Traveling makes work nearly impossible. As you know, if you are reading this series, I was in Florida visiting family. On Wednesday, it was time to come home. At three in the morning, the alarm went off, and, about thirty minutes later, I was off, too.
Blogging about travel days is essentially a book review, and the ride home offered me time to listen to a great book.
I’m not sure how many Americans know the story of Nathen Hale. I imagine that most of us who do, like me, only know the myth. Caught behind British lines, Hale only regretted that he “had but one life to give for his country!” I also half believed that it was Hale who organized or at least helped with, the burning of New York after possession of that city changed hands from Washington’s to the British.
I was wrong.
Alexander Rose only spends the first chapter of his book on Captain Hale. He dispels the myth by giving us Hale’s actual last words, recorded by a British officer who witnessed his hanging. The famous line attributed to Hale comes from the book Cato, a favorite of his. The line was ascribed to Hale by a friend of his years after the revolution was over. In truth, Hale’s mission was a bumbling disaster of an attempt to spy behind the lines. Hale was easily recognized and easily tricked into confessing his mission to a British officer. In the end, Hale can be admired only for volunteering for a job others refuse, even though he was tragically unprepared.
After Chapter 1, the book spends most of its pages following the members of the Culper Ring. These were Washington’s best spies of the war. For nearly five years, Abraham Woodhull and Robert Townsend (code named Samuel Culper Sr. and Samuel Culper Jr. respectively) ran a number of agents in New York, Long Island, and Connecticut. They reported to Washington about British troop strength and movements. Townsend, who worked in a coffee house in New York popular with British officers, was even able to report about British plans.
Rose spends a wonderful chapter discussion some of the tools of the burgeoning spy trade. He details the development and use of some of the codes and cyphers of the day, and describes the invisible ink the Culper’s used, which boggled my mind! When I was a kid and playing spy, my friends and I used lemon juice to write secret messages. Because such invisible writing was well known to both sides during the Revolution, such simple ploys wouldn’t work. Instead, the Cuplers used ink that only appeared with a reagent was brushed onto the paper. A quick Google-image search finds numerous examples of these reports with the secret message written between the lines of a non-suspicious letter.
Rose pauses in his lengthy recounting of the Culper Ring to spend a chapter on British spying efforts during the war. This chapter is largely focused on the recruitment and turning of General Benedict Arnold, whose name is synonymous with “traitor” in America. Luckily for America, Major André, the British officer who was in charge of wrapping up Arnold’s surrender of West Point, was as inept as Hale had been. The plot was discovered and Arnold was only able to escape to British lines, without the fort and soldiers he had promised his new masters.
If the book had a weakness for me, it was this: as the author followed the stories of each of the Culper ring, he is often repetitive. Because I listened to the audio book in one sitting, this was glaringly apparent.
I really enjoyed Washington’s Spies and I learned much about America’s first secret service. The story was compelling enough and well-written enough to read like a novel. It made the fifteen-hour drive from Florida to North Carolina a ton of fun.