots were paying the ultimate price.
Those failures led to the development of "Knowlton's Rangers" and the beginnings of spycraft and elite units in the services:
In the string of news images, one in particular is rich in historical significance, a reminder that the American clandestine tradition is more than two centuries old. During early fighting with the Taliban, an official photograph showed American special operations soldiers riding into battle on horseback. The picture revealed the austere military environment in Afghanistan.Most accounts of Nathan Hale suggest he wasn't a very good spy--he was certainly fingered quickly and didn't get the job done--nevertheless it takes a special person to volunteer and he'll always be a hero for it, as were the many others who served our nation in the intelligence shadows.
It also provided a link to the secret side of the Revolutionary War. America's first elite, clandestine unit—Knowlton's Rangers—undertook missions for George Washington. The men photographed in Afghanistan, as well as the Army Rangers, Special Forces, Delta Force, and army intelligence, trace their origins to Knowlton's command.