George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved The American Revolution, by Brian Kilmeade Don Yaeger, read by Brian Kilmeade
As someone who enjoys books about covert matters and spies , I was intrigued when I saw this audiobook in the library. It is heartening to see an author read his own book for an audiobook, and this book is read with conviction. The author has an interest in uncovering a neglected aspect of the history of the American Revolution, its spycraft, and makes a compelling case for the importance of espionage, and in particular for the Culver Ring and their role in winning the American Revolution and aiding Washington. The result is an intriguing history pieced together from letters and memoirs so that the secret agents in the ring live on two levels, as people pretending under their own names to be New York City and Long Island Tories and secret agents who are spies engaged in the dangerous business of infiltrating a city controlled by the enemy. There is a palpable air of danger in the story that carries through the first four discs before there is a lengthy release of tension and epilogue.
It is striking that given that the American Revolution featured two famous and notorious cases of failed espionage, that of Nathan Hale, he who had but one life to give for his country, and that of Colonel Andre, snared in the disaster of Benedict Arnold’s treachery. These two matters largely bracket the proceedings of the book, as the Culver Spy Ring was started in the aftermath of the failure of Nathan Hale, and its activities more subdued in the aftermath of the betrayal of Benedict Arnold and his efforts to break the ring in New York City. The fame of these two incidents–and the book is largely flattering to Andre, and awfully damning against Benedict Arnold, it should be noted–is in stark contrast to the obscurity of the six secret agents of the Culver Ring, named for the nom de guerre of two of the spies: Robert Townsend, a reserved and crochety Quaker merchant who works as a part-time journalist for a Tory newspaper run by another spy he recruited, the coffeehouse owner James Rivington, and his purported father, Abraham Woodhull, who stayed in Long Island and tried to calm his nerves. Other spies in the ring included Caleb Brewster, an adventuresome longshoreman, and tavernkeeper Austin Roe, and the unnamed Agent 355, a charming young woman arrested and thrown on a prison brig after the capture and execution of Major Andre. We do not know the woman’s name, or even if she survived her harrowing experience on the prison brig.
There are a few aspects that make this a compelling history. For one, the author focuses on their efforts to avoid detection through invisible ink, dead drops, and a complicated cipher code. And their efforts were successful, it should be noted, for despite the imprisonment of Agent 355, it was not ever discovered that she had been a spy. The author also contrasts the importance of the spies’ work–including busting Arnold’s betrayal, stopping counterfeiting efforts from the British to sabotage the American currency CSA style, and obtaining a copy of the British naval code book that allowed De Grasse to win at Yorktown, pivotal for the success of the American cause–with the fact that the spies themselves, for their own reasons, decided to keep private even after the American victory, which has led them to be left in obscurity. The book, though, gives these spies the credit they deserve, and it is a compelling history for those who are interested in the practice of espionage.
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