The Revolutionary War is taught in the United States from an early age to invoke pride and patriotism in ourselves. General Washington lead the untrained colonists to victory even though they were outnumbered. With just shear will power they were able to defeat the British armies and navies and become an independent nation. However, George Washington knew that just will power could not win a war. He even knew that he was not a great general after a decisive defeat when the British took New York early in the war. He knew that intelligence would be key in this war and he employed a tactic that was considered lowly at the time for a gentleman. That tactic was spying.
Naturally both sides used spying and intelligence gathering. The act of spying however was left for a lower class and was usually unreliable due to double agents who would sell information to whichever side would pay the most or just sell it to both sides. Another challenge at the time was that only one third of the colonists believed in becoming independent. Another one third were loyal to the king and, true to most Americans today, the other one third just didn’t care. George Washington needed loyal individuals willing to risk their lives and be clandestine enough to never get caught. Perhaps the most successful of the teams was called The Culper Spy Ring.
George Washington approached Major Benjamin Tallmadge about creating a spy ring to gather intelligence from New York City. From there Tallmadge got to work and recruited his life-long friend Abraham Woodhull. Woodhull had regular business in New York and a sister giving him a reason to enter and leave New York for a decent reason. He was terrified and anxious every time and eventually came under suspicion. After that Robert Townsend was recruited to aide Woodhull and act as lead. Others included Caleb Brewster, Austin Roe, Anna Strong, Hercules Mulligan, and a woman only known as Agent 355.
How the ring passed information sounds like something you would see in a modern spy movie. One of the spies would gather information by eavesdropping on British soldiers not being cautious enough with their information. They would then write a message in codes, ciphers and invisible ink and pass it along using a series of drops. Woodhull would drop his letter under a rock at the corner of his farm property despite British soldiers taking quarters in his home. Brewster would then sail the message across the Long Island Sound to one of six caves in the cliff side. Anna Strong would hang coded massages on her clothesline that would indicate whether a drop was ready by a black petticoat and which cave it was in by the number of handkerchiefs. Tallmadge’s dragoons would intercept the information from the cave and eventually work their way to General Washington.
Their techniques were so good that the spy ring wasn’t fully discovered until 1930. They had many successes including uncovering a double agent, the infamous Benedict Arnold. Perhaps their most successful intelligence was informing General Washington about a possible attack at Newport. The colonist diplomats were able to convince the French to send a navy and soldiers to aide in the Revolution. It was critical that the French be able to land safely and have a few months to recoup from their long journey. It was discovered that the French had landed and the British sent their ships to meet them at Newport. Once Washington was aware of this, he was able to trick the British into believing he was attacking New York which caused the British to pull back. This gave the French a chance to organize with the colonists and eventually take back New York.
Most of the messages employed a sophisticated code system that the Culper Spy Ring employed. The code consisted of over seven hundred and sixty numbers. Each was three digits long and represented several words and names that you wouldn’t want to get caught talking about. Agent 711 was George Washington himself. Benjamin Tallmadge had the alias John Bolton. Abraham Woodhull used Samuel Culper Sr. after which the ring was named after. George Washington picked the name Culper from Culpeper County, Virginia which was his first assignment as a land surveyor. Robert Townsend was Samuel Culper Jr. and Anna Strong was possibly the unknown Agent 355.
They also used a popular cipher of a page number, line number, and word number of a book. The difficulty with this cipher is that it must be a book that both parties have available. They used a popular dictionary for the time. Another method was called a sympathetic stain or invisible ink. This technique was known and used frequently even by the British. You simply had to apply heat or another chemical agent to get the stains to appear. For added security George Washington had a new invisible ink invented that only appeared with a specific chemical known to them. It’s funny how war often advances innovation.
There’s so much more information about the Culper Ring that I encourage you to research. Of course there were many other spy rings on both sides of the war with their own successes and innovations. There are theories that the French ran out of money to help the American colonists which eventually lead to the French Revolution. History is fascinating and the Fourth of the July is the perfect time to reflect on how we got here today. That and blowing anything and everything up with fireworks! Happy Fourth of July! Never leave a firework unlit!
-J.C. Mystery Detective