Washington and the Culper Ring

Washington and the Culper Ring

In the 18th century, an insult to a Gentleman’s honor required a duel to settle the score. It was better to die respectably in a duel than to live without honor. Prudently, a Gentleman like General Washington avoided the company of liars and other double-dealing scoundrels.

In 1775, General Washington led a new American army facing a large, well-supplied British force. It became an urgent matter for the General that he know what the British were planning lest he be attacked without warning.

The first intelligence gathering model suggested by his staff was to send a soldier, undercover of darkness, to listen and observe the British camp and then return at dawn. Washington replied that in the past this had yielded sparse results.

The second model tried was a complete disaster. A young captain of the Seventh Connecticut, a recent Yale graduate, proposed to reconnoiter behind British lines in civilian clothes. His task was to disembark from a ship, wade onto the Long Island shore, and then proceed on foot to Brooklyn and to General Howe’s main camp. Unfortunately, on the way the young man met a wily old man named Robert Rogers. During the trek, they chatted amiably about the adventures of Rogers’ Rangers in the French and Indian War. During dinner, conversation flourished. After paying the tab, Rogers left. Soon, British soldiers entered to arrest the “civilian,” a k a Captain Nathan Hale. Rogers had gleaned enough information to ensure the young Captain would hang the next morning.

Informed of this, General Washington recognized that soldiers in civilian disguise did not shed their military mind set and bearing. He consulted the New York Committee for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies set up originally to ferret out Loyalists. Through this group, he learned of Nathaniel Sackett who, for a monthly salary plus a secret fund, would recruit agents. Washington appointed Captain Benjamin Tallmadge of the Second Continental Dragoons as Sackett’s military contact. Sackett developed a plan to send men into

enemy territory and to keep them there for a period of time, living a legend such as poultry trader.

Tallmadge noticed the problem of intercepted messages. Betrayal meant death for the “poultry trader.” A cipher was needed and one not too complicated to confound the limited education of the agents. A cipher was developed and the Culper Ring became a truly professional intelligence agency. The name was derived from the aliases taken by two of its main members Samuel Culper Sr. and Samuel Culper Jr.

At times, Washington angrily called Sackett to task due to the large amounts of money requested for sparse information. But then he cooled down when the information was very good. Sometimes he was disgusted with the agents’ disregard for civilians and private property as well as for their double dealings, secretive ways and deceit. They were devious ... they were spies.

In “Washington’s Spies,” Alexander Rose describes General Washington’s uneasy relationship with the brave and clever men who contributed to the success of the American Revolution as secret agents.

Claire Wamsley

Member, American Revolution Round Table