Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Culper Spy Ring

Have you ever heard of the Culper Ring? It was new to me. The Culper Ring is a group of six spies that George Washington used during the Revolutionary War to gather information about British forces strength and movements in the New York area. Manhattan and Long Island were occupied territory, Washington had the feeling that the war could not be won without defeating the British in New York.

George Washington’s field headquarters was in New Jersey and the information gathered in Manhattan and on Long Island could not be delivered directly to him. At that time communication was always done through letters and clandestine transportation was slow and dangerous. Many times the spies destroyed their messages, lest they be detected.

Think about the situation. You live in occupied territory where most of the people are loyal to King George and the few people that supported the revolution had to keep that fact hidden. Spies were hesitant to serve and by necessity had to do business with the British.

Washington asked his friend Benjamin Tallmadge to set up the spy network. Tallmadge realized he must use people that were established in occupied territory to gather information and people who had right-of-passage to carry messages. Tallmadge acted as chief of intelligence. He recruited Abraham Woodhull and asked him to recruit the rest of the team. Woodhull assumed the code name Sam Culper with code number 722. Woodhull recruited Robert Townsend who ran a store. He was known as Culper Junior, with code number 723. Woodhull became Culper, Senior. The two of them recruited James Rivington, who owned a coffee house/tavern and printed the Rivington Gazette. Austin Roe, code number 40 was recruited to deliver messages Woodhull collected from Townsend and Rivington. Roe delivered the messages to Caleb Brewster, code number 725. Brewster had a boat to go across Long Island Sound to Connecticut and on to Washington in New Jersey.

They required strict secrecy of their identity and actions.  Often only their handler knew who they were. As a matter of fact, Robert Townsend’s name was not discovered until 1929 when the historian Morton Pennypacker was given the Townsend family papers. The one female agent was known as 355 and her identity is still not known. She is assumed to be a lady of means who had access to British soldiers that occupied her home during this period. Agent 355 was arrested and her fate is unknown.

The spy ring tried and used several techniques including dead drops, code numbers for names and locations, disappearing ink and round about delivery routes. When the heat was on they may be out of commission for weeks at a time. The ring stopped Benedict Arnold’s plot to cede West Point to the British. They helped divert the British to allow the French Navy to land in Rhode Island to support the revolution. They foiled a British counterfeiting scheme and the stole a British Navy Code Book that help Washington win the battle or Yorktown.

The reason we have information about the Culper Ring is that Washington saved all their letters. Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger tell the Culper story in their book, “George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring that Saved the American Revolution.” I did not find this book as readable as their newest book, “Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates,” but it may be due to the number of people involved in keeping the spy game working. The story is still fascinating and worth the effort to read.


  1. I am looking forward to reading
    about the Culper six spy ring. Fascinating story about some brave men. It sounds, based on what I read in this blog entry, like these people helped win some battles against the British and helped give us a country. Unsung heroes.

  2. Thanks for reading my blog. It is an interesting part of history I missed in school.