When the thirteen American colonies, after years of irreversible momentum, joined in a common cause and declared their independence from Britain on the 4th of July in 1776, a multitude of problems confronted the rebellious colonists who were risking everything in their pursuit of sovereignty and self-sufficiency.
One of the most significant problems, of course, was how Americans could hope to prevail against the strength and resources of the British military. Only with the best strategies, tactics, and alliances – and with a good deal of luck here and there – could the newly formed American military ever hope to prevail against the overwhelming power of the armies and navies of England and her allies.
General George Washington, commander of America’s revolutionary forces, was acutely aware of the problems he faced when confronting the new enemy. As early as September of 1776, Washington had recognized a critical chink in the hastily constructed American armor; he wrote to a comrade-in-arms, General William Heath, that ‘everything in a manner depends on acquiring intelligence of the enemy’s motions … Therefore, to accomplish this most desirable end … we must leave no stone unturned, nor … spare any expense to bring this to pass, … because much will depend on early intelligence, and meeting the enemy before they can entrench.‘
Acquiring military intelligence, however, during the 18th century usually meant relying upon three distinct types of intelligence agent. ‘One kind was perfectly respectable, and weren’t spies per se but military scouts on reconnaissance missions to probe fortifications or map terrain … The second type of agent was more secretive, but just as respectable, for he operated solely within the closed and cramped environments of European palaces and chancelleries. Diplomats, princes, and generals discreetly passed each other scraps of intelligence that eventually reached the ears of the various capitals. It was all very civilized and often took place over dinner … It was the third kind of spy that was beneath contempt. These were agents who worked for wages, and whose loyalty was always in doubt … Permanently embedded in enemy territory and psychologically disguised as ‘friendlies,’‘ these would become the kind of agents upon whom Washington and the fate of the fledgling country would ultimately depend.
Students of the American revolutionary period, if asked about the role of espionage in the military, will almost always mention Nathan Hale and Benedict Arnold; however, not many would recognize the following names: Caleb Brewster, Jonas Hawkins, Austin Roe, Benjamin Tallmadge, Robert Townsend, and Abraham Woodhull. These men, however, were the key players in something which was known only to a few during the American Revolution as the Culper Ring. And without the Culper Ring, the American colonies – quite probably – would have failed in their heroic bid for independence from Britain, and history would have been remarkably different.
As a ‘spy ring‘ which would go on to become a respectable, heroic, and ambitiously innovative variation of the ‘third kind,‘ the Culper Ring takes center stage in Alexander Rose’s exciting and highly recommended narrative history. Relying upon hundreds of exemplary primary sources from the 18th century – including especially correspondence, diaries, memoirs, and other first-person documents – Rose presents a fascinating perspective on the American revolution that has been neglected by popular historians.
Truth, as the saying goes, is stranger – and, in this case, more interesting and more exciting – than fiction. Readers who enjoy well-written narrative history – or readers who simply enjoy a ripping good spy story – will thoroughly enjoy and will not soon forget Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring.