Last night’s episode of ‘Brad Meltzer’s Decoded’ on The History Channel introduced us to George Washington – Spy Master! Yes, our Founding Father, General and First President may have always told the truth, but he also ran his own private spy agency. Known as the Culper Ring, they were America’s first intelligence agency, and possibly our most successful. Especially given that they remained a secret until 1930, some 153 years after being formed.

decoded george washington culper ring
General George Washington’s spy team, the Culper Ring, remained a secret until 1930.

In 1778, General George Washington ordered Major Benjamin Tallmadge to form a new spy ring to keep track of the British. Operating in and around New York City, the ring led a campaign of espionage, including disinformation and other tricks, right through till the end of the American Revolutionary War. Officially disbanded in 1785, four years after the Battle of Yorktown and two years after the Peace Treaty of Paris, some, including Brad Meltzer, speculate that the Culper Ring may still be functioning today!

Major Tallmadge organized a network of spies, recruiting ordinary Americans who were living inside British occupied territory. These Patriots were expertly led, as Tallmadge set-up the Culper Ring with maximum secrecy. Nobody knew the whole roster of spies, not even George Washington! Code names were used, based on numbers. Washington, for example, was listed in their codebook as Agent #711. Only four copies of Tallmadge’s codebook were made. The major used techniques, such as invisible ink and ‘dead drops’, still practiced today by modern intelligence agencies, including using women as spies, which really paid off as we will see.

One of the early successes of the Culper Ring was in convincing the British that George Washington was going to attack New York with the Continental Army in 1780. The spy ring learned that the British were preparing to launch an attack of their own upon French forces which had arrived in North America. By leaking disinformation to the British, the Culper Ring succeeded in stopping the attack upon the French, as the British remained in New York City and prepared defenses.

But the most famous, and important success of the Culper Ring was exposing the attempt by Benedict Arnold to ‘sell’ the fortifications at West Point to the British. Arnold was in command of West Point and was very unhappy with how he had been treated, especially not being paid for years. Corresponding with British Major John Andre’, Benedict Arnold wanted 20,000 pounds and the rank of a brigadier general in exchange for handing over West Point, a vital defense position along the Hudson River.

In 1779, Major Andre’ became a source of information for the Cupler Ring, as many historians believe Andre’ had become involved with a female agent, often referred to as Agent #355. In Tallmadge’s codebook, the number 355 refers to “a lady”. While some historians think it’s just a general reference, others believe it refers to a specific woman who had gained access to Andre’ and his correspondence. For over a year, the Culper Ring knew that a high ranking officer in the Continental Army was communicating with the British. Thanks to Agent #355, Tallmadge determined that it was indeed Benedict Arnold.

Major Andre’ was captured, initially by three highway robbers. After stripping him of any valuables, they turned him over to the Continental Army, oddly enough to one of Arnold’s subordinates. Andre’ was carrying papers of the plot to capture West Point. News of this reached both Tallmadge and Arnold, but Arnold heard about it first and managed to flee to New York City. Tallmadge took custody of Andre’ and the gig was up. Unfortunately, Arnold’s first mission given to him by the British was to round-up members of the Culper Ring. Many historians suspect that the woman, Agent #355, was captured and either hung immediately or left to rot onboard a prison ship. Her real identity has never been determined.

None of the members were revealed until 1930 when a historian, Morton Pennypacker of East Hampton, Long Island, came across letters and documents in a chest from a local attic. It was only then that the 153-year secret of the Culper Ring became known. The identities of several key members of the spy group were determined, such as Robert Townsend, who was known at the time as ‘Samuel Culper Jr.’.

Thanks to The History Channel’s hit show, ‘Brad Meltzer’s Decoded’, George Washington is revealed to be even more talented than previously known. As spy master for the Culper Ring, Washington once again proves his remarkable leadership skill which helped win the American Revolutionary War. Together with Major Benjamin Tallmadge, they gave the British a hard time and prevented them from seizing the all-important fort at West Point. But, the real question left today is whether or not the super-secret Culper Ring still exists? If so, whom do they serve?

Related Articles:

Culper Ring 355

The Culper Spy Ring

The Culper Ring