The Culper Ring was a spy ring organized by Major Benjamin Tallmadge under the orders of General George Washington in the summer of 1778 during British occupation of New York City at the height of the American Revolutionary War. Their name was derived from the aliases taken by two of its main members, Samuel Culper, Sr. and Samuel Culper, Jr.
The Ring’s task was to send messages to General George Washington about the activities of the British in New York. They operated mostly in New York, Long Island and Connecticut. The Ring conducted covert operations until after the end of the American Revolutionary War. Its heyday was between 1778 and 1781.
After the battle of Monmouth in late June 1778, British forces under General Sir Henry Clinton retreated to Sandy Hook, New Jersey. From there, they took a ship for New York City, which they had already occupied for almost two years (since General Washington’s defeat at the Battle of Fort Washington in September 1776). General Washington was well aware of the need for good intelligence, and he asked one of his officers, Major Benjamin Tallmadge, to recruit people who could be trusted to collect it in New York City.
Major Benjamin Tallmadge
Secrecy was so strict that Washington did not know the identity of all the operatives. The general public was not aware of the Ring’s existence until the 1930s. “Culper Junior’s” identity was discovered in 1939, with the discovery of a trunk of old letters in the Townsend family home. Historian Morton Pennypacker noticed the resemblance of the handwriting in these letters and letters written by Robert Townsend in George Washington’s collection. Among the techniques they used to relay messages included coded messages published in newspapers and developing a method of using invisible ink to write between the lines of what appeared to be a typical letter. Women were also an integral part of the Culper Ring. At this time in history, women were expected to share their husbands beliefs and not to be directly and openly involved in politics. For this reason, they would not be suspected of being spies.
Tallmadge enlisted the services of many private citizens, including:
Abraham Woodhull, a farmer from Setauket (a village on Long Island’s north shore).
Robert Townsend, a merchant in Manhattan who agreed to supply much of the information.
A Setauket tavern keeper named Austin Roe who served as the courier.
Jonas Hawkins also served in this role for a short time.
James Rivington, in the capacity of “The King’s Printer” published a newspaper known as the Royal Gazette[disambiguation needed ] which was considered to be a pro-British newspaper. He published articles with the intent of getting information about the British to George Washington. He also obtained a copy of the Royal Navy’s signal book, which was instrumental in the French fleet’s defense against the British in its attempts to send additional troops to assist General Cornwallis at Yorktown.
Brothers Phillips Roe, Nathaniel Roe along with their cousin Austin Roe helped to deliver messages from New York City to Long Island. These messages were then picked up by Captain Caleb Brewster, a whale boatman and some of his men.
Lieutenant Lewis Costigen.
James Townsend, cousin of Robert Townsend
Sarah Townsend, sister of Robert Townsend.
Hercules Mulligan, a prominent tailor.
Once Townsend’s reports reached Setauket, Caleb Brewster and his men ferried it across Long Island Sound where Tallmadge’s dragoons were waiting to carry it to Washington’s headquarters. Brewster was in New York, New York, years earlier when the British had caught Nathan Hale with drawings of their fortifications and hanged him. Perhaps with Hale in mind, Washington made sure that the Culper Ring spies had more support. Through Tallmadge, he provided them with codes, dead drops, and aliases. Members were given code names. For example, George Washington’s code was 711.
Anna Strong was a resident of Long Island, New York. She helped pass along messages from the spy ring by posting pre-arranged signals to indicate when one of the spies was ready to submit intelligence data. If Strong hung a black petticoat on her clothesline, it meant that Brewster had arrived in town in his whaleboat. Next to that she would hang a quantity of white handkerchiefs. The specific number of handkerchiefs indicated one of six hiding places where Brewster might be located. Abraham Woodhull, another local resident, used Strong’s signals to go meet Brewster at one of the meeting-places.
Woodhull was known in dispatches as “Samuel Culper Sr.”, and Townsend was referred to as “Samuel Culper Jr.” Townsend’s role was finally determined in 1939 by handwriting analysis and has since been confirmed by other evidence.
The British felt that if they could capture West Point they could cut off the American supplies. The Americans had a large chain across the river from Constitution Island to the shore near West Point to prevent ships from sailing up the river. The only way to get past was for someone to unlock the chain. The key was kept by the commanding officer at West Point, General Benedict Arnold. Arnold had become disgruntled with the American cause after he had not been paid for seven years. He devised a plot to sell West Point to the British for 20,000 pounds. This plot was discovered by the Culper Ring. The information was relayed to Washington, but Arnold also caught word that his plot had been discovered and he fled down the Hudson River to the British. He attempted to round up the members of the Culper Ring but only succeeded in being captured by some of them.
One of those who allegedly aided the Culper Ring was an operative known only as “355,” the group’s code for “lady.” Some historians believe that she was the only member of the ring arrested by the British and hanged as a spy. Others claim that she was a prisoner aboard the British hulk, The Jersey, and gave birth to Robert Townsend’s illegitimate child, though that part of the story has been discredited. Robert Townsend did allegedly father a child by another woman after 355’s death.
Nathan Hale and Tallmadge were close friends at Yale, and Tallmadge’s entry into the secret world was not accidental, nor did it begin with the Culper Ring in 1778. As early as 1777, Tallmadge acted as the operative John Clark’s contact in Connecticut when Clark was based on Long Island. Before that, he worked for the spymaster Nathaniel Sackett, who was later fired.
1. http://everything2.com/title/The+Culper+Ring Everything2, The Culper Ring
2. “Brad Meltzer’s Decoded, The Presidents Inner Circle.” Presenter: Brad Meltzer. http://www.history.com/shows/brad-meltzers-decoded/episodes/#slide-3 60 minutes.
3. http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-2536600501.html Encyclopedia.com, The Culper Ring
4. Social Studies: New York, by Scott Foresman, Pearson education, 2008, page 181.
Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring, by Alexander Rose (Bantam Dell, May 2006)