I finally cleared out my reading queue and refilled with Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring. What most likely prompted this was the opportunity to meet the author, Alexander Rose, except I hadn’t read his book at the time of the opportunity, so I avoided him in shame.
To belatedly remedy this egregious faux pas, I went to the library specifically for this book. Perhaps the next time I encounter Mr. Rose, I will be able to engage in witty and engaging discussion on his work, but for now I get to share my review of the book with you, Dear Reader(s).
From Rose’s website:
Washington’s small band included a young Quaker torn between political principle and family loyalty, a swashbuckling sailor addicted to the perils of espionage, a hard-drinking barkeep, a Yale-educated cavalryman and friend of the doomed Nathan Hale, and a peaceful, sickly farmer who begged Washington to let him retire but who always came through in the end. Personally guiding these brave, flawed, everyday heroes was Washington himself.
The men he mentored were dubbed the Culper Ring. The British secret service tried to hunt them down, but they escaped by the closest of shaves thanks to their ciphers, dead drops, and invisible ink. Washington’s Spies tells the unknown story of the Revolution — one encompassing the murderous intelligence war, the gunrunning, the kidnappings, and the defections — that has never appeared in the history books. But the book is also a spirited, touching account of friendship and trust, fear and betrayal, amid the dark and silent world of the spy.
Like the Culper Ring itself, this book took some effort to get started. This is the first book written by an academic that I’ve read in a while. Washington’s Secret Six and Hancock the Superb were both much more narrative and so I had to stretch my academic reading muscles again. Uff-dah! Once I got into it, though, it went much more smoothly.
There is a lot of information. I am moderately astonished that Rose was able to find that much on what seems like a niche subject. This is even more interesting, considering that the book (and subsequent TV show) didn’t exist, which meant that popular interest didn’t exist either. The list of sources at the end is lengthy and contains a lot of original material. I would love to go through those sources, interpret them, and see if I came up with the same book as Rose did.
A review by Joseph Ellis, one of my favorite Rev. Era authors:
“After five years I knew there was a story to tell about [Washington’s] 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.”
Like a good spy story, it sounds like this cropped up unexpectedly in the course of Ellis’s research, and it took Rose the gumption to tease this information into something substantial.
Probably my greatest difficulty with the book was keeping track of all the details within the narrative, which may not have been an issue if I had kept my academic reading muscles flexed. There were digressions into a character’s background and family’s background that led to their moment in history, the details surrounding that Moment, then what happened to that person later in life if they survived their Moment. All of these threads were interwoven with those of other characters as well as the different themes of the overall narrative. I appreciate all the information included, but it is a lot to digest.
Rose discusses military tactics, some of the other geopolitical forces at play at that time, as well as some societal forces that may have had bearing on events in history (like that Major John Andre’s gait didn’t fit the class of society he was disguised as). He also discusses spy tactics used on both sides but this is the first war where spy craft is used in this way, if I am reading this correctly. He compares the amateurish mistakes made by both sides, from using relatively simple ciphers to the way the information was collated and analyzed, or not, as the case may be. (For example, Andre’s modus operandi involved letting stacks of reports simply gather dust, either from lack of willpower or manpower to read them.) Both sides were well-matched, neither having any solid precedent to draw from. Even the personalities and skills of the opposing heads of intelligence seemed oddly complementary: George Washington to General Clinton, Ben Tallmadge to John Andre.
I liked how the main players were characterized and how their backstories led to their Moments in histories. It was easy to see how the figures worked together to successfully develop the spy ring, how tensions arose, as they inevitably did, and how those tensions were assuaged or ignored. The farmer, neurotic about expenses, the inkeeper, neurotic about security, and their central figure, Ben Tallmadge, who was by all accounts a good tactician and even better leader (the first in, last out type). My favorite description is of how Tallmadge had a habit of cocking his head to the side like an inquisitive beagle. (I wish they included that trait in TURN.)
The Ring ends somewhat abruptly. Tightened security made it too dangerous for the agents to engage at the level they had once before, and the main theater of the war shifted south, so they easily drifted back to their civilian lives with few the wiser of their actions.
While Rose’s focus was on the characters involved, I wish he would have spent some time discussing the discovery of the ring and how the different pieces have come to light in the past 200+ years (like the framework in which George Washington’s Secret Six occurs). That, too, seems like a tale of shadow and intrigue no less interesting than the work of the Ring itself.
Rose ends the book with the observation that, as spying became more prevalent (the French Revolution, Europe poised to act when the American Experiment fails, etc), the new players were far more mercenary than the Culper Ring, who generally were involved out of a sense of patriotism and doing the Right Thing. See our hero Tallmadge and his friends. While subsequent events necessitated the development of spy craft into a formal occupation, the Culper Ring, for all of its amateurism, was, according to this book, the beginning of modern spy craft as we know it.