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Stony Brook University

George Washington and the Culper Spy Ring

Research Materials about George Washington, the Culper Spy Ring, and the American Revolutionary War

About the Culper Spy Ring

Code numbers are included in parentheses.

The Culper Spy Ring was assembled in 1778 by Major Benjamin Tallmadge (alias, John Bolton/721) at the request of General George Washington (711) and operated on Long Island (728) and New York City (727) during the Revolutionary War. Codes and aliases were used to conceal the identities of the members.

“Matters of Business to his Friend at Satuket” is a phrase George Washington stated in Stony Brook University's September 24, 1779 letter to Major Benjamin Tallmadge. In this letter, Washington gives us insights and reveals his own hints for gathering intelligence about British activities in and around Long Island and New York City, which he so desperately needed to inform his military tactics. And although Washington did not want to know the true identities of the spies, this letter shows how profoundly involved he was involved in: 1) giving directives on handling spies, 2) suggesting methods of spycraft, and 3) stating how to pass along intelligence without detection. 

Spies were managed by Benjamin Tallmadge. Members with code numbers and/or aliases were Robert Townsend (joined 1779), Abraham Woodhull, Austin Roe, and Caleb Brewster.

In sources associated members, sub-agents, associates and informants have included: Selah Strong, Anna (Nancy) Smith Strong, James Rivington, Jonas Hawkins, Amos Underhill, Mary (Woodhull) Underhill (sister of Abraham Woodhull), Nathaniel Ruggles, Zachariah Hawkins, "John Cork," Hercules Mulligan, Cato (an African America slave and spy courier for Mulligan), Hugh Mulligan (brother of Hercules), Daniel Bissel, Lewis Costigin, and Haym Salomon. Nathan Hale and Joshua Davis were hung for spying before the Culper Spy Ring was formed. 

Robert Townsend (alias, Samuel Culper, Jr./723) and Abraham Woodhull (alias, Samuel Culper, Sr./722) gathered intelligence in British (72) occupied New York City (727). It was then passed to Austin Roe (724) for transport to Setauket (729), Long Island (728). Once in Setauket, the intelligence was carried across the sound by Caleb Brewster (725) to Major Tallmadge in Connecticut (735). 
Washington thought highly of Townsend's (723) reports, according to letters he later wrote to Tallmadge (721).

Although the British (72) captured a Washington (711) letter to spy Abraham Woodhull (722) that referred to "Culper," they never figured out his identity and Townsend (723) took his secret with him to the grave in 1838. 
His double life remained a secret until the 20th century when Long Island historian Morton Pennypacker sought to match the handwriting in "Culper Jr's" letters to Washington (711) with the script contained in ledgers and other documents found in Oyster Bay, belonging to an obscure New York and Long Island merchant, who turned out to be Townsend. Pennypacker retained the services of graphologist Albert S. Osborn to make this determination. This discovery by Pennypacker was first announced at a meeting of the New York State Historical Society on September 27, 1930, when he read a paper that he prepared on Nathan Hale and Robert Townsend (723) (source: The New York Times, September 28, 1930).