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George Washington, Spymaster: How the Americans Outspied the British and Won the Revolutionary War is a National Geographic book written by Thomas B. Allen. This young adult book is as informative as it is entertaining. In the books that I have read about the Revolution, the Patriot spy network isn't given much coverage.

Allen starts during the French and Indian War when Washington was a young major. He was sent out by Virginia Royal Governor Robert Dimwiddie. Washington realized early on that he had to rely on intelligence gathered from civilians and the Indians to learn about French forces. Washington wrote "There is nothing more necessary than good Intelligence to frustrate a designing enemy & nothing that requires greater pains to obtain."

When the Revolutionary War began, Washington built on those information-gathering techniques that he used during the French and Indian War. Washington became a "spymaster," handling large numbers of individual spies. At first, Washington wanted an intelligence network of military men. The first such group was the Knowlton Rangers, which eventually evolved into the modern Army Rangers and Special Forces. The Rangers got off to a disastrous start, and Washington realized that "Instead of relying on officers to gather military intelligence, he would do what the Sons of Liberty had done in Boston. He would use civilians--sharp-witted Patriots who could spy while making believe they were Tories."

Thomas gives the reader a tutorial on spying and spies. He tells us the difference between an agent, a double agent, an intelligence officer and a snitch. He provides the code created by Benjamin Tallmadge for Patriot correspondence. He also hides messages throughout the book using this code. He details the tools of the spy trade from the 1700s including invisible ink, hiding messages in feather quills, small silver balls for hiding messages (they could be swallowed when captured), etc. Also, the Patriots were masters at forging documents and making sure they fell into British hands. One civilian woman relayed information to the military by the way she hung her laundry. But for all the information Washington received from his spy network, there was always the danger of dealing with double agents and traitors (Benedict Arnold).

One thing I found especially interesting about George Washington, Spymaster is how many agents and double agents were not identified until well after the Revolution. It has taken until the 1900s and the opening of British papers for Americans to discover that some of their trusted Patriots were actually working for Britain.

This may be a book written for young adults, but I certainly learned quite a bit from Thomas Allen in George Washington, Spymaster.
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On the coolness scale, kids rank George Washington just above Chester B. Arthur and just below... oh, I dunno... pickled yams. Which is to say, GW's PR department needs some help. Enter the National Geographic publishing company. Continually churning out fine fine non-fiction titles for kiddies everywhere, the good folks at the National, with the help of author Thomas B. Allen, have done their darndest to make Mr. Washington less the kind of guy you're supposed to remove your hat in memory of, and more the kind of guy who'd give James Bond a run for his money when it comes to espionage. Sporting a cover on which George smirks slyly from beneath a dark and shadowy cape collar, the book makes the claim that the only reason we really won the Revolutionary War was because our first president was a whiz at spying. It's an intriguing premise and an amusing little book.

Let's say you're an up-and-coming young republic. You've been ruled by a distant country over the sea for quite some time but recently that rule's been chafing you. What is the answer then? Well, if you happen to be America the answer is open rebellion (if you happen to be Northern Ireland, good luck to you). As George Washington came of age in America, he learned how important a good intelligence network was in a time of war. Having served in the French and Indian War, George saw good spying done firsthand. When America next attempted to pull away from the British, Mr. Washington was able to put this theory into practice. Chronicling the course of the war and the significant changes wrought due to both American and British intelligence, Allen gives fresh insights into everything from Paul Revere's Ride to the heroism of Lafayette. Kids reading this book will learn how to create invisible ink, hide a message within a message, and codify their writing. There's even a complete word for word Tallmadge code at the back of the book for future use, and the book hides hidden messages on selected pages for translation.

So how readable is "George Washington, Spymaster"? Well, it has its moments, that's for sure. Allen is at his best when the action is at its peak. The sections describing Benedict Arnold's betrayal are fairly riveting as are the parts of the book that talk about double agents. One of the problems with the story, however, is the number of characters that randomly pop up in it. Keeping one spy apart from another is a hazardous undertaking. Allen provides the reader with a makeshift spy chart at the beginning of the book, but if you're able to refer to it then you're a better man than I, Gunga Din. I did enjoy seeing how many women and African-Americans aided the spy cause. What struck me as a little odd, however, was the fact that the blacks helped out the Revolutionaries at all. I mean, slavery was illegal in England and legal in America. Wouldn't the African-Americans have wanted to align themselves with a nation that disapproved of such a barbaric practice? Allen leaves such questions unaddressed and unanswered.

If you've a kid who has enjoyed the tricky techniques and clever underground networking of this title, then may I suggest the similarly tricky if fictional, "The Year of the Hangman" by Gary Blackwood. That book offers the what-if premise of "What if the British DIDN'T lose the Revolutionary War?" and utilizes all the spy techniques mentioned in "George Washington, Spymaster". The two books tackle the same subject from different angles and end up complimenting one another nicely. Not every kid is going to glom onto the notion that Washington was as cool a spy as 007 or whatever spy cartoon is currently all the rage. Still, this is one biography that's just a bit less fuddy-duddyish than its contemporaries. If I have a kid come into my library moaning that they need to read a bio on a Revolutionary War figure, this will be the first book I pluck from the shelves. A great addition to any collection.
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on April 3, 2004
This was a fascinating look at a part of the Revolutionary War I didn't even know existed, and I'm sure my children didn't either. Spies and double spies and secret codes I associate more with James Bond than George Washington. Presented in a clear and interesting way that makes for a compelling book, full of the kind of details that make history fun. Nice writting that is understandable but doesn't talk down to children. Also, an appealing book physically, small, and made to look (under the paper cover) like George's own secret book of codes. The codes are reproduced in the book and there is a running message to decode.
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on April 21, 2006
I read this book to my daughter, who is almost six. The narrative held her attention and she really enjoyed decoding the secret messages hidden in the text and learning about invisible ink. This is a fun, well-designed book for children.
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on June 21, 2009
My wife found this book and I've so enjoyed it, I've gone back to portions of this work several times. I've even taken a dip pen and lemon juice to hand and tried writing with (adult supervision required here) invisible ink.

The book covers an aspect of the American Revolution that is often overlooked although espionage was critically important. This book makes a great companion to some of the historical fiction set in the time of the American Revolution. I recommend this little gem to anyone of any age interested in an in depth understanding of the American Revolution.

Five Star? This book really deserves six stars. Everything about this book is superior.
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on October 16, 2005
When George Washington stepped into the position of General, the tide turned. "There is nothing more necessary than good intelligence to frustrate a designing enemy and nothing that requires greater pains to obtain." - George Washington. This book proves that statement on many accounts.

This book is crafted in a clever style that makes the book impossible to summarize. It relates to the reader the exact intelligence used and devised by Washington to win countless battles during the revolutionary war.

The book pulled me into it amazingly far as non fiction was never an interest of mine let alone the revolutionary war. I loved how it was explained in such detail, relating the accounts yet holding my attention. Sort of. As I have already stated, I do not enjoy reading about the revolutionary war. So I did not enjoy the book as much as I would have other genres. But I would recommend this book to any enthusiast of the Revolutionary War.
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on April 20, 2005
I am really interested in fantasy books and could never really get into non-fiction but this book really pulled me in. I never thought that it took that much spy work just to make it through. With the spies, counterintelligents, codes, fake letters, civilian spies, double-agents, female spies. It is all overwellming but in a good way. I really enjoyed it and learned a lot. I recommend it to anyone.
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on March 26, 2008
This small book is done just as if it were printed in Washington's time.
The lettering on the jacket is touchable just like real engraving. The pages in the small book are uneven. The illustrations are all black and
white, highly detailed, and just like what you would have seen in
Washington's day.
The names are sometimes hard to follow, but then the author gives you
a clue and you are again able to understand it.
The story gives you a real feel for how close the Colonies were to losing.
If Washington had not been cleverly making it look like he was
going to attack one place but actually hit them at another more vunerable place, we surely would not be free today.
I plan to gift every grandchild with this book when they are old enough to
really understand it. It makes the Revolution interesting, not stodgy.
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on January 7, 2015
George Washington, Spymaster by Thomas B. Allen

A slim, concise history with citations of the slave, black, white, farmer, business owners, male and female people who won America’s independence from Britain in the 1700s. They fought, but as Major George Beckwith, the head of British Intelligence operations noted after the war, “Washington did not really outfight the British, he simply outspied us!” which makes America’s legacy from inception one of spying, lies and trickery as well as all the fabulous ideals in the Declaration of Independence.

This easily read little volume gives you the ammunition you need to counter Edward Snowden’s claims that the NSA’s surveillance is a travesty of everything America stands for. The kid doesn’t know his history. Effective surveillance is America’s foundation. Ringing like a cracked bell, Ed, clunk, clunk, but your trickery, surveillance and theft did help the Republicans, your Party as you have said yourself, win the next election. I just wish I had found this book a year ago.
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on July 1, 2012
What fun! I bought this book primarily for my youngest son to read--his teachers love how much he reads but have recommended he expands a bit into more history and non-fiction and this is right up his alley. He gets stubborn if he thinks I'm recommending something 'good for him' so I do have to sneak the good stuff in once in awhile--and this one is great for that!

I do think it is a little off-putting at first-- the old-fashioned font (Caslon Antique), while setting a period-realistic tone, also does something to the modern eye that initially made me think dry/dull/dusty/old fashioned. Something about preconceived notions and judging by appearances--the appearance was old, so my initial 'reaction' was this would be a dull, old read with difficult language. Fortunately, not so however and the content really showed through in a combination of story telling, period appropriate illustrations, and yes indeed, playing around with the codes.

In any case, this is a great approach to a well known historical figure, and the way it is done certainly lends itself to the active mind that likes more than just a linear history lesson. The book's "Lexile" score is 1100 so it does have a nice degree of challenge (even though it doesn't appear all that 'dense') and for those children (like my son...) who is looking for books to read that he can do the Reading Counts test on, this one gives 8 points.

Highly Recommended!

JTG
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