It was a hopeless time for the Patriots’ and their fight for freedom. The British had taken control of New York City and Long Island. General Henry Clinton of King George’s redcoats arrived with 30,000 men as an additional 20,000 men in the Royal Navy overtook the harbor in massive warships. The attack was imminent and Washington’s scant army numbered less than 10,000.
In Brian Kilmeade’s and Don Yaeger’s New York Times Bestseller entitled “George Washington’s Secret Six” – a must-read for every American history buff, the authors’ write. “If the number was a blow to Washington, he did not show it. Ever the stoic, he refused to allow this dismal news to throw him into despair. Washington was famed as a man who never lost his nerve in battle. The sound of musket fire, the crash of cannonballs, the smell of smoke – none of that seemed to shake his calm, measured way of surveying the chaos and keeping his wits about him as he led his men forward.”
This fascinating book explains Washington’s desperate situation. The Patriot military alone could not win the war. Thus the General made the decision “to recruit a sophisticated and deeply secretive intelligence network to infiltrate New York City.” Washington knew that the names of the spies and their activities must be carefully guarded for the operation to work.
As a young man in the 1750s, Washington had served as a spy during the French and Indian War. He knew the value of gathering information from the enemy. He knew the danger as well. The activities of espionage was an avenue in which the Patriots could win the war, if his spy ring, later known as the Culper Spy Ring, would maintain sobriety and the clear-headedness needed to report accurately the movements of the British.
It was a big undertaking in August, 1776, but clearly there was no other option.
Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger give the names of the six and their descriptions, one of which was only made known in the twentieth century, and one name is still unknown today:
(1) Robert Townsend, reserved Quaker merchant and reporter who headed the Culper Ring, keeping his identity secret even from Washington.
(2) Austin Roe, the tavern keeper who risked his employment and his life in order to protect the mission.
(3) Caleb Brewster, the brash young longshoreman who loved baiting the British and agreed to ferry messages between Connecticut, where Washington and his army had escaped, and New York City, the British stronghold.
(4) Abraham Woodhull, the curmudgeonly (and surprisingly nervous) Long Island bachelor with business and family excuses for traveling to Manhattan.
(5) James Rivington, the owner of a posh New York City coffeehouse and print shop where high-ranking British officers gossiped about secret operations.
(6) Agent 355, a woman whose identity remains unknown but who seems to have used her wit and charm to coax officers to share vital secrets.
Setauket, NY was a small village at the time and located in Long Island. This was the place where the ring of spies conducted their New York City intrigues from 1776 until 1783, when the British boarded their ships finally leaving what were once their American colonies, but now was acknowledged as the United States of America.
Colonel Tallmadge, chief intelligence officer for George Washington, wrote, “Every countenance seemed to express the triumph of republican principles over the military despotism which had so long pervaded this now happy city. … It was indeed a joyful day to the officers and soldiers of our army, and all the friends of American independence. … The joy of meeting friends, who had long been separated by the cruel rigors of war, cannot be described.”
As the “Secret Six" resumed their ordinary lives made extraordinary by the ring-of-freedom, the stories of bravery became lost-in-time, just as they would have wanted. These souls of exemplary heroism and patriotism, which was unknown to their contemporaries, are now acknowledged. Their names are known and the details of clandestine operatives preserved in a way the Culper Spy Ring would have never thought.
You see George Washington kept their letters in his papers so that the world would know.
Anne McKee is a writer and storyteller. See her website: www.annemckee.net