A Book Review of Alexander Rose’s
Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy
United States History 201
November 10, 2017
Rose, Alexander Washington’s Spies.
New York, NY: A Division of Random House, Inc., 2006-07. 370 pages.
In Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s
First Spy Ring, Alexander Rose tells the story of the spy ring that helped
America win the Revolutionary War. Rose takes us beyond the battlefields into
the secret world of double agents and triple crosses, confidential operations
including code breaking, and tells the story of a few spies who completed these
top-secret assignments. Rose focuses on four longtime friends that create the
Culper Ring, one of which who was the American Major, Benjamin Tallmadge. He
reveals this operation system as a third-person point of view and exposes the
method that led America to victory against Britain also mentioning the
reactions of other people to this wild method. This paper is intended to review
Rose’s book as well as his main points, evaluate the excellence of Rose’s
writing and focus on any weaknesses within the story.
contains a summary of Washington’s Spies:
The Story of America’s First Spy Ring. Alexander Rose begins the story in
the summer of 1778, with the war expected to go in General George Washington’s
favor. Washington was desperate to know what Britain’s plan was and where they
were planning to attack next. At the time, Britain’s headquarters were located
in New York. So, to figure out their plan Washington sent a small group of men,
soon to be the Culper Ring, to New York to gain information of their military
strategies, including future battle plans. Going into this he acknowledged
chances of the plan be successful were unlikely. However, Washington went
against the odds thus unleashing his secret weapon.
included a young Quaker, Nathan Hale, who had been educated at Yale, a sickly
farmer who begged to retire but always supported Washington, and Benjamin
Tallmadge, an American military officer at the time, and Abraham Woodhull.
Although each of the men proved themselves to be excellent spies, the sickly
farmer stood out by enlisting to do whatever was necessary to assist Washington.
Ironically, he proved himself to be an expert at spying. The intelligence networks
the spies created became known as the Culper Ring. Although Washington thought
the men were underperforming, he gained a tremendous amount of information from
the Culper Ring that perhaps may have never been discovered. To communicate
with Washington, the spies had to develop their own system of spy craft
including invisible ink and attempts at cryptography. Also, the British were
aware of the Culper Ring and were determined to stop them. They would pay for
information on the Culper Ring, and if they thought you knew something and were
not telling they would harshly punish you. The British, unintentionally lead
the spies to learn of loyalty, betrayal, and friendship. Though Alexander Rose
was not present during this time, he provided detailed information on the life
of spies within the Culper Ring.
As stated above,
Rose’s main purpose for writing Washington’s
Spies is to inform the reader of how intelligent the Patriot’s spies were
by revealing the complex, secret world that helped America win the
Revolutionary War. Rose’s three main points, or arguments presented were the
complexity of the spy’s communication tactics with Washington, the importance
of remaining unidentified to the British, and the overall experience during the
with Washington during the late 1700s was hard enough, but having to
communicate without anyone knowing was a real task. The members of the Culper
Ring must have been of the smartest in their generation. Cryptography, or
secret codes, was one method used. The spies had symbols, codes, and signs used
to convey different messages undercover. Invisible ink played a huge role in
cryptography, the black chambers used to scan mail did not detect invisible ink
which gave the spies a private way to exchange messages with Washington. To
interpret the letters, the government would heat the letters and the message
would be revealed by the spies. “There are some five hundred known
sympathetic-ink formulas, and no doubt many hundreds more could be concocted”
(109). George Washington also used encryption to pass the letters through by
having a certain letter represent a different number, letter, or person. “His
code was a distant descendant of the Ave
Maria cipher created by a priest, Johannes Trithemius” (114). To say that
the communication system between Washington and his spies was complex would be
unidentified to the British was also a difficult undertaking because not only
did the spies have to remain undercover, but also, they had to gather tons of
confidential information. From simply talking to the townspeople and gathering
what little they could from them, to struggling to overhear the towns meetings.
Many time the spies would pose “as a merchant” and “discuss defenses of the
West Point” with British Generals to retain information (203-204). One of the
spies, Woodhull, would go between New York and Long Island everyday to collect
information and observe the naval tactics. Dedication to the Culper Ring was
essential in being successful, and it also made the unpleasant circumstances
not so bad for the spies.
overall experience for the members of the Culper Ring during their spy times
was focused on in Washington’s Spies.
Rose documents the “long and bitter experiences” the spies encountered (249).
They experienced many things physically and mentally; while away from their
families they experienced loneliness, and, they were faced with all the
pressure that came with their job to gather information and please their boss,
section contains an evaluation of Rose’s book. Firstly, Alexander Rose did a
phenomenal job of recounting the time when the Culper Ring was in action. He
told the stories in the perspective of each member and at some points in the
story you would feel as if you knew the men personally. Rose also presented the
book using an uncomplicated choice of words. Rose informed the reader of the
tactics used by George Washington in detail, and he tells you what the spies
tactics to gain information were. Although Rose does do an excellent job at
informing the reader of the tactics it almost seems as if he drags the
information out and expands the information to far. This flaw serves as a minor
weakness in his writing style.
weakness in Rose’s writing style is that at certain points in the story I would
find myself very confused and uncertain on what was going on, resulting in lots
of rereading. In the beginning of the story (chapters 1-3) I found myself
questioning whether the Culper Ring was even truly favoring the patriots and
not the British. Personally, I feel like the side to which the group was
favoring should be clearly stated and undoubtedly reassured throughout the
entire book. Throughout chapters 4-9 I slowly started to catch onto Rose’s
subtle writing style and comprehended much more information. In the end, I did
gain information on the Culper Ring, and their method to victory.
Rose sometimes went into too much detail on the situations and transitioned
from the British to the colonies tactics in strange ways that made the book
seem unorganized. Also, he mentions other people that are important at the time
but not in the story, making it seem a bit more unorganized. This flaw alone
can cause the reader to become frustrated and result in them taking the wrong
idea away from Washington’s Spies,
and this is a third weakness in Rose’s writing.
critical review has evaluated the book
Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring by Alexander
Rose. The time of the Culper Ring and American Revolution that Rose recaps is
very interesting and informative. Rose excels in educating the reader on many
historical figures and the cleverness of George Washington along with his
spies. However, Rose’s writing was weakened by stretching the information,
vaguely expressing which side the Culper Ring favored, and carelessly
transitioning from British tactics to the patriots causing confusion to the
reader and making the book seem unorganized.