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North Coast Current

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North Coast Current

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Historically Speaking: America’s First Spy Network

By Tom Morrow

Note: The current AMC cable TV series, “Turn: Washington’s Spies,” is based on the Revolutionary War exploits of Abraham Woodhull and the Culper Spy Ring.
Abraham Woodhull, a Long Island farmer from Setauket, was the leading civilian member of the so-called “American Culper Spy Ring,” created by George Washington during the American Revolution.
The ring was headed up by Continental Army Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge. Woodhull, one of the ring’s first recruits, used the alias “Samuel Culper,” taken from Culpeper County, Virginia, Washington’s home colony.
From 1778, through the end of the War, the British were headquartered in and operating out of New York City. Because of heavy taxes levied by the British, a great deal of smuggling by privateers (pirates) was conducted by the colonists. Woodhull was arrested for smuggling across Long Island Sound to Connecticut, which gave Major Tallmadge the opportunity to recruit his neighbor as a civilian spy.
Tallmadge persuaded Connecticut Gov. Jonathan Trumbull to release Woodhull, who soon agreed to join the spy ring. To protect his cover, Woodhull swore allegiance to the British crown and began making trips to Manhattan, gathering intelligence and sending his “Samuel Culper” letters to Washington.
Major Tallmadge developed a code to communicate with members of the ring that most member of the British forces would be unable to decode. This code was a series of letters and numbers that could make an ordinary message look like gibberish. In some of his letters, Woodhull used a type of invisible ink invented by Sir James Jay, brother of John Jay. To be read, the letter containing the ink needed to be brushed with iron sulfate, rather than just passed over heat or light. These measures helped maintain secrecy and ease Woodhull’s anxiety about possibly being detected.
In New York, Woodhull would collect information from various sources, including British officers staying boarding house where he would lodge in New York. Then he would return to Setauket and pass the information to whaleboat operator Caleb Brewster, who would take the message across Long Island Sound to Major Tallmadge, who would then send the information to Washington.
The initial plan had problems. Woodhull’s trips supposedly were to visit his sister, but the visits became too frequent, especially given the danger at the time. To further suspicions by the British, Woodhull, instead of being with his sister, he spent all of the time wandering the city without an obvious purpose, suggesting there was another reason he traveled to New York. The British became very suspicious by the spring of 1779.
Woodhull came up with a new plan and recruited Robert Townsend, who lived at his sister’s boardinghouse. Woodhull discovered Townsend was a secret patriot, having been radicalized by British atrocities in his hometown of Oyster Bay. On June 20, 1779, Townsend sent his first report under the name of “Samuel Culper, Junior.” As a resident, Townsend was better suited to spy in Manhattan. Moreover, his mercantile background gave him a good reason to inquire about British troop movements and shipping.
The American Culper Spy Ring was instrumental in uncovering Gen. Benedict Arnold as a traitor by going over to the British.
This is a long, complex story throughout the Revolutionary War years and too long to put down in the space allotted to this column. In AMC‘s current Revolutionary War TV spy drama series, “Turn: Washington’s Spies,” is based on Alexander Rose’s historical book “Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring” (2007). The entire first season can be found on Netflix. To catch up with this season’s offering, go to “On Demand” to get earlier episodes.
For more history, ready my historical novels at: www.tomorrowsnovels.com

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Historically Speaking: America’s First Spy Network