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Washington’s Spies Were So Secretive, Not Even He Knew Their Identities

George Washington’s spy network was so successful, we didn’t know about it until more than 100 years later.

Before the DIA, the CIA, the NSA, or any of the organizations that fall under the Department of Defense, America’s only way of receiving intelligence was a ragtag group of patriot spies who were so secretive, not even General George Washington knew their identities. The group’s name was the Culper Ring and they provided the colonies with valuable information on the British. They would go on to help change the tides of the Revolutionary War.

It’s no wonder AMC created a show based off of the secret spy ring…but it turns out the real story of the group is even more exciting than anything scripted.

In the summer of 1778, the British occupied New York City. After a few of Washington’s military agents had been captured, the general decided civilian operatives would work better inside New York.

Washington turned to Benjamin Tallmadge to recruit informants in New York and Long Island. The plan was for Washington to only contact the operatives through Tallmadge. He refused to know their identities.

The general devised this covert plan in Culper County, Virginia, and so the spy network was named the ‘Culper Ring’

Two of the most important operatives under Tallmadge were Abraham Woodhull and Robert Townsend. They were known by their aliases “Samuel Culper, Sr.” and “Samuel Culper, Jr.”

The operatives devised secret codes to communicate, including messages written on newspapers with invisible ink. In addition to aliases, all those involved with the Culper Ring were assigned a code number — Washington’s was 711.

Among the important information gathered by the Culper Ring was the British plan for a surprise attack on the newly allied French forces on Rhode Island. The ring also learned the British planned to counterfeit American bills.

It’s believed that it was the Culper Ring who had learned that a high ranking American officer had been working with the British. It was later revealed that this officer was Major General Benedict Arnold himself.

Perhaps the most elusive operative of the Culper Ring was the network’s female spy, known only as Agent 355. She may have played an integral part in exposing Arnold and capturing Major John André of the British army.

Perhaps the most elusive operative of the Culper Ring was the network's female spy, known only as Agent 355. She may have played an integral part in exposing Arnold and capturing Major John André of the British army.

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It’s a testament to the Culper Ring’s success that the public didn’t even know about the spies until the 1930s, when it was discovered that Robert Townsend’s handwriting bore a striking resemblance to that of the entity known as Samuel Culper, Jr.

Could it be that the Culper Ring was the most successful spy group in American history?

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