Picture of Benjamin Tallmadge Picture of James Rivington

The Culper
Spy Ring

In October 1778, with the Continental Army encamped outside British-occupied New York City, George Washington and Benjamin Tallmadge masterminded what would become the most successful and enduring espionage network of the war. It was named the Culper Ring, an adaptation of Culpeper, the small Virginia community where George Washington had worked as a surveyor in his youth. Though Washington had a limited budget for espionage, he devoted nearly one-quarter of it to the Ring.

camera icon - click to for more details about the image Culper Ring members Benjamin Tallmadge and James Rivington

In October 1778, with the Continental Army encamped outside British-occupied New York City, George Washington and Benjamin Tallmadge masterminded what would become the most successful and enduring espionage network of the war. It was named the Culper Ring, an adaptation of Culpeper, the small Virginia community where George Washington had worked as a surveyor in his youth. Though Washington had a limited budget for espionage, he devoted nearly one-quarter of it to the Ring.

Collecting intelligence on British forces in New York City and Long Island, the Culper spies provided Washington with a wealth of secrets about British plans, unit strengths, and defenses. The discoveries aided Washington’s efforts to keep the Continental Army intact and bottle up large numbers of British soldiers in New York.

Members of the Ring were subjected to intense British scrutiny, and though several were arrested during the course of the war, not a single member was ever unmasked. Existence of the spy ring was virtually unknown to the public until the discovery of revealing correspondence in 1929.

Letter between Culper Ring members camera icon - click to for more details about the image Letter between Culper Ring members, 1778

Members of the Ring were subjected to intense British scrutiny, and though several were arrested during the course of the war, not a single member was ever unmasked. Existence of the spy ring was virtually unknown to the public until the discovery of revealing correspondence in 1929.

Washington’s Premier Spies

Among the Culper Ring’s espionage successes was its foiling of a British counterfeiting operation to weaken the young republic by devaluing Continental notes. The British had even stolen reams of the paper used in the printing process, adding to the perceived authenticity of the counterfeit dollars.

Ring members also alerted Washington about British plans in the summer of 1780 to ambush 6,000 French soldiers arriving in Rhode Island to aid the Americans. The British had been tipped off about the French landing by their own spy, Benedict Arnold. After informing French allies of the impending attack, Washington ordered his operatives to spread disinformation that he was preparing to raid New York. The British took the bait, choosing to defend the city rather than attack the arriving French forces. This would not be the last time Washington used deception to hobble his adversaries; he later convinced the British of an impending attack on New York City, thus preventing British forces there from reinforcing the garrison in Yorktown, Virginia.

In perhaps its crowning achievement, the Ring obtained a copy of the British naval codes in 1781, providing the French Navy with a profound advantage against the British fleet during the Battle of the Chesapeake that year. The French sea victory was instrumental to Washington’s siege of the British Army at Yorktown, hastening an end to the war.

George Washington by Georgios Kollidas
Benjamin Tallmadge poses for a portrait with his young son

Culper Ring Members

The Ring consisted of core agents with numerous others operating as sub-agents, couriers, and support personnel. Ring members had much in common. They were New Yorkers – mostly from Long Island – and knew each other as friends, neighbors, or family. Most had suffered cruelties at the hands of the British. All feigned loyalty to the Crown.

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Major
Benjamin Tallmadge

Robert Townsend

Robert Townsend

Sarah "Sally" Townsend

Abraham Woodhull

Abraham Woodhull

Caleb Brewster

James Rivington

James Rivington

Anna Strong

Austin Roe

Austin Roe

Benjamin Tallmadge signature
Major Benjamin Tallmadge in the Second Continental Light Dragoons camera icon - click to for more details about the image

Major Benjamin Tallmadge

A veteran of multiple Continental Army campaigns, Tallmadge was a native New Yorker who had much to begrudge the British. He was classmates at Yale with the late Nathan Hale, and his brother had perished aboard the notorious British prison ship, HMS Jersey, a ship nicknamed “Hell” by its occupants.

He was also a man of action, serving as a senior officer in the 2nd Continental Light Dragoons, followed by command of the 2nd Legionary Corps, an elite unit of mounted and light infantry troops. He often led raids against the British based on intelligence collected by the Ring.

After the war, Tallmadge served as a postmaster and Member of Congress from Connecticut. His memoirs published after his death in 1835 make no mention of the Culper Ring; a true professional, he never ceased protecting the identities of his spies.

only known likeness of Robert Townsend sketched by his nephew camera icon - click to for more details about the image

Robert Townsend

Robert Townsend was a Yale graduate and former captain in the Queens County militia who later operated as a spy in New York City under the code name Samuel Culper, Jr. Townsend was a silent partner in a coffee house owned by James Rivington, whom Townsend recruited to spy for the Ring. Rivington also published a Loyalist newspaper in New York City, for which Townsend served as a journalist and reporter. Townsend used that cover at social gatherings to gather information about British forces and plans.

Sarah “Sally” Townsend

Another member of the Ring was Sarah “Sally” Townsend, the sister of Robert Townsend. Just seventeen years old when she started spying, Sally was attractive and vivacious, and earned the affections of Lieutenant Colonel John Graves Simcoe, who succeeded Robert Rogers as commander of the Queen’s American Rangers. Simcoe established his headquarters in the Townsend home in 1778, and young Sally used her influence over him to learn British secrets, which were passed to her brother.

Abraham Woodhull

The family of lead agent Abraham Woodhull had suffered much at the hands of the enemy; his cousin was a New York militia general who died in British captivity, while his father had been the target of harassment and abuse from the Queen’s American Rangers. Using the code name Samuel Culper, Sr., Woodhull operated in New York City and Long Island where he collected intelligence on British military forces.

Caleb Brewster

Caleb Brewster, a whale boatman and smuggler/privateer originally recruited to spy by Major John Clark, operated in Long Island and on the Long Island Sound, reporting on British naval activities and also served as a courier, carrying messages from Long Island to Connecticut. Brewster was fearless in his operations, even refusing to use a code name. During a naval engagement on the Long Island Sound, in December 1782, Brewster was seriously wounded, taking a musket ball through his chest. Thought to be dead, Brewster survived and returned to service a few months later.

James Rivington portrait camera icon - click to for more details about the image

James Rivington

James Rivington owned a Manhattan coffee house and published a widely circulated Loyalist newspaper, both popular among British officers. Robert Townsend, a silent partner in Rivington’s business and a contributor to his paper, recruited Rivington to spy for the Ring. While Washington was purposely kept uninformed about much of the Ring’s operations and members during the war, he nonetheless visited Rivington after hostilities ended and presented the former spy with a bag of gold coins for the invaluable intelligence he provided to the Continental Army.

Anna Strong

Anna Strong was a neighbor of Abraham Woodhull who operated an essential communications link in Long Island. Strong coordinated the delivery of messages between Woodhull and Caleb Brewster through pre-arranged signals using laundry on a clothesline, which Brewster could observe by telescope from his Connecticut base across the Long Island Sound.

Anna’s husband was Selah Strong, a former member of the Provincial Congress who had been imprisoned aboard the notorious British prison ship, HMS Jersey, and one of the few who survived.

Austin Roe

A tavern and innkeeper in Setauket, New York, Austin Roe was the Ring’s principal courier and an occasional collector of intelligence. As a merchant, Roe had a legitimate cover story for visiting Manhattan, using the pretense of purchasing needed goods and supplies. Traversing the arduous, 50-mile route from Manhattan to Long Island while evading British patrols, he then passed the intelligence directly to Woodhull through a dead drop at Woodhull’s farm. Following the war, Roe continued managing his inn, where then-President George Washington stayed overnight during a 1790 tour of Long Island.

Route used by Culper Ring members to send intelligence from New York City to General Washington’s headquarters in downstate New York and New Jersey. The same route was used by Washington to convey intelligence requirements to Ring members with access to British officers and military information on Long Island and in Manhattan.
Courier route to and from General
Washington’s Headquarters
Courier route across
Long Island Sound
Courier route from New
York City to Setauket
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