I Spy Freedom: The Unsung Heroes of the Revolutionary War

After years of virtual representation in Parliament, unfair taxation, and repressive laws such as the Quartering Act, war finally broke out. In 1776, the thirteen colonies declared their independence against England, the most powerful empire in the world and the King, who dared not see his precious colonies leave his complete control. General George Washington of Mount Vernon, Virginia, was placed in charge of the Continental Army by the Second Continental Congress but things looked bleak for General Washington and his rag-tag group of militia men and farmers. At the time, the British held New York, home to one of the most valuable ports in the colonies. They had thousands upon thousands of soldiers, the most powerful navy and army and the largest arsenal in the world, an unlimited supply of money, and their generals were highly trained in battle techniques. Frankly, Washington lacked weapons, money, men, and experience, and because of this he knew he could not beat the British through combat; he needed to out-wit them.

Nathan Hale, a Captain of the Continental Army, took it upon himself to sneak behind enemy lines and acquire important information regarding troop movements. Unfortunately, Hale was captured and hanged as a spy on September 22, 1776. His last words were, “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country” (“American Spies”). The death of Hale weighed heavy on Washington’s conscious because he was the one who asked for a spy to cross enemy lines. But Nathan Hale was only the beginning of something that would change the outcome of this war.

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Washington realized he needed informants to help him win this war, so he assembled a crude system of intelligence that was funded by Congress. Even though Washington wanted to be the only one running his spy show, he realized that it was quite impossible for him to do this alone. Due to illness, the acting deputy intelligence chief, Brigadier General Charles Scott, asked for a leave of absence, which meant Washington needed someone to fill his position. John Bolton was recommended by Major Benjamin Tallmadge and Brig. Gen. Scott.

What Scott did not know was that John Bolton and Major Tallmadge were one in the same. Bolton had been Tallmadge’s code name, and Washington knew it! At that moment, Washington had found his new deputy intelligence chief (“Culper Ring”). In November 1778, two years after the death of Hale, Washington approached Major Benjamin Tallmadge with the most important contribution that Tallmadge could ever make to the cause. He tasked Tallmadge with the creation and handling of a spy ring at the very heart of the British headquarters, New York City. Tallmadge became the handler of this ring while his friends from New York acted as the spies on the inside (“American Spies”).

Tallmadge was a New York native, previously living in Long Island, which happened to be one of the cities the British held. Because he was familiar with the land and had people with whom he was familiar on the inside, he became a very important man to Washington. Tallmadge called upon his friends Austin Roe, Caleb Brewster, and Abraham Woodhull to act as this ring’s initial members. And with that, the Culper Spy Ring was born (“Culper Ring”). The primary spy of the ring was Abraham Woodhull, a farmer hailing from Setauket, Long Island. Woodhull was recruited by Tallmadge in November of 1778; his job was to sort through all of the information with which he was provided with and decide what information was the most prominent.

This information would be sent to Tallmadge, who would eventually hand it off to Washington. Any information Woodhull provided to Talmadge was signed with the alias Samuel Culper, Sr. in order to avoid detection, capture, and death by the hands of the British (“American Spies”). During the Culper Ring’s early years, Woodhull was stationed in New York City, and was passing information on to another member of the ring, Austin Roe. Because New York City was crawling with Redcoats, Woodhull constantly feared discovery, which meant death.

His fears came to life one day in April of 1779 when two of his relatives barged into his room in New York while he was composing a letter filled with information about the British. The most frightening part for Woodhull was that two of the British soldiers’ rooms were adjacent to his room. After this incident, Woodhull was never the same, and by June he asked to be moved away from his station in the city (“Culper Ring”). Austin Roe, a tavern owner who acted as the courier was another founding member of the Culper Ring. The courier’s job was to deliver information given to him by Woodhull at first, and then Robert Townsend, a newer member of the ring. While all of the members’ jobs were very dangerous, Roe had the most dangerous job of all.

Roe was the one who had to travel great distances with the information that was given to him and, if caught by the British, would have forfeited his life (“American Spies”). The third founding member of the ring was Caleb Brewster. Brewster was a former blacksmith and a lieutenant in the Continental Army. Any information that he collected, he would take to Tallmadge, who would take it to Washington (“American Spies”). Robert Townsend, who later became a member of the Culper Ring, took the spot of Abraham Woodhull in New York City. There are conflicting sources as to what Townsend’s legitimate occupation was during the war.

One source states he owned a tavern, while another says he and another man owned and operated a dry goods business. In any case, while stationed in New York City, Townsend put on a ruse where he would parade around acting like a Loyalist,even though he had the ideologies of a Patriot. At one point, Townsend wrote articles for a Loyalist newspaper, the Royal Gazette. Because of his apparent and undying support for the crown, Townsend began to be trusted with information from British soldiers and even some officers (“American Spies”). One of the British officers he became very friendly with was a Major John Andre.

Andre was responsible for organizing intelligence for the British. Andre was also General Sir Henry Clinton’s new right hand man (“Culper Ring”).Any information Townsend happened to gather from Andre or elsewhere, he would pass on to Roe using the alias Culper Jr (“American Spies”). Anna Strong was another member of the Culper Ring who played a vital role in communication. Strong was a member of the Colonial upper class whose husband, Selah Strong III, was a captain in the Continental Army.

She was trusted by all members of the ring, despite being a woman. Her farmhouse was used for the transfer of any information given to her by Woodhull and other members of the ring (“American Spies”). She would also use her clothesline to alert Caleb Brewster when she had information by hanging a black petticoat from it, along with a certain number of handkerchiefs meant to tell Brewster where the information was hidden (“Culper Ring”). The members of the Culper Ring had a very dangerous job to do; if they were caught by the British, they would be hanged for espionage and treason. Because of this eminent danger, Tallmadge and the ring used clever techniques to evade British capture. The Culper Ring specifically used an invisible ink and a unique code to hide the meaning of their transmissions.

They even had a chain of correspondence which they followed religiously when conveying any information they had.Washington was also known to spread misinformation throughout the ranks of his army. By 1779, Tallmadge created his very own code to be used when corresponding with General Washington and members of the Culper Ring. This code replaced words with specific numbers, so if the British happened to intercept one of their messages, they could not read it without the code. Tallmadge created four code books. He gave one to Washington, one to Samuel Culper, Sr.

(Woodhull), one to Culper Jr. (Townsend), and kept one for himself because the four of them would be the ones who needed to code or decode information most often.Words that Tallmadge knew would be used often were given a specific number. For example, the words there, thing and they were given numbers 630, 631, and 629. Names of people and places were also given numbers.

Washington was 711, Bolton (Tallmadge) was 721, Samuel Culper Sr. was 722, and Culper Jr. was 723 (“Culper Ring”). While the code was an excellent way of passing information in plain sight, another way of transmitting information secretly was through invisible ink. This invisible ink was created by James Jay, brother of John Jay.

The true composition of the ink used by the Culper Ring varies between sources. One source claims that it was made of tannic acid, while another says its composition is unknown and scientists still ponder it. Jay claimed that this ink would disappear whence used on paper and stay invisible until it came in contact with another chemical solution developed by Jay. Washington instructed the Culper Ring to “write on the blank leaves of a pamphlet…a common pocket book, or on the blank leaves at each end of registers, almanacs, or any publication or book of small value”(“Techniques”; “Culper Ring”; “Spymaster”). As soon as some of these techniques were put into place, the spies would deliver the information via a chain of correspondence.

Before Townsend became the ring’s New York man, Woodhull would be the one to travel to New York under the premise of visiting his sister and her husband.While in New York, Woodhull would gather any and all information he could about the British. This information was often about, but not limited to, supplies, shipping, and troop movements. Any information he collected would be passed onto Roe when he came into the city. In order to evade discovery, Roe said he was getting goods for his tavern back in Setauket. Roe would then head home with the information that he would then give to Brewster, who would pass it on to Tallmadge.

The ring’s correspondence carried on this way without incident until 1779, when Woodhull had his fright and moved back to his farm in Setauket. This was when Townsend took Woodhull’s spot in New York so essentially, he had the same exact job as Woodhull except with a deeper cover. Any information Townsend received was given to Roe. Upon his return to Setauket, Roe would bury this information near Woodhull’s farm. The information would not be retrieved until Woodhull witnessed a black petticoat hanging from Anna Strong’s clothesline.

The petticoat symbolized that Brewster had crossed the channel between Long Island and Connecticut. Strong would also hang a number of handkerchiefs with petticoat that showed where Brewster was waiting. Upon seeing these handkerchiefs and the petticoat, Woodhull retrieved the buried information and delivered it to Brewster, who relayed it back to Tallmadge, who in return would give it to Washington (“Culper Ring”). Aside from using the chain of correspondence, codes, ciphers, and invisible ink, Washington often used something much more devious as a way to confound the British. Washington enjoyed spreading as mush misinformation as he could.

He would often send letters, with detailed information regarding attack plans and troop movements through the normal post, knowing very well they would be intercepted by the British. He would also instruct the Culper Ring to embellish the size of his army when speaking with (“Spymaster”). Because the Culper Ring operated near the very heart of the British Army, they were able to provide General Washington with very sensitive information, such as incoming supplies, troop movements, the location of bases, and even where commanding officers planned to attack next. This information was often vital in keeping the Continental Army intact, sometimes avoiding battle and saving both ammunition and lives, or setting up a decoy and attacking the British by surprise, which greatly damaged British resolve and numbers. The Culper Ring once came across a bit of information that was so vital and so important that it changed the outcome of the Revolution substantially. That bit of information was the treason of Benedict Arnold and his plans with Major John Andre.

Benedict Arnold, who is infamously known as the first American traitor, was a General in the Continental Army. He served during the second invasion of Canada where he received a wound to his leg, forcing him to be carried off the field during battle. Even after he received this wound, Arnold fought nobly during the Battle of Lake Champlain in 1776 and the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. After these battles, he felt that he deserved more glory and praise than he received. Because of his unhappiness with this, he threatened to abandon the Continental Army if he did not get what he felt was rightfully his (“Benedict Arnold”).

He finally got his wish in 1778 when Washington made him “military commander of the city” after the British evacuated the city of Philadelphia. While in Philadelphia, he met his second wife, Peggy Shippen, whose family happened to be known supporters of the crown. While Philadelphia was still under British control, Andre and Shippen had become very friendly with each other, and even after the British departure from Philadelphia, they still remained friendly, and in contact; this was how Andre and Arnold got to know each other.Arnold and Andre then began keeping in contact, even using Shippen as a way to avoid being caught. Not long after, the British began gaining Continental Army information, such as supplies and troop movements. From this point on, Arnold had officially become a British spy (“Benedict Arnold”).

After receiving command of West Point in 1780, he began providing the British with even more important information. As the commander, he began lessening the defenses of the fort slowly, whilst moving many of his personal belongings from Connecticut to England (“Benedict Arnold”). On September 20, 1780 Arnold and Andre had a face-to-face meeting during which Arnold gave Andre the plans to West Point and a copy of minutes from the last meeting had with Washington and other Continental officers (Byron, T. K.).

On September 23, Andre was captured with everything Arnold had recently supplied him with. The Culper Spy Ring is given credit for the capture of Andre and the discovery of Arnold’s betrayal. While writing his memoir, Tallmadge states, “he purposely omitted some things relating to the detention of Andre.” There is some reason to believe that Sarah Townsend, sister of Robert Townsend and later member of the Culper Ring, heard Andre discussing West Point with an officer in her home (“Culper Ring”). Washington charged Andre with espionage and he was hanged in October of 1780 (“Culper Spy Ring”), while Arnold escaped to the fight for the British (“Benedict Arnold”).

The Culper Spy Ring was also able to stop multiple British attacks before the Continental Army suffered any serious ramifications. One of these thwarted attacks was the invasion of Rhode Island by General Henry Clinton and a group of British soldiers in 1780. Tallmadge received this information from the ring and immediately relayed it to Washington. Upon receiving this information, Washington alerted his army and was able to stop Clinton before he reached Rhode Island (Williams). The Culper Ring was also responsible for preventing British plans to attack the French, who were on their way to assist the Americans during the war. After Washington received the information from Tallmadge, he quickly prepared a defense to distract the British from their original objective, therefore stopping any attacks meant to harm the French (“Spymaster”).

After the Battle of Yorktown in 1783, the Culper Ring disbanded because their services were no longer needed by the Continental Army. Washington held all members of the ring in high regard, even though he only knew a few of the ring’s members. Not one member of the ring ever spoke about what they had done during the war, for they did not want nor need any recognition for their service to their country and cause (“Culper Ring”). Even though the Culper Ring is not widely known or discussed when teaching the Revolutionary War, their existence was crucial to the Patriot cause. These men and women put their lives in danger every day to fight for what they felt was right.

While some of them did not wear a uniform, brandish a gun, or serve in famous battles such as Yorktown or Lexington and Concord, they were just as important as those who did. It is partly because of the valor of the Culper Ring that the United States of America exists. They are truly the unsung heroes of the Revolutionary War. Works Cited “American Spies of the Revolution.” George Washington’s Mount Vernon. George Washington’s Mount Vernon, n.

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