As the resident Armchair Historian of this page, I find myself digging into old tomes, encyclopedias and websites that follow current archaeological investigations. Sometimes though, I discover historical items of interest through the strangest of means. In the most recent case, while watching an episode of the inane USA Network program WHITE COLLAR, I learned of the enigmatic Culper Ring, a group of clandestine operatives overseen by General George Washington during the Revolutionary War. The episode in question made allegations of the Ring still functioning in modern day, which had me searching to see what I could find, for two reasons. First, I couldn’t believe such a thing could have existed without me learning about it in some form and second, I had a hard time believing that something so interesting could have been created by the writers of WHITE COLLAR, a series so mediocre and bland that Wonder Bread should have been their biggest sponsor.
The Culper Ring was real. It was discovered as such through some deft research by historians digging into Washington’s papers and documents, many thousands of which have been saved and stored due to his own diligence. A great book called Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring by Alexander Rose was published in 2007, telling how spying was used and how it changed during Revolutionary America. The book itself goes into great detail of the how and why the Culper Ring was created, particularly with the death of the famed war hero Nathan Hale. Hale, he of the “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country” line was historical fodder for most grade-schoolers such as me growing up. In this one book about a subject taking place after his death, I probably learned more about the man than I ever had before.
It seems that the only reason the Culper Ring went mostly unknown to the general public was due to the incredibly secretive structure of the group. Considering that the colonies of America were essentially an occupied country with a rebellious military faction within it, spying was vastly dangerous work. Secrecy was paramount, so much so that it begs the question as to why Washington would keep documents he was supposed to have destroyed after reading. The Ring was of great importance to him, evident in his own writings. It could be extrapolated that he only wished the importance of the Ring to come to light at some point, but who knew it’d be over 200 years later?
As a resident of Connecticut, the details in the book are fascinating. The Culper Ring operated between Long Island, New York City and points on the shore of Connecticut. Known members of the Ring were from all of these places and traveled often between them. As more knowledge of the Ring comes to light, I’m certain that many of the places and names uncovered will become part of historical societies’ displays within and without the area of the original Ring.
Washington’s Spies found interest beyond the casual reader or academic. The AMC network optioned the book for a series that they’ve called TURN, which is a horribly warped version of the actual facts. It’s well acted and the production quality is nice, but accuracy isn’t anywhere a part of the series, which is sad, as I found the book imminently more entertaining than the unneeded breaks from reality of the show. To put it in perspective, the pirate program BLACK SAILS is more accurate, and they incorporate fictional characters in primary roles.
From the perspective of a reviewer, Washington’s Spies is a well written book, not only in the facts, the detailed footnotes and the needed interpretation where information is lacking, but in the presentation. Alexander Rose writes well, with a noticeable smirk to certain actions taken by the principal figures. He has his finger on the humanity of the time and how aspects of life then are not all that different from now. The book is not overly long, making for further investigation and expansion of the book a desire for the reader, even if there isn’t much more knowledge available on the Culper Ring itself. I know I felt even before I was three chapters in that the book should be a necessary read for any and all early American history studies, from grammar school on up. Then again, I’m the guy that finds it fascinating that some of the figures involved might have been in my own backyard at one time or another. That thought, like the book, is pretty damned cool.