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January 30, 2009

Washington’s Spies

The Story of America’s First Spy Ring
Alexander Rose – ISBN – 978055383294

Rose begins with the much fabled tale of Nathan Hale, then quickly moves on to the serious endeavor of spying. Hale was bright, well educated and patriotic, but a dismal agent executed as a result of his being captured whilst botching his first mission.

Not until after Trenton and Princeton did Washington have time to address the comprehensive acquisition of intelligence. Nathaniel Sackett, along with his friend Benjamin Tallmadge (who was also a good friend and college mate of Nathan Hale), were amongst the first agents. Sackett developed a number of “advanced techniques”, but disappeared from history not long thereafter. Tallmadge became a founding and important member of America’s first spy ring: the Culper. The name Culper was manufactured—a CABAL of sorts—to protect the members. All were from Setauket, NY (on Long Island, near the north coast opposite Stamford, CT.) “Culpers” dealt only within the group, and trusted no one else, which likely explains their effectiveness.

Abraham Woodhull became what one might call their first field agent. He infiltrated New York under cover of his personal business as a trader and merchant (read smuggler), and reported to Lt. Caleb Brewster, who protected his identity.

Rose discusses battles, relevant intelligence and in the early chapters of the book the economic hardships of New York City. Because of the occupation by the British rents rose 400% and foodstuffs by 800%. Of no benefit to supporters, the U.S. congress authorized the printing of script, which was of comparable worth to Confederate dollars 90 years later.

As well he discusses the 500 privateers authorized by the congress, and their estimated 1000 British counterparts. The amount of booty captured was enormous. E.g.: in the 30 month period from ’76-’79 the value of the 165 “prizes" brought in was worth some 600,000 British Pounds. He does not give a present day value to this figure, but it has to be hundreds of millions of dollars.

Amongst other factoids, he discusses varieties of cryptography, including “inks” developed. The most ingenious was introduced by a brother of John Jay (a man loyal to George III), which Jay called “sympathetic ink;” a product ultimately used by both sides. He wasn’t that loyal to George!

The plans conceived by the Culpers, Washington and others were quite remarkable. Rose allows that even Rev. Weems (the great fabricator of Washington legends) “could not imagine” their cleverness . . . “rather like the characters of a le Carre novel.” Such was the real life side of Washington’s spy networks.

One event he discusses in considerable detail is the Benedict Arnold/John Andre episode. Revealed by accident, it nearly bagged Arnold, as most will recall. He also emphasizes that the men who stumbled into the discovery were little more than brigands themselves, searching for something of value. They capitalized upon it for years . . . not really heroes, but riff-raff. They were brazen enough to apply for government pensions long after the revolution, but were exposed by Tallmadge.

Of great interest is that none of the Culpers ever revealed what they had done, which made research for this work more than a little difficult--and it was clearly exhaustive. For me, at least, it is also exhausting to read. While it is informative, a careful read would seem to be most compatible with the interests of such men as play with Civil War dioramas of battles, down to the placement of men and cannons, the number of shots fired and casualties therefrom.

Still, it is a worthwhile read, even if you skim thru the laborious parts.

Posted by respeto at January 30, 2009 4:00 PM