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Alexander Rose – Washington’s Spies

August 24, 2015

47. Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring by Alexander Rose (2006)

Length: 369 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, History

Started: 26 July 2015
Finished: 04 August 2015

Where did it come from? Bought from BookDepository.
Why do I have it? I’m totally addicted to the show Turn, so I wanted to find out how much of it was real.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 25 July 2015.

The Revolution
was won by the spies as much
as by the soldiers.

Summary: In the summer of 1778, the revolutionary war was going badly for George Washington and the colonial forces. They’d been forced to abandon New York City, leaving it in British hands, and knowledge of British strength and movements was crucial to plan their own tactics successfully, yet hard to come by when the city was occupied by the British and the surrounding countryside was full of loyalists. But even on the mostly-Tory Long Island, there were some who were willing to work for the rebel cause… and so was born the Culper Ring, a cell of spies and couriers that carried information from the city, across Long Island, across the sound to Connecticut, and ultimately into the hands of Washington himself.

Review: I want to be totally upfront here: The only reason I picked this book up is that I am totally hooked on the TV show Turn, and I wanted to find out how much of it is based on fact, and how much of it is dramatized for the sake of television. And I got a good answer to the first part of that, but less of a clear sense of the answer to the second.

To explain: this book is remarkably well-researched and thorough. I think it’s amazing that we have access to the actual documents written by the Culper Ring to Washington, and copies of those he wrote back (despite the fact that it probably would have horrified Abraham Woodhull, the center of the Ring, to know that Washington was keeping copies). Rose makes extensive use of these primary sources, and allows him to present a picture of the intelligence that was being passed by the Culper Ring on an extraordinarily detailed and documented scale. So I feel pretty confident in saying that a lot of the facts of the show are largely true. The characters are mostly all real, although the relationships between them are not necessarily so – the largest fictionalization is that Woodhull didn’t marry until after the war, and Anna Strong was 10 years older than Woodhull, although she did participate indirectly in the Ring (by occasionally posing as Woodhull’s wife when he traveled, to make him less likely to be stopped and searched.) Also, both of Woodhull’s parents were still alive, and there’s no indication that his father was a magistrate – something that surely would have been mentioned had it been true. But in terms of other things from the show, it’s entirely possible that some of it happened, but it’s not something that would have been documented in any way that survives, so it’s not something that is featured in this book, leaving us to speculate.

My issue was that the primary focus of this book – namely, the information that was passed by the Ring – is not the most exciting part of the story. When I think about spies and secret agents, I want drama. I want stories of spies being caught, or almost caught, and narrow misses, and double agents, and dead drops and secret codes and sneaking around. The lives of the spies are (to me) more interesting than the contents of their letters, but it seemed at times that Rose focused on the latter to the exclusion of the former. The best parts of the books were the parts where he was telling a clear story – of the capture and execution of Nathan Hale or the betrayal of Benedict Arnold. (I also quite enjoyed the chapter on secret codes, the state of codebreaking at the time, and invisible ink.) However, I felt like a lot of the rest of the book, despite having many sections in their own words, didn’t always capture the personalities of its main characters. I can see how this came about – Rose is very careful about extrapolating from limited (or nonexistant) data, and a lot of the drama I was looking for likely never made it into the Ring’s letters in any detail, if at all. And I’m not saying that I wanted Rose to make things up for the sake of narrative flow. But the end result was that, for someone who doesn’t read a lot of history as a rule, while this book was quite clear and informative, it wasn’t always super-lively, and there were some sections that I found a little dry and slow going. 3 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: This book is clearly written by an expert, but not necessarily for experts; Rose does a nice job of explaining the context of things to someone like me, who knows relatively little about the American Revolution. If you like history and are interested in the time period, it’s very well done. If you’re like me and think you like history but what you actually like is historical fiction, then this book might still be worth your time, but go in knowing that it doesn’t always tell a story like you might want it to.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: I couldn’t find any at the Book Blogs Search Engine. Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: The Yankee soldier, flinty once but now wizened and gnarled, flashed in and out of lucidity.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 5: “Tallmadge, who had drunk deeper of the amber nectar than Hales, was amerced another seven pence for additional damage to college property.” – To punish by fine or other penalty.
  • p. 20: “Kitted in coarse, woolen green jackets and canvas trousers, they wore brown leggings up their thighs, buttoned, like spatterdashes, from the calf downwards, and were shod in moccasins (an idea borrowed from the Indians).” – Coverings for the legs, to protect them from water and mud; long gaiters.
  • p. 31: “On the scaffold he confessed to having caused two thousand prisoners to die by starvation and general cruelty, such as slipping poison into the food of the bolshier ones.” – difficult to manage; rebellious.
  • p. 39: “The glittering balls thrown in the ostentatious mansions of parvenu merchants and hard-faced war profiteers disguised, like a cheap rug, the rotted floorboards of a city torn and conflicted.” – A person who has suddenly risen to a higher social and economic class and has not yet gained social acceptance by others in that class.
  • p. 45: “Forty-three men were under the young officer’s command: a lieutenant, a cornet (a commissioned officer), a quartermaster, two sergeants, two corporals, a trumpeter, a farrier, and thirty-four privates.” – the lowest rank of commissioned cavalry officer in the British army.
  • p. 68: “To this end, a fleet of twelve ships of the line and five frigates, together carrying 11,384 sailors and soldiers, and commanded by Admiral Charles-Hector, Comte d’Estaing – a man blessed with so many quarterings of nobility he could realistically claim descent from the last king of the Visigoths – sailed from the Mediterranean port of Toulon in mid-April and had arrived on July 8 at Delaware Bay after an exceedingly languid and comfortable voyage.” – in heraldry, the marshalling of several coats of arms on one shield, usually representing intermarriages
  • p. 75: “Washington accordingly complained that agents were “attend[ing] more to their own emolument than to the business with which they are charged,” and wanted to “take proper measures to curb this extravagant passion for gain” among his spies.” – Payment for an office or employment; compensation.
  • p. 99: “To which Washington, hoping to soothe a ruffled amour propre, clarified, it was “the difficulty of furnishing specie, not the mere matter of expense which I had in view when I recommended oeconomy.”” – Self-love; self-esteem, vanity.
  • p. 122: “Tallmadge’s inspiration probably came, indirectly, from the Marquis de Lafayette, who would certainly have been au fait with elementary cryptography after his time at court and in the army of a country once the world leader in ciphering.” – fully informed; in touch or expert.
  • p. 126: “According to “one of my most intelligent correspondants,” he should be on his guard everywhere, for “General Clinton (under pretence of visiting the troups) is now at the east end of Long Island,” and will doubtless “attempt something that will give éclat to his arms.”” – Conspicuous success.
  • p. 150: “Throughout the war, she wrote, Townsend would arrange to meet some of his old Whig confreres to discuss Washington’s progress.”” – A fellow member of a fraternity or profession; a colleague.
  • p. 215: “To General Heath, Tallmadge observed that “he has flung into the provost many of our friends whom he will have punished if possible.”” – a prison warder or military policemen.
  • p. 224: “When Hamilton arrived, Hercules Mulligan was living on Water Street – between Burling’s Slip and the Fly Market – but in 1774 he moved to 23 Queen Street, an altogether tonier area.” – Marked by an elegant or exclusive manner or quality.
  • p. 225: “Undaunted, Mulligan smuggled samizdat copies from New Jersey into the city for discreet distribution to interested readers.” – a system of clandestine printing and distribution of banned or dissident literature.
  • p. 244: “As New York was out of his purvey, Parsons sent him to General Arnold – whose defection was just a few weeks away – for the necessaries along with a letter of recommendation stating that Heron “is a neighbor of mine, for whose integrity and firm attachment to the cause of the country I will hold myself answerable.”” – variant of “purview”, maybe?
  • p. 308: “But he remains a darkly ambivalent figure who is needfully sacrificed in the War of 1812 to symbolize the triumph of the common weal.” – The welfare of the community; the general good.

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