George Washington's Spies

An Essay By LoriAnn // 3/12/2011

I haven't posted anything for a while now--I apologize. It's been midterms, and I've finally figured out where I want to start editing Ander, and I've been working on Flyer for a contest...so I've been a bit distracted. Until we can return to the shady glens of Sherwood, I present to you a speech that I recently did--though you get the nice version without the sweaty hands, shaking knees and stammering voice. You also don't get my nice PowerPoint pictures, but I don't think you'll mind too much. :) Anyway, enjoy, and I'll get back to Robin and Marian soon. Promise.

 

Close your eyes.
 
Now, picture this: It’s a dark, misty night. There’s a quarter moon hanging crooked in the sky like a drunken Cheshire-cat’s grin. Three men in a boat with muffled oars creak softly across a murky river, their faces hooded and a single shuttered lantern casting a skinny beam of light across the water.
 
“There he is,” one man whispers, his voice carrying all too well across the cool river.
 
“Shh,” another warns.
 
Silently, the men pull the boat up to a small, rugged dock, where a fourth fellow waits, his long coat a slightly darker shadow against the darkness of the night.
 
“711 sends his greetings,” he says.
 
“Mr. Culper sends his,” replies the man in the bow of the boat.
 
With a nod, the man on the dock pulls out a rough package from his pocket. “Godspeed the revolution,” he whispers, and hands it down to the men in the boat.
 
In exchange, the man in the boat passes him a slim package of letters. “Godspeed."
 
A sudden noise from upstream catches their attention. “We’d best be off,” warns the man at the oars.
 
Within moments, all four men have vanished—the boat rowing silently back downstream and the man in the coat disappearing into the darkness and the mist beyond the river.
 
All is silent.
 
Ok, you can open your eyes now. Now tell me—what does this sound like? A James Bond movie or a Tom Clancy novel? Maybe a little bit of Indiana Jones?
 
Well, what would you say if I told you that it was the year 1779, and that the letters were intended for the leader of the spies—known to them simply as 711, the master of the Culper Ring?
 
Today, we know him as George Washington, first official president of these United States.
 
This is a part of history that many people know little-to-zip about. George Washington is always pictured as an old man in a wig and too-big fake teeth, standing proudly with his hand on a Bible or something. No one thinks to remember that even this Founding Father was once a red-headed young man, brave and daring in the cause of freedom. And, in fact, a darn good spymaster.
 
Today, I’d like to shed a little bit of light on this shady piece of history. I’ll tell you something about those who served in George Washington’s spy ring; give you some facts about how they worked during the Revolutionary war; and share with you a mystery about the Culper Ring that has baffled historians to this very day.
 
 
 
The Culper Ring: Who
 
First, the members of the Culper Ring. Nathan Hale was actually one of the first spies of the American Revolution, but—as we all know—he was captured and hanged as a traitor in 1776. After his death, Washington and his allies realized that they needed a better, more reliable way to gather information about the British troop movements. In response to this need, Washington’s intelligence chief, Benjamin Tallmadge organized a band of rebels to serve as his spies—including Aaron Woodhull and Robert Townsend, who became known by their aliases, Culper Senior and Culper Junior. While Benjamin Tallmadge was technically the head of the ring, much of the work was done under the direct supervision of George Washington himself.
 
Also in the group were people like tavern-keeper Austin Roe, boatman Caleb Brewster, and even women—like Anna Strong, of Long Island. See, the way the information got from Townsend—that is, from Culper Junior—to Washington was like this:
 
Townsend got his information from a variety of sources—one of which we’ll talk about later. He would give them to Austin Roe, who would ride to Setauket and drop them off at what spies call a “dead drop”: a box in the middle of a cow pasture. The cow pasture belonged to Aaron Woodhull, who would retrieve the information, add his own, and take it to Caleb Brewster. Brewster, in his boat, would row across Long Island Sound, to a cove as directed by Anna Strong’s clothesline. Yes, I said clothesline. Anna Strong would signal that Washington’s man was waiting for the information by hanging a black petticoat on her line. The number of handkerchiefs hanging beside it would tell Brewster which cove he was to go to.
 
The Culper Ring was widespread and complicated, a nest of spies and counter spies and double agents stretching all across the American countryside.
 
 
The Culper Ring: How
 
How did they manage to avoid British detection? I’m glad you asked.
 
Under the leadership of Benjamin Tallmadge, the ring obtained and used a two-part secret ink—unprecedented at the time. There were invisible inks, of course, some of which used acid to reveal their secrets and some of which used fire—like the old kids’ trick of writing with lemon juice and then heating it to make it give up its hidden message. An American physicist at the beginning of the Revolutionary war sent invisible messages to his cohorts with such inks, and left a tiny “f” (for fire) or “a” (for acid) in the top corner of his letter to let the recipient know how to reveal the hidden writing.
 
George Washington’s secret ink, however, is still a secret. The first part of this “Sympathetic Stain”, as he called it, was used to write the message—often between the lines of a real letter or in a blank sheet in a sheaf of paper—and the person who received the letter had to use the second part of the stain to reveal the message. To this day, we don’t know exactly what chemicals were used.
 
To make their messages even more secure, Washington and the Culper Ring also used a code created by Tallmadge: a complicated system of numbers that stood for important words. For example, “New York” was encoded as 727, “letter” was 356, and “ink” was 286. They didn’t bother to encode words that wouldn’t give anything away, so the phrase, “every letter is searched at the entrance to New York, so use the ink we sent you,” would simply be written as “every 356 is searched at the entrance to 727, so use the 286 we sent you.” See? Secret, but not too hard to do. Just encoded enough that no one without the key would understand.
 
And this is all in addition to all the dead drops, double agents, trackers and other means of avoiding detection that the Culper Ring employed. Truly, they were the predecessor of the modern-day intelligence agencies.
 
 
Agent 355
 
Now that I’ve explained to you what exactly the Culper Ring was, and how they completed one of their most important operations, I’d like to introduce you to one of the greatest mysteries of the Culper Ring:
 
Agent 355.
 
According to Benjamin Tallmadge’s code, 355 simply means “lady”. Robert Townsend, the young, handsome Quaker with a smile that women melted over, wrote one letter in which he made reference to “a 355 of my acquaintance”—that is, a lady he knew—from whom he hoped to get some important information. Nothing more is known about her from fact, but much educated guessing and nearly two hundred years of legend have fleshed out this femme fatal of the Revolution.
 
It is assumed that she almost had to be a woman from a good family, perhaps part of the group of well-bred women who surrounded Major John Andre—he was reportedly a bit of a ladies’ man, after all. If this were the case, she would have been in prime position to gather information on the British to pass on to Townsend.
 
And there’s the interesting connection. Here, we move from the realm of the logical assumption into the fog of conjecture, theory, and legend. Some tales claim that 355 was actually Townsend’s sweetheart—his common-law wife whom he could not marry for fear of exposing her connection with the rebels. At one point, in 1780, Townsend actually resigned his post as Culper Junior. One can presume that his guilt in loving a woman he couldn’t protect and provide for as a spy master partially led to this resignation. However, when he asked that she also quit the Ring and flee with him, she refused. We also are told that Townsend had found out in April of that year that the Lady was carrying his child.
 
Perhaps because of this, Townsend returned to his position a mere two months later.
After Benedict Arnold betrayed the Americans, he had many of the spies he knew of arrested by British officers and put aboard a prison ship called the Jersey. According to a letter from Aaron Woodhull—remember Culper Senior?—on or about October 20th, “one that hath always been serviceable to this correspondence” (that is, the spies) had been arrested. Legend has it that this was, in fact, 355.
 
If the legends are true, and if she was indeed on board the Jersey, and if she was actually carrying Townsend’s child, then the story of this Revolutionary femme fatal has a tragic ending. In the depths of that hell-ship, amid the filth and the horror of an eighteenth-century prison ship, the Lady gave birth to a son. Weakened by her labor and the terror of her ordeal, she only lived long enough to name her child Robert Townsend Junior. Using the last of her strength to place her son in caring hands, the Lady breathed her last, only one of the many victims of Benedict Arnold’s treachery.
 
There is no complete record of the prisoners aboard the Jersey, unfortunately, so we may never know her name. However, it is known, through Townsend family diaries, that Robert Townsend was greatly disturbed by something at the time, though no one seems to know why. Or perhaps Townsend’s Quaker family wouldn’t have wanted to talk about their son’s sketchy relationship and his illegitimate child. To me, it seems likely that Townsend knew that the Lady was aboard the Jersey and that he was unable to save her.
 
All of this would be perfectly unfounded theory—fiction, even—if it weren’t for one fact:
 
Town records show a Robert Townsend Jr.—but they don’t tell us who his mother was.
 
Who was this woman known to history only as 355? Why has her name, of all the Culper operatives, not been preserved? We may never know anything more than these vague theories. But it is certain enough in my mind that 355, whoever she was, was a brave and patriotic woman, ready to give her all in the service of her country. No—let me rephrase that. She was a brave and patriotic lady.
 
 
Conclusion
 
I hope that today I’ve managed to keep your attention and gotten you at least a little bit interested in this lesser-known piece of Revolutionary War history. I at least, find it fascination to picture George Washington—young, red-headed and clever—surrounded by his band of other rebels scheming against the redcoats. Benjamin Tallmadge, Aaron Woodhull, Robert Townsend, and Caleb Brewster—all brave men with a brave cause and the brains to outwit the British to win the war. And we can’t forget the Lady, though we know so little about her beyond the legends and stories.
 
So there it is: the story of the Culper Ring. It’s a story of intrigue, romance, betrayal and grand loyalty. It’s the story of the American Revolution.
 
It’s the story of George Washington’s spies.

Comments

Interesting

I really enjoyed it. But you left out a letter in the post title

Julie | Sat, 03/12/2011

Formerly Kestrel

 Wow! Forget becoming an

 Wow! Forget becoming an editor, you should tour home-school convetions as a lecturer on little known history. ;0) This was a really interesting essay, Loriann. I wonder why none of the history books I read as a kid included it? Revolutionary War history might have kept my attention better. 

Heather | Sat, 03/12/2011

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And now our hearts will beat in time/You say I am yours and you are mine...
Michelle Tumes, "There Goes My Love"

What Heather said!

Seriously, this was a great essay, LoriAnn. Loved it! You needn't have worried about keeping my attention--you have me riveted throughout the whole thing!

Great job! Wish I could have heard the live presentation : )

Mary | Mon, 03/14/2011

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Brother: Your character should drive a motorcycle.
Me: He can't. He's in the wilderness.
Brother: Then make it a four-wheel-drive motorcycle!

I was completely intrigued.

Absolutely fascinating.  I never heard of these things before.

James | Tue, 03/15/2011

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"The idea that we should approach science without a philosophy is itself a philosophy... and a bad one, because it is self-refuting." -- Dr. Jason Lisle

I'd never heard of it either.

I'd never heard of it either. Surprising, because it's gripping. You presented it verra well.

Anna | Tue, 03/15/2011

I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right. --The Book Thief