Monday, April 27, 2015

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

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”

and later,

“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’ĂȘtre 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.


Sharon Wilfong said...

This sounds like a book I want to get. I love the history and I've never thought about spy and intelligence operations during the American Revolution, even if I did read The Spy by Cooper.
Thanks the good review.

JacquiWine said...

How interesting for you to be able to make connections between Tallmadge's story and your own surroundings (right down to the road on which your house is situated). I've heard of the Culper Ring but know very little about the history of this period. It sounds like a very well researched book.

@parridhlantern said...

Spying is an age old profession, probably been around as long as there was something worth spying about, this kind of reminds me of novels such as Anthony Burgess's "Dead Man in Deptford" about Christopher Marlowe playwright & spy for Queen Elizabeth

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharon.

This is really an enjoyable book. I believe that there are several books around about the Culper Ring. Based on a some research I did the consensus is that this is the best and the most credible.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jacqui -Most folks who live in major cities have a lot of history connected to their surroundings. Not so much for many of us who live in less famous places. That aspect of the book and the television series was a treat for me.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Gary - I have not read those books but I should.

Spying is indeed very old. It is interesting however to learn how the methods and tools of spying evolved over the years.

Harvee said...

I remember reading that some American Blacks in the north were also used as spies. Amazing book.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee- I am not sure if the book went into African Americans doing actual spying. It is a subject of the television series however.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I find this subject fascinating, especially how the use of secret codes, invisible ink, etc. came into use because of the war. This subject must be particularly interesting to you since much of the action took place in your area.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi CJ - I have always been very much into the American Revolutionary Period but ironically I had neglected the local history part.

The television show and the book have really awakened my interest.

James said...

Fascinating review. I was impressed with the way the author differentiated the nature of war in America from Europe. This along with the innovations you mentioned seem to set apart this history. Sounds like a book I would like to read.

Suko said...

Excellent review of a fascinating subject, Brian Joseph! This book sounds absorbing and insightful. I have a lot to learn about this period in history, as well as the spy ring you mention.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - I think that really good history books like this try to say something beyond the relatively small issues that they are focused on.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - Thanks.

This period has become a lifelong interest for me. But it is important enough so that I think knoladge of it can be of value to anyone.

So many books, so little time said...

History is definitely something I want to read more about and actually have a few books on my tbr. This sounds really interesting, when you think of the tactics both sides do/did to get intel and how they utilized it!


Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy - I love history. It is possible that once you read a few books you will be hooked.

I would love to read your thoughts on some history books if you gave them a read.

Caroline said...

How fascinating to read a book about places so close to where you live.
It sounds like it's well researched.
I know I won't read this but I'm very interested in the TV series.

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

It's interesting you read a book so connected to the place where you live. I really enjoyed your review, in particular the details concerned with spying like the invisible ink. History is fascinating, but like Caroline I would be more interested in the movie(s).

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - I actually visited Setauket the other day. There is a very small museum dedicated to the spy ring.

At least here in the U.S. I think that the series is accessible via the link I provided above. I recamend watching the episodes in order as it is very involved.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Delia - Before reading this book I thought invisible ink was just a child's toy. It was a matter of life or death for these people as discovery usually meant execution.

Please see my awnser to Caroline above for more details on the television series.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

Definitely a book I'll keep in mind as it sounds like it has so much to offer.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - If you have an interest in any of the relevant topics it is a must read.

HKatz said...

I'm glad you recommended this book - it sounds fascinating, and I hadn't heard of it before.

Espionage is something I've been getting interested in recently (in purely academic ways…), plus having grown up on Long Island I'd like to find out more about the history.

If you're visiting DC at some point, there's a fairly decent espionage museum there that looks at history and also techniques (and there's some pop culture stuff too, like a James Bond exhibit, which was less interesting as I'm not a Bond fan).

Brian Joseph said...

HI HILA - If you are interested in the history of spying this is a must read.

I have been to Washington DC a couple of times but I have never been to the espionage museum. I will have to visit it next time I am there.

Maria Behar said...

Another GREAT review, Brian! This is SO fascinating -- 007 during the American Revolution! Minus all the gadgets, of course, lol.

Seriously, though, this is indeed very interesting, and especially because all of these activities took place in the same area you live in! WOW. That's totally AMAZING!! Could it be that your interest in the American Revolutionary era was unconsciously sparked by the fact that you live on "The Tallmadge Trial? Fascinating speculation, don't you think?

I don't read much history, but I should, especially concerning the American Revolution. So I'm adding this book to my Goodreads TBR shelves.

Thanks for sharing your interesting thoughts about this book! : )

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - thanks so much for your kind words.

I thin k for the time these folks considered invisible ink and secret codes their gadgets.

I actually was into the American Revolution before I lived on trail :)

This really was a fun book and I think that you would enjoy it.

The Bookworm said...

American espionage activities during the American Revolution sounds like a fascinating topic. I have seen the commercials for the tv show Turn, it looks good. I hadn't heard of the Culper Ring before.
How cool that alot of this history is so close to where you live.

I live near a Manor house which has historical connections to the American Revolution as well. Washington's map maker was housed there for a while. There's alot of history in NJ connected to the Revolution as well and it's always neat to visit these places.
Great post as always.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - I enjoyed this book extra enjoyable because of the local connection.

I am also enjoying TURN.

Living in any of the original colonies generally gives us easy access to such interesting historical cites relating to the revolution.