Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring by Alexander Rose

I was only in recent years made aware of the Culper spy ring, and the idea fascinates me. Given the perceptions of what lines could and could not be crossed by certain classes of individuals, this entire story flies right in the face of what the general public would expect. The idea that Washington – the man who would not tell a lie, according to popular legend – was as deceitful as they come to win the war for Independence? That’s just priceless.

The story as presented here is not really for entry-level students of the Revolution. The author gives you the stories and personalities on the new players within the spy ring, but you’re expected to know the more prominent figures on both sides, a considerable amount of the politics, and an understanding of the attitudes at different levels. It’s completely understandable to make those assumptions of the reader, given that this is more of a story for those already interested and somewhat immersed in the history of the time. The good news is that anyone who finds themselves not up to speed but still willing to dive in head first can get by in the broader view with their Wiki-scholar credentials. Obviously, the more you know about the big picture, the easier it is to appreciate the details of the story told here. I worked from a fairly solid knowledge base, but I’m certainly no expert. I still needed reference points from time to time. The rest worked itself out for me.

The only real issue I had is that the story does jump around a bit here and there. It’s all easy enough to track if you pay heed to the dates and the narrative that unfolds. Others might have difficulties following the details of the coding or the other elements of spycraft, but for me that was part of the selling point of this book. This is geek-level history, and it’s fun for me to finally have those details. Considering this is a story that went largely unknown for so long, I applaud the author for putting it all together for the interested reader. Well done.

Note: this book is the historical basis for the dramatic television series Turn: Washington’s Spies.  If you’re a fan of that, you might want to look into this.

4 stars

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