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

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