Benjamin Tallmadge established a small group of trustworthy men and women from his hometown of Setauket, Long Island. Known as the Culper Spy Ring, Tallmadge’s homegrown network would become the most effective of any intelligence-gathering operation on either side during the Revolutionary War.
Tallmadge recruited his childhood friend, the farmer Abraham Woodhull, and Caleb Brewster, whose main task during the Revolution was commanding a fleet of whaleboats against British and Tory shipping on Long Island Sound. Brewster, one of the most daring of the group, was also the only member whom the British had definitely identified as a spy. Tallmadge went by the code name “John Bolton”, while Woodhull adopted the pseudonym “Samuel Culper.”
Woodhull personally traveled back and forth to New York collecting information and observing naval maneuvers there. He would evaluate reports and determine what information would be taken to Washington. Dispatches would then be given to Brewster, who would carry them across the Sound to Fairfield, Connecticut, and Tallmadge would then pass them on to Washington. Woodhull lived in constant anxiety of being discovered, and by the summer of 1779 he had recruited another man, the well-connected New York merchant Robert Townsend, to serve as the ring’s primary source in the city. Austin Roe, a tavernkeeper in Setauket who acted as a courier for the Culper ring traveled to Manhattan with the excuse of buying supplies for his business. A local Setauket woman and Woodhull’s neighbor, Anna Smith Strong, was also said to have aided in the spy ring’s activities. She reportedly used the laundry on her clothesline to leave signals regarding Brewster’s location for meetings with Woodhull.
The Culper Ring employed several methods of spycraft in its operations. In addition to providing his agents with code names, Tallmadge devised a cypher system for their intelligence reports. Key words and terms were encoded as a three-digit number based upon their position in John Entick’s The New Spelling Dictionary, a popular work of the day. Those reports were also written with invisible ink that required a special chemical compound to be brushed over it to reveal the writing. Moreover, the reports were frequently embedded in letters addressed to notorious Tory sympathizers on Long Island as an additional step to prevent their seizure by British troops inspecting material carried by Culper agents.
Example Culper Coded Message:
F 592 373 TECERGMZ & BSPW 373 48 8 634 536 666 HGIQ IDGMMAR 50 427 ek. 500 637 183 236 282 677 637 736.
“2 ships, Vigilant & Fury may be about to sail up back channel by November 15. Prepare to evacuate garrison in secret to New Jersey.”
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