November 09, 2014

New Edition Of George Washington's Secret Six

I wrote this review when the original edition of this book was published. A year later, I'd like to share it again and add an observation about it.

* * *

I'll admit it -- I was skeptical. Any time I see a historical work written by a media personality, I have some doubts that enter my mind. Is the research rigorous? Is the POV ideological? is the writing any good? And so when I got an email offering me the opportunity to review George Washington's Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution by Fox & Friends host Brian Kilmeade and best-selling author Don Yaeger, I wasn't sure what to expect. But as the son of a former Defense Intelligence Agency officer and a fan of thrillers by the likes of Tom Clancy, Ben Coes, and Daniel Silva, I decided to take the plunge.

Am I ever glad that I did.

Quite honestly, I loved the book.

After all, consider the situation after the Continental Army was forced to concede New York tot he British. Information was hard to come by. Nathan Hale was captured and executed as a spy. How was Washington to get information about troop strength and movement by the enemy? It fell to an unlikely group of civilians of various social classes and backgrounds -- including one woman -- to gather together observations and gossip to be passed on to Patriots. Known as the Culper Spy Ring, they were remarkably successful in carrying out their dangerous activities. Some were chased, others shot at, and one even captured (likely dying in captivity) over the course of six years. These amateurs used methods not dissimilar to the sort of tradecraft used by field agents of various intelligence agencies around the world -- and the methods used over two centuries ago by Washington's spies are still studied today by CIA agents. So successful were the Culpers that Washington had to see to their protection when at last the Continental Army returned to New York at the conclusion of the Revolution -- after all, some of them were known to be ardent Tories and were likely targets of revenge by their Patriot neighbors.

The book itself has its genesis in Kilmeade's youthful fascination with the Culper Spy Ring, which supplied George Washington with intelligence from New York in the years after the Continental Army lost the city to the British. As an adult, Kilmeade decided to share that fascination with the rest of the world in the form of a book that is scholarly enough to be accurate and breezy enough to be readable. Forget that Kilmeade is a television personality -- this is a guy sharing his knowledge about a topic he loves. I'd therefore categorize it as a "popular history". There are certainly books that go deeper into the history of the Culpers than Kilmeade does, but they are unlikely to ever get the audience this book will -- but may just end up steering readers to the more scholarly works. But even if it does not send every reader into a frenzy of academic research, George Washington's Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution is a great story -- which might explain why my county library system has over 300 requests for it before it is even on the shelf. As for me, I'll be recommending the book to some of my students as one that they will learn from and enjoy.

* * *

And now for the new stuff.

If you have ever dealt with historians, you discover that they generally "go back to the well" and continue research on an era, a location, or a historical figure. I know I had a professor who did a series of histories of the small town where our college was located, looking at different periods and different classes of people. Frankly, I did not expect Kilmeade and Yaeger to do this. After all, this book does fall into the "popular history" category that I mentioned, and such books are rarely revisited by their authors after they are published. That is why I was surprised to get another email asking me if I would like a copy of a new edition of the book. It was unexpected -- other than the fact that this new edition is a paperback version. I accepted the offer, naturally, curious about the push for the publicity for what I presumed was simply the same book in a different cover.

I was wrong -- as I discovered when this edition of the book arrived a few days later. Kilmeade and Yaeger have actually added a new afterword to the book, dealing with the issue that they left unsettled and unresolved a year ago -- the identity of one of the spies whose name has been lost to us over the last couple centuries. Who was the Culper Ring's female member, the mysterious Agent 355?

That was the one question that I was displeased to have had left hanging after the finishing the book last year -- and I was not alone. Kilmeade and Yaeger received a great many communications from readers offering theories and speculations as to the identity of Agent 355. Not just names -- also suggestions that she was a composite of several women or that she did not actually exist. The authors reject the latter two theories and instead offer readers no less than seven possible individuals as possible spies. They assess the strengths and weaknesses of each as a candidate carefully, and ultimately make not final determination. The addition of this afterward, however, strengthens the book and leads me to once again suggest that readers will find it an edifying work.

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