Book Review: Washington’s Spies


I was at Costco with my mom looking at the books—which is our favorite part of any Costco trip—when this one piqued my interest. I flipped through the pages and eventually decided not to pay the full retail price. A few weeks later my mom’s fiance lent me his copy of it. I was excited to have it in my hands, but I was working on other books at the time. It made itself on my “to read” list and months later I finally got around to it. I was disappointed.

I’m somewhere in between an authentic history buff and the guy you want on your pub trivia team to answer the history questions. In school I excelled in my history courses. I love the History Channel (the historical stuff more than the Bigfoot stuff), enjoy a good documentary, I was once George Washington as a history project, and watched Liberty’s Kids religiously in grade school. So, like I said, I’m somewhere between pub trivia guy and history buff. This book is geared more toward the history buffs. And partly because of that, it took me way too long to read.

At [most] times the book failed to keep my interest. I was expecting a long tale of how a small band of brave heroes risked everything and ultimately  decided the fate of Yorktown and won the American Revolution. But it wasn’t that. And to be fair, espionage isn’t what it is in the movies. A believable spy is a boring spy. I just was expecting more action in the book and less “the spies were too scared to send letters now” and then “now they were sending letters again.” *Note: this is not to discount the bravery of the Culper Ring (the main spy ring in the book). Their actions consist of more bravery in a day than I will ever show in a lifetime.*

It felt like there was a new person introduced every three pages or so. It felt like there was a constant jumping around between places, people, and time periods. Maybe it’s because I read much of the book moments before drifting to sleep (the book helped me sleep for sure) but even after reading it I don’t think I could give a good account of the events that transpired in the book or even a decent list of “main” characters. (Let’s see there’s Benjamin Tallmadge, Abraham Woodhull, Robert Townsend, Austin Roe, Jonas Hawkins, something Brewster or Brewster something, to name the “main” ones.) Part of the nuisance was the author switching between code names and actual names.

I think I was suspecting more familiarity than I got in the book. I imagine the two maps in the front are useful to people who don’t mind flipping back and forth every time a new location appears in the text. Nathan Hale, Benedict Arnold, and of course George Washington made celebrity appearances throughout the book. Those parts were refreshing to my befuddled mind. But the whole point of the book was to shed light on the roles played by hidden characters of the Revolution, and it did a good job at that. There was just so much jumping between them I can’t really remember who did what and why. I don’t remember if Woodhull or Townsend had beef with the British because of a relative dying aboard a British prison ship. I think one of them did.

I would have liked some biographical background to the individuals in the Culper Ring in the introduction. But I see how that could promote spoilers. I was unable to really understand who the individuals were. Because of my confusion I had a hard time connecting events at the end of the book with events at the beginning. I’m sure if I gave it another read I would enjoy it because I have a better understanding of the individuals. The epilogue was my favorite part because it was clear what was happening to who and when (though after the war).

Like I mentioned above, this book is for authentic history buffs. I would not recommend it for someone unfamiliar with the Culper Ring. I found myself constantly looking at other sources to get a background to the individuals in the book. I was also constantly googling currency conversion between times, definitions of big words, and the geography of the Northeast. Alexander Rose knows more about the Culper Ring than you or I do, and he makes sure you know that when you read his book.

Enough negativity, time for some things the book did well. It shed well deserved light on unsung heroes of the American Revolution. It reminds the reader, especially the American reader, of the sacrifices Patriots made to win the war with England. It reminds people of the horrors of war, on the battlefield and off. The Revolutionary War was not Good vs. Evil. Shameful acts were committed by both sides. And even if I forget the names and actions of those in the Culper Ring, I will always remember the fate of Major John André. Rose did a great job writing about André’s misfortune.

Final musing, it is interesting to see all the toil that was put into transferring messages a mere fifty miles when today we can send the same message around the world in a matter of seconds. It was a very different time.

So, if you’re really into American History and the American Revolution I would recommend reading this book. If you’re mildly interested like me, I would say read a few things about the Culper Ring on Wikipedia and around the web before you decide to dive in. You will find some interesting stuff, and if you find a great documentary about the Culper Ring, please let me know!


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