Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Culper Spy Ring Is Watching You, Seriously They Are

So you think the CIA and FBI was just created out of thin air? WRONG! The United States has a long history of spying and gathering information on foreign nations. It all began in the hot summer of 1778 in the middle of the Revolutionary War. It started in a big way too, reporting from behind enemy lines in British occupied New York City. It was started by none other the our first President George Washington, as he saw it necessary for the cause of the Independence. So with an order from Washington the Culper Ring was born and the history of American spying was underway.

                                                                                       history.com

Now why would Washington wait until 1778? Well because the American's were finally picking up so momentum and had the British on their heels, kind of. As the smoke cleared after the Battle of Monmouth, the American's forced the British to retreat back to New York City. The Americans were on a roll at this point, Washington had turned his retreat during the summer of 1776 to a real ass kicking tour through New Jersey by the summer of 1778. At this  point Washington knew he had the British trapped on Manhattan and knowing the size of Manhattan he knew it would be easy to gather intelligence by using spies. He intrusted Major Benjamin Tallmadge, of New York and because he had some experience in spying on the British, to find those loyal to the cause of Independence. He first enlisted Nathan Hale, as he was known very well by Tallmadge and Hale was also familiar with spying on the British. It was from here that the Culper Ring grew into a complex network which would supply Washington and the Continental Army with much needed information on British activities.

                                                                             bluecollardistro.com




With the Culper Ring now established, the network of spies spread across the New York City area. Now, Tallmadge and Hale were both well known patriots, so they entrusted Abraham Woodhull, a friend of Tallmadge, and Robert Townsend a well known merchant in Manhattan. It was through these two men that the network reported to Washington.Woodhull was the first to start spying on the British. He would travel into Manhattan and pretend to visit his sister. However, it was pretty obvious he wasn't visiting his sister and was just wandering around like a lost tourist looking for British troop movements and just plain snooping around. It was after the British tried to arrest him that Woodhull knew he needed an inside man. That inside man was Robert Townsend. Townsend was able to more easily find out about British troop movements and about British supply ships coming in to the port. It was then between the these two that the Culper Ring gets it's name. For some reason Woodhull signed a letter to Townsend as "Samuel Culper Sr." which Townsend's response letter was signed "Samuel Culper Jr." It was in these letters that the two communicated in a coded language described as "gibberish." Now what pushed these two to help in the fight for Independence? Well Woodhull is believed to have started spying as a form of probation for illegal trading on the black market. As for Townsend, he was inspired by the words of Thomas Paine's Common Sense, the mistreatment against his family and friends by the British and lastly was his relationship with Woodhull. Together these two men gathered much need information and played a key roll in the fight for American Independence.

                                                               homework.northport.k12.ny.us




So how did Woodhull and Townsend pull it off? Was it just the two of them? How did they get the information around? Well they had free range to do whatever they wanted since they were spies. The first step was to grow the network and gather as much information as possible. They needed a link between Woodhull, in Connecticut, and Townsend, in Manhattan, so they employed Austin Roe as a courier, another friend of Woodhull's. Roe's cousin's Phillip and Nathan also acted as couriers depending on the location of Washington headquarters. Townsend also used his own sister Sarah and cousin James to wander New York and take notes on the British. They also used other local business owners to report on movements and just general gossip. One of their key spies was James Rivington. He was so because he worked as a publisher for the Royal Gazzette which was the pro British newspaper in New York City. It was through these spies that intel on the British was gathered and relayed back to Washington himself. But how? Well the information gathered in the city was given to Austin Roe. Roe would then take the information back to Long Island with the "supplies" he was picking up. Then a signal from Woodhull's neighbor Anna Strong would give an alert to Caleb Brewster to come collect the information from Roe. From there the intel was taken across the Long Island Sound and then onto Washington through American controlled Connecticut. Sounds complicated right? Well it was, but they pulled it off and you won't believe some of the events that would have taken place in the Culper Ring wasn't there to foil the British plans.

                                                                      benedicitarnoldaward.com

Now what is the Culper Ring's biggest claim to fame? Foiling the plan of America's most famous bad guy, Benedict Arnold. For my faithful reads, mainly my mom, will know that I am a staunch defender of Mr. Arnold and his actions in the cause of American Liberty. Now with that said I will put my personal views on Arnold aside and tell how the Culper Ring saved West Point from falling into the hands of the British. Major Andre, Arnold's contact with the British, was stopped at a checkpoint in Tarrytown, New York. When Andre was stopped he had not only the plans to West Point but a letter written by Arnold on how he planned to hand over West Point. As word spread through the American ranks Major Benjamin Tallmadge, aka "Samuel Culper Jr.," found out and demanded that Andre be turned over to Washington, instead the commanding officer had Andre turned over to, Colonel Jameson, who then turned Andre over to Benedict Arnold...smart move right? So as we know Arnold then switched sides and became known as America's greatest traitor, even though I strongly disagree and think Jane Fonda should take that spot. That may be the Culper Ring's biggest and most bad ass part of the Revolutionary War, but without the work they did behind enemy lines and without the information gathered in New York City the cause may have been lost and Washington and his forces may have never been as successful as they were.

                                                 comicvine.com

Yes, the legend of 355 lives on. For those comic fanatics, you may be familiar with the name 355 from the DC Comic line of Y:The Last Man. Now, 355 in the comic mirrors the 355 in real life. 355 was a "bodyguard who works for a mysterious US government agency," according to Wikipedia. But little is known about the actual 355, so little even a name is unknown. Most historian believe the 355 was a woman from a Loyalist family which would explain how the the amount of information was gathered out of New York City. The reason for that belief is that information about Major Andre when he was stationed in New York flowed like water from a faucet, but when Andre was out of the city the well basically dried up. Aside from her link to New York, there is only one other mention of 355 in any Culper Ring letters. The identity and value of 355 has never been found. Some believe that 355 was Anna Strong, a link in the spy chain. Others feel that 355 was inside the city, mingling with the British officers and officials and that 355 was code for "lady." Some say that 355 was found out to be a spy, imprisoned and died on The Jersey, a British prison ship. Then there are some that say 355 never even existed and that the mention of 355 was in reference to something else. One thing is for sure, when dealing with a spy ring, nothing will ever be truly known. However, if 355 was real, the information she obtained would make her a hero, right up there with Molly Pitcher and Nancey Hart. Without the work of an agent like 355, the American fight could have taken longer and cost greater.

                                                       threevillagehistoricalsociety.org


What do we learn from the Culper Ring? Well we learn that without them, the American cause for Independence may have not happened. We can look back and see that without the work they did the British may have had much more success against the Americans. The information gathered on British movements, forts, shipments and plans was proven to be key to Continental Army. The Culper Ring spoiled the plans of Benedict Arnold and stopped countless attacks on unsuspecting American regulars and militia. The Culper Ring is full of mystery which makes it alluring. However, the little that is known about them makes them harder to study and even harder to understand. What we do know is that the Culper Ring set the standard for how America would gather intelligence. They and they alone risked their and their families lives every time they walked the streets of New York. It was the one weakness that the British never saw coming, spies within their own stronghold. Not knowing who your enemy is will only ensure your defeat, and the Culper Ring was that enemy. Today, there are no monuments to the work of the spy ring, no mention in American History classes, just talks amongst history buffs like myself and the occasional History Chanel show. But they must be looked into more, for the simple reason that without them Washington would not have some of the success that makes him the hero he is today. 

12 comments:

  1. Is George Washington 711? I read it somewhere but couldn't be bothered to do some research.

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    1. What was the Significance of the (HISTORY) behind Washington's number?

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  2. Replies
    1. How would you know

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    2. According to http://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/the-revolutionary-war/spying-and-espionage/the-culper-code-book/ George Washington's Mount Vernon he was 711

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  3. I am doing a project...What were some of the major battles won because of the Culper spy ring?

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    1. They tricked the British out of their surprise attack on the French as soon as they arrived at Newport, they found out that the British were making counterfeit money and got Continental dollars retired, warned Washington against splitting his forces against a false attack by the British Lt Gen Clinton, and discovered that Benedict Arnold was planning to betray his close friend Washington. Those are the ones I've read about.

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  4. In mid-September 1776, the American officer Nathan Hale was hanged without trial in New York City.

    In 1778, the Culpers Spy Ring was established by Ben Tallmadge. Hale had nothing to do with Arnold, or West Point, and was arrested during his first mission.

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  5. Yes, please note what the previous poster has said about Nathan Hale and correct your information. Nathan Hale's Spy mission was a complete and total disaster lasting all of 12 hours. He was hung two years before Tallmadge was assigned to establish the Culper Spy Ring.

    ~MJB

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