Tags Posts tagged with "Culper Spy Ring"

Culper Spy Ring

A marker indicating the spot where the Roe Tavern once stood in Setauket.

By Corey Geske

Two hundred thirty years ago, George Washington planned a tour of Long Island during the third week of April 1790 to thank the members of the Culper Spy Ring of Setauket, whose courage and resourcefulness played a significant role in helping to win the American Revolution. 

The First President chose to begin his tour on April 19, the 15th anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord, the first military encounters of that war, when thirteen colonies fought to become independent from the British empire. Washington’s Long Island tour marked that day, which since 1894 has been known as Patriots’ Day. More recently, in 2017, the work of the Culper Spy Ring was recognized by the New York State Legislature and commemorative Spy Trail signs were installed by the North Shore Promotion Alliance and the Ward Melville Heritage Organization. 

Washington planned to set out from New York City, then the capital of the young American nation, on Monday April 19, 1790, but weather delayed him for a day. After touring the South Shore, he headed north to the Coram area and then west to Setauket, arriving on April 22, nearly nine years to the day (April 23, 1781) when his chief spy Abraham Woodhull, code name Samuel Culper, Sr., of Setauket, wrote to him that his spy ring faced imminent danger. 

Washington’s itinerary demonstrates a keen sense of place timed to show his personal appreciation for how important the intelligence from Setauket was to the winning of the war, information that helped save West Point in 1780 and the French navy at Newport, RI, so it could sail south for the ultimate American victory at Yorktown, VA. 

A marker indicating the spot where the Roe Tavern once stood in Setauket.

On April 22, 1790, Washington recorded in his diary “. . . thence to Setakit . . . to the House of a Captn. Roe which is tolerably dect.[decent] with obliging people in it.” He arrived at Roe Tavern with an entourage led by Selah Strong, a Patriot imprisoned by the British during the Revolution, the grandson of the builder of the 1703 home that became part of the tavern; and husband of Anna (Nancy) Smith Strong, a key member of the Culper Ring. 

The President slept at Roe Tavern run by Captain Austin Roe, a critical courier and messenger for the ring, who frequently rode from Setauket to New York City to deliver information vital to Washington. It is a tribute to Roe and the Setauket-based ring, that Washington mapped his Long Island tour from the South to North Shore to travel from Setauket west to New York, as Roe had done.

On Friday morning, April 23, 1790, Washington “left Roes, and baited the horses at Smiths Town, at a Widow Blydenbergs – a decent House 10 Miles from Setalket . . .” The stone doorstep, which still exists, of the long-gone Widow Blydenburgh’s Tavern, may well have supported Washington’s footsteps and serves as a reminder of Jonathan Harrington of Lexington, who, fatally shot by the British, crawled back to the doorstep of his home fronting the common to die at the feet of his wife.

The Arthur House in Smithtown

Washington’s carriage passed by what is now known as the Arthur House, circa 1752, on West Main Street, Smithtown, the future home of Mary Woodhull Arthur, daughter of Abraham Woodhull, the critical correspondent in the spy network set up by Major Benjamin Tallmadge. Born in Setauket, Tallmadge relied upon his boyhood friends to supply intelligence at great risk and was Washington’s spymaster and director of military intelligence.

In 1781, Robert Townsend of Oyster Bay and New York City, code name Culper Junior, could not trust to writing the news of the ring’s probable discovery by the British and risked the journey from New York City to personally inform Woodhull in Setauket. Immediately thereafter, Woodhull wrote Washington on April 23, 1781: “I had a visit from C. Junr. and am sorry to inform you that he will not write any more on any account whatever.” 

In this darkest of moments, the Culper Spy Ring faced the ultimate challenge of surviving and finding another way to convey information to Washington knowing that  British spy William Heron, code name ‘Hiram the Spy,’ had already reported to British General Sir Henry Clinton that “Private dispatches are frequently sent from New York to the Chieftain here (George Washington) by some traitors. They come by the way of Setalket, where a certain Brewster receives them at, or near, a certain womans,” that is to say Anna Strong signaled Woodhull, via the arrangement of clothes on her clothesline, when Captain Caleb Brewster arrived in his whaleboat to carry messages across Long Island Sound.

The stone doorstep of the long-gone Widow Blydenburgh’s Inn in Smithtown

In 1789 during his first year as the unanimously elected First President, Washington decided he would visit each state to determine their feelings about the new United States as a nation; and traveled to New England from New York City through Connecticut to New Hampshire. He completed his mission with a Southern Tour in 1791. 

During a pandemic, as we mark the 245th anniversary of Patriots’ Day and the 230th anniversary of Washington’s 1790 tour of Long Island, let us remember the future First President was said to have been seen on his knees at Valley Forge praying as the American army, outnumbered by the enemy, starved, froze and faced the scourge of smallpox, a devastating virus that thinned the ranks of his army and put Boston into lockdown.

Facing a situation akin to what we face today, Washington established isolation hospitals in New York to control the epidemic – while the ‘cordon sanitaire’ that worked in Europe against the plague was reinstated in North America to control the smallpox virus. 

During the British occupation of New York, nearly 11,000 American patriots died on British prison ships in Wallabout Bay near the present Brooklyn Navy Yard, many succumbing to the disease. These ‘martyrs’ included the woman who historian Morton Pennypacker believed to be the mother of Robert Townsend’s son. It is a staggering number brought home by this past month’s coronavirus losses. 

Historic preservation is important: it reminds us that others, too, have faced crises, and that there were many challenges to overcome to win the American Revolution.

About the author: Independent Historian Corey Geske of Smithtown proposed a National Register Historic District for downtown Smithtown in early 2017, prepared the report resulting in the Smithtown Bull being determined Eligible for the NR (2018) and wrote the successful nomination for recent listing on the National Register of Historic Places of the Byzantine Catholic Church of the Resurrection (1929) designed by Henry J. McGill and Talbot F. Hamlin, and its Rectory, the former Fred and Annie Wagner Residence (1912) designed by Gustav Stickley.

Photos courtesy of Corey Geske

 

Beverly C. Tyler, historian for the Three Village Historical Society, at the grave of Culper Spy Abraham Woodhull during filming on April 6.

By Beverly C. Tyler

The Three Village Historical Society’s virtual local history programming is kicking off this week with a series of virtual SPIES! bicycle tours to locations that include spy videos, ciphers, codes and the stories of the five principal Setauket members of the Culper Spy Ring. 

This will be followed by a series of virtual Founders Day tours that will take you to seven locations in the Town of Brookhaven Original Settlement area. Students, teachers and family members of all ages will be able to enjoy these local history explorations initiated every Monday for the next twelve weeks on the Society’s web site. 

For the next five weeks we will be exploring local sites of Setauket’s Revolutionary War Culper Spy Ring. At each site you will learn about a spy who played a key role in the ring and you will be able to decode a spy message and send your  decoded messages to the Three Village Historical Society. On Friday of each week the decoded message will be posted on the Society’s web site.

Following the Virtual Spies Tours we will take you to seven Founders Day locations in the original settlement area of Setauket, including the Village Green; Setauket Presbyterian Church and graveyard; Frank Melville Park Sanctuary at Conscience Bay; Caroline Church of Brookhaven graveyard and Emma S. Clark Library; Frank Melville Memorial Park, mill and historic miller’s home; Setauket Neighborhood House, general store and post office; and Patriot’s Rock. 

At these locations you will discover stories about Setalcott Native Americans, agents for the English settlers, artist William Sidney Mount, Setauket’s war heroes, Three Village immigrants, philanthropists, millers, farmers, ship captains and more.

We don’t know when we’ll open our doors to in-person programs again, but please know that we are doing everything we can to prioritize the services and programs that you love and enjoy during this time of social distancing. 

For more information check out our web site at: https://www.tvhs.org/.

To go directly to our virtual spy tours, visit https://www.tvhs.org/virtual-programming.

by -
0 403

The Ward Melville Heritage Organization welcomed hundreds for its 40th Holiday Festival in Stony Brook Village Center Dec. 8.

The event kicked off with the arrival of Santa in a Stony Brook Fire Department truck and the Legends and Spies puppets procession led by Tom Manuel, president and founder of The Jazz Loft, and a New Orleans brass band.

The parade featured 14-foot puppets representing local historical figures such as philanthropists Ward and Dorothy Melville, Culper spies Caleb Brewster, Benjamin Tallmadge and Anna Smith Strong, shipbuilder Capt. Jonas Smith and American genre painter William Sidney Mount.

There was music from community school bands plus a petting zoo, holiday train display, carolers and decorated holiday windows at Wiggs Opticians.

According to Santa, based on children’s requests, Pokémon items and the Barbie DreamHouse are making comebacks. Other gift wishes included train sets, toy trucks, iPhones, drones and Xboxes. Dolls were the biggest request as well as puppies, which Santa checks with mommies and daddies first since they are a big responsibility.

Three children requested for their brothers to come back from the military and one 5-year-old boy asked for peace and love.

by -
0 719
Benjamin Tallmadge's home in Litchfield, Connecticut. Photo from Beverly C. Tyler

By Beverly C. Tyler 

The end of the Revolutionary War brought dramatic change for Patriots and for Continental Army officers. Benjamin Tallmadge was at the center of events as Gen. George Washington met with his officers at Fraunces Tavern in New York prior to resigning his commission as commander in chief. Tallmadge also resigned his commission and began a new life as a citizen of Litchfield, Connecticut.

Just prior to the British withdrawal from New York City Nov. 25, 1783, Tallmadge, head of Washington’s Secret Service, received permission to go into the city to protect his spies following the Treaty of Paris on Sept. 3, 1783. A little earlier he wrote to Washington:

“Should I not have the opportunity to pay my personal respects to your Excellency before you retire from the Army, give me leave at this time, with the warmest gratitude, to assure your Excellency that I shall ever entertain the liveliest sense of the many marks of attention which I have rec’d from your Excellency’s hands. Whatever may have been the result, it gives me great pleasure to reflect, that during my service in the Army, it has ever been my highest ambition to promote the Welfare of my Country & thereby merit your Excellency’s approbation.

“In the calm retirements of domestic life, may you continue to enjoy health, & find increasing satisfaction from the reflection of having conducted the arms of America thro’ a War so peculiarly distressing to the obtainment of an honorable peace, & of having been the Instrument, under God, in obtaining the freedom & Independence of this country. … Adieu, my dear General, & in every situation of life I pray you to believe that my best wishes will attend you, & that I shall continue to be, as I am at this time,

“With every sentiment of respect & esteem, Your Excellency’s most Obed’t & very H’ble Serv’t, Benj Tallmadge.”

Tallmadge’s farewell to Washington was written from his home at 47 North St., Litchfield, Connecticut, Aug. 16, 1783.

3V historical society tour

I will lead a bus tour, sponsored by the Three Village Historical Society, to Litchfield, Connecticut, Saturday, Nov. 9. Participants will tour the Litchfield Historical Society museum, including the exhibit Litchfield at 300 which closes Nov. 24. The party will visit the Tallmadge archival collection, walk through the town where the Tallmadge family lived and finally see the East Cemetery where he and his family are buried. Along the way attendees will learn more about the Setauket-based Culper Spy Ring and about Tallmadge, one of the genuine heroes of the Revolutionary War. For tickets and information, visit www.tvhs.org or call 631-751-3730.

Beverly C. Tyler is Three Village Historical Society historian and author of books available from the society at 93 North Country Road, Setauket. 

'Traitor'

By Leah Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

Last week, we took our first major film, “One Life to Give,” to an out-of-town showing. An audience of more than 100 history lovers and friends in Philadelphia watched the dramatic story of the friendship of Nathan Hale, Benjamin Tallmadge and the beginning of the Culper Spy Ring. We were impressed by how interested the Philadelphians were in a tale of George Washington’s intelligence service centered in Setauket, Long Island. This is, of course, an authentic narrative of the Revolutionary War and of the founding of America, so I guess we needn’t have been surprised at its broad appeal.

In addition, we screened for the first time the almost completed sequel, “Traitor.” This story picks up some five years later, in 1780, and tells of the capture of John André, British spymaster, by the Patriots, and his fate at the hands of, ironically, Tallmadge. He is now a major in the Continental Army and has been tortured with guilt during the past four years since his Yale buddy, Hale, was caught and hanged as a spy. It was Tallmadge who so earnestly persuaded Hale to join the war effort, and we know of Hale’s end at the hands of the British.

Now the shoe is on the other foot.

André has been caught with detailed maps of West Point, the fort that the British are lusting to capture so as to have free rein in the Hudson River, dividing New England from the rest of the colonies. The fort is under the command of Patriot general, Benedict Arnold, who is about to become a turncoat, hence his dealings with André. 

The sequel is, if anything, even better than the original film. And mine is not the only such verdict. Here are some comments emailed to us by the members of the audience after the screening of both films in succession:

• “Thank you so much for including me in the extraordinary film screening last night. … I was not expecting to see something so professional and polished on every level: script, acting, photography, sound, production and, yes, gory makeup! It is also wonderful to see what an incredible family [my grandson, Benji, is the director] and community production this has been — pulling in all sorts of expertise, including [Bev Tyler, historian of the Three Village Historical Society, who accompanied us to Philadelphia]. … Congratulations to Benji [Michael Tessler, Andrew Stavis and the rest of the team]. … Please let them know how much I enjoyed it. And we’ll all be able to say, ‘We knew [them] when … .’”

• “Wow, what a great night. The films were great, great turnout.”

• “What a joy to be there, we really learned from the movie.”

• “Wonderful event! You should be proud. The movies were great. I learned a lot. I’m excited to share new stuff with my students.”

• “What a treat to attend the viewing … last night. Thank you for including us.”

• “HUGE congratulations from me! Wow, I really enjoyed the movies.”

• “Thanks for including us in the movie viewing. An impressive undertaking with fantastic results!”

• “Had a great time at the movies. We were really impressed!”

And this from an old friend who has followed Benji’s development: 

• “Thanks for inviting me to witness [this] fabulous work. … [Benji’s] enthusiasm of his early years with a camera is super matched by his gifts of eye, mind and devotion to story and characters. It’s a little humbling to think that simply giving him a theater with a screen in his early years [he directed films as a teenager] encouraged him to continue creating worlds in film.”

• “I was so impressed with the level of sophistication given that [they] are young filmmaker[s].”

As you can tell, it was a successful and fun evening. We look forward to screening the two films, one right after the other, here in late spring. All will be welcome. Please stay tuned.

by -
0 583
Donna Smith, left, education director with Three Village Historical Society, explains to students the use of codes during the Revolutionary War. Photo by Beverly C. Tyler

By Beverly C. Tyler

Fifteen summer camp students ranging in age from 11 to 13, from Campus Camps in Oakdale, under the direction of Ashleigh Frezza, director, came to Setauket for a half-day spy school at the Three Village Historical Society’s history center. The students were ready to discover the story of the Revolutionary War Culper Spy Ring and to explore how the ring operated during the British occupation of Long Island and Manhattan.

A student presents the results of her work to others during the spy school program at Three Village Historical Society. Photo by Beverly C. Tyler

The spy school program was designed to introduce students to each of the five main spies in the spy ring and how they operated between 1778 and 1783. Following a short PowerPoint presentation on the Culper Spy Ring, the students were divided into three groups. Each group of five students, together with an education leader, were provided with specific details of the operation of the spy ring. They studied the information until they understood the ring and were able to write about it and make presentations to the entire camp group at the end of the session.

The first group learned about each of the five principal members of the spy ring: Benjamin Tallmadge, Abraham Woodhull, Robert Townsend, Austin Roe and Caleb Brewster as well as the most important female who aided the ring, Anna Smith Strong. They also dressed in some of the clothing of the period and learned about a number of everyday items used and enjoyed by Long Islanders. When the entire camp met, each student, portraying a specific member of the spy ring, gave clues to the students in the other groups to see how long it would take to discover their identity.

The second group provided information about five various codes used during the Revolutionary War period, and the other students had to decipher a simple message presented by each student.

“They loved the codes and wanted more samples to decode,” said Donna Smith, TVHS education director. “I think they appreciated how long it might take to write a message in code and even to decode some of them.”

“I really enjoyed seeing how they were able to make predictions and were genuinely surprised when they realized how different the results were.”

— Lindsey Steward

The third group working with three different invisible ink liquids — lemon juice, milk and a solution of baking soda — presented their hypnosis as to which would prove to be the most effective invisible ink and their individual findings when they finished the experiment.

“I really enjoyed seeing how they were able to make predictions and were genuinely surprised when they realized how different the results were,” said Lindsey Steward, spy school leader.

Following the presentations, the students and their leaders went on a field trip to the Setauket Presbyterian Church graveyard and the Setauket Village Green. Here the students learned about conditions in Setauket and the Town of Brookhaven during the Revolutionary War. They explored part of the cemetery with special emphasis on the grave of Abraham Woodhull and the other Revolutionary War-era family sections that make up the earliest part of the graveyard. As they were leaving, I asked one student what she liked best about the day.

“I liked the trip to the cemetery, I liked everything,” the student said.

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.

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.

by -
0 632

Sunday was a magical night. After a full year of work, we offered you, our readers and viewers, the initial screening of “One Life to Give.” Our first full-length film, the story is set at the beginning of the Revolutionary War more than 200 years ago, and is about Nathan Hale, Benjamin Tallmadge, George Washington and the events leading up to the founding of the Culper Spy Ring. The location for this screening was the 1,000-seat Staller Center off Nicholls Road within Stony Brook University, and to my amazement and delight, we filled the auditorium to the point where our general manager had trouble finding a seat just before curtain time. This full house by itself is a most gratifying testimony to your regard and to the pulling power of our newspapers and digital media, especially competing as we were with graduation day at the local high school.

It’s also a lot more. In these chaotic and divided times, I believe we yearn to understand our common origin as a nation and the history that we share. History after all is glue that holds us together and, to the surprise of many students who hate social studies in school, is also the series of fascinating stories about people, personalities and events that help define who we are today. And since our film is focused on local people and events, we share a pride of place. Our area has been dubbed the “cradle of history” because of its brutal occupation by the British, the activities of the spy ring and the military skirmishes during the war. Long Island, in fact, endured the longest occupation of any part of the colonies because its farms and forests, livestock and fish made up the unwilling breadbasket for the major British garrison in New York City.

So viewers came to see the history and the authentic local scenes and events, and the familiar faces of many residents as they served as extras on screen. Also some were simply curious. And by the time the movie was over, I believe there was an enriched sense of community among those in the room. As much as we want to know where we came from, we also enjoy a sense of belonging to a community. One viewer from farther away came up to me at the end and said he wished for that pride in his city. That particularly pleased me because we as publishers of the hometown paper have always sought to strengthen those ties. Strong communities can be a powerful force for good. They also want to get the latest local news by reading the local papers, which is not so bad for us.

Making a film was a new experience. My eldest grandson, Benji, the director of “One Life to Give,” aspires to be a professional filmmaker as his career progresses, and as we saw he has already acquired many filmmaking skills in college, where he is now a senior. He also brought to us for this venture a remarkable hardworking and talented crew of young professionals in front of and behind the camera. Thanks to our local connections, which included local historical societies and carefully preserved sites, we were able to put together an authentic venue for the shoot. The weather was wondrously cooperative, and actors and historic re-enactors of considerable skill joined the team. Local restaurants, costume outfitters, dry cleaners, scenery designers, makeup and special effects people and SBU, among others, made in-kind contributions. Muskets and cannons were procured and brought to the filming site, often among hilarious circumstances. One rule became obvious: No day would go exactly as planned.

A number of generous local businesses helped us meet costs by agreeing to be sponsors, and for their help they received credits before and after the film. Their names will be seen near and far as a number of groups have asked to show the film.

My major contribution was offering my house for the 15 young people and their equipment throughout the shoot. I can tell you there was not a clear view of floor or rug during those 16 days. It was great fun with high excitement but on their next film, the shooting of which starts in two weeks’ time for release next year, they will definitely stay in a hotel.

by -
0 773
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.

by -
0 3738
Continental Army officer Benjamin Tallmadge, from a pencil sketch by Col. John Trumbull, assistant to Gen. George Washington. From the Three Village Historical Society collection

By Beverly C. Tyler

Benjamin Tallmadge was the organizer and leader of the Revolutionary War Setauket Culper Spy Ring. Tallmadge, the son of a minister of the Setauket Presbyterian Church, was born in Setauket Feb. 25, 1754.

Tallmadge grew up in Setauket, attended school here with his close friend Abraham Woodhull and, like many residents of Suffolk County, he grew to have a healthy distrust for British authorities in New York. Tallmadge, a college classmate of the Hale brothers, Enoch and Nathan, graduated from Yale in 1773 and, like Nathan Hale, taught school for a time in Connecticut.

A statue of Benjamin Tallmadge at Setauket Elementary School. File photo

Following the skirmishes at Concord and Lexington in Massachusetts, on May 9, 1775, Tallmadge wrote to Hale. “Brother Nathan … America, my friend, at the present period sees such times as She never saw before … everything bids fair for a change … How soon a great, flourishing, and powerful state may arise from that now stigmatized by the Name of Rebels, God only knows. The prospect however for the same seems to be great.”

Tallmadge’s commission as a Continental Army lieutenant was dated June 20, 1776, and he was assigned to Col. John Chester’s Connecticut regiment. He became a regimental adjutant July 22, 1776. His regiment was among those transferred to Brooklyn in time to take part in the Battle of Long Island Aug. 27, 1776. It was the first time Tallmadge took part in any engagement.

Tallmadge wrote a graphic account of the retreat after the battle. “On the evening of the 29th, by 10 o’clock the troops began to retire from the line in such a manner that no chasm was made in the lines … General Washington took his station at the ferry, and superintended the embarkation of the troops. It was one of the most anxious, busy nights that I ever recollect, and being the third in which hardly any of us had closed our eyes in sleep, we were all greatly fatigued … When I stepped into one of the last boats … I left my horse tied to a post at the ferry …The troops having now all safely reached New York, and the fog continuing as thick as ever, I began to think of my favorite horse, and requested leave to return and bring him off. Having obtained permission, I called for a crew of volunteers to go with me, and guiding the boat myself, I obtained my horse and got off some distance into the river before the enemy appeared in Brooklyn. As soon as they reached the ferry we were saluted merrily from their musketry, and finally by their field pieces; but we returned in safety.”

By the time Gen. George Washington was driven north from Manhattan Island in 1776, he was already working on creating a spy network that would provide intelligence on British activities in New York City and on Long Island. Deprived of heavily fortified positions to defend, and with depleted numbers of men and supplies, Washington found it necessary to enable his army to become a moving target, to strike his enemy when and where least expected, and to base his decisions on information gathered from reliable undercover sources. One of the first to operate as a spy on Long lsland was Major John Clark.

“How soon a great, flourishing, and powerful state may arise from that now stigmatized by the Name of Rebels, God only knows.”

— Benjamin Tallmadge

As 1776 came to an end and enlistments expired, Tallmadge was offered a captain’s rank in the 2nd Continental Light Dragoon Regiment commanded by Col. Elisha Sheldon. The new captain accepted his appointment with a feeling of pride, for these commands were subject to Washington’s approval.

By February of 1777, Washington’s first strategic spy network was in place with civilian intelligence expert Nathaniel Sackett conducting covert operations. In addition to his duties as a Dragoon officer, Washington had Tallmadge working with Sackett. Tallmadge, from his position near Fairfield, Connecticut, began receiving intelligence from Major John Clark and Selah Strong on Long Island. The intelligence was most likely brought to him across Long Island Sound by Caleb Brewster, a Continental Army officer, expert seaman and boyhood friend from Setauket.

In a letter to Sackett dated Feb. 25, 1777, Tallmadge wrote that he had “received Intelligence from Long Island by one John Clark that there were no troops at Setauket, but part of two Companies at Huntington and one Company at Oyster Bay . . . That the Militia of Suffolk County was ordered to Meet on the 16th Febry. In order to be drafted for the Ministerial Service but that they were determined not to serve . . . That there are but few who are not friendly to the Cause — that they had beat up four deserters in the western part of the County but that only three had enlisted.”

Clark and Strong stopped spying for Washington on Long Island about September or October 1777 when their work was discovered by Loyalist Lt. Col Richard Hewlett. So, by the time Tallmadge was ready to take over as Washington’s intelligence chief in 1778, he already had a part of the Culper Spy route established with Brewster feeding him information he was gathering from his friends, relatives and other contacts on Long Island. All that needed to be added was a connection from Manhattan to Setauket.

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.