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George Washington

Many residents know about the Culper spies that operated along the North Shore of Long Island and gave invaluable intelligence about British troop movements and plans to Gen. George Washington during the Revolutionary War. But perhaps not so many know that two of Washington’s letters to his chief spymaster Major Benjamin Tallmadge, of Setauket, are on display locally and are available for viewing by the public. They are part of the Special Collections & University Archives of Stony Brook University Libraries, and how we got them is itself a story, as was told by Kristen Nyitray, SBU’s Special Collections director, at the Three Village Historical Society meeting Monday night.

The letters, written by Washington in 1779 and 1780, were part of the estate of Malcolm Forbes, the publishing magnate, and were put up for auction by Christie’s at two separate times. Forbes was proud of the fact that he had collected artifacts from each American president. Where those letters were for some 200 years before he got them is a deep mystery, but they are here now, thanks to the alacrity of local history-minded leaders, like state Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), members of the historical society and philanthropist Henry Laufer.

On May 24, 2006, Frank Turano, then president of the historical society, Nyitray and Englebright took the train to New York City for the auction. Armed with a modest amount of money, given how much historical memorabilia sold for, they hoped to purchase the first letter and return it to the place where history happened. Nyitray was the paddle wielder, indicating a willing purchaser at the auctioneer’s bidding, and the three nervously awaited the sale of Lot 31, the first coveted letter. As parts of the estate sold ahead of the desired letter for much more than the resources of the triumvirate, they became increasingly nervous. Paddles were waving and telephones ringing with high bids all around them. Finally the letter, in Washington’s elegant hand, written from West Point on Sept. 24, 1779, and arriving in Setauket Sept. 26, was offered and miraculously the phones fell silent and the paddles went down. Only Nyitray’s was visible and, unchallenged, she won the bid.

The winning price was $80,000. Add in the commission for the auction house and other incidentals, and the final cost for the precious letter was almost $100,000. They had enough money.

The three were ecstatic. They were going to bring that letter back to Setauket where “The Father of our Country” had originally sent it. Within the month, after paperwork was completed, they were able to carry their treasure back to SBU in a brown shopping bag.

Once safely ensconced, the letter had to be cleaned and preserved by experts, and framed and mounted for suitable viewing. That proved to be an arduous and lengthy series of tasks. The group returned to Christie’s for the second letter written Sept. 16, 1780, on Feb. 12, 2009, which coincidentally is the same day as Lincoln’s birthdate. The quality of paper on which the letters were written was good rag paper, but the ink was made from oak gall, which was high in tannic acid, and was corrosive. The ink had to be treated to preserve the letters.

The initial viewing for the first letter was in October 2006, and the letters have done some traveling since, having been seen in Southampton and by people in Florida, California and Minnesota. They are accessible to all.

The 1779 letter deals with advice on how “Culper Junr.” — who was Robert Townsend — could go about his business as a freelance writer and merchant and also function as a spy. Washington gives specific instructions on how Townsend should write secret information among the leaves of a pamphlet or even between the lines of a newsy letter to a friend with special invisible ink. We know that ink was fabricated by Founding Father John Jay’s elder brother, James, who was a physician, and was referred to by the spies as “medicine.”

The letter is signed, “I am Sir Your most obedient and humble servt. Go. Washington.” What a thrill.

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A 1780 map depicts Long Island during Revolutionary War times. Image from the Library of Congress

By Beverly C. Tyler

As we prepare to celebrate Independence Day, July 4, it is fitting to reflect on the actions of some of the men and women who helped win our independence.

The Revolutionary War had a great effect on the residents of Long Island. After the Declaration of Independence was signed July 4, 1776, many Long Islanders, especially in Suffolk County, received it enthusiastically. Their enthusiasm was short-lived, however, for on Aug. 27, 1776, the British took possession of New York City, following the Battle of Long Island in Brooklyn, and with its possession of all of Long Island. The residents were to be under British control for the next seven years.

“Since my arrival at camp I have had as large an allowance of fighting as I could, in a serious mood, wish for.”

— Benjamin Tallmadge

A large number of Long Island Patriots fled to Connecticut and became refugees, giving up their lands, homes and most of their possessions. Those who stayed lived under often harsh, military rule. The residents were forced to provide whatever His Majesty’s forces needed. Cattle, feed, grains, food, wagons and horses, especially cordwood for fuel was taken, and in most cases, not paid for. Long Island was virtually stripped of its mature trees during the first three to five years of the war to supply lumber and fuel for New York City.

In addition to suffering at the hands of the British, many Long Islanders were also considered fair game by their former friends and neighbors in Connecticut who would cross the Sound to harass the British, steal supplies, destroy material the British might use and take captives. The captives were often taken in exchange for the Patriots captured by the British.

Benjamin Tallmadge, Gen. George Washington’s chief of intelligence from the summer of 1778 until the end of the Revolutionary War, was born and spent his youth in Setauket, Long Island. Following four years at Yale College in New Haven and a year teaching in Wethersfield, Connecticut, Tallmadge joined the Continental Army. He took an active part in the Battle of Brooklyn and progressed rapidly in rank. As a captain in the 2nd Regiment of Continental Light Dragoons — Washington’s first fast attack force mounted on horses — Tallmadge came under Washington’s notice. By December of 1776, Washington had asked Tallmadge, in addition to his dragoon responsibilities, to gather intelligence from various spies on Long Island. In 1777 Tallmadge coordinated and received intelligence from individual spies on Long Island. (See History Close at Hand article published in The Village Times Herald May 10 edition.)

To memorialize one of the Culper spies, a polychrome statue of Benjamin Tallmadge sits on the peak of the Setauket School gymnasium. Photo by Beverly C. Tyler

Tallmadge was promoted to the rank of major April 7, 1777. In June Tallmadge’s troop, composed entirely of dapple gray horses, left their base at Litchfield, Connecticut, and proceeded to New Jersey where Washington reviewed the detachment and complimented Tallmadge on the appearance of his horsemen.

Washington gave the troops of the 2nd Regiment little chance to rest after they came to headquarters, and Tallmadge wrote, “Since my arrival at camp I have had as large an allowance of fighting as I could, in a serious mood, wish for.”

In September and October, Tallmadge took part in the Battle of Germantown. In November of 1777, when the American army finally went into winter quarters at Valley Forge, Tallmadge was ordered, “with a respectable detachment of dragoons,” to act as an advance corps of observation.

During these maneuvers into the no-mans-land area between the American and British lines around Philadelphia, Tallmadge again engaged in obtaining intelligence of the enemy’s movements and plans.

In January of 1778, the 2nd Regiment of Light Dragoons was ordered to Trenton, New Jersey, where the other cavalry regiments were assembling to spend the winter. Throughout the spring, Tallmadge waited for action. In June the 2nd Regiment was assigned to take up a position in advance of the American lines near Dobbs Ferry. In July Washington returned to the Hudson Valley with most of his army. With the arrival of the French fleet under Count d’Estaing in July, the pressing need for organized military intelligence could no longer be avoided. Officers, and especially dragoon officers, were encouraged to find intelligent correspondents who could furnish reliable information to American headquarters.

During the summer of 1778, Tallmadge was able to establish, with Washington’s approval, a chain of American spies on Long Island and in New York, the now recognized Culper Spy Ring, feeding information through Setauket, across Long Island Sound to Fairfield, Connecticut, and by mounted dragoon to Washington’s headquarters. Despite Tallmadge’s important role in the formation of the spying operation, his duties as field officer of the 2nd Regiment took most of his time during the summer and fall of 1778. The men and women who made the spy ring function lived in constant danger in both British and Patriot territory. We owe them the greatest respect and honor we can offer, especially on July 4.

Beverly C. Tyler is Three Village Historical Society historian and author of books available from the society at 93 North Country Road, Setauket. For more information, call 631-751-3730 or visit www.tvhs.org.

Museum collection artifact has mysterious provenance

Just after the start of the Civil War in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter to Fernando Wood, then mayor of New York City, that is part of William K. Vanderbilt II’s extensive archives. Visitors to the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum in Centerport can see a facsimile of the letter on display in the Memorial Wing, outside the Sudan Trophy Room through Feb. 26 from noon to 4 p.m. They also can view an oil portrait of George Washington, originally thought to have been created by the renowned American portraitist Gilbert Stuart. It will be displayed in the Portuguese Sitting Room.

President Lincoln wrote the letter to Mayor Wood on May 4, 1861 — two months to the day following his inauguration as president and less than one month after the start of the Civil War, which began on April 12 with the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Wood (1812-1881), who built a successful shipping enterprise in New York City, served several terms in Congress and was mayor of New York for two terms. (Wood’s brother, Benjamin Wood, publisher and editor of the New York Daily News, also served three terms in Congress.) Fernando Wood sent a letter to Lincoln shortly after the Fort Sumter attack, offering him whatever military services he, as mayor, could provide. Lincoln’s reply to Wood was in gratitude for his offer of assistance.

Excerpt:

In the midst of my various and numerous other duties I shall consider in what way I can make your services at once available to the country, and agreeable to you – Your Obt. [Obedient] Servant A. Lincoln

Stephanie Gress, the Vanderbilt Museum’s director of curatorial affairs, said, “We do not know how this letter came to be in Mr. Vanderbilt’s possession. Perhaps it was originally the property of his great-grandfather, Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was an acquaintance of Mayor Wood, and it was passed down through the Vanderbilt family.” The value of the letter is unknown, Gress said.

In 2008, a representative of The Papers of Abraham Lincoln, a grant-funded project of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, visited the Vanderbilt archives to scan the letter for inclusion in its database. At the time, the representative noted that few letters have the original envelope in Lincoln’s hand, which makes the Vanderbilt’s document an exceptional Lincoln artifact. The Vanderbilt Museum is listed as a repository on the project’s website, www.papersofabrahamlincoln.org.

The Vanderbilt’s framed oil portrait of George Washington is believed to have been painted by Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), widely considered to be one of America’s foremost portrait artists. He produced portraits of more than 1,000 people, including the first six presidents of the United States. Stuart painted a number of Washington portraits. The most celebrated is known as the “Lansdowne” portrait (1796), and one large-scale version of it hangs in the East Room of the White House.

Stuart’s best-known work is an unfinished portrait of Washington begun in 1796 and sometimes called “The Athenaeum.” This image of Washington’s head and shoulders is a familiar one to Americans — it has appeared for more than a century on the U.S. one-dollar bill.

The Vanderbilt’s Washington portrait, found in the basement of the Suffolk County Welfare Department Home in Yaphank, was restored and presented to the Vanderbilt Museum in 1951. While the artist did not sign the work, a specialist reported that year that the painting was an authentic Gilbert Stuart.

In 1981, however, two curators from the Metropolitan Museum of Art studied the portrait and advised the Board of Trustees that the work was not created by Stuart. As a result, the portrait, oil on panel and measuring 21.25 by 33.5 inches, is described in the archival records as “After Gilbert Stuart.”

The Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum is located at 180 Little Neck Road in Centerport. The museum and planetarium are open for Presidents’ Week daily from noon to 4 p.m. Guided tours of the mansion are conducted at 1, 2, 3 and 4 p.m. General admission is $7 adults, $6 students with ID and seniors (62 and older) and $3 for children 12 and under. For further information, call 631-854-5579 or visit www.vanderbiltmuseum.org.

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By Kevin Redding

In celebration of Presidents’ Day, local elected officials weighed in on the occupants of the Oval Office who inspired them to do what they do.

Legislator Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) – Ronald Reagan/George H.W. Bush

“It would have to be Ronald Reagan. He was the first president that I became familiar with as a young adult, in terms of my interest in politics. He had such a unique ability to communicate a conservative message to the country in a way that wasn’t divisive, in a way that was inspiring and uplifting, and so I really admire him for that and so many other things.

And, of course, George H.W. Bush, who took over the Oval Office after Reagan. He was the first politician I ever helped campaign for and that was during his re-election effort in which he lost to Bill Clinton. That same year Rick Lazio ran for Congress against Thomas Downey and I got pretty heavily involved in volunteering. If it hadn’t been for that, honestly, I would not be sitting here today.

From that experience, I met a former county legislator I ended up working for for a short period of time and he introduced me to county government and lots of different folks in the party, so I would say: purely from an inspirational point of view, it would be Reagan and in terms of the one president that really motivated me to get actively involved in politics, it was George H.W. Bush.”:

Legislator Al Krupski (D) – George Washington

“I think he was someone that really believed in a cause. In his case, the cause was an independent America and he was willing to sacrifice his time and his family’s time to make that happen. He certainly took great personal risks as a general and, again, as president, he sacrificed his time and the rest of his life was dedicated towards the country.

The way he was able to handle power was admirable. The rest of the world thought he was going to become a dictator, and he could’ve, but he didn’t. He didn’t want to be the dictator. He wanted America to be a democracy; he believed in that. I’ve always liked history and I’ve always read about history and been [fascinated] by him pretty much my whole life. If you look at his cabinet, he surrounded himself with people with diverse backgrounds and ideologies and I’ve always listened to people with different viewpoints. I think that kind of mentality as a leader is important: to not just have a bunch of “yes men” but being able to listen to people with different viewpoints.”

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) John F. Kennedy

“Kennedy had a sense of humor, had a sense of history, and he learned from his mistakes. His mistake early in the administration was to follow through with Eisenhower’s decision that he did not execute well, with the Bay of Pigs Invasion, and he learned from that. I think that’s why he was so successful thereafter when, in 1962, a year and a half after, we had the Cuban Missile Crisis, and he was able to diffuse that despite the urging that we invade or bomb Cuba. He avoided that and avoided a crisis and potentially a World War.

I was also extremely impressed with his June 1963 speech at American University about how we all live on one planet and talked about peace being a much nobler goal while we were in the middle of the Cold War and he could see beyond that, so I think he had vision.

Obviously as a person, he had a lot of shortcomings, which a lot of people have dwelled on since the time of his death, but I think as a man and as a leader, people wanted to follow him and I think he was a good president. I knew if he had lived, we would not have been in the Vietnam War. He spoke against getting involved. It was sad to see him go, because in going, the policies changed dramatically, and when we changed leaders, we committed an entire generation to war and turned a lot of people into cynics against their government.

[Inspired by him], I try not to rush to judgment, I try to step back and put things in context and have a sense of history. As someone who has all my degrees in history, I try to put things in context and that helps a lot.”

Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) – Barack Obama

“I’ve been in the Legislature for six years, and got elected in 2011, which was then-president Obama’s third year in office. I had been a physician and I was a big participant in getting involved in the hope and change … Obama being the first Black American president was inspirational for me as one of the few Black American elected officials.

I appreciated the fact that he started out working in the community, was someone that had all the education and training, and was a community organizer. I believe he exhibited the qualities of service and compassion for our fellow man and for those who have the smallest voice, and I believe in hard work and education as well. He had a very clear message that resonated and it got a lot of people involved, and I think that was transformative.

I don’t want it to appear that just because he was black, he encouraged me because I’m black. That had some significance but what I appreciated most was his character. He was a slow and steady hand and he brought qualities of dignity and respect … I also admired the way he conducted himself personally with his family.”

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson) – Barack Obama

“I think Obama, who was a law school professor, intimately understood how to use the law to help others and he actually worked his way up through government, so he took all the steps and is a bottom-up leader. Obama being an activist and community organizer really impressed me. I think it’s important that we [as elected officials] are in the community, and talk to people face-to-face about their issues. I think that he is, arguably, the most eloquent, dignified, and diplomatic president of my time and I try to emulate his qualities.”

Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) – Ronald Reagan

“He was a fiscally conservative guy who was socially moderate; he would try to save money and have less government … and keep government out of things. That’s what I believe: we shouldn’t be involved in a lot of these things.”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) – Harry S. Truman

“Harry Truman’s my favorite president. He was an ordinary man who did extraordinary things and demonstrated that you can reach the highest levels of our government while maintaining your integrity. More than 20 years ago, I read David McCullough’s book “Truman” and it was one of the best political biographies I’ve ever read. When I served on active duty in the U.S. Army, I was based in Missouri — which is the home state of Truman — and I visited his home and library in Independence.

What was inspiring to me, and it really represents what our country is about, was that anyone can be president and that you can reach the highest levels of our government and really maintain your integrity. Truman’s honesty really impressed me.”

Senator Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) – Abraham Lincoln

“If you were in my office, whether in Albany or here in the district, you would see lots of pictures of Abraham Lincoln. When you’re growing up and you’re reading about different presidents, the idea of Lincoln being kind of a frontiersman and the way he grew up and the stories about him are very exciting. As you get older and you start looking into Lincoln’s life, you see the kind of person that he is. He cared very deeply about people and if you look at photos of Lincoln, you could see the deep lines, as some people call “worry lines,” because he cared so much. During the Civil War, he visited wounded soldiers and was very touched by their lives.

I have great concern for people and try to be very helpful to people, and I think Lincoln certainly reinforces those goals.”

Brookhaven Town Councilman Kevin LaValle (R-Selden) – Ronald Reagan

“Reagan was the president I admired most. When you’re an elected official, I think you have to have two great traits: good decision-making skills and the ability to articulate the message you want to get across to people in an effective, understandable and inspiring way, [which he had]. Reagan came into office in 1981, a point in our country’s history where, internationally, we were in the middle of the Cold War, just got done with the Iranian hostage situation, and the economy wasn’t doing well and the morale in the country was at an all-time low — so he had a lot that he was getting ready to take on. He lowered taxes, attacked the problems we had, deregulated the government and opened up the economy, which triggered a boom throughout the decade. He stood up and brought pride back into being American.”

Legislator Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset) – Abraham Lincoln

“First of all, he was honest, he truly preserved the unity of our nation and he freed the slaves. He was brought into office during what was probably one of our nation’s first economic crises, and he dealt with the Civil War, dealt with issues of taxation and imports and exports, and handled it in a thoughtful, intellectual way. Those were difficult times and he made our nation what it is.”

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) – John F. Kennedy

“His presidency changed America. I think so many presidents bring so many different skillsets, and Kennedy believed in America, was passionate about America, put people to work, held the line on taxes, and was a compassionate person. Then there’s the whole history of Kennedy and how he was raised and groomed, and how his life was tragically cut short, and I think that adds an air to his [legacy] as well.”

 

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This might sound peculiar since I am in the news business, but for over the past weekend I disconnected myself from all news reports. I was unplugged, you might say. Now this is a confession from an ultra news junkie. I’m normally so addicted that if I wake up in the middle of the night, I’ll switch on the bedside radio to catch up on what has happened since I went to sleep. But the past week, with the excruciating racist events and senseless killings, here and abroad, were more than I could process.

So I just turned off, or rather I didn’t turn anything on — not my radio, not the television, not the news apps on my cellphone. I didn’t even talk about the news with friends and neighbors.

What a luxury to be able to withdraw from global events for a couple of days.

I have a further antidote for all that has been happening in the world, and it’s even great fun to pursue. This Saturday is Culper Spy Day in Setauket, and it is the work of a number of local organizations committed to bringing history to life. The Culper spies, as you may know, were a small band of close friends who provided George Washington and the colonists with critically important information throughout the Revolutionary War at great risk to their lives. So engaging were their exploits, and so valuable to the eventual outcome of the war, that AMC has a cable TV drama, “Turn,” which has been drawing large audiences for three seasons to date. The series is what we call historical fiction, with the emphasis on fiction loosely — very loosely — based on real events. Those events belong to us because they are part of our local history and are a source of community pride.

This Saturday, July 23, you will be able to walk or bike or drive a designated route that offers views of key locations in the Culper story. There will be “colonists” in costume and signs along the way, helping the stories come alive. And we at Times Beacon Record have produced a multimedia map to enhance your experience. I refer to the newly released Three Village Map, complete with local roads and information from our business community. On this map is a QR code and also a link that, if you click on it with your mobile phone, will open up onto our website to seven different dramatizations of Culper stories — that we promise are historically accurate. In fact, the truth, we think, is more riveting than fiction, as we watch the dangerous exploits of these American heroes and heroines.

The actors in these episodes may be recognizable to you, and they do a fine job of conveying the gist of the story. We have used the services of a professional film crew, who shot the local scenes over the past several months. Community leaders introduce each film segment to set the scene. And in between episodes, if you are walking the route with your family, there are fun arcade-like games to play on your smartphone or laptop. The games, like the scenes, are our original creations and lots of fun. I predict your children — and you — will return to them many times to improve your score. I have.

Special thanks go to the participating organizations and their members for the vision to mount such an ambitious event and the enormous amount of time and effort that went into making history come alive. These include the Three Village Historical Society, The Ward Melville Heritage Organization and The Long Island Museum.

The Times Beacon Record has put together a special pullout within this week’s Arts & Lifestyles section with additional information about Culper Spy Day. Copies will be distributed for free in the historical society parking lot; our multimedia map is $3. Tickets for the more-than 16 attractions, including battle reenactments and colonial cooking demonstrations, are $25, with children under 12 free, from the historical society, WMHO Educational & Cultural Center in Stony Brook village and The Long Island Museum.

Have yourselves a worry free and wonderful day!

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Though political fighting and manipulation of the media to wage a war may seem like a 21st-century concept, Clinton and Trump will not be breaking any ground this summer and fall when the mud inevitably continues to fly.

By Rich Acritelli

With the presidential election of 2016 upon this nation, it has been a hard fight between former United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and businessman Donald Trump. Today, Americans are watching these opponents utilize “mudslinging” and “deceitful” techniques to gain votes, but these tactics have been used almost from the start of this republic.

When President George Washington decided to retire after his second term, his vice president, John Adams, and the former secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, ran for presidency in 1796. Both of these men liked each other personally, but detested each other politically. This was during the establishment of political parties between the Federalists (Adams) and Democratic-Republicans (Jefferson).

Alexander Hamilton was a dominant leader within the Federalist Party who believed Adams was not psychologically capable of being president. Hamilton urged Federalist politicians from South Carolina to withhold any votes that would help Adams win the election; Hamilton wanted Thomas Pinckney, a Federalist from that state, to become the next president. If Pinckney won, Hamilton estimated it was possible for Adams to gain enough support to be a runner-up as a vice president. Hamilton was unable to achieve this political scenario, and Adams won the election. Jefferson became his vice president from the rival Democratic-Republican Party.

Hamilton again threw his influence into the presidential election of 1800. Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied, and Congress decided the contest. Hamilton supported his chief opponent in Jefferson, due to his notions that Burr was a political tyrant, and motivated congressional leaders to vote for Jefferson to become the third president of the United States. This was also the last election that sought “a winner take all” process for the presidency and vice presidency. The government established the system of running mates elected together to represent either party in the White House after that.

In 1860, the country watched a junior politician in Abraham Lincoln seek the highest position in the land. He was a self-educated leader, a respected lawyer and a one-term representative in Congress. While he did not have the political clout of the other candidates, he served within the Illinois General Assembly. Although it is believed slavery was the cornerstone of his values, he pushed for revisions within the tariff, free labor, the Transcontinental Railroad and the Homestead Act of 1862. He ran against many strong Republicans, and while he defeated William Seward from New York, he later made his rival into a trusted member of his cabinet as secretary of state.

During his failed attempt to win a seat in the U.S. Senate against Stephen Douglas, Lincoln debated he would never support the expansion of slavery in the new states and territories. It was these property rights concerns that the southerner never forgot when Lincoln decided to run for the presidency. When he proved to be a serious candidate, Democratic newspapers that opposed the end of slavery, wrote that Lincoln was “semiliterate, ignorant, an uncultured buffoon, homely and awkward,” according to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. Although Lincoln was perhaps our greatest leader, both Republicans and Democrats were highly unsure about his motives and abilities to lead the nation at the cusp of the Civil War.

Though political fighting and manipulation of the media to wage a war may seem like a 21st-century concept, Clinton and Trump will not be breaking any ground this summer and fall when the mud inevitably continues to fly.

The Brewster House in Setauket will host ‘To Spy or Not to Spy’ on June 18. Photo by Dr. Ira D. Koeppel

By Michael Tessler

“I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country” are the immortal words (supposedly) spoken by American hero and spy Nathan Hale. After he was hung by the British in 1776 for treason and espionage, his words of resilience and patriotism inspired our young nation.

No one was inspired more than his best friend, Yale classmate and Setauket local — Benjamin Tallmadge. This well-educated student turned Continental soldier used the death of his friend to inspire the creation of a secret spy ring that played an important role in the American Revolution and helped bring the British Empire to its knees.

In conjunction with the I LOVE NY Path Through History weekend, the Ward Melville Heritage Organization’s Youth Corps Theater Troupe will present a theatrical performance on Saturday, June 18, showing the creation of the Culper Spy Ring in, fittingly, the oldest standing home in the Town of Brookhaven, the Brewster House, circa 1665, in Setauket which was home to six generations of Brewsters.

According to the WMHO’s website, Joseph Brewster operated the house as a tavern and general store during the American Revolution, entertaining British troops. American Patriot Caleb Brewster, cousin of Joseph Brewster and presumably a frequent visitor to the house, was a member of George Washington’s Culper Spy Ring.

Deborah Bourdeau, the coordinator of the project, has been helping this wonderful company of young teens in their production of “To Spy or Not to Spy: That Is the Question!” originally written in 2012 by Professor Lauren Kaushansky of Stony Brook University.

Though the title sounds simple enough, the premise is both fascinating and enlightening. The production explores the annals of local lore while delving into the moral dilemmas of the time. Simply put: How does one abandon one’s country, while assuming the role of traitor and secret agent? This internal dialogue comes to life in a well-paced theatrical skit that resurrects some of our greatest local heroes: Benjamin Tallmadge (Amanda Dagnelli), Abraham Woodhull (Suraj Singh), Anna Smith Strong (Leah Cussen), Austin Roe (Aleena Siddiqui), Caleb Brewster (Ethan Winters) and Joseph Brewster (Emily Wicks).

Though the actors are young, they bring incredible talent to this living history stage show. Emily Wicks, a member of the Ward Melville Heritage Organization Youth Corps, had the great idea of bringing the show from its original stage at the Educational & Cultural Center in Stony Brook Village to the historic Brewster House. This venue adds a wonderful depth to the show, as the home and tavern have been returned to their former glory. Their setup is unique (unintentionally inspired by the Tony-winning production “Fun Home”) in that you’re looking in rather than at. It makes for a very special viewing experience.

What’s so inspiring about this production is that it’s almost entirely led by youth. Young people coming together to tell an important and often forgotten part of our national story and local history. There’s a maturity well beyond their years that left me feeling both prideful and impressed. It’s a show you won’t want to miss and a story that needs to be heard.

Performances of “To Spy or Not to Spy: That Is the Question!” will be held in the Brewster House, 18 Runs Road, Setauket, on June 18 at 1 p.m. and again at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $4 adults, $2 children under 12. Promptly after the show, teen tour guides will provide free tours of the Brewster House. For reservations, call 631-751-2244 or visit www.wmho.org.

The Ward Melville Heritage Organization’s Youth Corps, based in Stony Brook, is a volunteer group for youth ages 11 to 17 who participate in stewardship projects in historic and environmental preservation. For more information on how to join or help visit them at: wmho.org/youth-corps.

Students pet re-enactor Frank Bedford's horse on Nov. 9
Students pet re-enactor Frank Bedford's horse on Nov. 9
Students pet re-enactor Frank Bedford’s horse on Nov. 9

By Alex Petroski

The Revolutionary War leapt from the textbooks and onto the fields of Northport Middle School during an afternoon performance on Monday.

The school’s seventh-graders were treated to a day of fresh air and visual demonstrations by Boots and Saddles Productions, a Freeport-based group that specializes in “living history.”

Principal Tim Hoss said about 250 students attended the “in-house field trip.”

“What better way to learn then being immersed in it?” Hoss said.

Dixie Francis works with a spinning wheel in front of students on Nov. 9
Dixie Francis works with a spinning wheel in front of students on Nov. 9

The students were split into groups and spent time at the five different stations set up by re-enactors.

Gen. George Washington, rebels and British soldiers greeted the students with tales of betrayal to the throne and last ditch pleas to join the Redcoats. A female re-enactor taught kids about the role of women during the Revolution.

The students had the opportunity to ask questions of the re-enactors, pass around props and hear deafening blasts from prop guns.

“They’re actually interacting with us and they’re showing us, not just reading out of a textbook, so we get to hear from them how it was,” Griffin Crafa said. “Now I can actually see it. I heard it, so it’s in my mind, whereas in the textbook you have to just copy notes down and … it doesn’t really stay in your mind.”

Meghan Sheridan said she had fun and Cami Tyrer, referencing the loud musket shots that echoed across the Northport Middle School playing fields, said, “It was a blast, and we learned so much.”

Social studies teacher Barbara Falcone, who organized the event for the second consecutive year, was happy with how the day turned out.

“This is what real learning should be like,” Falcone said. “They’re getting out from behind those dusty computer screens. They’re being outside and they’re seeing from all of these people what real life was like during that period.”

Falcone said the students will remember this event for many years.

Re-enactor Joe Bilardello expressed a similar sentiment: “Out here it’s like we jumped from the history books.”

Gen. George Washington (John Galla) with his headquarter’s flag. Photo by Heidi Sutton
Gen. Benedict Arnold (Brian Cea). Photo by Heidi Sutton
Gen. Benedict Arnold (Brian Cea). Photo by Heidi Sutton

The chilly 45-degree weather did not deter almost 300 brave souls who came out for a special walk through local history last Saturday night as the Three Village Historical Society held its 21st annual Spirits Tour, “The Culper Spy Ring: From Secrecy to Victory.”

“The Culper Spy Ring has really been making news lately,” Carolyn Benson, one of the tour guides, said. This tour shows “how many people from this area were involved.”

The host of the tour, Emma S. Clark, whose name graces the library in Setauket and was portrayed by Karin Lynch, set the scene for what was to come.

“The Culper Spy Ring was a group of men known as the Secret Six who helped George Washington win the war. … Their identity was so secretive that Gen. Washington never knew their true identity. Their messages were written in code and their letters were in invisible ink,” she said. “Tonight you will meet with these patriots and some loyalists who will share their stories with you about what it was like during and after the war.”

Helen ‘Morningstar’ Sells and Nellie Edwards of the Setalcott Nation. Photo by Heidi Sutton
Helen ‘Morningstar’ Sells and Nellie Edwards of the Setalcott Nation. Photo by Heidi Sutton

The 1.5-hour tours ran throughout the evening, beginning with the Young Historian tours. Each group, carrying flashlights and lanterns, was led through the cemeteries of the Setauket Presbyterian Church [established in the late 17th century] and the Caroline Church of Brookhaven [established in 1729].

All the key players were present, from the ring’s most active operatives — Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge, Caleb Brewster, Austin Roe, Anna Smith Strong, James Rivington and Robert Townsend — to Gen. George Washington and Abraham Woodhull, the leader of the Culper Spy Ring, to Gen. Benedict Arnold, the infamous traitor. Woodhull, portrayed by Dennis O’Connor, appeared at the foot of his own grave in the Presbyterian cemetery during the tour.

Lesser-known community spirits made appearances as well, including Bette Harmon, born into slavery to the Strong family; Maj. John Andre, a British spy whose capture exposed Benedict Arnold as a traitor; loyalist Col. Benjamin Floyd; patriot Rev. Zachariah Greene; and a special appearance by  Setalcott Nation members Helen “Morning Star” Sells and Nellie Edwards. In total, 20 spirits were conjured to provide an insight into their lives during the Revolutionary War. The period costumes, provided by Nan Guzzetta, gave the entire event an eerily authentic feel.

Private David Williams (George Monez), Major John Andre (Pat DiVisconti), Private Isaac Van Wart (Sage Hardy). Photo by Heidi Sutton
Private David Williams (George Monez), Major John Andre (Pat DiVisconti), Private Isaac Van Wart (Sage Hardy). Photo by Heidi Sutton

At each stop, the spirits gave out secret codes that, when compiled and decoded, formed a secret letter for Gen. Washington, who was the last stop of the night.

Nine-year-old Alex Perrone, of Stony Brook, was experiencing the tour for the first time with his mother, Lauren, but came well prepared.

“My mom and I read a book called ‘Redcoats and Petticoats,’” he said.

Alex enjoyed the tour, especially meeting Washington and learning about the Setalcott tribe and their longhouses, and said he would definitely do it again. His mom agreed, adding, “I just thought it was really informative and I thought the actors were wonderful and I think it was a great way to learn about local history and this special place.”

In all, the 21st annual Spirits Tour was a rare historical treat. For more information, visit the historical society at www.tvhs.org.

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Mayor Margot Garant discusses the new historic letter mounted on the wall at the Drowned House Cottage museum in Port Jefferson. Photo by Giselle Barkley

It was such a well-kept secret, it took more than 200 years to come to light.

Port Jefferson Village officials unveiled the newest historic addition to the Drowned Meadow Cottage museum last week: a letter that links Port Jefferson’s Roe brothers to then-Gen. George Washington’s Culper Spy Ring, which covertly worked to advance the rebel cause during the Revolutionary War.

Loyalist soldier Nehemiah Marks wrote the letter on Dec. 21, 1780, to inform his comrades that Phillips and Nathaniel Roe, among others, helped supply Setauket-based spy Caleb Brewster with information to pass on to the Patriots.

A historic letter detailing the involvement of Port Jefferson brothers in George Washington's Culper Spy Ring is on display at the Drowned Meadow Cottage. Photo by Giselle Barkley
A historic letter detailing the involvement of Port Jefferson brothers in George Washington’s Culper Spy Ring is on display at the Drowned Meadow Cottage. Photo by Giselle Barkley

According to Mayor Margot Garant, a former Port Jefferson high school student found the letter two years ago while researching the Revolutionary spy ring at the University of Michigan and contacted the mayor. The next step was getting the letter authenticated.

“The authentication for this letter is so critical,” Garant said in an interview before last week’s event at the cottage, the former home of Phillips Roe. Villagers had long had suspicions that he and his brother were important “not only to village history but to the history of the Revolutionary War, and instrumental in the spy ring. That was kicked around as a rumor for many years and never authenticated.”

The Roe brothers came from modest means, according to Georgette Grier-Key, a historical consultant who authenticated the letter and designed its exhibit at the cottage. Their father, John Roe, was a shoemaker, but Phillips was more successful: He owned a wood business, as well as a ship. He used those resources to help to discreetly pass along information in the Culper Spy Ring.

But before the letter, some people doubted the area’s extensive involvement.

“There was some … organizations that didn’t really believe Port Jefferson had a claim to being part of the spy ring,” Grier-Key said. “Now we have [a] primary document source that says otherwise from a Loyalist perspective.”

The letter also links another North Shore neighborhood to the spy ring: Mount Sinai. Old Man’s Road is among the locations listed in the message, after a Patriot informant named James Smith was spotted receiving information there.

Many attend the unveiling of a historic exhibit at the Drowned Meadow Cottage in Port Jefferson. Photo by Giselle Barkley
Many attend the unveiling of a historic exhibit at the Drowned Meadow Cottage in Port Jefferson. Photo by Giselle Barkley

During a ribbon cutting and open house ceremony at the museum last week, Grier-Key said it is possible that towns farther east of Port Jefferson and Mount Sinai could have been a part of the ring too. For now, Garant said, the letter officially puts Port Jefferson and hamlets like Mount Sinai “on the map” for their involvement in the ring and their contribution to the war.

That recognition is reaching across Long Island — Michael Goudket, a program instructor from Raynham Hall Museum in Oyster Bay attended the event to show his support for the Drowned Meadow Cottage museum, saying there is a new sense of appreciation for the Island’s involvement in the Revolutionary War.

“People are starting to appreciate that even though Long Island doesn’t make the history books with big battles … we have the most interesting spy stories,” Goudket said.

The historic letter is on display at the museum alongside other documents, like Phillips Roe’s last will and testament and a list of individuals who still owed him money upon his death in 1792.

Those who were involved in the letter’s discovery and authentication hope to uncover more information about the spy ring.

This version corrects the exact date of Nehemiah Marks’ letter.

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