Book Review: ‘Secret Six’ for those fascinated with the Revolutionary War
January 24, 2015
“George Washington's Secret Six”
By Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger
That we won the Revolutionary War is a matter that will forever, I suppose, intrigue historians, war strategists and American citizens. By all rights, the British should have made short work of us. Why they didn't is the subject of Kilmeade and Yaeger's “George Washington's Secret Six.”
Kilmeade and Yaeger argue that it was intelligence, not cunning, that turned the tides of the Revolutionary War. Having abandoned New York and Long Island to the British after a quick and decisive defeat, Washington realized that to sustain his fight, he had to know what the British were planning. So it was that with the help of Lt. Benjamin Tallmadge he convinced six patriots living on Long Island and in Manhattan to become spies.
This history is remarkable not just because it reveals what Washington knew about the British plans and how that changed the course of the war, but because of how the spy ring communicated with Washington, and because of what it reveals about the life of patriots living through four years of British occupation.
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Robert Townsend wrote seemingly innocuous letters that were carried by courier 60 miles from New York to Secaucus, Long Island, and then across Long Island Sound to reach Tallmadge in Connecticut. Between the lines of those letters, written in an invisible ink commissioned by Washington, were his reports on the British. To further protect the identities of the spies, Tallmadge developed a secret code. This is the stuff of my boyhood spy kit — and it was really used, successfully, in the Revolutionary War.
The transport of this correspondence was carried out at great risk. Each crossing of a river, strategic stream or town meant justifying travel to British sentries, surviving searches of satchels, saddle bags, clothing and shoes. Boating across Long Island Sound was not "legal" — one could be hailed by a British patrol boat, towed into port and hung. Every person, your closest neighbor, even a Patriot sympathizer, could be the one to turn you in. Suspicion abounded, and punishment was swift and final.
For anyone fascinated with the Revolutionary War, this story is worth reading. It's not the scholarly tome of a Ron Chernow, Stephen Ambrose or David McCullough, and in that sense some will be disappointed. It's a quick read with just enough of the original letters and research to tell the story of these courageous six and their contribution to our freedom.
Ronald Krall is the co-owner of Off the Beaten Path Bookstore in Steamboat Springs.
This book is available at the Bud Werner Memorial Library and at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore; e-book can be found at http://www.steamboatbooks.com.