One of my recent areas of fascination, in addition to everything else, and inspired almost wholly by AMC’s (fantasmagorical) TURN: Washington’s Spies, has been the story of the Culper Spy Ring (link 2) (link 3). I wrote a thing a while ago about the cinematography of the show, which for me is a huge part of the attraction, but the storylines are pretty compelling as well.
Thus, imagine my excitement when, at the library, I came across this book titled George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring that Saved the American Revolution. It is not the book on which the show is based, but had a short line between this book and the basis for the show, with a lot of artistic license thrown in for cinematic reasons.
To the best of my ability, I will refrain from doing a comparison with the show, because the show and this book aren’t really related outside of the fact that they occupy the same realms. It would be like me trying to evaluate you based on a run-in with one of your cousins, and that wouldn’t be fair to anybody.
Without further ado, the book:
I found it to be a nice introduction and overview of the Culper Ring, the collective name of the group of men and women who spied for Washington. Kilmeade is not a scholar by trade so the writing was quite narrative and therefore a quick read. There was some speculation, not supported by evidence, that made me scratch my head, but I could overlook those parts. There were other parts of the story that he thought would be better presented with dialogue. For example, one scene between Culper, Sr. and Culper, Jr. included shouting and frantic pacing. It reminded me of Monuments Men, which was also written by a non-academic and also included recreated dialogue.
One thing that still astounds me is how these people from humble parts were able to change the tide of the war. For example, Samuel Culper, Sr., real name Abraham Woodhull, was a farmer on the north shore of Long Island. Excepting the trips he took into New York to see his sister, how on earth would he have come across any useful information to give to Washington?
The Culpers: sketch of Robert Townsend by himself, artists interpretation of Abraham Woodhull.
I might have heard of the Culper Ring once or twice in passing, like in that episode of White Collar where the protagonists had to track down the modern descendants of the original ring to solve a crime. Even watching TURN never quite impressed the truly pivotal role they played, because I attributed the suspense and theatrics to good television writing that took generous liberties with historical fact. But after reading this book, George Washington’s Secret Six, I’ve hardly begun to realize the pivotal roles and plots they were involved in:
Plot One: They prevented a British counterfeiting scheme that would have destroyed the fledgling colonial economy. (My knowledge of economics is that I like it when I get paid and I’m sad when I don’t, so I don’t entirely understand this particular plot.) Plot Two: They stopped an ambush of sorely needed French allies coming to Washington’s Aid. Plot Three: They uncovered Benedict Arnold’s treachery before he was able to hand West Point over to the British. Plot Four: They smuggled an entire book of British naval signals to the French fleet, who was then able to negate any naval advantage the British might have had, leading to the British surrender at Yorktown.
It was fascinating to see how each individual member played their part, how one part played into the next, and how all the parts came together to form one superb intelligence-gathering machine.
The book’s prologue and post-script also framed the entire story around the discovery of the identity of Samuel Culper, Jr., which happened in 1929. A researcher, Morton Pennypacker, noticed similarities between Culper, Jr.’s handwriting and one Robert Townsend’s papers. Townsend had gone to the grave without revealing his vital role in the Revolution, but handwriting analysis confirmed the connection. From what I can infer, once Townsend’s identity was revealed, all the disparate research surrounding the Ring snapped into place and the entire operation came into focus. In some ways, Townsend was the central figure of the Ring – he and his business partner James Rivington certainly had the best positioning to be of good value – and so he became the central figure of the book with which the other members interacted like spokes on a wheel.
Lastly, learning of the Ring’s modern impact (besides the fact that we won the war) was simply fascinating. Kilmeade and his co-author Don Yeager had visited the CIA headquarters in Langley, VA, while researching for this book. They were told that, though the Culper Ring has no physical monument or memorial, it still lives on today because the tactics employed by the Ring – secret codes, dead drops, aliases, compartmentalizing of information, gadgetry – were so effective they’re still worth emulating.
Overall, much like the Shaara novels of historical events, George Washington’s Secret Six summarizes the topic and creates a structure from which someone might delve further into study. I have no real knowledge of the content so I am unable to judge the book by its historicity, but some other reviews, listed below in the Further Reading section, all seem to agree that this book is more-or-less close enough but takes some pretty fanciful liberties with interpretation and extrapolation in places. Despite that, I enjoyed it and the purported inaccuracies obviously mean I have to go read some more to set myself straight.
Image Source: https://www.amazon.com/George-Washingtons-Secret-Six-Revolution/dp/159523103X