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The Culper RingJoshua MillsMidtermINTL412 - Espionage/CounterespionageAmerican Public University System / American Military UniversityInstructor Peter Tahan
IntroductionThe emergence of an organized American intelligence community came under the command of General George Washington during the height of the American Revolutionary War. Having recognized that the traditional approach to espionage had become too dangerous and ineffective, Washington ordered the formation of a structured spy network, which was to be a mix of military and civilian personnel. The ensemble, known as the Culper Ring, was America’s first organized spy outfit, was highly successful, had a direct influence on the outcome of the war, and provided critical intelligence, while using methods we would recognize today, including: dead drops, code names, number substitution codes and invisible ink. (Wilcox 2012) This essay shall demonstrate the lasting effects by the Culper Ring on American espionage/counterespionage practices through an examination of how and why the Ring came to be, its guiding principals, and operational strategy.The Birth of Organized American IntelligenceIn August of 1776, New York was under the control of British forces, and would persist as a significant British stronghold and a key naval base until the end of the last days of the War. Relaying vital information to General Washington regarding British troop movements and other significant operations in New York was crucial, but there was no dependable method or established intelligence system to do so. The extreme risk of traditional information gathering, retrieval, and delivery for the rebel army was highlighted in September of 1776 when British soldiers captured Continental Army Captain Nathan Hale, a volunteer spy and true American patriot, behind enemy lines. A short time later, Hale was sentenced to death, without trial, and hanged for being a spy against the British Empire. (Wilcox 2012) The infamous phrase, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country" is reported to have been Hales final words 2
prior to being hanged. Information gathering operations unfortunately continued in this manner until the summer of 1778.In mid-1778 General Washington had become intolerant of the extremely unreliable and deadly traditional information gathering technique of sending single scouts to penetrate enemy lines, conduct operations, and return. In November of 1778 General Washington placed Continental Army Major Benjamin Tallmadge in charge of intelligence services and charged him with the responsibility of forming a secret, dependable, organized group of spies within British controlled New York City. (Benjamin n.d.) This organization, known as the Culper Ring (named after Culpeper County, Virginia), was compromised of personal friends and acquaintances of Major Tallmadge, to include main members Abraham Woodhull, Caleb Brewster, Austin Roe, Robert Townsend, and Anna Strong. (Piascik n.d.)