Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring by Alexander Rose

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Rose, Alexander. Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring
New York: Bantam Dell, 2006.

Wars are not always fought in the open. They can be quiet, secretive, and won from the shadows. Though the mind wants to conjure explosions, black and eye-watering musket smoke, the moans of the dying, and orders flying low and loud over all other cacophony. A war can be won or lost from coded words and symbols written by men and women risking everything as a secret agent, while spying, sabotaging, counterfeiting, and kidnapping. War has many faces, and here, Alexander Rose in his widely acclaimed book Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring the reader will be immersed in the shadowy realm of espionage. This particular spy ring helped America win the Revolutionary War. Rose uncovers the men who spied, their history, and why they chose such a dangerous path, and of course, the spymaster himself, George Washington.

Alexander Rose is not the first historian to tackle this subject but this book is a pleasure to read, well thought out, and with impeccable sources. Rose’s footnotes and bibliography are packed full of extra information and very nicely done. Joseph J. Ellis, author of His Excellency: George Washington writes that “After working on Washington, I knew there was a story to tell about his reliance on spies during the Revolutionary War. But I believed the story could never be told because the evidence did not exist. Well, I was wrong, and Alexander Rose tells this important story with style and wit.”

Alexander Rose was born in the United States but raised in Australia and Britain and later educated at Cambridge University. He received his doctorate for his paper entitled Radar Strategy: The Air Dilemma and British Politics, 1932-1937. Rose worked as a journalist and editor at the UK paper The Daily Telegraph and at Canada’s National Post. Rose is the author of several books including Kings in the North: The House of Percy in British History that is a biography of thirteen generations of barons and earls in Northumberland between 1066 and 1485. American Rifle: A Biography that describes how America’s military firearms continually changing and evolving, which changed the country’s history. He is a member of the United States Commission on Military History, the Society for Military History, the Royal Historical Society, and also a Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts. An interesting note about Washington’s Spies, it has since been renamed Turn and has become the guide that helped create the hit AMC television series of the same name. If these credentials were not enough to showcase the author’s capabilities and understanding of the subject, Rose has also written for the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New York Observer, the CIA journal Studies in Intelligence, MHQ, The Quarterly of Military History, The National Interest, and lastly, the English Historical Review.

Chapter one takes the reader through the Battle of Long Island. The Continental Army under General George Washington was defeated, which gave control of New York to the British. Three hundred Americans were killed, seven hundred wounded, and a staggering one thousand captured. Up until this point, Washington exclusively was interested in obtaining only military intelligence. Spies would infiltrate at night but never stay past the dawn of the following day. Soon Washington knew that this type of infiltration was not enough.

After the Battle of Long Island and its debacle or Brooklyn Heights, Nathan Hale transferred to Knowlton’s Rangers, which is where the opportunity to join Washington’s spy ring began. At the beginning of the book, Rose introduces Asher Wright, a childhood friend of Hale’s and who later served as Hale’s servant after his servant took sick. Rose uses memoirs that a family member of Asher Wright, R. N. Wright, scribed for him. Wright was eighty-two at the time and in and out of lucidity but Rose was able to track some of Hale’s movements by Wright’s words. Wright was the last surviving Patriot to have seen him alive. Asher Wright’s memoirs are a wonderful addition to the story of Captain Hale.

Washington had asked members of the Knowlton Rangers for a volunteer and Hale stepped forward. Before accepting, Hale asked his friend William Hull what he thought he should do. Hull very frankly tells his friend that spying is a “murky and unwholesome one” and then he added that Hale was “too open and frank to carry it off in any case.” (p. 17) Hale accepted the position regardless. Hale had graduated from Yale University and had been a school teacher. His education and former occupation was the perfect cover. Within a few days, an American warship dropped off Hale along the coast of Long Island. From there Hale walked the thirty-five miles to New York City. Yale degree in hand, Hale poses as an out of work school teacher looking for a job. There are a few scenarios of just how Hale’s cover was blown, though the end result was always the same, death. After capture, Hale was almost immediately hung.

The fiasco of Hale’s mission was a culmination of bad decisions and poor planning but ultimately forced a reconfiguration on Washington and the general was able to learn from his mistakes. (p. 34) Washington appointed Major Benjamin Tallmadge as director of military intelligence but his superior was Charles Scott.  Rose references the friction between Scott and Tallmadge perfectly. Scott was still inclined to use the more traditional manner of reconnaissance and wanted to keep sending “single, disposable spies on quick Nathan Hale—style missions to observe what they could of the enemy’s deployment” and then try to sneak back across the lines without getting caught. (p. 77) Tallmadge, who had learned from Nathanial Sackett, “how to disguise agents as enemy sympathizers using realistic cover stories” thought this was the best way to gain the most information with not as much danger. (p. 76) He also envisioned having these undercover agents in a larger network of spies who were permanently embedded in New York to Long Island.

Rose sorts through the convoluted list of people who began to secretly move vital information. The Culper Spy Ring was created. Rose describes this spy ring that ran between Setauket by Austin Roe to New York City where he would find the Townsend establishment. Tallmadge would respond in code, Roe would then take back the information to Setauket to hide on the farm of Abraham Woodhull. Anna Strong, who owned a farm near Woodhull’s barn, would hang a black petticoat on her clothesline to alert Caleb Brewster to retrieve the documents.

Rose is able to capture these clandestine activities with the perfect amount of narrative and first-person accounts to keep the reader captivated. Rose not only writes of how the information is gathered but what the intelligence is and how Washington used it. Until the British had recruited Benedict Arnold to spy for them, nothing could touch the Culper Ring’s successful information laundering. It is disappointing that Rose did not spend more time discussing Arnold’s change of loyalty. He gives only the most passing glance at the plot to sell West Point to the British. There is little to no discussion of the plot being uncovered. Perhaps the author finds the subject of Benedict Arnold so well exposed by previous works that he feels there is little reason to rehash the treachery. However, there is nothing more clandestine or secretive than the coup Arnold tried to inflict upon the Continentals, and this is a book covering double agents. It is an oversight that is surprising, as Rose has done a more than credible job recreating the spy network. He does redeem himself with the colorful rendition of the plot to kidnap Arnold by Major Henry Lee and Sergeant John Champe after he fled to the British side.

Though Rose makes no groundbreaking discoveries in Benedict Arnold and Major Andre’s nefarious plots, this is a very fine telling of Washington’s spies. Something that will spark interest is in the last chapter of the book. Rose wrote little after the war, ‘Where are they now?’ biographies for the people discussed throughout. It was nice to know where they ended up and with whom. Brewster married Anne Lewis, Tallmadge ended up with Mary Floyd, and Colonel Simco became the first Lieutenant-Governor of Canada and even has a lake named after him. (p. 243) Benedict Arnold slunk back to Britain, dying “an embarrassing nuisance” as the author puts it. Selah and Anna Strong lived a quiet life in Setauket until their deaths and Abraham Woodhull married twice, once in his old age, and was survived by three daughters.

There are times when Rose, while in the midst of telling a particular story, will not back up his claims with enough factual evidence. This particular work by Rose would be more apt to please an amateur historian or a person more inclined to just enjoy a good tale. Though, as mentioned before, his detailed footnotes and bibliographic lists are quite well done. Rose let’s his opinion, at times, get away from him.

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