I've been enjoying Alexander Rose's Washington's Spies; The Story of America's First Spy Ring, not only for the solid writing and his excellent detective work piecing together the inner workings of Patriot espionage in and around New York, but also because it contains a trove of period details you won't find in the D.A.R. archives or in your ancestor's Society of the Cincinnati biography.
Rose memorably describes New York during this period as "A bustling mercantile metropolis descended into a mare'snest, the leading red-light district in North America, the black market capital of the Revolution." A third of it gutted by fire, the city was a brimming caldera of Tory refugees, smugglers, soldiers of the British empire and prisoners of war rotting away in floating hulks and packed on land in noisome hells where they died in appalling numbers.
More than 500 prostitutes worked the notorious "Holy Ground" - then owned by the Church of England - at the site of today's "Ground Zero". During the American occupation of the City in 1776, many a militiaman became "hors de combat" with the clap, and it was no different when New York became the main British garrison of the war.
Loyalist privateers based in New York captured thousands of prizes during the war, and this fact reminds me that I am long overdue for a post on the remarkable career of Connecticut privateer and very distant relation Gideon Olmsted. We shall remedy that situation early in this new year, as well as get back to the half finished series of posts I started last Summer on Knyphausen's Raid which left off after the Battle of Connecticut Farms.
As to the spy ring that is central to Rose's story, it is a gripping tale with invisible in and ciphers aplenty, but it also includes insights from recent scholarship that shed new light on old controversies. Rose reveals that it is now known that the great fire that swept through the western third of the city as the patriots retreated from MManhattan may later have been encouraged by ad hoc arsonists, but was initially sparked by careless British camp followers hunkered down in a storehouse near Whitehall-dock. They "procured from an adjacent yard a number of pine boards, the ends of which they places in the chimney [with] their opposite points resting on the cedar floor of the apartment" and subsequently left their fire unattended.
I also had not been aware that the discredited Major Robert Rogers of French and Indian War fame had a central role in the discovery and capture of American spy Nathan Hale. In 2000, a manuscript was donated to the Library of Congress that was written by Connecticut Tory Consider Tiffany and had been kept by his family for many generations. Tiffany's account describes how Roger's suspected a spy had been smuggled across the Sound, and later not only spotted hale but through a ruse of friendship got him to betray himself in front of witnesses. A British diary by an officer of the 40th foot confirms that Rogers was the spycatcher, recording that "Nathan Hales, a Captain in the Rebel Army & a spy was taken by Majr. Rogers..."
Aside from these juicy details, I believe I may know a descendant of Washington's spy-master, Benjamin Tallmadge, and am going to put the question to my friend when I return to work tomorrow. Both he and Benjamin Tallmadge share the same last name and come from the same part of Long Island. Tallmadge retired just down the road from me in Litchfield, Connecticut, and his portrait at right of is in the collection of the Litchfield Historical Society.
Not only that, I discovered yet another mention of my ancestor Matthias Ogden in Washington's Spies, who not only concocted a plan to kidnap the heir to the British throne but also managed his own intelligence network while commanding the 1st New Jersey Continentals. Just last month, in fact, I received a message from a descendant of one of his officers - Captain Daniel Baldwin, who lost lost a leg at Germantown - asking if I had any information about his later work as a spy in Newark's "Neutral Ground" reporting to Matthias Ogden. Such are the joys of geneablogging!