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

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Summary
  3. Author’s Arguments
  4. Conclusion


In Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring, Alexander Rose tells the story of the spy ring that helped America win the Revolutionary War. Rose takes us beyond the battlefields into the secret world of double agents and triple crosses, confidential operations including code breaking, and tells the story of a few spies who completed these top-secret assignments. Rose focuses on four longtime friends that create the Culper Ring, one of which who was the American Major, Benjamin Tallmadge. He reveals this operation system as a third-person point of view and exposes the method that led America to victory against Britain also mentioning the reactions of other people to this wild method. This paper is intended to review Rose’s book as well as his main points, evaluate the excellence of Rose’s writing and focus on any weaknesses within the story.


This section contains a summary of Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring. Alexander Rose begins the story in the summer of 1778, with the war expected to go in General George Washington’s favor. Washington was desperate to know what Britain’s plan was and where they were planning to attack next. At the time, Britain’s headquarters were located in New York. So, to figure out their plan Washington sent a small group of men, soon to be the Culper Ring, to New York to gain information of their military strategies, including future battle plans. Going into this he acknowledged chances of the plan be successful were unlikely. However, Washington went against the odds thus unleashing his secret weapon.

br>Washington’s spies included a young Quaker, Nathan Hale, who had been educated at Yale, a sickly farmer who begged to retire but always supported Washington, and Benjamin Tallmadge, an American military officer at the time, and Abraham Woodhull. Although each of the men proved themselves to be excellent spies, the sickly farmer stood out by enlisting to do whatever was necessary to assist Washington. Ironically, he proved himself to be an expert at spying. The intelligence networks the spies created became known as the Culper Ring. Although Washington thought the men were underperforming, he gained a tremendous amount of information from the Culper Ring that perhaps may have never been discovered. To communicate with Washington, the spies had to develop their own system of spy craft including invisible ink and attempts at cryptography. Also, the British were aware of the Culper Ring and were determined to stop them. They would pay for information on the Culper Ring, and if they thought you knew something and were not telling they would harshly punish you. The British, unintentionally lead the spies to learn of loyalty, betrayal, and friendship. Though Alexander Rose was not present during this time, he provided detailed information on the life of spies within the Culper Ring.

Author’s Arguments

As stated above, Rose’s main purpose for writing Washington’s Spies is to inform the reader of how intelligent the Patriot’s spies were by revealing the complex, secret world that helped America win the Revolutionary War. Rose’s three main points, or arguments presented were the complexity of the spy’s communication tactics with Washington, the importance of remaining unidentified to the British, and the overall experience during the Revolutionary War.

Communication with Washington during the late 1700s was hard enough, but having to communicate without anyone knowing was a real task. The members of the Culper Ring must have been of the smartest in their generation. Cryptography, or secret codes, was one method used. The spies had symbols, codes, and signs used to convey different messages undercover. Invisible ink played a huge role in cryptography, the black chambers used to scan mail did not detect invisible ink which gave the spies a private way to exchange messages with Washington. To interpret the letters, the government would heat the letters and the message would be revealed by the spies. “There are some five hundred known sympathetic-ink formulas, and no doubt many hundreds more could be concocted”. George Washington also used encryption to pass the letters through by having a certain letter represent a different number, letter, or person. “His code was a distant descendant of the Ave Maria cipher created by a priest, Johannes Trithemius”. To say that the communication system between Washington and his spies was complex would be an understatement.

Remaining unidentified to the British was also a difficult undertaking because not only did the spies have to remain undercover, but also, they had to gather tons of confidential information. From simply talking to the townspeople and gathering what little they could from them, to struggling to overhear the towns meetings. Many time the spies would pose “as a merchant” and “discuss defenses of the West Point” with British Generals to retain information. One of the spies, Woodhull, would go between New York and Long Island everyday to collect information and observe the naval tactics. Dedication to the Culper Ring was essential in being successful, and it also made the unpleasant circumstances not so bad for the spies.

The overall experience for the members of the Culper Ring during their spy times was focused on in Washington’s Spies. Rose documents the “long and bitter experiences” the spies encountered. They experienced many things physically and mentally; while away from their families they experienced loneliness, and, they were faced with all the pressure that came with their job to gather information and please their boss, George Washington.


This section contains an evaluation of Rose’s book. Firstly, Alexander Rose did a phenomenal job of recounting the time when the Culper Ring was in action. He told the stories in the perspective of each member and at some points in the story you would feel as if you knew the men personally. Rose also presented the book using an uncomplicated choice of words. Rose informed the reader of the tactics used by George Washington in detail, and he tells you what the spies tactics to gain information were. Although Rose does do an excellent job at informing the reader of the tactics it almost seems as if he drags the information out and expands the information to far. This flaw serves as a minor weakness in his writing style.

A second weakness in Rose’s writing style is that at certain points in the story I would find myself very confused and uncertain on what was going on, resulting in lots of rereading. In the beginning of the story (chapters 1-3) I found myself questioning whether the Culper Ring was even truly favoring the patriots and not the British. Personally, I feel like the side to which the group was favoring should be clearly stated and undoubtedly reassured throughout the entire book. Throughout chapters 4-9 I slowly started to catch onto Rose’s subtle writing style and comprehended much more information. In the end, I did gain information on the Culper Ring, and their method to victory.

Finally, Rose sometimes went into too much detail on the situations and transitioned from the British to the colonies tactics in strange ways that made the book seem unorganized. Also, he mentions other people that are important at the time but not in the story, making it seem a bit more unorganized. This flaw alone can cause the reader to become frustrated and result in them taking the wrong idea away from Washington’s Spies, and this is a third weakness in Rose’s writing.


This critical review has evaluated the book Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring by Alexander Rose. The time of the Culper Ring and American Revolution that Rose recaps is very interesting and informative. Rose excels in educating the reader on many historical figures and the cleverness of George Washington along with his spies. However, Rose’s writing was weakened by stretching the information, vaguely expressing which side the Culper Ring favored, and carelessly transitioning from British tactics to the patriots causing confusion to the reader and making the book seem unorganized.

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