British forces occupied New York in August 1776, and the city would remain a British stronghold and a major naval base for the duration of the Revolutionary War. Getting information from New York on British troop movements and other plans was critical to General George Washington, there wasn’t a reliable intelligence network that existed on the Patriot side at that time. In 1778, a cavalry officer named Benjamin Tallmadge established a small group of trustworthy men and women from his hometown of Setauket, Long Island. Known as the Culper Spy Ring, Tallmadge’s network would become the most effective of any intelligence-gathering operation on either side during the Revolutionary War.
Tallmadge recruited only those whom he could absolutely trust, beginning with his childhood friend, the farmer Abraham Woodhull, and Caleb Brewster. Tallmadge went by the code name John Bolton, while Woodhull went by the name of Samuel Culper. Woodhull, who ran the group’s day-to-day operations on Long Island, traveled back and forth to New York collecting information and observing naval maneuvers there. Dispatches would then be given to Brewster, who would carry them across the Sound to Fairfield, Connecticut, and Tallmadge would then pass them on to Washington.
In the summer of 1779, Woodhull had recruited another man, the well-connected New York merchant Robert Townsend, to serve as the ring’s primary source in the city. Townsend wrote his reports as “Samuel Culper, Jr.” and Woodhull went by “Samuel Culper, Sr.” Austin Roe, a tavern keeper in Setauket who acted as a courier for the Culper ring traveled to Manhattan with the excuse of buying supplies for his business. A local Setauket woman and Woodhull’s neighbor, Anna Smith Strong, was also said to have aided in the spy ring’s activities. She reportedly used the laundry on her clothesline to leave signals regarding Brewster’s location for meetings with Woodhull.
The Culper Ring employed several methods of spycraft in its operations. In addition to providing his agents with code names, Tallmadge devised a cipher system for their intelligence reports. Key words and terms were encoded as a three-digit number based upon their position in John Entick’s The New Spelling Dictionary, a popular work of the day. Those reports were also written with invisible ink that required a special chemical compound to be brushed over it to reveal the writing. Moreover, the reports were frequently embedded in letters addressed to notorious Tory sympathizers on Long Island as an additional step to prevent their seizure by British troops inspecting material carried by Culper agents.
The Culper Spy Ring has been credited with uncovering information involving the treasonous correspondence between Benedict Arnold and John Andre, chief intelligence officer under General Henry Clinton, commander of the British forces in New York, who were conspiring to give the British control over the army fort at West Point.
The exploits of this ring were turned into a television series called “Turn; Washington’s Spies,” which aired for four seasons on AMC.
“The Culper Spy Ring.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2010, www.history.com/topics/american-revolution/culper-spy-ring
Gould, Kevin. “Culper Spy Ring.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 6 May 2016, www.britannica.com/topic/Culper-Spy-Ring