by Will Thompson
Picture this: It’s the revolutionary war. The British have control over some of the northernmost regions, like New York City where their base of operations is located. But back then, of course, it was next to impossible to know what the British were planning to do, where they would attack, what ships were being constructed in the shipyards, and who had been appointed as commanders. But how was this intel to be gathered? There were no drones or spy planes, no bugging devices, wires, or even long-distance binoculars. The best they had was a spyglass. What was used before the CIA or FBI was created? Enter the Culper Spy Ring.
The year was 1777. Near the height of the Revolutionary War. The British had occupied the major portions of New York and some nearby territories. Using the new land to build new warships and import troops, weapons, and gunpowder from Britain. (British warship replica, right. British) This was a huge problem for George Washington and his band of rebels. So, George Washington contacted a man named Nathan Hale, a local Yale scholar, theatre actor, and patriot. After having a private meeting with the general, Hale agreed to conduct reconnaissance on the British, then report back to Washington. Under council from one of Washington’s top officers, it was agreed that multiple operatives would be sent out to work in the same general area. That way if one was caught, the others might still be able to escape. Hale would do this through the local bars and pubs, where the officers and soldiers would convene to share kegs of ale, talk, and boast of victories and battle of which they took part. However, they often became…shall we say a little overtalkative as the merrymaking went on into the night, and then they would begin to loudly talk of
upcoming attacks and assaults that they were planning on the rebel army. Hale would also travel around to local militia bases of operation to conduct regular recon on the shipbuilding projects.
The net spy (Hale in this instance) would listen to this chatter, sort out useful from non-useful info, then would leave and report back to General Washington. However, while Hale infiltrated the target region (New York City) he wasn’t as successful with the recon and was caught and hung, as were most of the other spies working with him. After that, Washington couldn’t stomach the loss of life and changed his tactics. Instead of recklessly sending in multiple operatives, he set up a more organized system that would use no more than one or two operatives at a time. Slower process, but much less risky. Enter Benjamin Tallmadge. Tallmadge was a major in the 2nd Continental Light Dragoons until he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. Having a degree from Yale, a theatrical background, and a bright attitude that made anyone in his company want to follow him into battle, Tallmadge was the ideal man to head up a spy ring.
Before becoming the head of the Culper Ring, Tallmadge was appointed captain of the 2ndContinental Light Dragoons, a job which Tallmadge was very good at and enjoyed very much. He once wrote; “My troop was composed entirely of dapple gray horses, which, with black straps and black bear-skin holster covers, looked superb. I have no hesitation in acknowledging that I was very proud of this command.” His brigade of troops was trained for scouting and recon, with the occasional smaller raid. They were the ones that went out ahead of Washington’s main force of artillery and heavier Calvary.
Eventually, when it came time to choose a leader for the ring, George Washington was so impressed with Tallmadge that he chose him to lead it. With that Washington began to build his vision. Now that Washington had his number one operator, it was time to call out the Calvary.
Abraham Woodhull was the son of Judge Richard Woodhull and Mary Woodhull. Abraham served as a lieutenant for the Suffolk County, New York militia for a short period of time before resigning and returning to his family’s farm to look after his two aged parents and younger sister. Abraham seemed quite the contrast from a militia man.
He had a serious, calm attitude. He did have a nervous side, but that rarely was displayed. Abraham and Tallmadge were very good acquaintances, if not friends, having been neighbors for many years. Tallmadge knew of Woodhull’s trustworthiness and dedication. Woodhall was familiar with the area, and had (at least somewhat) a military background. So, Benjamin Tallmadge approached Woodhull one day about the issue. Steeled by his cousin’s death (Brigadier General Nathaniel Woodhull), Abraham agreed.
Culper Spy Ring
by Will Thompson