Book Review: Washington’s Spies by Alexander Rose (Three Stars)

Book Review: Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring by Alexander Rose

Three Stars

“The event we leave to heaven.”

A competent history of espionage during the American Revolutionary War. Not to be confused with the romanticized fiction of the television series TURN, purportedly based on it. (See below) Well research and well-written. Explores the motives, means and outcomes for the spies and spy masters on both sides. In 1776, following a series of victories in August and September, the British commanded New York City and Long Island and were chasing the defeated colonial army toward Philadelphia. Then came Christmas and the miracle at Trenton. But Washington had only survived to fight another day. To engage a larger, better equipped, more professional army, Washington needed to cheat. He did.

“Everything in the matter depends on intelligence of the enemy’s motions.” G. Washington

This book unearths the facts about those people who put themselves at great risk, starting with the martyred Nathan Hale, to provide Washington (and Clinton) information about the whereabouts, strengths (and weaknesses) and intentions of the British (and Americans) in New York City and Long Island. In addition to history and biography, you get the development of cipher codes, invisible ink and counterfeiting. (Continental dollars were so worthless because the British printed them, too.) The Culper ring, starting from nothing, became a vital, though occasionally unappreciated, asset in winning the war. Their exploits and tribulations would make a fine movie or TV series.

“The business will be quickly over now.” British General Clinton (in New York City) to Burgoyne, August, 1777, not knowing the latter had already surrendered near Saratoga, NY

Unfortunately, for reasons known best to themselves, AMC turned the real story of bravery, ingenuity and self-sacrifice into a soap opera where passion competes with patriotism. The production values of TURN are high, but don’t watch it expecting to learn anything about what really happened.

“We planted irrevocable hatred wherever we went, which neither time nor measures will be able to eradicate.” Charles Stewart, loyalist

Modern applications suggest themselves. The British returned in August 1776 to the rebelling colonies (after fleeing Boston in March) with what should have been overwhelming force and were welcomed by many of the colonials themselves. Despite defeating Washington’s ragtag Continentals almost every time they could bring him to battle, they gradually lost their grip on both the land and the hearts of America. Excursions to Philadelphia and Charleston only made matters worse. Cornwallis’ defeat at Yorktown shouldn’t have been any more fatal than Burgoyne’s at Saratoga, but by then even the British thought they’d lost.

“We lost the war because we lost the hearts which already supported us. The rebels did not win.” British General James Robertson

Read the book.