When one thinks about the Revolutionary War, one usually conjures up images of Paul Revere riding on a horse through Massachusetts to alert the colonies that the British were coming, or scenes of General George Washington leading his troops across the Delaware River for a surprise attack against the British on Christmas Eve. The Northeast coast of the United States is full of history regarding the Revolutionary War. One area that does not receive a lot of attention is our very own Long Island. However, there is a rich history of Revolutionary War events that took place on Long Island. In fact, the first major battle between the British and the colonies – after they declared independence on July 4th, 1776 – was on Long Island. General George Washington’s instincts led him to believe that the British would attack New York so they could control it and cut off access to Massachusetts from the colonies.
Washington’s instincts were correct, and the British attacked the troops Washington had amassed on Long Island and what is now today Brooklyn. Under the leadership of General William Howe, the British outflanked the rebels and defeated them soundly. It was the biggest battle fought in the Revolutionary War. The loss was so devastating that it could have ended the Revolutionary War for the Rebels. Had General Washington not retreated through New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the war could have been lost.
With a loss like the one on Long Island, Washington understood that the British had more soldiers and greater weaponry than the colonies. To counter this, Washington believed that the colonies needed excellent intelligence to beat the British in a war. To accomplish this, Washington developed a spy ring called the Culper Ring. This spy ring had many members from Long Island. The man who Washington put in charge of the Spy ring was Benjamin Tallmadge. Tallmadge was from Long Island and he began to develop the Spy Ring with colonists from his home town of Setauket, Long Island. This network of spies was the most successful spy ring throughout the Revolutionary War. With the British main headquarters being located in New York City, Long Island was strategically located to infiltrate the headquarters and gain information on the British strategy. Washington and Tallmadge were masterful at running the Spy Ring as they used colonists with everyday jobs to gain the confidence of the British. These spies gathered information about the British strategy and at times used misinformation to have the British think they knew the colonists’ plans. The spy ring would use coded letters and at times replaced letters with numbers and signs that only members of the Spy Ring could decipher. They even developed the Culper codebook to send coded messages to General Washington. Some of the communications between the spies were even written with invisible ink that could only be seen when certain chemicals were applied to the letter. Besides coded letters the spies used everyday household items as signs like clotheslines to send out signals to other spies. The color of the clothes on the line could be used as a signal to inform spies about troop movements. To hide letters spies from both sides would hollow out quill feathers that were used for writing and stick the message inside. They hallowed out buttons and small balls as well. Spying was a dangerous game as some spies from both sides were killed after they were caught spying.
In most cases Washington did not even know the names of the spies as their identities were not revealed until the end of the war. Besides being successful at spying, the members of the Culper Spy ring also found out who was spying for the British. One of their findings was the infamous traitor Benedict Arnold.
With the spy Ring bringing excellent results, the Colonists were able to out move the British and win the war. Some say that the Colonies didn’t beat the British but had out spied them and a lot of that was from Long Island.
- Jonathan Lekstutis