Skip to main content

Where Was Bissell?

June 2024
1min read

While I found Thomas Fleming’s piece “George Washington, Spymaster” (February 2000), both informative and entertaining, I was surprised that he neglected to mention Sgt. Daniel Bissell of Connecticut, the only Revolutionary War spy to be personally decorated by General Washington.

In 1781, as part of his preliminary planning for an attack on British-held New York City, Washington ordered Bissell to enter the city in the guise of a defector, reconnoiter the redcoats’ positions, and return with his intelligence. However, soon after entering New York, Bissell fell ill and was unable to get back to the American lines until after Washington abandoned his plans for an attack and marched off for his meeting with Cornwallis in Virginia.

Two years later, Washington introduced the Badge of Military Merit, the first decoration awarded exclusively to enlisted men (and which was dusted off in 1933 and renamed the Purple Heart). Only three men, all sergeants from Connecticut, received it, with Bissell the only one to get his award at the direct order of Washington.

While the true nature and value of Bissell’s contribution as a spy are still unclear, we do know that the citation he received with his award (a purple cloth heart) stated that, “he had the confidence of Washington from whom he received the Badge of Merit.” Bissell is buried in Alien’s Hill, New York, and his headstone quotes from this citation.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.