Nicholas Dietrich, Baron de Ottendorf Letter and Deposition of Miss Jenny, August 15, 1781. Henry Clinton Papers.
Baron Ottendorf was a German mercenary who began fighting in the Revolutionary War on the side of the Americans. After Washington relieved him of duty in 1777, Ottendorf joined up with the British army under the leadership of Sir Henry Clinton. In this letter, Ottendorf took the deposition of a woman spy who has infiltrated the French armies fighting on the American side. Nothing is known of Miss Jenny’s personal life or professional career in intelligence gathering, but her spying expedition played an important role in the British troop’s movements in the late summer of 1781. Earlier in the spring, Sir Henry Clinton learned from his spy network that American troops, under the leadership of General Washington, were planning to meet up with Rochambeau’s French troops, cross the Hudson River and attack the British in New York City. Clinton and his men nervously watched the American and French armies’ movements hoping to learn of Washington and Rochambeau’s strategies. In August of 1781, French and American troops crossed the Hudson River and settled near Tappan where New York militiamen were mobilizing.
According to this letter, Miss Jenny moved boldly through the French and American troops, meeting their first guard near Kingsbridge. The guard took Miss Jenny back to the French camp where he tried to force his amorous attentions on the female spy. Miss Jenny managed to escape his clutches and continued to claim that she and her seamstress mother were looking for her father who had gone to France from Canada six years ago. However, French officers were naturally suspicious and did not believe Miss Jenny’s story. She was suspected of being a spy and brought before Rochambeau and other French officers. After questioning Miss Jenny to no avail, Rochambeau sent Miss Jenny to General Washington (about two miles west) where she was held for two days. Miss Jenny stuck to her story during the two days of intense questioning and was finally returned to the French camp. The French officers cut her hair in punishment and led her from the camp with orders never to return. In the eighteenth century, it was rare to punish a woman by hanging or imprisonment for spying partially because women were often regarded as more a nuisance than a real threat since they were not believed intelligent enough to understand military strategies.
However, since women of the time rarely cut their hair short unless they were ill or disgraced, the French publicly humiliated Miss Jenny.
Despite her ordeal, Miss Jenny successfully returned to the British camp and reported all she had learned to Baron Ottendorf. She reported that the American troops were ready to advance and that General Washington was reportedly planning on attacking New York City in two places. Based on Miss Jenny’s and other spies’ reports, Clinton decided to keep his troops in New York. However, just days after Miss Jenny left the French camp, Rochambeau received a letter from the Admiral of the French navy, Comte de Grasse, announcing that he was bringing twenty-nine ships and three new French regiments to Chesapeake Bay. The American and French armies decided instead to use the French ships to transport their men from Chesapeake Bay to attack General Cornwallis’ troops in Yorktown. The surrender of Lord Cornwallis in Yorktown, while Sir Henry Clinton and his army remained in New York, led to Sir Henry Clinton’s disgrace and the eventual end of the Revolution.