Customer Reviews: Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring
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on March 11, 2014
I live on Long Island, near Setauket, the scene of much of the action in this book. A local historian wrote a review of this book for our hometown newspaper in which she compared "Washington's Spies" to the currently popular "George Washington's Secret Six" by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yeager. Here is some of what she had to say:

"Kilmeade and Yaeger have spun more than one story here. This non-fiction book hovers dangerously close to the side of fiction" [whereas] "Historians can refer with confidence to Alexander Rose’s book."

The reviewer provides this side-by-side comparison of Rose’s book with Kilmeade’s and Yaeger’s:

“Washington’s Spies”
Bibliography: 16½ pages, including 4½ pages of primary sources alone.
Notes: 60 pages, documenting every quotation and inference.

“Secret Six”
Bibliography: 6 pages, with 3 primary sources listed.
Notes: None.

I will add this: Not only is "Washington's Spies" the better history, it is well-written history that will keep you reading from cover to cover. It's not just about the Culper Spy Ring; it's also an interesting look at life in New York City and on Long Island during the Revolutionary War. You will gain added insight as to why the British lost that war and their American colonies by indulging in neglect, greed, corruption, and brutality that ultimately hardened the resolve of Patriots and lost the allegiance of many disheartened Loyalists.

I give 5-stars to "Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring."
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on July 6, 2006
As the title above indicates, I'm a collector of books set in Revolutionary America as well as the author of a frontier novel. I usually take my time reading a book because I like to savor it as I read. However, much to my wifes surprise, I finished the book in only a few days. I enjoyed the book so much that I wanted to keep on reading when I usually would have paused. The book reads like a novel and Mr. Rose has a unique talent for being able to transport the reader to the time of the revolution and put an entire conflict into perspective. He did a terrific job of capturing the pace of life, which can be a difficult thing to do with the written word. I have literally read over a thousand books on the revolution, and this book is in my top 5. Best of all the book can be trusted to be true to history and is not an attempt at revisionism. You won't go wrong by ordering this book.
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on June 10, 2006
Rose obviously did an incredible amount of work on this book. I finished it last night. All I can say is Wow, the pages just flew by.. I have whole bookshelves loaded down with volumes on the Revolution, so it's not often I'm surprised by anything I read about it but I was this time! I recommend Washington's Spies to anyone with even a passing interest in military history, George Washingto, espionage, or just great history writing.
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on July 25, 2006
If you've slogged through some of Edmund Morris' or David McCullough's work and said, "That was good...but long..." then Mr. Rose's book may be for you.

I've always wondered why there's never been a well-known movie or book about the tragic, heroic Nathan Hale. The first chapter explains why!

My only critique of Mr. Rose's work is that at some points he throws a dizzying amount of names and places at you, and you have to flip back to review the introduction of recurring characters in the text.
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on May 24, 2006
The Culper Ring was a secret spy network run by General George Washington during the War of Independence which operated in New York City. It had five members: Abragham Woodhull, Robert Townsend, Caleb Brewster, Austin Roe and Benjamin Tallmadge (who was Nathan Hale's best friend at Yale University). Together they (as Rose says) "spied the daylights out of the British." The author does more than tell their story, but goes deeper and examines the whole "secret world" of the Revolution, the one you dn't read about in the history books. Including smuggling, gun-running, kidnapping, piracy, and even the British attempt to destroy the Continental dollar by flooding us with counterfeits. I wish I had this back in college. A fascinating eye-opener and wonderfully written.
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VINE VOICEon June 29, 2006
Being a devoted history buff with special interest in 18th century American history, I consider myself pretty well versed in that area. I didn't really think there was much I hadn't read yet about the Revolutionary War. But then I picked up WASHINGTON'S SPIES: THE STORY OF AMERICA'S FIRST SPY RING by Alexander Rose and discovered a whole portion of the fight for independence that I knew very little about.

I was originally drawn to this book wanting to research more on the life of Capt. Nathan Hale, which is certainly an integral part of Rose's work, but it goes much farther than that. What I discovered was a most enlightening look at a world within the mechanisms of war in the field of intelligence and espionage. I had never really considered the importance of the role played by these characters.

Rose's finished product is gruelingly meticulous in presenting us a valuable look into the inner workings of America's first spy ring. It is well written, flows well and presents the war effort from a perspective largely overlooked in the annals of American history. The note section is unbelievably comprehensive composing 80 of the 360 pages of this book.

If you're seeking a look into the Revolutionary War from a new angle, you will not want to miss reading this one. It's probably not for everyone. If you don't already have a pretty sound understanding of the war's events, this book may drag on a bit for you, but I believe it would be well worth the effort and will certainly render insight into the war from a largely untapped venue.

Monty Rainey

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Alexander Rose's book is certainly on my "top ten" list of books about the American Revolution. Is has a taut narrative that, despite all of the characters and plot twists and turns, is easy to follow. The book is also scrupulously researched, with the author delving into a myriad of original sources, as well as addressing the small body of secondary sources and their weak spots (sixty pages of footnotes and a great bibliography). There is a photo section (even in the paperback edition) with copies of some key documents accompanied by thorough decryptions, and two valuable maps. But that said, this scholarly work of non-fiction reads like a novel.

In the summer of 1778 (after Nathan Hale was discovered by the British and executed for spying), General George Washington desperately needed to know where the British (ensconced in their New York City North American HQ) would strike next. To that end, he unleashed his secret weapon: an unlikely ring of spies in New York, Long Island, and Connecticut charged with discovering the enemy's battle plans and military strategy. As noted by Washington's top general Nathanael Greene, "intelligence is the life of everything in war," and the American War of Independence was no exception to this insight.

Washington's small band included a young Quaker (Robert Townhend, Samuel Culper Jr.) torn between political principle and family loyalty and posing as a Loyalist, a swashbuckling sailor (Caleb Brewster) addicted to the perils of espionage, a tavern owner (Austin Roe), a Yale-educated cavalryman (Major Benjamin Tallmadge, alias John Bolton who bcame Washington's chief intelligence officer) and friend of the doomed Nathan Hale, and a peaceful, sickly farmer (Abraham Woodhull, Culper Sr.) who begged Washington to let him retire but who always came through in the end. Personally guiding these brave, flawed, everyday heroes was Washington himself. In an era when gentlemen were officers, and gentlemen did not spy, he possessed an extraordinary talent for deception--and proved an adept spymaster.

Among the Culpers' greatest successes were thwarting a British attempt to counterfeit Continental currency in Connecticut in an attempt to devalue it completely, and deceiving and diverting the British in New York away from interfering with the arrival of a French fleet and troops in Newport, Rhode Island.

The men he mentored were dubbed the Culper Ring. The British secret service tried to hunt them down, but they escaped by the closest of shaves thanks to their ciphers, dead drops, and invisible ink (also known as "sympathetic stain" courtesy of John Jay's brother, Sir James Jay). Washington's Spies tells a little known story of the American Revolution--one encompassing a deadly intelligence war, gunrunning, kidnappings, and defections--that has not received its due in many history books. The story is also a spirited, touching account of friendship and trust, fear and betrayal (the Culper's were almost exposed by Benedict Arnold's treachery), amid the shadowy world of divided loyalties and spies.

In my original review I wrote, "I can't wait for new offerings from AMC on April 6, 2014 will be Turn, billed as "the story of America's first spy ring," based on the book. You can google the two minute trailer or a C-SPAN lecture by Dr.Rose." Unfortunately, while TURN provided some decent Revolutionary War era TV entertainment, it deviated too sharply from Dr. Rose's book. When it comes to history, there continues to be something sadly lacking in TV and movie script-writing. The true stories researched and narrated by Dr. Rose are so much more compelling than the history-as-soap-opera of AMC's TURN. For great reviews of the 10-episode series, go to the denofgeek website and search for TURN or J.L. Bell (another great scholar: check out his blog Boston1775).

PS - Dr. Rose was kind enough to answer an email inquiry from me.
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on February 20, 2013
The author, Alexander Rose, presents a well told web of espionage during the the American Revolutionary War. His story is mostly of the American, or Patriot, side, but includes the efforts of British General Henry Clinton as well, to a lesser extent. The book is "easy reading" while being quite serious history - always a welcome treat. Rose's British influence can occasionally be picked up through strange - to the American ear - terms and word usage (e.g. Bolshier, scarpered, pernickety, frippery, rota, etc.) but all the more interestingly so. Rose is a interesting fellow - see his bio on Amazon: "I was born in the United States, grew up in Australia, and educated (to the best of my abilities) in Britain. After that, I moved to Canada..."

His story is principally that of the standoff between General Henry Clinton, quartered in New York and General George Washington along the Hudson. Washington's object, of course, is to discover the order-of-battle of Clinton's forces as well as to piece together the intentions of the British. Along the way, we see the ugliness between the American Patriots and the Loyalist Tories and meet a few of each, both the good and the bad on BOTH sides.

American General Benedict Arnold's treachery, assisted by the youthful British Major John André is told in detail not usually so well presented. The audacious attempt by American Sergeant John Champe to kidnap Arnold from the British and return him to Washington (for the rope no doubt) is an especially interesting part of the history of the time and a tribute to a forgotten American hero for an incredibly dangerous mission that may well have succeeded if not for unforeseen timing that placed Arnold elsewhere at the last moment.

The book contains dozens of characters, some heroic, others despicable, but all detailed with enough fact and precision to make the read a pleasure. The Author's epilogue is a fitting end that gives the read satisfying resolution by tracing the character's lives after the war - to their death's.

-----kindle edition-----

Overpriced! While only a very few typos, and all of the kindle functions work as intended (page numbers, table of contents, end-note hyperlinks etc) all illustrations and maps - have been removed from the e-book edition. The publisher has also eliminated the index from the e-book edition. They did however manage to ADD $2.50 over the price of the paper edition. e-Book publication quality for Random House's slapdash publication of the electronic version... ★★☆☆☆.
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VINE VOICEon April 6, 2007
What should have been an interesting, illuminating history of a little known aspect of the Rev War becomes a plodding bore here. The author digresses incessantly, and concerns himself with a lot of local history of families, relatives, etc. The actual work of the Culper Spy Ring in New York City during the British occupation seems to get lost in the process. The book suffers from too much excessive detail without a clear annalysis.

The author often repeats information throughout the course of the book. I distinctly recall re-reading passages about Arnold, Andre and others several times during the story. The narrative jumps around a lot and is difficult to follow at times. The author should have organized his information better. As it stands now it seems what he did here was merely expand what was a Master's Thesis of some sort into a full length book. This is ok to do, but the end result should be more coherrent than what we have here. After plodding through 384 pages of rambling history I was left with one essential question: What did the Culper Ring accomplish for Washy and and the Rebel cause?

So much of the book spends time talking about the emotional condition of the main characters, their feelings and the back and forth efforts of communication that much of the actual accomplishment of this so-called first American espionage effort gets lost in the process. The interesting parts of the book are probably the on-going Petit Guerre that occurs on Long Island and parts about. There was a significant amount of this activity especially in the stalmate years of the war after the British consoldiated back into New York in 1778. Still, after a while even this runs a bit dry with constant raids back and forth over the Long Island Sound and nearby areas.

The author should have organized his story better, and given us a clearer idea of what these indivduals actually accomplished. I am a Rev War buff and I found much of this book redundant and tiring with too much local detail and not enough emphasis on how these efforts actually helped Washy's war effort. Those who like local New York history will enjoy it somewhat, but a lot of that info. has already been presented in other books about the city during the war. Those seeking how these early spies might have influenced the military aspects of the war will be disappointed. Perhaps a few souls interested in the development of espionage both in the US and Europe during the 18th century may find this work of some value. The author spends a whole chapter on how codes were made and broken in this period. Perhaps Da Vinci Code people may like that! It did little for me. An interesting topic, but a slow and tedious read.

The new HBO series Turn will of course bring fresh interest to this book and topic. The series takes a lot of liberties with the characters and history. Well produced, but factually wrong in many places. John Graves Simco was NOT a sadist as shown here! Robert Rogers took no real active part in the war.
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on May 27, 2006
Alexander Rose's book entitled Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring is a fascinating and vivid account of the lives of ordinary colonists who were overtaken by the maelstrom of a confusing war, not of one nation with another,but more similar to the American war between the states, with brothers, cousins, other relatives and close neighbors opposed to one another, torn apart by strong yet conflicting loyalties. While New England was predominantly pro-Independence,the inhabitants of New York were greatly divided. In Mr. Rose's well researched book we learn how individuals reacted to the terrible choices presented to them by the realities of this new war. Our nation's first spy ring was made up of men who were serving out of a desire to help our country, and their own idealism at times led to their deaths. I couldn't put this book down: the history is well researched and the stories are fascinating. I highly recommend this book.

Mary Jo Neyer
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