Thursday, May 15, 2014

Book Review: Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring

Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring by Alexander Rose
Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: Bantam; Reprint edition (May 1, 2007)

Washington's Spies is the basis for the recent AMC series, Turn.   As a result of the series, the book was recently reprinted.

I've always had a fascination in the American Revolution.  I made it a point to tour the historic sites whenever I vacation in Boston or Philadelphia.

Rose's book focuses exclusively on the Culper Spy Ring with a brief mention of Nathan Hale as well.  Rose goes into detail on a certain quote attributed to Hale but the nation's first spy never said those words.

With a very fast pace, Rose's book is a non-fiction espionage thriller.  I read it with great interest.  When I was in school and studied the Revolution, the spy ring never came up.  Ever.  It was during an episode of Brad Meltzer's Decoded in which I first learned about the ring.

The last book that mentioned the Revolutionary ciphers appeared in the early 1900s so not much material survives on the spy ring because why would anyone have kept incriminating evidence around during a war!  The fact that Washington's library of papers survives helped Rose in his quest to write this book.  Tallmadge wrote a memoir as he neared 80 years old.

In 1778, General George Washington was desperate to know where the British would strike next.  He turned to Benjamin Tallmadge to organize a spy ring to discover such plans and military strategies.

Abraham Woodhull is a Long Island farmer that lives behind enemy lines.  He works with childhood friends, Benjamin Tallmadge and Caleb Brewster, to not only keep their work a secret but to get information that could help General Washington in their defeat of the British.  What they did helped give birth to modern spy-craft with their secret code and all.  The invisible ink helped to make sure that intelligence would not be discovered in the event that it got into the wrong hands.

These spies, who were American heroes, were not in the same mold as a Jason Bourne or James Bond.  They aren't the type that would kick one's ass in a fight although Tallmadge certainly might, being in the military and all.  These are real people that had some challenges in order to survive.  At times, it seemed as if some would quit but they always came through in the end.

They played a role in the downfall of Benedict Arnold, a general who defected to the British only because of money.  In wooing Arnold, the British hoped to find the members of the spy ring.  It didn't work.

All in all, I highly recommend this book.  Their story had never really been told until Rose decided to research into the spies.

Some notes:

Upon reading the book, I discovered a few things different from the TV series.  As with anything, some things were made up for the TV show for dramatic purposes.  On the series, Abraham Woodhull's father is working with the British army.  In real life, this wasn't the case.

The Abe-Anna-Mary love triangle didn't happen in real life either since Anna is related to Abe through marriage!

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