Review: George Washington’s Long Island Spy Ring


August 9, 2021
by Timothy Symington Also by this Author


Journal of the American Revolution is the leading source of knowledge about the American Revolution and Founding Era. We feature smart, groundbreaking research and well-written narratives from expert writers. Our work has been featured by the New York Times, TIME magazine, History Channel, Discovery Channel, Smithsonian, Mental Floss, NPR, and more. Journal of the American Revolution also produces annual hardcover volumes, a branded book series, and the podcast, Dispatches

George Washington’s Long Island Spy Ring:  A History and Tour Guide by Bill Bleyer  (Charleston, SC:  The History Press, 2021)
Whoever gets their hands on Bill Bleyer’s latest book on Long Island history, George Washington’s Long Island Spy Ring: A History and Tour Guide, will be in for a treat. Bleyer, a former writer for the Long Island paper Newsday and author of books about Theodore Roosevelt’s summer White House and the Fire Island Lighthouse, sets the record straight concerning the important espionage operation known as the Culper Ring. His recent article “George Washington’s Culper Spy Ring: Separating Fact From Fiction” is a preview for his book, which goes into a great amount of further detail and can be used as a great resource for any amateur historians traveling through Long Island.

The purpose of Bleyer’s book is to improve upon recent information about the spy network that Washington relied on.  The popular television series Turn: Washingtons Spies and Brian Kilmeade’s book George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution have each thrust the legends surrounding the intelligence-gathering efforts into the spotlight. Unfortunately, as Bleyer explains, both the series and Kilmeade’s book have taken too many liberties with the historical narrative to be reliable sources of information. He makes his intention very clear in his Introduction: “I wanted to create the definitive account of the spy ring with the help of 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.” (page 14)

The book is divided into two parts. The first twelve chapters are in Part 1, “The Culper Spy Ring.” The story begins with the Battle of Long Island and the British occupation. Bleyer then proceeds to pick apart Kilmeade’s book by explaining the truth behind popular legends. He gives an accurate account of what happened to the grossly inexperienced spy Nathan Hale (who probably never said those famous words he is given credit for, which came from Washington’s favorite play, Cato).  Washington was desperate for people to gather worthwhile intelligence, and he was willing to pay a significant amount of money to set up a functioning spy network. The Culper Spy Ring’s major players included Benjamin Tallmadge, Caleb Brewster, Abraham Woodhull, and Robert Townsend. Bleyer describes their roles in the enterprise, including how the spy ring functioned.  Some of the pictures included are of letters that were passed on between the spies, along with details as to how they were ciphered.

Three chapters are focused entirely on the contents of what have become known as “The Culper Letters,” spanning the years 1778-1783. There are some transcriptions included, along with photographs of some of the letters. Bleyer describes what the details of the letters were and how they were passed along.  Washington deeply relied on the information he received, spending close to the equivalent of $400,000 on the operation by the end of the war. The real impact of the intelligence depended on various circumstances. The plight of the Culper Spy Ring’s operatives after the war is chronicled, and Bleyer concludes Part 1 with President George Washington’s tour through Long Island in 1790, when he was able to meet some of the individuals he relied on during the Revolution. There are several photographs of the places Washington stayed, and one of the chairs he sat on, during his tour.

The second part of the book is devoted to “Long Island’s Revolutionary War Sites.” Bleyer explains how George Washington’s “spy trail” was created and describes eleven places, including several buildings and gravesites. The last chapter includes more historical points of interest for anyone curious enough to make the trip out to Long Island: museums, cemeteries, taverns, battle sites, and even a large boulder that British soldiers used for target practice.

Bleyer relies mainly on many secondary sources for his research. One of the most referenced books is Morton Pennypacker’s General Washington’s Spies on Long Island and in New York, published in 1939. Many interviews were conducted, which certainly provided a wealth of information. Particular attention, both good and bad, is given to the opinions of a former CIA case officer Kenneth Daigler. Thankfully, Bleyer includes the online source of all of the Culper Letters (the Library of Congress) so that anyone can easily access them.

George Washington’s Long Island Spy Ring: A History and Tour Guide is certainly one of the most visually attractive books that this reviewer has ever had the pleasure to look through. The photographs, taken by Audrey C. Tiernan, are plentiful and varied.  It would be easy to imagine travelers using the book as a valuable reference as they check out the “spy trail.” The middle of the book includes some beautiful colored photographs, paintings, and other illustrations. These alone are well worth owning the book. Bleyer’s attention to the details of the Culper Spy Ring demonstrates his expertise on anything to do with Long Island.

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  • Timothy – Thanks for an informative review. As I’m a Long Island native (though now living in Michigan) who has an ongoing interest in Revolutionary War intelligence, this is definitely a book I’ll pick up. I wish I was aware of all the things that went on in my “backyard” when it was my “backyard”!

  • This is an exceptionally fine work on the operations of the Culper Ring which goes a long way in correcting some of the errors which appear in Rose and Kilmeade. Many of us who are members of Cloak and Dagger (an organization recently formed of persons who are of proven descent from Spies, all Wars and all Sides) are related to members of the Culper Ring and their fellow operatives on Long Island and Connecticut. We are concerned to make the service of our ancestors correctly portrayed. We are blessed to have former OSS and CIA operatives among our membership who aid us in correcting some of the “colorful” accounts, even though we have to admit that our ancestors lived less dramatic, if not less dangerous, participation of acts of espionage of the Revolutionary War era.

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