Saturday, August 27, 2016

American History 101: The Culper Ring and the Revolution

Happy Almost End of Summer Readers!

As the summer draws to a close I am forced to look back and take stock at what I've accomplished this summer.  I have clearly not accomplished a lot of blogging, but I have made some serious headway on the Towering Pines Series.  In conjunction with Boojum Audio and Seth Williams, the audio book for Towering Pines Volume One: Room 509 has finally been released.  If you are an audiophile, like I am, be sure and pick it up!  Not into audiobooks?  That is OK because Towering Pines is also available in paperback, Amazon Kindle and Apple iBooks formats!  Something for everyone, indeed!

I bet you are wondering:  Does Towering Pines tie in with today's BLOG post?  You bet it does!  Today's BLOG centers on The Culper Ring.  And for those who have read Towering Pines Volume One, you know the story hinges on the fictional history of a military school that actually existed and was rooted in the real history of the United States and the Civil War.  Well, Towering Pines Volume Two is steeped in the rich history of the United States and reaches back into the American Revolution and how it lives on throughout the War of 1812, Civil War and even into World War II.  And so I give you today's topic: The Culper Ring.

Late in 1776 British forces occupied New York City and its surrounding territory.  General George Washington knew that if the colonists had any hope of winning the war, New York was the key.  And the key to controlling New York was intelligence.  In September of 1776, Washington began to form the basis for American intelligence gathering.  He sent the young and inexperienced but ambitious Nathan Hale into New York and Long Island to gather intelligence for the war effort.  Unfortunately, Hale was captured and publicly executed by the British on September 22, 1776.  When news of Hale's execution reached Washington he was sickened by it.  He lamented in a letter that the death of Hale was a "terrible waste of a young life."  The death of Hale soured Washington on the idea of spying for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that he did not feel that they were capable of building a spy effort that would not waste more lives with little to no benefit.

But as the ware continued to be a series of engagements in which Washington's best skill was falling back and living to fight another day, he knew more had to be done -- and that intelligence was at the heart of that need.  And as Washington retreated from Brandywine and impotent to do nothing to prevent the fall of Philadelphia, he knew something had to be done.  After a winter of licking his wounds at Valley Forge, securing the assistance of Baron von Steuben and a convincing stalemate at Monmouth Courthouse, Washington pushed once more for intelligence. 

Late in 1778, the British were preparing to leave Philadelphia when the General Clinton realized that they could not defend both Philadelphia and New York, he ordered British forces to leave Philadelphia and help reinforce New York.  This emboldened Washington after he received a letter from Lieutenant Caleb Brewster in Connecticut with an offer to spy on and report on enemy movements in the area.  by August of 1778, Washington was receiving useful information from Brewster including a report on British troops moving towards Newport, Rhode Island.  Washington was excited and invigorated by these reports from Brewster, and he assigned General Charles Scott to handle Brewster and find additional spies in the area.  This was also the point at which Washington recruited (then) Major Benjamimn Tallmadge.  Tallmadge began to deliver the bulk of the useful information to Washington and was quickly given the responsibility for building and managing the new spy network.

Tallmadge recruited Abraham Woodhull of Setauket on Long Island as a main contact for Brewster.  And in a dinner with Tallmadge and Washington on August 25, 1778, he was officially engaged as a spy.  It was at that dinner that the now infamous names were given to Woodhull and Tallmadge -- Samuel Culper, Sr. and Samuel Culper, Jr.  The names were given to recognize the need for anonymity within the ring, but also common enough to be recognized by other spies -- it was taken from Culpeper County in Virginia.  At this point, Scott was still involved but only as oversight.  However, by October of 1778 it became clear that he lacked the desire to run the spy ring and Tallmadge disagreed with how Scott operated.  After the loss of three spies, Tallmadge was given control of the spy ring - and the Culper Ring was officially born.

The ring operated successfully from late 1778 through 1783, and once it was established engaged six key spies: Abraham Woodhull, Robert Townsend, Caleb Brewster, Austin Row and the unknown female Agent 355.  The actual identity of Agent 355 remains unknown today, however it is thought that is might be Anna Strong, Sarah Horton Townsend or Elizabeth Burgin.  Is it also thought that Agent 355 was nothing more than a misreading of Woodhull's letters.  Either way, the "Secret Six", as they are sometimes referred to, were an integral part of the success of the American Revolution.  In addition to the six core members, it is known that Hercules Mulligan and Cato were key in spying efforts.  Mulligan, a friend of Alexander Hamilton and tailor to the British in New York, was key to delivering information from within the city since British soldiers became very chatty while being fitted for their uniforms.  And since soldiers did not think anything of slaves, Mulligan's slave assistant Cato was also useful in this role.  Because of the amount of useful information, and risks to his own well-being (and his family's) Mulligan is often referred to as a Culper sub-agent.

The key to the Culper Ring's successes during the war was its devotion not only to secrecy, but to continuing to develop new methods of cloaking their activities.  The ring was so devoted to secrecy that Washington himself did not know the identities of the individuals in the spy ring outside of Tallmadge and Woodhull during the war.  Each operative, including Washington, was given a code number.  And various activities and locations were given code numbers, as well.  The spy ring would publish encoded articles in newspapers and write their letters to one another using this code and information in between the lines of the letters with their "sympathetic stain."   The "sympathetic stain" was an invisible ink that the Culper Ring developed, and letters that contained the ink would always have the letters "ST" scrawled at the bottom.  Another method devised to ensure the safety of his spies, Washington ordered that all letters be delivered using a dead-drop when at all possible.  This was a system of locations and times that letters would be left by one operative and then picked up by another.  The death of Nathan Hale is partially responsible for Washington's dedication to secrecy and safety.

Learn More about The Culper Ring

Bruce holds a degree in Computer Science from Temple University, a Graduate Certificate in Biblical History from Liberty University, a Masters Degree in American History at American Public University and is a member of the Historical Studies Honor Society.    He has worked in educational and technology for over 18 years, specializes in building infrastructures for schools that work to support the mission of technology in education in the classroom.  He also has served as a classroom teacher in Computer Science, History and English classes.  

Be on the lookout for Towering Pines Volume Two: The Sound and the Fury which is currently a work in progress.

Bruce is the author of five books: Sands of TimeTowering Pines Volume One:Room 509The Star of ChristmasPhiladelphia Story: A Lance Carter Detective Novel and The Insider's Story: A Lance Carter Detective Novel

Monday, August 1, 2016

American History 101: The Election of 1860 and Lincoln as a 3rd Party Candidate

Recently, this meme of Abraham Lincoln has been floating around Facebook.  It shows a very familiar portrait of Abraham Lincoln with the words, "This is what happens when you waste your vote on a 3rd party candidate."  The point of the meme is to illustrate that it is possible to rock the status quo in Washington and make the government do the will of the people.  We can debate all night long on whether the election of Abraham Lincoln was good for the people of this land and for the civil liberties of the enslaved, or if he was no more than a statist dictator who would impose his will on the people whether they liked it or not -- I am happy to engage in that debate.  But there are several things about America in 1860, the political climate and the status of the Republican Party at that time that can not be debated.

Many folks on Facebook are quick to point out that Abraham Lincoln was not a 3rd party candidate because he was a Republican.  Let's take a look at that, and see where it comes out.

The Republican Party was founded in 1854 by disjointed members of the quickly unraveling Whig Party.  It was formed in response to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.  The Kansas-Nebraska Act effectively overturned the Missouri Compromise of 1820.  The Missouri Compromise had previously drawn a line in the sand that said no new states north of a certain line would be admitted to the Union as slave states.  In essence, it meant that no new states would be slave states.  The Kansas-Nebraska Act was a response to the upheaval that was artificially created by southern slave owners who thought that new states should be able to choose for themselves if slavery would be legal or not.  The Kansas-Nebraska Act passed, and the states were allowed to choose for themselves.  In an election that was rife with corruption and people who would come from neighboring slave states to ensure Kansas' entry as a slave state -- slavery won the day.  As a response to this abomination of an election, the cast offs from the anti-slavery Whig Party formed a new party to combat slavery: the Republican Party.

In 1856, the newly minted Republican Party ran their first Presidential Candidate: John Fremont.  Fremont did very well for an upstate winning 11 states and 114 electoral votes.  And by 1860, the Democrats and slave owners knew that the Republicans would pose a real threat to the Oval Office.  They were so afraid that a Republican would win and abolish slavery, that the slave states threatened to secede should Lincoln win.  The threat stood in spite of the Republican candidates numerous guarantees that he had no inclination to abolish slavery and his statement in 1858 that said, "our frame of government, the States which have slavery are to retain it, or surrender at their own pleasure; and that all others---individuals, free-states and national government--are constitutionally bound to leave them alone about it."   In addition to the new Republican threat, the Democratic party was having its own issues.  Many southern democrats thought that not only was Stephen Douglas too moderate on slavery, but that he had no chance of beating Lincoln.  This, and other issues, led to the fracturing of the Democratic party -- and the introduction of the Southern Democratic Party.  The SDP sent John Breckinridge as its nominee for President in 1860.  The Whig Party, a once dominant political force, had all but disbanded but 1860 -- and what was left was rebranded the Constitutional Union Party and they nominated John Bell as their candidate.  So the election of 1860 can be seen as featuring two bruise major parties (Democrat and Constitutional Union) against two upstart minor parties (Republican and Southern Democrat).  This scenario is very much like the election of 2016 where the wounded Democrat and Republican parties are fielding half baked candidates against two strong minor party candidates in the Libertarian and Green parties.

With the fracturing of the country along the lines of slavery and the rights of states to choose their own laws, the political system was fractured, as well.  And in this historic election we say one major theme bubble to the surface: that voting for a minor party can change the fate of the nation, and the world.  The election of Abraham Lincoln was not the result of a fractured Democratic Party.  In fact, if you combined Douglas, Breckenridge and Bell's votes all together Lincoln still wins the Presidency.  The election was a landslide.  It was the people of the United States saying loud and clear that Abraham Lincoln was the President they wanted, and that will would not be denied.

Before 1860, four different political parties had held the Presidency.  And if you count George Washington, who did not hold a party affiliation, it was five.  Since 1860, there have only been two parties with one notable exception -- Andrew Johnson in 1864 was a National Union Party member (and terrible President!).  So, even if we accept that in 1860 Lincoln was a minor, or third party, candidate running against the Democrats and Whigs, it would be the last time in our nations history that something like that was possible.  After the Civil War America emerged as one nation who loved its newly emboldened central government, and continued to vote for it time and time again.  We have gotten to a point in this country where we vote against people and their ideas, instead for the person who best represents us, our interests and the interests of this country.  We have been doing it as a nation for so long, it is a wonder if we can change that pattern - and actually vote for something.

In 2016, you have the opportunity for the first time in a very long time to vote for a candidate who is not a Republican or a Democrat -- and is on the ballot in all 50 states.  Think about that -- and then think about the election of 1860 and what it did for America, slavery, civil rights and the future of our country.  And in November, vote your conscience -- and vote for someone, not against someone else.

Bruce holds a degree in Computer Science from Temple University, a Graduate Certificate in Biblical History from Liberty University and is working towards a Masters Degree in American History at American Public University.  He has worked in educational and technology for over 18 years, specializes in building infrastructures for schools that work to support the mission of technology in education in the classroom.  He also has served as a classroom teacher in Computer Science, History and English classes.  

Bruce is the author of five books: Sands of TimeTowering Pines Volume One:Room 509The Star of ChristmasPhiladelphia Story: A Lance Carter Detective Novel and The Insider's Story: A Lance Carter Detective Novel