Sunday, August 28, 2016

Washington's Spys by Alexander Rose

We have been watching the AMC series Turn about General Washington's Culper spy ring and so dear hubby bought me the book that inspired it, Washington's Spys: The Story of America's First Spy Ring by Alexander Rose.

As Nathaniel Philbrick notes in Valient Ambition, the Revolutionary War was also a Civil War, dividing families and communities according to allegiences as Loyalists or Patriots.

Then there were those oppotunists who preyed on anyone and allied with whatever side was most profitable, the "vultures, vultures everywhere" always found during war time, coyboys and skinners and piratical whaleboatmen.

I like how the series Turn portrays Setauket as under seige from all these angles.

Long Island was a British military base and under matial law. Corruption and looting was rampant. Colonel Simcoe of the Queen's Rangers was brutal. Consquently, the British served to increase citizens' Patriot leanings.

Washington's Setauket based spy Abraham Woodall, AKA Samuel Culper, resorted to setting up citizens to cover his tracks, even burning down the barn of the father of Robert Townsend, AKA Samuel Culper Jr.

Of course there is a lot of fiction in the AMC series and romances and interpersonal conflict to keep things interesting. Rose's book offers the facts, just the facts, which is mighty interesting without embellishment.

The book begins with failed spy Nathaniel Hal; it ends with war hero General Benedict Arnold's defection and ignomous end, and the hanging of British spy John Andre'--who earned the respect of countrymen and enemy alike for doing his duty. In between we learn the intricacies of how the Culper ring developed, how it worked, and the impact it had on the war.

The main ring was comprised of Setauket friends who trusted each other: Ben Talmadge, Washington's head of  intelligence; the Setauket based spy Samual Culper, in real life Abraham Woodall; Quaker Townsend, who had gone to New York to practise business and provided observations on the British; and whaleboatman Caleb Brewster, fearless and bold.

We encounter a new side of General Washington as he forged a new kind of spycraft, utilizing advanced methods and emplying flawed, couraegeous, and colorful civilians.

In a letter from Rose found at the AMC website,
"Instead of remaining faceless names or nameless faces...through their letters the personalities of the spies themselves emerge and we perceive them not as invincible superheros like James Bond or Jason Bourne, but as ordinary individuals coping the best they can in an extraordinary time. These secret agents--because they're frail, because they're flawed, because they're sometimes fearful--come across...as recognizable, symatetic, real people having to make unenviable, hard choices while facing potential lethal challenges. 
"What I've found most remarkable about TURN is that eveyone involved is willing to throw out the conventional goodies vs baddies narrative of the War of Independence in order to explore these very human factors lying at the heart of that titanic clah of nations and ideologies."
Here is an interview with Rose about the AMC series based on his book:
http://www.amc.com/shows/turn/talk/2014/03/turn-qa-alexander-rose-author-of-washingtons-spies

Washington's Spies
Alexander Rose
Bantam
$17 paperback
ISBN 9780553392593