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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Washington's Spies


Not much has been said about American secret intelligence during the War of Independence. Entre, Alexander Rose. After completing extensive research in newly found documents and sources, he has compiled Washington's Spies. This book is really a groundbreaking look into the secret side of colonial armed forces.

Rose gives a great premise to his book. In the 1800's, there were primarily two kinds of spies. One, military officers would sneak across enemy lines for a day or two, gather as much information as possible, then sneak back over and report. Two, shady characters of questionable allegiances would be permanently implanted inside enemy lines.

Most people are familiar with Nathan Hale as a hero of the Revolutionary War. In reality, he wasn't very smart. An officer in the Continental Army, he volunteered for the detested work of military surveillance. Disguising himself as a Dutch merchant, He was rowed across the Sound to Long Island, the main setting of the book. Here he strolled along, gathering intelligence about troop numbers and movements. Suspicious of this curious merchant, a shady British commander named Robert Rogers tricked him into revealing his mission. Summarily dragged before General Clinton, he was condemned to die, and hanged accordingly. Most remember him along with his supposed famous last words, "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country." This line, taken from a play, was imported to him by friends years after his death who were not at his hanging.

Washington was disappointed that this avenue had failed, but he wished to continue searching for reliable intelligence. Therefore, he appointed Nathaniel Sackett to recruit agents. To second him, Benjamin Tallmadge of the Second Continental Light Dragoons was appointed. Tallmadge was a dashing young officer who had been enlisted for a time, but had not been involved in much combat. He had also been good friends with Nathan Hale before the spy’s death.

Sackett was successful for a time and recruited several temporary agents, but he was not the man who Washington needed long-term. He soon retired, leaving Washington again void of spies. He did have a few connections established, though, such as with a whaleboat man named Caleb Brewster, who would be highly involved later on in carrying letters across the Sound in his boat. General Charles Scott was appointed to handle Brewster, and to come up with other agents. Again, Benjamin Tallmadge was his second.

With Scott more interested in his regular duties, most of the espionage arrangements fell to young Tallmadge, who enjoyed the secret work. He quickly came up with a contact. His name was Abraham Woodhull. Tallmadge assured Washington that his man was reliable, interested in the cause, and best of all, did not want pay, only his expenses covered. Relations between Scott and his second deteriorated, until at last the general resigned.

Woodhull was immediately prepared for work, and was planted in Setauket, from which he made visits every several weeks to New York to gather information, then returned and wrote down what he had found in letters delivered to Brewster who took them across the Sounds. From thence they were taken by courier to Tallmadge, who read them and added commentary. After this, they finally reached Washington. For secrecy, Woodhull needed a code name. From thence forward communication was conducted with Samuel Culper, first member of the Culper Ring.

Secrecy was so important, that Washington procured from a chemist a special ink which, unknown to the public, was invisible and would not be revealed by heat. Only a special counteractive chemical could bring the writing out. Although this worked well, supplies of the ink were small, and hard to replenish. calling for other measures. For this cause, Tallmadge created a code in which he compiled a long list of words and names most essential to the intelligence, and wrote a corresponding number next to them in his notebook. A copy were given to Woodhull, who was incredibly compulsive about protecting his identity. In fact, all of those who would be involved in the Culper Ring were so secretive that until a short time ago, none were aware that they did anything abnormal during the Revolutionary War.

Woodhull secured himself a safe house in New York at the home of Amos Underhill, but what Washington needed was a permanent agent in the occupied city. At last they found him in Robert Townsend, alias Samuel Culper Jr.. He was a hard to understand man, a bachelor who was subject to deep bouts of melancholy, but who got the job done. His job was to secure information in New York, pass it on in letter to form to Austin Roe, a courier who took it to Woodhull and from thence across the Sound as before.

During the years in which the Culper Ring operated, they secured much useful information for Washington, which he was able to use to foil the enemy's plans. The work was so stressful to the agent's nerves, that some times they were forced to retire for a time from espionage, after which they would again join the Ring. There are many fascinating stories covered in the book, which I cannot address here due to limitations, but another subject was the defection of Benedict Arnold and the capture of his contact, Major Andre.

Washington's Spies is intriguing, it is fun and easy to read, it often applies to source documents giving actual quotes from the written letters, and it brings to light a portion of the Revolution which I had never discovered before. I also found helpful Rose's explanation of codes, and how they work. I would recommend this for anyone to read.

~John

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