Monday, May 14, 2012

A Different Kind of Courage part 1 of 3

Recently, I joined a magazine dedicated to showing the work of God in history.  It is called "The Young Patriot Magazine", and articles are written by readers.  For more information about the magazine, or to subscribe, just leave me a comment.
Their first issue was on the American War for Independence.  I asked if they had a particular aspect which they wanted me to cover, and was given the assignment to write about the spies in the war.  In the magazine, it is one article; however, I have broken it up into three articles to post here.

A Different Kind of Courage: Spies in the American War for Independence

Spies have been used by military leaders for thousands of years.  Moses sent spies to spy out the land of Canaan (Numbers 13) and Joshua sent two spies into Jericho to gather information on the enemy army and walls (Joshua 2).
Washington’s Spies
George Washington believed in the importance of spies to gather information.  One of his first spies was Nathan Hale.  Hale was supposed to gather information in New York, but was seen and hunted by the wily veteran, Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Rogers of the Queen’s Rangers.  Rogers met Hale by pretending to be a Continental sympathizer.  When they met again in a tavern, some men of the Queen’s Rangers were in disguise nearby.  Once Hale rather foolishly told Rogers he was a spy, the Rangers arrested him. Shortly after Hale’s execution, a British officer recorded this entry about Hale in his journal: He behaved with great composure and resolution, saying he thought it the duty of every good officer, to obey any orders given him by his commander in chief; and desired the spectators to be at all times prepared to meet death in whatever shape it might appear.”[i]
In 1778, Washington appointed Benjamin Tallmadge, a friend of Hale’s from college and Major of the 2nd Continental Light Dragoons, as chief Continental spymaster.  Tallmadge formed the Culper Ring to smuggle information out of New York City.   New York City had been British headquarters since Washington’s defeat at Long Island in 1776.  It was inhabited by British soldiers and loyal civilians, who would quickly inform a local British commander if they noticed an enemy spy.  The members of the Culper Ring ran great risks, but secured important information for the Continental cause. 
After many difficulties, Tallmadge formed a strong chain of agents, travelling over 100 miles to link New York City to Washington’s headquarters in New Windsor, New York.  Charles Townsend (codenamed Culper Jr.) was the agent in New York, responsible for gathering all the information he could find from British sympathizers in New York.   Townsend would write an innocent letter in black ink, but put his information in invisible ink (the Culper Ring called it the “stain”) between the lines.  His invisible ink message was also written in a cipher that Tallmadge had designed, where some of the words would be replaced by numbers.  For example, 711 was “General Washington”, 635 was “troops”, 355 was “lady”, and 727 was “New York”.  Thus a typical message would look like this one: “I intend to visit 727 before long and think by the assistance of a 355 of my acquaintance, shall be able to out wit them all.”[ii]
When the letter was finished, he would pass it on to Austin Roe or Jonas Hawkins.  They would convey the messages to Long Island Sound, where Caleb Brewster would sail them across in his whaleboat, dropping them off with Culper Sr. (the codename for Abraham Woodhull, the leader of the Culper Ring) who had previously been the New York contact.  Woodhull, after adding any information of his own, passed the dispatches on to Tallmadge.  Tallmadge would render the invisible ink visible, and send the now-complete message, via unsuspecting troopers of the 2nd Continental Light Dragoons, directly to Washington.  While the route was long and somewhat tedious, it provided Washington with his only link into the British fortress of New York.
The Culper Ring provided Washington with key information.  In 1779, they reported that General Henry Clinton was preparing boats and troops to attack…somewhere.  It turned out to be preparations for Colonel William Tryon’s 1779 raid into Connecticut. 
But their most important work came in 1780.  The Ring warned Washington of a planned British ambush of Rochambeau’s French troops as they landed in Rhode Island.  Clinton formed an expeditionary force to sail to Rhode Island, where they would hide on the beach in ambush, waiting for the French to land.  When the French stepped off their boats, British troops would blast them with musket fire.  After the heavy losses, Louis XVI would probably lose his ardor for the Continental cause, and the American-French alliance would collapse.
Washington sent this information on to Rochambeau, who altered his plans accordingly.  Washington also moved a strong part of his army closer to New York, which the British scouts noticed.  If Clinton sent most of his veteran British troops to Rhode Island, Washington might capture New York, and Clinton would have to find another seaport city to use as a base of operations.  For without a seaport, he could not receive aid from the Royal Navy.  Clinton cancelled his expedition, and so did Washington.
Washington had other spies, and British deserters might pass along some information, but the Culper Ring was by far the most professional, and gave Washington the best and most trustworthy information.

[i] Alexander Rose, Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring (New York: Bantam Dell, 2006)—pp. 31-32
[ii] Ibid. –p. 173

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