by Minnie Apolis
George Washington's Secret Six is an easy read about an aspect of the American Revolution that is never taught in school houses but contains the secret of Washington's success: the handful of canny and patriotic spies who sent reports on the British forces directly to his desk. Indeed, if it had not been for these men (and woman), the traitor Benedict Arnold's plans might gone through – and that would most certainly have meant the end of the fight for independence.
The genesis of the Secret Six probably lay in the tragic loss of the first American to volunteer to spy for General Washington, Nathan Hale. The book details how he was accepted for this service even though he was not familiar with New York or Long Island. He was not born there, and although he had some distant cousins who lived on Long Island, he was not in the habit of visiting them. His good friend in college had often invited him to visit his family there and showed him the best coves on maps.
Nevertheless, Hale as I said was accepted. His cover story was that he was a schoolmaster looking for work. However, the school year was already beginning at the time he began his mission. Also, just three days later, the British captured the lower end of Manhattan (on Sept. 15). The timing was just off.
Losing such a young and promising young man weighed heavily on the officers who had sent him into the lion's den, and they were all determined to have agents who were knowledgeable and could blend in with the locals on a regular basis without arousing suspicion.
Eventually the ring included the following: Robert Townsend (shopkeeper), James Rivington (bookseller, coffee house owner, and publisher), and Agent 355 (a still unidentified woman agent) – who gathered information – passed their missives to Austin Roe (tavernkeeper) or Abraham Woodhull, who in turn passed it to Caleb Brewster (longshoreman and smuggler) who rowed across Long Island Sound into Connecticut, where they handed off the messages to Lt. Benjamin Tallmadge. Finally, Tallmadge couriered the information to General Washington.
Fans of Alexander Hamilton will be thrilled to know that for a time, he was a personal aide to Washington and was the one who decoded the messages for him.
Code names had to be assigned, as well as number codes for various persons and places. They settled on using a specially made ink for the messages; it would look invisible until activated with another chemical.
One of the great though accidental coups of the group was catching a naval code book. This was passed on to the French naval allies, who used it to great effect in anticipating the movements of the British navy.
The longer the game went on, of course, the more nerve-wracking it became. For a time, Townsend stopped sending messages completely.
At times the information did not lead to military action, because the generals would decide that the conditions were so unfavorable to success that any schemes were nixed.
But the biggiest coup was uncovering the treachery of Benedict Arnold. After suffering a leg injury in the line of duty, Arnold recuperated for awhile then was given command of Fort West Point. Arnold had planned to turn over a newly repaired fort to the British along with its troops.
Had Arnold's betrayal succeeded, the Revolutionaries would have lost a key New York fortress and likely lost the war for independence.
It's a cliché, but never have we owed so much to so few.
GEORGE WASHINGTON'S SECRET SIX: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution, Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger, Sentinel press by the Penguin Group, A Penguin Random House Co., 2013; 235 pages including index. ISBN: 978-1595231031