Guns & Politics: The Culper Ring

Susan Smith | Columnist

It has been remarkably and tragically easy to remain in a state of perpetual confusion with regard to the goal of the average American intelligence agent in the age of Trump.  It feels horrible saying that, as one can be certain that there are many such government employees who are loyal to our new Commander in Chief and determined to do whatever it takes to demonstrate that in fighting for their country.  However, with the ever-present kerfuffle now going on in America vis a vis its intelligence community, it really might be time to examine those who are entrusted with this awesome, and vital, national responsibility.

What is it that an intelligence operative is supposed to do, exactly?   It would seem that it is not so easy to do, and even more difficult to explain.  Perhaps the best way to explore this crazy world in America is through its innovator and one of its most brilliant operatives, General George Washington.

Yes, it was the one and only George Washington who actually loved the murky world of espionage and the people in it.  He was really good at it, too, as was made evident in many different such circumstances during the fight to make our nation a free and independent country.  It was said at the time of the manifestation of this talent by America’s first leader that:

“The emergence of an organized American intelligence community under Washington’s watch shouldn’t come as a surprise.  Compared to the formidable British forces, Washington’s army was undertrained, understaffed, underequipped and underfunded.  In order to win, he needed to outmaneuver and outsmart the enemy.”

Washington actually took his role as spymaster in chief very seriously.  The General not only “laid out the groundwork for today’s complex intelligence community,” he also “recognized that civilian observation, mobilization and insight was (sic) just as important as military might.”

Without the demonstration of this foresight, the outcome of the American Revolution War might have been quite different, as the war for independence from Great Britain was “not just one of battles and firearms, it was one of intelligence.”  As one defeated British intelligence officer was quoted as having said: “Washington did not really outfight the British.  He simply outspied us.”

Is this the truth?  Not only our greatest Patriot, our first Army’s Commanding General and our first President of the United States, was George Washington also America’s first and foremost spy?

It has actually been said about our foremost American that George Washington was:

“A key practitioner of military intelligence during the Revolutionary War more than 230 years ago.  In fact, General Washington was more deeply involved in intelligence operations than any American General-in-Chief until Dwight Eisenhower during World War II.  His skills in the black arts helped secure key victories, hastened the end of hostilities and significantly contributed to the United States’ winning its independence from Great Britain.”

During the war itself, Washington ordered that more than “10% of his military funds (be spent on) intelligence operations.”  It was said of the General that “military setbacks around New York early in the war convinced Washington that he needed an elite detachment dedicated to tactical reconnaissance that reported directly to him.”

Perhaps the most remarkable example of Washington’s success in this area was the effort known as the Culper Ring which occurred in New York City and Long Island in the summer of 1778.  This was at a time when General Sir Henry Clinton occupied the city, while Washington’s forces were scattered around outside it, in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.  Washington needed intelligence on Clinton’s forces and intentions, and “ordered Major Benjamin Tallmadge to establish an espionage net.”  In mid-1778, General George Washington appointed Tallmadge the head of the Continental Army’s secret service; as such, he was charged with establishing a permanent spy network that would operate behind enemy lines on Long Island.

Known as the Culper Spy Ring, Tallmadge’s homegrown network would become the most effective of any intelligence-gathering operation on either side during the Revolutionary War.

Tallmadge recruited only those whom he could absolutely trust, beginning with his childhood friend, the farmer Abraham Woodhull, and Caleb Brewster, whose main job during the entire Revolution was commanding a fleet of boats known as “whaleboats” to be used against British and Tory shipping on Long Island Sound. Brewster, perhaps the most daring of the group, was also the only member whom the British had definitely identified as a spy.

Tallmadge went by the code name John Bolton, while Woodhull went by the name of Samuel Culper.  Woodhull, who began running the group’s day-to-day operations on Long Island, also personally traveled back and forth to New York to collect information and observe relevant naval maneuvers to transmit to Washington; he would evaluate reports and determine what information would be taken to his Commander-in-Chief.  Woodhull lived in constant anxiety of being discovered, and by the summer of 1779 he had recruited another man, the well-connected New York merchant Robert Townsend, to serve as the Culper Ring’s primary source in the city. Townsend wrote his reports as “Samuel Culper, Jr.” and Woodhull went by “Samuel Culper, Sr.”

A local Setauket woman and Woodhull’s neighbor, Anna Smith Strong, was also said to have aided in the spy ring’s activities. Her husband, the local Patriot judge Selah Strong, had been confined on the British prison ship HMS Jersey in 1778, and Anna Strong lived alone for much of the war. She reportedly used the laundry on her clothesline to leave signals regarding Brewster’s location for meetings with Woodhull.

The Culpeper Ring eventually had about 20 members who either reported on British activities on Manhattan Island or conveyed the intelligence out of the city to Tallmadge’s couriers in Connecticut, who then rode to Washington’s encampment with the information. Tallmadge’s operatives practiced sophisticated tradecraft that included: 1) code names; 2) cover stories; 3) secret writing; 4) encryption; and 5) dead drops.

Despite all this, for additional security reasons, Washington demanded that Tallmadge not “tell him who was in the Culper Ring.”  The benefits that accrued from this remarkably well executed effort were legion, and did much to help our Commander in Chief in winning his war.

For example, after learning from the Culper Ring that the British planned to attack a French expedition that had just landed in Newport, Rhode Island, Washington planted information with known British agents indicating that he intended to move against New York, and he staged a march toward the city.  Those ploys persuaded Clinton to call back his troops which had been headed towards Rhode Island.

The Culper Spy Ring has also been credited with uncovering information involving the treasonous correspondence between Benedict Arnold and John Andre, chief intelligence officer under General Henry Clinton, commander of the British forces in New York, and who were conspiring to give the British control over the army fort at West Point. Major Andre was captured and hung as a spy in October, 1780, on Washington’s orders.

Though it is impossible to be specific as to exactly what and how many valuable things were done in this murky world during the Revolutionary War, it is obvious that without General Washington’s intelligence aided victories on the battlefield, there would have been “no independence, no United States, no Constitution and no President Washington.”  While it is hard to gauge the precise contribution that intelligence operations made to his victories, General George Washington believed that the Revolutionary War “would have lasted longer, cost more lives, and caused more social and economic upheaval without all of the clandestine activities” that were conducted during this pivotal time.

Susan Smith brings an international perspective to her writing by having lived primarily in western Europe, mainly in Paris, France, and the U.S., primarily in Washington, D.C. She authored a weekly column for Human Events on politics with historical aspects. She also served as the Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Children, Family, Drugs and Alcoholism, and Special Assistant to the first Ambassador of Afghanistan following the initial fall of the Taliban. Ms. Smith is a graduate of Wheeling Jesuit University and Georgetown University, as well as the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris, France, where she obtained her French language certification. Ms. Smith now makes her home in McLean, Va.

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