You probably know that the Revolutionary War would have ended badly if not for the support of England’s archenemy, the French. But did you know that the Culper Spy ring created by George Washington 2 years after the 1776 capture and hanging of Nathan Hale was another essential element in our success? I didn’t until reading historian Alexander Rose’s remarkable book “Washington’s Spies: the Story of America’s First Spy ring.”
The outcome of many events throughout history have turned on what might appear on the surface to be relatively small factors and our Revolution is no exception. After barely surviving the battle for control of New York, Washington, a superior battlefield tactician, realized that he could not prevail head-to-head with the bigger, better British forces and needed an edge. That edge turned out to be superior intelligence. And it required only a few people to execute it.
We owe a great debt to Major Benjamin Tallmadge, Abraham Woodhull, Robert Townsend, Caleb Brewster, Austin Roe, James Rivington and a woman known only to this day as Agent 355. Using what would today be considered rudimentary spycraft methods, they endured the constant fear of likely capture while collecting, transporting and delivering information valuable to Washington.
Their accomplishments included uncovering British plans in 1780 to ambush the just-landed French army in Rhode Island in time to avert disaster and obtaining a copy of British naval signals that enabled the French fleet to outmaneuver Cornwallis and force his surrender at Yorktown VA. No other intelligence group accomplished more on either side of this war.
A story with “wow” written all over it.