Ever wonder about the origins of organized intelligence operations? In America, until the Revolutionary War, there simply was no organized intelligence. There were military scouts and there were occasionally spies, but not under a central system. Then came the Culper Ring.
The Culper Ring was American’s first spy ring. They were a group of spies working for the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. General Washington saw the need for trustworthy, on-the-ground intelligence, gathered by people who were honorable and wouldn’t exaggerate. Accurate intelligence was hard to come by in those days.
Washington turned to one his aides, Benjamin Tallmadge, and commissioned him to put together a group of people who could gather information for the Continental Army from behind enemy lines, especially in New York City and Long Island. Tallmadge, in turn, called upon some old friends to get started, and then those friends brought in a few neighbors they could trust, and eventually the Ring grew to include Abraham Woodhull, Robert Townsend, and Anna Strong.
How did the Culper Ring get its name?
The “Culper” part of the ring is an abbreviated version of Culpepper County, Virginia, where Washington had held his first job.
But how they assigned individual aliases within the Ring is quite interesting! They started with the initials of the head of intelligence—Charles Scott, C.S. Then they reversed them—S.C. This would be the initials of the primary Culper officer. For the “C,” Washington chose a place he had fond memories of, Culpeper County, Virginia, where he worked as a lad. Then he shortened it to Culper. For the “S,” Tallmadge (the head officer of the ring) decided on “Samuel,” his younger brother’s name, and a good friend of the man who would be adopting the identity. So there we have it! Samuel Culper, the creation that became the bane of the British.
The Main Players:
Benjamin Tallmadge was born in 1754 in Setauket, Long Island, New York. After attending Yale, he became an officer in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. He was assigned as an aide de camp for General George Washington, who eventually tasked him with creating America’s first spy ring: the Culper Ring. This was because of many frustrations from bad intelligence. They needed dependable intelligence. In Tallmadge’s mind, the best way to do that was to recruit people you knew and trusted. So he began with a childhood friend, Abraham Woodhull.
After the war, Tallmadge eventually went on to become a Congressman; he was serving in the House of Representatives during the War of 1812. He died in 1835.
Abraham Woodhull was recruited by Tallmadge as the first member of the Culper Ring…a bit unwillingly. He was a farmer by trade, and the demand for produce in British-held (and blockaded) New York City was so high that most farmers, regardless of their political persuasion, regularly ran the blockade the sell their produce on the black market. Woodhull, however, got caught—by the Patriots. When Tallmadge heard of it, he intervened and struck him a deal: he’d get off the hook for his smuggling if he agreed to gather intelligence for the Continental Army. Woodhull agreed and operated as the first and only member of the ring for a while.
Woodhull received the first code name of the Ring, Samuel Culper, as a way to protect his identity.
Eventually, he brought in Robert Townsend, who was a fellow resident of the boarding house in New York City that Woodhull occasionally made use of, and Anna Strong, his neighbor’s wife. Woodhull was very hesitant about these clandestine tasks, knowing well the danger it put him in. His anxiety, combined with ill health, led to him stepping away from the Ring near the end of the war.
After the war, Woodhull returned to his farming business and served in various local government positions. He died in 1826.
Robert Townsend was in many ways the most crucial member of the Culper Ring. Dubbed “Samuel Culper, Jr” by Tallmadge, Townsend became the main operative for the Ring within the City of New York.
He was born in 1753 in Oyster Bay, New York, and he was a merchant by trade. He owned a mercantile and a coffee shop, both of which were popular with British soldiers, and also wrote regular articles for a British-sympathizing newspaper. All of these business ventures put him in the perfect position to gather information for the Patriot cause and send it along to Tallmadge; sometimes via Woodhull and Anna Strong, sometimes via a courier that went from the city back to wherever Washington and Tallmadge were encamped.
Townsend’s intelligence was critical to the Continental Army’s success in many ways. However, he also suffered from what we today would call bipolarism or manic-depression. His own writings and those about him all agree that would swing from high moods down into “black moods,” as he dubbed him, that would hinder his work both in general and for the Ring.
After the war, he led a quiet life. He never married. He died in 1838.
Anna Strong is the only identified female member of the Culper Ring. She and her husband, Selah, lived on a farm neighboring Abraham Woodhull’s on Long Island. A decade older than Woodhull, she was never a love interest, despite what television may lead us to believe. But she did pose as his wife from time to time as they made runs for information—a couple was less likely to be stopped by the British at checkpoints than was a single man. She is most remembered for the system of signal flags she used to communicate with Townsend—she would hang a black petticoat on her clothesline to signal that it was safe to come to town with a message.
After the war, Strong lived the rest of her life in Setauket. She died in 1812.