As I read “Washington’s Spies” by Alexander Rose, it occurs to me that history might be more fascinating than our school textbooks led us to believe.
The story is about America’s first spy network, known as the Culper Ring, which served George Washington during the Revolutionary War.
Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge, who started out as a volunteer in Washington’s army, formed the Culper Ring after enlisting his childhood friends — Abraham Woodhull, Anna Strong and Caleb Brewster — to report on British movements.
The spies used a newly developed “invisible ink” that vanished as it dried. The writing would reappear when moisture met the ink.
Messages were sometimes written in the margins of a Bible. Sometimes they were stuffed into a tree, a designated “dead drop” where Brewster would collect the notes and pass them along to Tallmadge and Washington.
Brewster was a colorful character who relished in his role as a local pirate and smuggler. Strong lived close to the Long Island Sound and would signal Brewster when she had a message for Washington by hanging her black petticoat on the clothesline, which he could see from the water.
The signal let Brewster know that a note was waiting in the tree to be delivered to Tallmadge. The petticoat could also be seen from Woodhull’s home, and the spies would signal him when a message was waiting from Washington or Tallmadge.
Their actions led to victories by the American forces and thwarted an attempt to assassinate Washington.
Another fascinating part of the story is the triangle between Benedict Arnold, Peggy Shippen and Maj. John Andre. Shippen was only 18 years old when she began an affair with the 28-year-old Andre in British-controlled Philadelphia.
Although he was of Swiss and French descent, Andre was fighting on behalf of the British and had also formed a spy ring. When Philadelphia fell to the Americans and Benedict Arnold, then 38 years old, became enamored by Shippen, who was serving as a liaison between Arnold and Andre.
She might have convinced Arnold, who was disillusioned with the Continental Army after suffering financial losses and numerous accusations, to turn sides and help the British.
The book is fascinating and has led to a television series, “TURN,” which airs Monday nights on AMC. The show is in its third season and is well-worth watching.