Erin Becker-Boris on Bill Bleyer, George Washington’s Long Island Spy Ring: A History and Tour Guide Charleston: The History Press, 2021. 256 pp., ISBN 9781467143479, $ 23.99
In George Washington’s Long Island Spy Ring: A History and Tour Guide (2021), Long Island author Bill Bleyer examines the American Revolution, the seven-year British occupation of the island, and the espionage activities of the Culper Spy Ring. Bleyer (a former writer for Long Island’s Newsday) ties together warfare, espionage, local history, and tourism in a well- researched, accessible account suitable for all audiences.
The Culper Spy ring, an espionage network organized by George Washington and Benjamin Tallmadge, operated in New York City and on Long Island to gather intelligence on British military operations in the region during the American Revolution. Spies used ciphers, invisible ink, codes, and evasive maneuvers to deliver intelligence from New York City to Setauket. Reports were then taken across Long Island Sound by whaleboat to Connecticut and delivered to Washington’s headquarters by courier.
Bleyer responds to a rich historiography of both amateur and academic sources, utilizes the often-overlooked knowledge of local experts, and looks at historic sites and local history in tandem to build his narrative. He questions the established literature to restore accuracy to the historical record. Through this work, Bleyer intends “to create the definitive account of the spy ring with the help of the local experts who are often overlooked or ignored and set the record straight on stories such as Anna Strong using her clothesline to signal where Caleb Brewster would be coming to pick up and drop off letters as a service to researchers and history buffs (14).”
In his introduction, Bleyer discusses the nature of scholarship on the Culper Spy Ring and Suffolk County Historian Morton Pennypacker’s discovery of Culper Jr.’s identity as Robert Townsend. Part One- “The Culper Spy Ring- consists of twelve chapters which detail the Battle of Long Island, the British occupation, Nathan Hale and Washington’s early intelligence operations, the creation of the spy ring, the operation of the espionage network, the Culper Letters, the end of the war, the impact of the intelligence, life after the revolution, and President Washington’s 1790 tour of Long Island.
Bleyer dives into the archive to offer a detailed portrait of what is known about each of the spies, their background, their motivations for undertaking espionage, their activities during the war, and their feelings and anxieties about spy craft. He portrays Abraham Woodhull (Culper Sr) as a rural farmer from Setauket, anxious about being caught in the act of spying and deeply insecure about his lack of formal education. He paints Robert Townsend (Culper Jr) as a profoundly anxious and inconsistent (but valuable) spy for Washington. Part Two – “Long Island’s Revolutionary War Sites”- contains the history of the New York State’s George Washington Spy Trail and a list of other sites with ties to the revolution.
Bleyer’s work provides an enlightening discussion about the popularization of local history through the media. Bleyer examines the ‘TURN effect’ and its impact on public knowledge of the Culper Spy Ring. He writes, “interest in the Patriot’s intelligence network soared when the AMC television series TURN: Washington’s Spies aired for four seasons between 2014 and 2017. Unfortunately, it took great liberties with the facts (12)”. However, he acknowledges that this television show made history accessible and popular and caught the interest of many people. Much like the George Washington spy trail, the show served to catch the interest of new audiences, engage them in Long Island history, and drive tourism to the historic sites on the North Shore of Long Island.
Bleyer sheds light on the often-misleading body of work on the Culper Spy Ring and the American Revolution. He challenges Morton Pennypacker’s landmark work on the Culper Spy Ring and reveals that Pennypacker’s work, which lacks footnotes, has transformed local myths and legends into historical “fact” without evidence. Bleyer also takes particular issue with Brian Kilmeade and Dan Yaeger’s Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring that Saved the American Revolution (2013). Using information from local experts (especially Claire Bellerjeau of Raynham Hall Museum and Beverly Tyler of Three Village Historical Society), Bleyer pushes back against the idea that there were only six individuals involved in the spy ring and that James Rivington and “Agent 355” should be included within the six. He argues against Kilmeade’s hyperbolic estimation of the spy ring’s impact as well as questioning Kilmeade’s research methods. According to Bleyer, Kilmeade held research meetings with local authorities who “provided him with much information, some of which he ignored when it didn’t fit his narrative”. Throughout this book, Bleyer works to correct inaccuracies within the historical record. His attention to detail and to the source material strengthens his work. Overall, George Washington’s Long Island Spy Ring, provides an engaging read and serves as a worthwhile resource.