Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring by Alexander Rose concerns itself with American espionage activities during the American Revolution. This is a great history book that expands from its base subject to shed light on various related aspects of the Revolution. This work is the basis for the very good television series TURN.
While Rose’s book touches upon much of the spy work that both sides engaged in during the war, its primary focus is a on a group that was known as The Culper Ring. This was a spy ring that was organized in Southern New York by American Officer Benjamin Tallmadge. During most of the war, New York City was the primary hub for British military operations. Rebel spies in the city passed information across Long Island through key ring member Abraham Woodhull. The information was then dispatched across the Long Island Sound to rebel-controlled Connecticut and eventually to George Washington himself. The activities and interactions of the members of the ring are related in fascinating detail.
A great deal of this book is local history for me. A large percentage of the activity that is described in this work takes place on Long Island, NY, which is also my home. Much of the political, social and religious culture of Long Island at the time is surveyed. In addition, a locally famous raid that was led by Tallmadge is detailed in the book.
In 1780, spurred by intelligence supplied by the ring, Tallmadge led a small force from Connecticut to Long Island across the Long Island Sound. He landed near a beach that I often frequent. His mounted troops rode across Long Island to attack a fort and a supply depot. The resulting destruction of British provisions and supplies was a detriment to British forces operating in New Your City. His route is marked locally and known as The Tallmadge Trail. I live on this trail. His small force proceeded down a road on which my house is now situated.
One aspect that makes this a history book of distinction is that it expands beyond its primary subject to provide intriguing and important insights into multiple aspects of the American Revolution and early America. Diverse subjects such as the brutal nature of some areas and subcultures of New York City, the religious aspects and conflicts relating to both Rebels as well as Loyalists, etc. are explored. As someone who is interested the American Revolutionary War period, I found this book to be a feast of interesting concepts.
As I am often known to do, I will focus a little upon just one of many points of this work. Rose argues that intelligence work in which both sides engaged was different from, and in many ways unique to, the American Revolution, as opposed to anything going on in Europe.
Rose explains how such spy craft was not as important on the battlefields of the Old World. On European conflicts he writes.
“collecting intelligence about the enemy’s movements was not of prime concern since there were only certain, defined routes along which an army could travel, and topographers could thus accurately predict how long a formation would take to reach its destination”
“In Europe, the mark of a great captain was not his talent for deception or for divining intentions, but his ability to outmaneuver opponents on known ground and defeating them in the field as they marched and wheeled in lines and columns.”
Rose goes on to describe how the conflict in America was different,
In America’s vast geographical spaces, however, armies (and guerrillas) could hide, live off the land, travel cross-country, appear out of nowhere, strike, and vanish. Possessing advance or intimate knowledge of what the enemy was doing, or was planning to do— the raison d’être of espionage— became of vital importance.
As the business of intelligence was distinctive in America, Rose goes on to describe all sorts of innovations employed by the Culper Ring and other rebel spies, as well as by their British opponents, including invisible ink, complex and innovative codes, economic sabotage through the use of counterfeiting, etc. This is but one of the many interesting and enlightening areas explored in this work.
This is a suburb book. It is well written and researched. It tells an interesting story. It expands into a host of relevant and diverse subjects. I highly recommend this for anyone interested in the American Revolutionary War era, the history of New York City and Long Island, or spy craft in general.