The Culper Ring: George Washington's Real Secret Spy Organization

By | March 2, 2021

The British take New York

George Washington may be one of the Founding Fathers of America, but he's also the first member of the U.S. government to take America into the spy game. In 1778, New York City was under siege by the British military. The Redcoats had essentially set up shop in the area and were using it as their own personal base of operations. To get to the bottom of England's plans Washington created a group of spies to infiltrate the city and feed him information. Their name: The Culper Ring.

Through the Culper Ring, Washington and his men were able to shut down a series of British plans that would have cut the Continental Army off at the knees. Most importantly, the group discovered a spy in their own midst: none other than Benedict Arnold. The spy ring was kept a secret until the 1930s. These men and women put their lives in danger to keep the colonies safe and no one was the wiser.d

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source: pinterest

When the British occupied New York City on August 22, 1776, they filled the area with at least 32,000 soldiers, pushing out Colonists and giving chase to Washington and his men through New Jersey. Washington and his men finally escaped across the Delaware and into Pennsylvania by December. Everyone thought the Revolution was done. Thomas Paine called it "the times that try men's souls."

Washington and the Colonial Army had no plans to stop their fight, but with General Howe kicking his feet up in New York there was no way to know what the British were going to do. Washington, a man of action, asked for volunteers to go behind enemy lines and had a list of men ready to rock. He selected Captain Nathan Hale to slip into New York City under a false name, but Hale was pretty much immediately caught. Washington rethought his methods and decided that civilians would make better spies, although as the war churned on he took on anyone who wanted to be of service.

The Culper Ring

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source: library of congress

Lieutenant Caleb Brewster volunteered his services in August 1778. Washington was unsure about another military man getting caught, but Brewster offered up information about British warships and Washington was impressed. Washington put Robert Townsend together with Captain Benjamin Tallmadge and they started bringing in members to their ring. Tallmadge got his friend Abraham Woodhull out of prison to help work intelligence with the group, but he was one of the few guys who worked with the group on a consistent basis.

Tallmadge opted to work with agents on the basis of a long term solo mission. Agents were embedded in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut for brief periods of time. Usually, agents were sent to areas where they had family so they had legitimate reasons to be in the area. They would stick around for a couple of weeks, make their way beyond British checkpoints and report back to Tallmadge. In some cases, couriers were tasked with dropping off messages at a series of coves around Seatauket.

After picking up the messages, Caleb Brewster would deliver them across Long Island Sound on a whaleboat to Tallmadge in Connecticut. From there, the messages would be brought to Washington. All of those steps to get messages to Washington took way too long for the General so he insisted on using overnight express riders to get notes to him with expediency. Reports were written under the names Samuel Culper, Jr.  and Samuel Culper, Sr., with Townsend writing as the former and Woodhull as the latter.