George Washington’s Secret Six

This one came to me as a gift. If I had known it was published before Spies, Patriots, and Traitors, I would have read and reviewed it first.

Review: George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution, Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger, 2013.51jjYdZGXJL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_

This is a popular history – no footnotes but a brief bibliography and index – and it’s tightly focused on the Culper Spy Ring operating in British occupied New York City. It covers much the same territory as Chapter Nine, “American Intelligence Activities Reach Maturity” of Kenneth A. Daigler’s Spies, Patriots, and Traitors. It even relies on the same histories of the Culper Spy Ring as Daigler: John Edwin Bakeless’s Turncoats, Traitors, and Heroes (1998), John A. Nagy’s Invisible Ink: Spycraft in the American Revolution (2010), and Morton Pennypacker’s General Washington’s Spies (1939).

That focus allows a couple of things missing from Daigler’s account: an in-depth profile of the six spies (well, five actually because the identity of No. 355, as she was known to Washington, is not definitively known), a greater sense of what it was like to live in occupied New York, and quotes from the correspondence of the spy ring.

Kilmeade and Yaeger, to make the story more vivid, provide dialogue at certain points based on written documents.

The remarkable thing about most of the members of the spy ring is that they sought – with one exception, no recognition after the war. Indeed, the identity of one, Robert Townsend, was not known until 1929 when some of his papers came in the possession of Pennypacker, and he matched Townsend’s handwriting to the agent Samuel Culper Jr correspondence in an archive of George Washington’s papers. Another remarkable thing about the Culper Spy Ring is that George Washington and the case officer who ran the ring, Benjamin Tallmadge, never knew the identity of most of the ring’s members. Out of justifiable fear and a firm sense of operational security, most of the ring insisted on concealing their identities from those further up in the intelligence chain.

As Daigler shows, the Culper Spy Ring were not Washington’s only assets in the city, but they were the most important and the sole focus of this book.

The story begins with Tallmadge, the man who proposed his friend Nathan Hale for his fatal mission, approaching another acquaintance of his, Abraham Woodhull, to recruit him as a spy. Woodhull was a farmer and smuggler with rebel sympathies. Living in Setauket, Long Island, frequent visits to his sister and her husband in New York City provided a cover for his trips. Sometime in 1778, Tallmadge met, probably in Connecticut, Woodhull, soon to be Samuel Culper in correspondence. Woodhull agreed to spy if his identity was known only to Tallmadge, and he was given the discretion to vet and recruit more agents to assist him – and their identities would not be revealed even to Tallmadge.

Woodhull’s first recruit was Caleb Brewster, an early sympathizer with the rebels and a smuggler as well. He was to serve as a courier of information from Long Island to Connecticut as well as provide his own observations. Samuel Roe, an innkeeper and friend of Brewster and neighbor of Woodhull, was recruited next. Townsend was recruited in 1779 by Woodhull. His motivations were not only anger at the thuggish behavior of British soldiers when quartering in his father’s home but also an early sympathy for the rebels. However, unlike his adventurous and boisterous brothers, Townsend’s physique and personality did not suit a conventional military life. But his position as a store owner near the harbor of New York and a clientele that included many British officers gave him desirable cover and access to information.

Seemingly sometime in 1779, Woodhull recruited No. 355, a female socialite who moved in circles that included many members of the British military. The final recruit, James Rivington, seems to have been recruited by Townsend in 1779. Rivington was a noted Loyalist who ran a coffee house frequented by British officers and was also a newspaper publisher and bookstore owner. Townsend even wrote mildly pro-Crown pieces for the paper.

One of the people Rivington knew, and probably No. 355 as well, was Major André, the British intelligence officer who went on a fatal mission to arrange Benedict Arnold’s defection. The book covers the Arnold-André affair in detail including the many screw ups on both sides. However, the book is a bit lacking on the Culper Spy Ring’s contributions to the detection of the plot other than that André was planning a trip west of the city, information given to Tallmadge.

A major success of the spy ring was foiling a major British attempt to flood the colonies with counterfeit money.

The book has a few asides on the unpleasant life of occupied New York City: crowded and unsanitary and full of plots. There is also a revealing letter from a British officer boasting of he and his comrades’ sexual assaults and predations on the local women.

The book seems to take the conventional position that Washington sincerely intended to attack New York City though Daigler’s history makes clear that was a closely held deception operation.

The book not only talks about the intricacies of the invisible ink used by the ring and their development of a book code but puts us in the heads of the spies. Their justifiable fear, at times, caused them to become inactive.

The book has a nice coda. Tallmadge made sure, when Washington’s forces went into the city after the British evacuation, that the safety of his agents was insured. Washington is said to have made a quite public visit to Rivington’s book store to save him from reprisals though he did not reveal his espionage activities. One report mentions the sound of money changing hands.

Washington did visit Roe’s inn. It is not known if any other members of the ring were there. Washington never said, and Roe was the only member of the ring that publicly talked about his spying. The identity of most of the rest was only discovered in the 20th century.

Actually, the identity of No. 355 was never discovered. The book speculates her espionage was discovered at some point – perhaps causing Townsend to temporarily withdraw from spying out of grief or fear – and that she was imprisoned on the prison hulk HMS Jersey where she and thousands of others died. However, they concede she may have survived the war undetected and was never jailed. Alexander Rose’s General Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring, referenced in the bibliography, identified her as Anna Strong, but this book offers no name for No. 355.

The book also has photos, portraits, and a map. Recommended as an effective, personal, and up close account of the Culper Spy Ring.



More reviews of espionage history are indexed on the espionage page.

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