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This Day in History: The Army “deserter” who got a medal from George Washington

On this day in 1783, George Washington awards the badge of military merit to a man who remains mostly unknown today. Daniel Bissell was one of only a few men to receive the award during the American Revolution.

But official military records had him listed as a deserter! How did he find himself in such a select group of men?

Simple, really. George Washington knew that Bissell wasn’t really a deserter—not even close. Bissell had been a spy!

Like any good spy story, Bissell’s story is hard to tell. Many details are unclear, and we are left to guess at what must have occurred during some of his adventures.

During the summer of 1781, Bissell was serving as a sergeant in the Continental Army. At the time, Washington was still considering an attack on New York. (Ultimately, of course, he headed south and attacked Cornwallis at Yorktown.)  Thus, in August, Bissell was dispatched on a secret mission into New York. He was to gather intelligence about the British, but he was also supposed to spread false information about the Continental Army.

Bissell posed as a deserter so he could get behind enemy lines. The plan was that he would “go to Lloyd’s Neck, thirty miles on Long Island, to cut wood for the Crown.” While there, he could gather information.  His mission was supposed to be complete on “the seventh or ninth night,” when a boat would fetch him from a designated location.

Unfortunately, his mission lasted far longer than that! In the end, he was unable to get out of the city for 13 long months.

Here is where the details get murky. Bissell reached New York and was confronted with press gangs, which could impress him into service for the British Navy.  He avoided the press gangs for a few days,  but finally enrolled in Benedict Arnold’s regiment.  At some point in the days or months that followed, Bissell fell violently ill, and he was taken to a hospital. He later reported that he was “covered with head and body lice; unable to walk” during this period of time.  He was later assigned to “Quarter Master Sergeant’s duty,” where he would have helped with supplies instead of serving active combat duty.

Some versions of Bissell’s story have him babbling when he was feverish, giving away his true purpose to a doctor. (Fortunately, the doctor did not give him away.) Other versions have him burning a stash of documents when the British began searching soldiers’ personal effects.

Bissell finally escaped in September 1782. He returned to the American headquarters and gave a detailed report. By then, of course, events had rendered some of his information less important than it could have been. Yet Washington apparently still found value in something he’d done. His orders of June 8, 1783 recognized “important services, within the immediate knowledge of the Commander in chief” and “ordered that [Bissell] be honored with the badge of merit.”  Bissell was to “call at Head Quarters on [June 10] for the insignia and certificate to which he is hereby entitled.”

Perhaps some of the false information that Bissell carried to New York had mattered? Bissell only reported that, before he’d left the American side in August 1781, he had been instructed on “all the probable questions that would be asked me, in the several examinations, together with their answers.”

We’ll never know Bissell’s whole story. But at least we can know that there is a story of bravery and sacrifice to tell.

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