‘Secret Six’ a historian’s delight

By A Contributor

Spies, spies, and more spies in the time of revolution. As in the American Civil War, one’s enemy looked like one’s friend or family member. Most spies did not wear uniforms so each group tread lightly in public. Often it was not clear whether an individual was a loyalist or a patriot. It put a person in an awkward position, sort of like being a Democrat in Kansas.

The red coats had numbers on their side but they could be vulnerable. Since General Washington had to retreat from New York City in 1776, he knew he would have to rely on information regarding British plans before they took place. Hence the inception of the “Secret Six,” also known as the Culper Spy Ring.  Five were male: Caleb Brewster, longshoreman; James Rivington, newspaper editor; Austin Roe, tavern owner; Robert Townsend, affluent store owner & Quaker; and Abraham Woodhull, a prosperous farmer who stayed out of the army to care for his aging parents and unmarried sister.

Rivingston, Roe, and Townsend gathered secrets that were written in invisible ink and carried by Woodhull when he traveled to New York to visit his married sister on the boat of Caleb Brewster. Because of the ponderous relay system, messages often came after the fact but even these confirmations of events aided the colonials, and certainly make we modern day colonials appreciate cell phones.

The only female was a lady who socialized with officers and loyalist families. She was designated by a number, Agent 355. Since there are always post-war repercussions, it is understandable why her name is still a secret.

Someday someone may find a letter or a diary which identifies her but until that time she will remain a mystery woman. She and her comrades had many successes, one of which was the surreptitious landing of the French troops when they sailed to join the American cause.

The authors, Brian Kilmeade and Don Yeager, have been criticized for the hyperbole and created conversations used in the text but it did not seem to detract from the core story. And anyone keenly interested in history knows it is exciting, and can empathize with their enthusiasm.

Besides explaining the cunning exploits of the secret six, Benedict Arnold’s traitorous actions are also detailed.

It appears money rather than a political ideal was his incentive.

Arnold was purported to be an insecure, paranoid individual but a capable strategist. Fellow officer, Colonel John Brown in 1777 prophetically said of him, “Money is this man’s God, and to get enough of it he would sacrifice his country.”  Arnold was put in charge of West Point which he eventually planned to surrender. When his traitorous actions were discovered, he escaped leaving his wife and child, supposedly because he trusted in Washington’s chivalry. He was never captured but his name was forever synonymous with treason and betrayal.

To see some of the scenes dramatized, tune in to the new television series, “TURN” on Sunday evenings, or order “The Scarlet Coat” starring Cornell Wilde and Ann Francis. Two other worthwhile films are “1776” and “Mary Stillman’s War.”  Two excellent and well written books about this period in history are “Washington’s Crossing”  by David Hackett Fischer, the cover of which shows “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” the famous painting by Emanuel Leutze, and also “Almost A Miracle” by John Ferling, the title of which was borrowed from a quote attributed to General Washington who said, “American victory was almost a miracle.”

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