George Washington's Secret Six
Six that saved the war
By Steven Martinovich
"Secret operations are essential in war," wrote Sun Tzu in the 6th century B.C. and nothing has changed in the intervening millennia. Armies have long relied on espionage to gain tactical and strategic advantage and a nation unable to gain worthwhile intelligence on its enemies is generally doomed to defeat. It was a reality that Gen. George Washington was faced with in the early days of the Revolutionary War – not only was the young nation completely outmatched in raw military power, it had few sources of secret knowledge about the British to try and counter that advantage.
As Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaegar relate in George Washington's Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution, that problem was solved by the Culper Ring. It was a group of ordinary men and one woman who came together in the wake of Nathan Hale's death to gather intelligence on the British military in New York City and surrounding areas. Although they didn't often provide earth-shattering information to Washington, they did give him a window into the regular operations of the British in the area which allowed him to gauge their intentions in both the northern and southern theatre of operations.
As history records, Washington and his largely untrained forces were easily pushed out of New York in the summer of 1776 by a vastly superior British military. While he retained control of much of the surrounding land, the city itself was the key to the northern colonies. From there the British controlled a key supply route and send their powerful navy virtually anywhere up and down the coast and into the interior. It also provided a base of operations which allowed them to quickly send troops where necessary.
Washington realized that he wouldn't be able to regain the city with a direct assault so it became imperative to gain as much intelligence from inside the city. He turned to a bright young officer named Robert Tallmadge to organize a super-secret spy ring to funnel him that information. Tallmadge eventually recruited six civilians who thanks to their connections and discretion fulfilled Washington's needs.
They were Robert Townsend, a merchant whose penchant for secrecy precluded even Washington from ever knowing his identity, tavern owner Austin Rowe, longshoreman Caleb Brewster who delighted in outrunning British boats so he could deliver the secret messages down the line, Abraham Woodhull who travelled frequently to Manhattan due to his business and family connections, printer James Rivington who publically was a Loyalist that hobnobbed with the British elite, and Agent 355, a woman who used her feminine wiles to separate British officers from their secrets.
As Kilmeade and Yaegar relate, the methods that the six utilized would be familiar to spy agencies today. Dead drops, invisible ink, code words and cut outs between agents allowed the spies to operate undetected – with the exception of the unfortunate Agent 355 – for years and eventually deliver within days information to Washington that allowed him to keep the British guessing as to his true intentions. The six were in the truest sense of the term a force multiplier for Washington, significantly making his meagre forces more powerful without even having to win a victory. It was a job that the six did largely without the expectation of financial gain and with the knowledge that discovery would mean death.
It is surprising that in this age, nearly 250 years after the American Revolution, that there remain little known stories. It is thanks to George Washington's Secret Six that the story of the Culper Ring is once again known outside the Central Intelligence Agency, where new agents are taught about the six and their methods, and historians. Americans owe a debt of gratitude to these largely unknown heroes and Kilmeade and Yaegar deserve praise for bringing their actions to new light that both honours their subjects and tells a story worthy of any on the big screen.
Steven Martinovich is the founder and editor of Enter Stage Right.
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