For God and country: America?s first spies

As a lover of history, I often find myself becoming fixated on certain times in American and world history, and for the last several months, the American Revolution has been on my mind. To add fuel to the fire, I have been watching the AMC original series, ?TURN: Washington?s Spies?, which although it takes some liberties with historical accuracy in favor of fictional drama, the series is actually centered around a lesser known aspect of the American Revolution.

As the name suggests, the historical drama series is set during the American Revolution and focuses primarily on America?s ?first official? spy organization, The Culper Ring. The third season of the show began last week.

To my surprise, the series is based off a historical reference book by author Alexander Rose, ?Washington?s Spies: The Story of America?s First Spy Ring?. As my desire to learn grew, I began reading historians? views and research about various spy tactics used by the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. Interestingly enough, 1700s spying was much more advanced than I would have thought, and to his credit, Gen. George Washington is highly regarded as a master spy himself.

For instance, did you know that both the British and the Continental Armies came up with all sorts of ways to hide messages within written correspondence?

As advanced as it may sound to use invisible ink, a combination of water and ferrous sulfate made writing secret messages within innocent-looking correspondence possible in the age before digital technology. Simply applying the perfect amount of heat or the right type of re-agent to a letter, would make the invisible ink visible, thus giving armies a way to communicate back and forth without a great risk of interception.

Both sides of the war also devised various ciphers, codes and hidden letter carriers that only a choice group of trusted people would be able to use. One particular historical reference is made to a British spy, Daniel Taylor. Taylor was caught in New Windsor, N.Y., with British intelligence hidden inside an innocent-looking silver ball. In a quick attempt to keep the ball from Colonial soldiers, Taylor swallowed it whole. However, Patriot soldiers figured out what he had done, and under the threat of having the ball cut out of his stomach, Taylor yielded the message.

To transfer messages from one place to another without being detected, both armies had to get creative. Author and scholar John A. Nagy, a consultant to Colonial Williamsburg and the University of Michigan on espionage, details much of Washington?s spies? habits in relaying messages over long distances.

According to Nagy, Washington used dead drops very frequently. During Washington?s time, dead drops were often placed at ordinary areas and hidden in plain sight, as ?secret simplicity? was the name of the game.

Nagy also asserts that today?s modern intelligence world still uses many of the intelligence methods from the American Revolution, but just ?with more sophistication in its encryption.?

Now, when it comes to the brave individuals who carried out these historic spy operations, American men and women of all ages and social backgrounds are known to have acted.

Of course, there were spies like the famous Nathan Hale, who was caught and subsequently hanged by the British after being discovered spying for the Continental Army. Female spy Anna Strong, of New York, devised a system of communication using the clothes on her wash line to communicate with colonial spy, Abraham Woodhull, the whereabouts of fellow spy, Caleb Brewster. With Strong?s system, Woodhull could locate Brewster, and pass along important messages meant for Gen. Washington.

Perhaps the Revolutionary War spy that I find most intriguing is a man by the name of Robert Townsend, otherwise known by his spy moniker, ?Samuel Culper, Jr.? Historian Morton Pennypacker identified Townsend as Culper Jr., in the 1930s. It seems Townsend took his identity as Culper Jr., and his work as a spy, to the grave. In fact, his secret was so clandestine that it was a handwriting match that Pennypacker used to effectively identify Townsend as Culper Jr.

From what historians can decipher, Townsend began spying for the Continental Army by 1778. According to correspondence written by Townsend, his reports mostly consisted of naval intelligence and the movements of high-ranking British officers.

Like many spies, Townsend was under considerable danger once he began his spy work. For Townsend, his actions required him to live undercover as a Loyalist. And, by the end of the war, he had become one of early America?s most integral and successful spies, as he was able to gain a plethora of information from his business and his connections with a Loyalist newspaper.

Interestingly enough, some historians hold that Townsend?s cover was so deep that even Washington himself did not know who Culper Jr. really was. In fact, it?s likely that only a small handful of fellow spies ever knew Townsend was a spy.

As I continue to dig more and more into the exciting history of Revolutionary War spy craft and espionage, it makes me question the outcome of the American Revolution had these brave men and women not put their lives and livelihoods on the line to work in secret to secure our country?s independence.

So, if you are in the mood for a good tale of spying, espionage, drama and action, I encourage you to crack open a history book and read even more about the Revolutionary War?s colonial spies. Their courage, patriotism, faith and quick wit are part of what made our great country what it is today.