Friday, September 6, 2013

But One Life

I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.

File:Nathan Hale Signature.svg

One of the most interesting parts of the American Revolution is the extensive collection of spy rings who gathered intelligence for the continental army. The Culper spy ring was one of these, one of the best.

This ring managed to continue to successfully send information to General Washington throughout the war. A major feat, considering that the countryside was occupied by the enemy, who kept as much control on the travel of the inhabitants as possible. 
The Culper ring was started in November of 1778 by Major Benjamin Tallmadge under direct orders of General Washington. Major Tallmadge was also to report the gathered intelligence directly to General Washington.
The ring was to target New York City, which was, at that time, the headquarters of the British army. This information would give the American continental army a badly needed advantage over the British forces.
The continental army was greatly inferior to British army. They were untrained, had lesser numbers and inferior weaponry. The Americans needed every advantage they could get to survive, let alone win, the war.
Major Tallmadge, a Yale graduate and an officer in the Second Continental Light Dragoons, was an ideal choice. He had been born on Long Island and had many trusted friends who still lived there. Many of the agents involved in transmitting the information were among Major Tallmadge’s friends.   
The first member of the Culper ring was a man by the name of Abraham Woodhull. Major Tallmadge gave him the code name ‘Samuel Culper, Senior’ from which the ring derived its name. Major Tallmadge was referred to as John Bolton within the ring. General Washington was known as agent 711. Washington never had direct contact with any of his spies, except Major Tallmadge who only handled the spy rings.  
Abraham Woodhull became a ‘receiver’ of information from the agents inside New York City. He then sent the information to Major Tallmadge, who would then report to General Washington.
One of the agents inside New York City was known only as Samuel Culper, Junior until 1930, when handwriting expert finally connected Culper Junior’s handwriting with that of Robert Townsend, a Quaker merchant whose business was in New York City.
Robert Townsend was, again, in an ideal situation. He was a Quaker, which meant that he was supposed to be against war, but like many Quakers of the time, he chose to take a side. He was a merchant, which put him in contact with many people. Townsend was also an amateur journalist and wrote occasionally for the New York Royal Gazette, a strongly Tory newspaper. Robert Townsend continued to write and publish pro British articles to mask the fact that he was actually working for the patriots.
In 1959, it was proved that the printer James Rivington, who was the publisher of the Royal Gazette, was actually a patriot working with Culper Junior gathering information. James Rivington never told of his activities, so he was always hated as a ‘Tory’ and died in poverty, despised by his fellow Americans.
Because James Rivington was the printer of and Robert Townsend was a reporter for a Tory newspaper, they were trusted by the pro British population of New York and made the acquaintance of many British officers, one of whom was Major John Andre.
Major Andre was a British spy connected to the defection of General Benedict Arnold, who was later captured and executed by the Americans. James Rivington published Major Andre’s poetry and gained much information from him without his knowledge.
The intermediate between Culper, Senior and Culper, Junior was a tavern keeper named Austen Roe who purchased his supplies from Robert Townsend. This gave them a way to send secret information in unsuspicious legitimate packages, often of regular blank paper.
Culper Junior had a secret ink, which he used to write his messages to Culper, Senior. This ink was invented by Sir James Jay, an English doctor whose hobby was chemistry. Sir James just happened to be the brother of John Jay, who was an influential patriot working with General Washington in intelligence and counterintelligence.
If the ink was used, the writing, which was invisible, would only appear if treated with its developer. Other chemicals would not reveal the writing and neither would heat. Major Tallmadge was the only person who possessed the developer and Culper, Junior was the only person who possessed the ink, so that if the spies’ houses were searched by the British, only one chemical, if discovered, would not be able to be identified as easily if it did not have its developer with it.
Culper, Junior sent his communications to Austin Roe, who would then deliver them to Culper, Senior. This he did by putting the papers in a box and burying the box on Culper, Senior’s farm. Culper, Senior then recovered the papers.
After Culper Senior received a communication from Culper, Junior through Austin Roe, he would watch for the signal that would tell him that next leg of the journey of the information was ready. This was done in a very interesting manner.
Anna Smith Strong was the wife of a man who had been jailed by the British for “surreptitious communication with the enemy.” She lived within sight of Culper, Senior’s farm and was in communication with a certain Caleb Brewster, who was a blacksmith.
However, Caleb Brewster was not just a blacksmith. He also owned a whaleboat and was an accomplished boatman. He would prepare his boat and tell Anna Strong where his boat was hidden. She would then hang out her clothes on her line in a prearranged pattern which would tell Culper, Senior where the boat was.
Caleb Brewster took the messages through the British lines to the waiting currier, who then brought the messages to Major Tallmadge. Major Tallmadge developed the ink and reported to General Washington.  
Like the Culpers, most of the agents of the Culper ring were civilians, the identities of many are still not known today. Some, though, were dragoons under Tallmadge’s command. One in particular was Elijah Churchill.    
Churchill became involved in the transmission of information and orders between Major Tallmadge, Culper, Junior and Culper, Senior. Elijah Churchill later became the first recipient of the Badge of Military Merit that would eventually become the Purple Heart medal. 
Tallmadge also had another connection to American espionage, which may have contributed to his motivation. He was a close friend of Nathan Hale, an American spy who was executed in 1776 by the British after having been caught in disguise on Long Island. It was Hale who said, ‘I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.’
These words are some of the most famous to have come out of the war for American independence and Hale was not alone in his sentiments. Every member of the American intelligence was working at risk of their lives for the survival of their country. Some, like Hale, did lose their lives.  
The stories of these brave people were so well guarded that we may never know everything that happened, but the stories of the secrets are always the most intriguing. The unsung heroes are often the most important ones.    


If you are interested in why the picture that is so obviously George Washington is labeled Dort, it's a long story. It refers to a time when Rose loved Curious George, but couldn't quite say George. She managed only Dort and Dort remains a running joke in our family. Even the illustrious Washington has not escaped this fate.

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