1776 was a difficult year in the American cause for independence. Crushing battlefield defeats, declining morale, and scores of defections threatened to halt the objective not terribly long after the first shots rang out at Lexington and Concord were just part of the issues. Undoubtedly, the most disturbing event was the loss of New York City to the British. No one felt the burden more than General George Washington.
With the British showing its might, Washington was fully aware that his army was incapable of beating the king’s army head-to-head. Rather, the general realized his only hope was to outsmart his opponent. Truly believing that his hopes of turning the tides of the war depended on taking back New York, Washington recruited a major in the Continental Army, Benjamin Tallmadge.
In George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution, authors Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger take us on a journey from the formation of what became the Culper Spy Ring through the war that ended with the ragtag Patriot army somehow emerging victorious. In contrast to the secretive nature of the ring, the identity of its members, and its role in helping the American cause, the reader obtains concrete knowledge of each member, prior to, during, and after the war. We are informed of duties carried out under dangerous circumstances that played a deciding factor in the outcome of the war.
The first half of the book primarily provides the setting and introduces to us the main players, its fears, near misses during the ring’s infancy stages, and takes us through a period of fits and starts where the knowledge gained, perhaps does not warrant the dangerous nature of the work. It is here where it is said that key members went almost completely silent, fearing their lives were threatened. Up to this point, the book meanders along a rigid timeline, almost setting us up for the thrilling climax.
As promised, it is the second half where things rapidly pick up. Here, we find out how the ring was able to thwart Benedict Arnold’s plan to turn over West Point to the enemy. Furthermore, intelligence from the ring garnered that the British were going to attack the incoming French navy, who had recently agreed to align with the Americans. This led to Washington planting false evidence that he was going to assault New York, forcing the British to call off their plans with France and return to fight a fictitious battle against Washington. We also learn how the Culper’s intelligence played a key role in the American victory of the decisive battle of Yorktown. The ring’s efforts were so paramount, it led to Washington winning the war without achieving his main goal of taking back New York.
Secret Six is a spy thriller in the deepest sense. Upon reading, this reviewer finished the last 150 plus pages in an afternoon, unable to put the book down. This book is recommended for any lover of history who wishes to discover a network of American heroes that textbooks were unaware of for more than two centuries.