CC_Bill Bleyer Edited Transcript
Speakers: Benjamin Morris & Bill Bleyer
Benjamin Morris (00:01):
Bill, welcome to Crime Capsule. Thank you so much for joining us.
Bill Bleyer (00:05):
Thanks, Ben. Good to be here.
Benjamin Morris (00:07):
Well, first of all, congratulations on your new book, which came out last year. How have you been feeling about it?
Bill Bleyer (00:16):
I've been feeling good. It's a little controversial because I take to task previous historians for spreading either misinformation or treating legends as fact, particularly here on Long Island, the Spy Ring is very interesting to a lot of people. So, I've been doing a lot of lectures. The book has been selling well, and it's been fun.
Benjamin Morris (00:40):
Well, we're going to dive into that very shortly. But before we get started, would you just tell us a little bit about yourself? You seem to have had a very diverse career. You've worked in journalism, you've worked in academia, you've worked in research, you've worked kind of all over. So, how did you get your start? And then how did this book come to be?
Bill Bleyer (01:00):
Well, my career initially was as a journalist. And even I sort of backed into it. I was an economics major — I was on track at Hofstra University here on Long Island to get a PhD, come back and teach at the urging of the economics faculty. And more for fun, I was writing music stories for the campus newspaper, which I had done in high school.
Bill Bleyer (01:29):
And then Robert Moses and Governor Nelson Rockefeller back there in the late sixties and seventies were planning to build a bridge across Long Island Sound that would've come right through the area where I now live, and would've destroyed the environment. So, I decided to do what became my first ever news story for the Hofstra paper about the environmental impact of this bridge.
Bill Bleyer (01:53):
And this was early seventies, right after Earth Day. And my life has always worked out very weirdly. Like things I don't expect happen, happen because it's like some great force is steering me in the right direction — God or whatever, I don't know.
Bill Bleyer (02:06):
But I end up with choices or direction that I would never expect. In this case, the Deus ex Maxima was ... the campus paper was put out in a printing place near the campus that was also where The Oyster Bay Guardian and the Local Weekly was printed, and they wrote about this bridge every week trying to stop it, and I never even had seen the paper.
Bill Bleyer (02:28):
But one of the paced-up women noticed the story of The Hofstra Chronicle, pointed out to the editor of The Guardian. They called me and did a story about local boy fights the bridge, which led to summer part-time work, which led to me working as the editor of the paper for a year when I graduated, which led to six years in the Wilds of New Jersey, which led to Newsday, the only Long Island daily paper where I always wanted to work once I decided I wanted to be a journalist.
Bill Bleyer (02:56):
And I focused on history and maritime affairs, which my longtime interest since childhood. And then eventually, as I decided I wanted to leave full-time work and work part-time for myself, I started writing maritime and history books. And today, we're talking about number five.
Benjamin Morris (03:18):
I have to ask, did David slay Goliath? Did you stop the bridge?
Bill Bleyer (03:23):
Yes. we did. And I actually, I was still in college in '72. Had just started working for the paper and got to write the biggest story in the history of the a hundred-year-old newspaper when Rockefeller killed the project because of the local opposition.
Bill Bleyer (03:42):
And had an argument with the editor of the paper who was very conservative. I said, this needs to be a banner headline. And she said, the Guardian has never had a banner headline in a hundred years. And I won the argument.
Benjamin Morris (03:51):
You had it first. There you go.
Bill Bleyer (03:52):
And I got to interview Robert Moses later, which was kind of interesting because he was like really angry about this whole thing.
Benjamin Morris (04:00):
You know, it's funny, Bill, as I was reading your work, I was reminded over and over again of the old adage that journalism is the first draft of history and here you are, with sort of a foot in both worlds. Does that maxim ring true for you particularly?
Bill Bleyer (04:18):
Yeah, well, I mean, I still write freelance for Newsday. They do big history spreads primarily, or some business stories. And it's a thrill. Even after 40 years of working in the field full-time, I still love seeing my stuff and get excitement and buzz from that. But it's there. People forget about it pretty quickly. It might end up in a library or an archive, and people refer to articles I've done years ago, which is nice.
Bill Bleyer (04:43):
But it's the wrapping the fish kind of story. It's out there, it's gone. So, when I started doing these history books and I see them in big box stores, I see them listed on Amazon, and people come to the lectures and buy them and have them signed — it's a thrill because in every case, I'm doing books that fill a vacuum that I could never understand why nobody else had done them.
Bill Bleyer (05:10):
The first one was Long Island and the Civil War, which I co-wrote with a historian who had been my major source on Civil War stories on Long Island. He had 20 years of research. And he kept saying he was going to turn it into a book, and he never did.
Bill Bleyer (05:25):
So, I had already given my notice ... actually I was getting ready to give my notice after 33 years of Newsday and had lunch with a head of a local preservation group, and she said, "Well, if you leave, what are you going to do?" And I said, "Well, I'm going to do books." And the first one I had in mind was the history of Sagamore Hill, because I had gone there, it's near my house.
Bill Bleyer (05:46):
And I had gone there since I was probably in elementary school and kept looking for somebody to write the history of Sagamore Hill every time I was there. And I'd ask the rangers and the curators because I covered it for Newsday.
Bill Bleyer (5:58):
So, when I go over and say, "When is somebody going to write the history of Sagamore Hill?" And the curator kept saying she was going to do it when she retired, and then she retired and decided she didn't want to do it. So, she goes, "Why don't you do it?" So, I did.
Benjamin Morris (06:10):
There it is.
Bill Bleyer (06:11):
But to me, that was such a natural topic. And Long Island, to see my fourth book, the full Maritime History of Long Island, there's been a lot of maritime history books, but they were all kind of fragmented. Nobody had ever written about every conceivable topic about Long Island Maritime history in one book. And I kept waiting for that. And Mystic Seaport did things that were similar but didn't really cover everything on Long Island.
Bill Bleyer (06:40):
And Culper is sort of an exception because there's been a lot of books about the Culper, including two full books just on the Ring. But nobody had done what I ended up doing, which is an analytical history where I looked at every other thing written about it and said, "This is true, is not true." Everybody else just wrote their version, some of which are wildly fanciful. But nobody ever said, "This author said X and this author said Y."
Bill Bleyer (07:09):
So, as I got into it, I said, there's so much conflicting information, I'm going to write a book that's really an analytical history that nobody else has done. So, I basically have gone from journalist to journalist, author to historian, but I'm really still all three, I guess.
Benjamin Morris (07:26):
Well, let me ask you, it's something which is very apparent. It comes up front and center in your account of this really remarkable moment in American history. Your book starts off with a classic historiographic gesture, which is the literature review, but your literature review, looking at who else is out there and what's been written, what's been said — it has quite an edge to it, and you're very open about that.
Benjamin Morris (07:53):
There is a lot of separating fact from fiction, as you say, with previous accounts, with contemporary accounts, with television shows that have come along recently to kind of revive interest and so forth. Why is that so important in the case of the Washington Spy Ring?
Bill Bleyer (08:14):
Well, part of it is as a journalist, you always want to get to the truth. And as a good historian, you want to get to the truth too. And when I see people writing stuff — and this was not only the Spy Ring — the Maritime History book, there's an execution Rocks Lighthouse on Long Island Sound. And somebody years ago, started this rumor that it got its name because during the revolution, the British would chain prisoners to the rocks at low tide and then watched them drown.
Bill Bleyer (08:38):
And it didn't make any sense when I first read it. And I looked into it and turns out there's no proof to it. But it's in books about lighthouses, it's in books about Long Island history, and it makes me crazy when I see an accuracy that people don't correct.
Bill Bleyer (08:54):
And in a lot of cases, I got to know the authors of these books and actually got them to correct it in subsequent editions. But it's like to me, you're doing such an amazing disservice to the public if you spread information you can't document.
Bill Bleyer (09:08):
With the Sagamore Hill book, we found all kinds of examples of misinformation, legend passed on as fact. I was really lucky with that one because the curatorial staff at Sagamore Hill wanted a completely accurate book as best that could be done to be a resource for their rangers and volunteers as well as the public.
Bill Bleyer (09:31):
So, the curator, who I had dealt with for years, said, "We're going to fact-check everything in your book when you're done, or as you're doing it." We found mistakes in National Park Service reports. We found mistakes in almost every biography of Theodore Roosevelt.
Bill Bleyer (09:43):
We found huge amount of mistakes in the only other history of the property done by the first Director of Theodore Roosevelt Association, which had acquired the house from the family and turned it into a museum. So, luckily, I have allies who feel the same way I do.
Bill Bleyer (10:02):
And the most famous quote about Sagamore Hill that Theodore Roosevelt supposedly said on the night he died, when he theoretically turned to his wife and said, "I wonder if you'll ever know how much I love Sagamore Hill." That quote was in the Hermann Hagadorn Roosevelt's of Sagamore Hill book from 1953, and then shows up in every biography of Theodore Roosevelt since, including some really prestigious authors.
Bill Bleyer (10:26):
And I was shocked when the curator said, "We've checked everything else, but we have to check this quote because it's supposed to be in a letter from Edith Roosevelt to their son, Kermit, right after TR died in the Library of Congress. So, you can't see it online. So, she sent a researcher friend in D.C. to go to the library, get the letter out and read it, and the quote's not there.
Bill Bleyer (10:46):
And people who had spent 30 years writing biographies of the Roosevelt never did that. So, it's all over the place. It was the first thing in my introduction to my Sagamore Hill book, I had to go back to The History Press and give them a correction and say "We need to correct it and put a footnote about how this quote does not really exist and it shows up everywhere." So, it's just always been a big thing for me.
Benjamin Morris (11:12):
And there is definitely taking that approach to the current study, had to have been the only way forward. I was intrigued, though, as you wrote that there was one scholar in particular, whom you bring out from time to time to say, he laid the foundation, he gave us sort of a start to understanding what happened with the Culper Spy Ring.
Benjamin Morris (11:34):
But some of his information was also questionable, and that was Pennypacker, right?
Bill Bleyer (11:39):
Benjamin Morris (11:40):
It's interesting, you sort of give him like a B+ if you were to give him a sort of a passing grade on how good his information is. He gets a bunch of the important stuff right. And then there's a few things that you take issue with. And yet, you can't research this without encountering him. Is that fair to say?
Bill Bleyer (11:59):
Yeah. I mean, he's the fount of information on the Spy Ring that everything else comes from, for good or bad. He was an amateur historian. He wasn't really trained and did a pretty good job, became the official Suffolk County historian.
Bill Bleyer (12:18):
People had wondered about the Spy Ring, written about the Spy Ring here and there, starting well, after the war, and early 1800s. But nobody quite understood how it worked, who was in it, and all the nuts and bolts.
Bill Bleyer (12:31):
And Pennypacker writes two books in 1930, and then I think 1939. And the first one he lays out the entire operation of the Spy Ring, which he had gotten from reading the surviving letters. And theoretically, they were all supposed to have been destroyed at the request of the members of the Spy Ring.
Bill Bleyer (12:51):
But luckily, for history, George Washington, Benjamin Tallmadge's Spymaster saved a lot of them. The spies were not ... because they were paranoid (justifiably so) — Pennypacker, he read all these surviving letters. He looked through whatever documents he could find in the families involved.
Bill Bleyer (13:12):
And in the 1930 book, he lays it all out there. He's got the names of all the major players, how the Spy Ring operates, gets into their spy craft. And it's an amazing book.
Bill Bleyer (13:24):
The problem is it's not footnoted, and he repeats a lot of legend and hearsay as fact. And unfortunately, lots of other authors, including some fairly well-respected ones, have repeated all these legends as fact also; most famously, the story of Anna Strong and her clothes line signaling, her neighbor and chief spy Abraham Woodhull across the harbor about where to meet the chief maritime courier to send stuff to Washington and Tallmadge.
Bill Bleyer (14:00):
And it makes me crazy that this stuff is just repeated as fact over and over again, which is why when I kept seeing, I said, wait a minute, I'm not just going to go through this and decide what I think is real and not, and just say what I think is real. I'm going to actually name names and pick it all apart, which gets somewhat controversial.
Bill Bleyer (14:17):
As you know, I particularly take task to test Brian Kilmeade to Fox News because he writes what he says is a history book, which is historical fiction at best. And when I pick on him, there's always somebody in the audience that will ask me, "Have you heard from Brian Kilmeade" who I know and have written about for Newsday. Or they will defend Brian Kilmeade and say I'm opinionated, or I don't like him because he's conservative and I'm not. So, it's kind of interesting.
Bill Bleyer (14:49):
I have not heard from him. I'm sure he couldn't care less what I have to say about him because he's making millions of dollars on his books and his TV career. And I'm sure I don't matter much to him, but he's the worst offender than even Pennypacker in spreading misinformation.
Benjamin Morris (15:05):
Well, it's helpful to have the clarity and I think that one of the things that often gets taken for granted is how we know what we know. And it's so important to go through this in a meticulous, careful way each time that the question arises. And I thought your sort of opening gambit there was immensely illustrative of that as a methodological issue. So, very, very helpful.
Benjamin Morris (15:28):
For our listeners who may not be familiar with the context of the creation of the Spy Ring and for whom maybe their American history class was a little longer ago than they would like to perhaps recall; can we just travel back for one moment to the Battle of Long Island? Because this was such a pivotal moment in the American Revolutionary War.
Benjamin Morris (15:54):
You write that in many ways, it was determinative of what followed over the next six or seven years as the city and the surrounding area was occupied by the British. But it was also immensely instructive for General George Washington as he reflected on the casualties that were suffered in the battle and the necessity for better information to prevent those casualties.
Benjamin Morris (16:18):
So, can we just cover that for a minute? Because there are some tensions that arise out of the invasion and the occupation that really set the stage for the Spy Ring to follow.
Bill Bleyer (16:33):
Yeah. Well, the Battle of Long Island, a lot of people haven't even heard of it because it's not Lexington and Concord. It's not Yorktown or Princeton or Trenton. It's actually the biggest pitched battle of the entire revolution with most soldiers from both sides involved.
Bill Bleyer (16:48):
Washington is still relatively new to command. He's gone at the behest of Congress, to Boston and taken control of the army after Lexington and Concord. General Knox famously brings the cannon from Fort Ticonderoga, and they drive the British out to Nova Scotia.
Bill Bleyer (17:07):
Washington and his troops know the British are not done, they're going to come back. And they surmise correctly that they're going to go and attack to capture New York, which is the lynch pin of the colonies, the commercial center of the colonies. And we give them control, basically divide the colonies in half if they could control New York.
Bill Bleyer (17:27):
Washington has no idea if they're really going to come to New York, although he and his generals are unanimous that that's the logical next step but they don't know where they're going to come exactly. How they're going to come, how many they're going to come, and more importantly, what they're going to do when they arrive.
Bill Bleyer (17:43):
And he's very cognizant of intelligence and the lack thereof going back to the French and Indian War because he wanted to be a British officer and could never get a commission because he was a lowly continental colonial officer, and the British Army was particularly snobby about that. But he was the head of the colonial militia in Virginia and General Braddock in the French and India War decides he's going to march across the Alleghenies to attack what is now, Pittsburgh.
Bill Bleyer (18:15):
The French treated their Indian allies as equals. The British had some Indian scouts and treated them sort of inferior beings. So, Braddock was marching into the wilderness in the columns of red coats, confronts the French and Indians who ambushed them, and the French were fighting camouflaged behind rocks and trees with their Indian allies, because they realized this is their territory and they should take the cue from the Indians, opposite of the British.
Bill Bleyer (18:43):
Braddock is killed in the ambush. A lot of British casualties, Washington escapes with bullet holes in his uniform, brings the survivors back to Tidewater, Virginia. And he realizes that he almost died. And they were totally outfoxed because they had no idea where the enemy was, how big the enemy force was, how they were going to fight.
Bill Bleyer (19:03):
So, he goes into the revolution as commander-in-chief, knowing how important intelligence is and what can happen when you don't have it. So, he's acutely aware of his liability in that area when the revolution breaks out.
Bill Bleyer (19:20):
So, when the British show up in the largest force they've ever sent out in any war from England, when this force arrives in August of 1776, coming into New York Harbor, Washington had no idea what was coming. But he knew they were coming, he was convinced they were coming.
Bill Bleyer (19:42):
They land on Staten Island to prepare for the attack, which is a surprise to Washington. He tries to get spies onto Staten Island to get information. He tries to get people on Staten Island to give him information, it's not working. He can't get the right people who can get back and forth. So, he's totally in the dark.
Bill Bleyer (20:00):
So, after a week or two of preparation, when the British transfer the force across the lower harbor to Brooklyn, the timing and the size of the force is still a mystery to Washington to the point where even though it appears a huge number of troops have crossed to Brooklyn, he's not sure that that's not a diversionary attack.
Bill Bleyer (20:22):
So, he actually keeps half of the continental army in lower Manhattan and stays with them until he's convinced that this is the real attack. And then finally, right before the battle breaks out, he's convinced that there's no more British on Staten Island. And then moves the rest of the Army and himself over to Brooklyn.
Benjamin Morris (20:42):
You write that at this point, there's about 24,000 or so troops under General William Howe, the British, and this is enormous in terms not just of troop strength, but of the required provisions, logistics, munitions, and so forth. As a landing force, this is unheard of.
Benjamin Morris (21:02):
And so, one of the great challenges as the British sort of established their foothold is how are they going to actually outfit all of these fighting troops as they try to push the Patriots. I think we should probably stick to Patriots and Loyalists or Continentals and British, but figure out our terms very quickly here. But how they're going to push the Patriots, push the Continentals back. Just moving this sheer number of troops is itself, an enormous task.
Bill Bleyer (21:31):
Well, they had transports and supply ships along with the Navy ships, and they could forage on Staten Island, and when they got to Brooklyn, they could forage there. Long Island was heavily Loyalist anyhow. I mean, there were people willing to supply them. There were also Patriots who would still sell supplies to the British. It was cattle and sheep and other things, because they wanted to make money.
Bill Bleyer (21:56):
So, that really wasn't the issue. I mean, moving the army across the bay took them a whole day pretty much. But then Washington had no idea what was coming next. And luckily, for Washington, Howe was not the best generally. Howe had a very favorable feeling — warm, fuzzy feeling about the Americans. He was hoping he could end the revolution on sort of friendly terms.
Bill Bleyer (22:18):
He and his brother, who was in charge of the fleet didn't really want to crush the revolution. They wanted sort of to make everybody happy and come back to the fold.
Bill Bleyer (22:28):
Unluckily, for Washington, the subordinate generals had a different view and came up with a plan to do a diversionary attack on the western in the American lines, and then send the bulk of the forces, and run and sweep up behind Washington's first line on what was called the Heights of Gowanus.
Bill Bleyer (22:51):
And that's what they did. So, Howe and most of the Army marched all night, got around to the fifth pass in these hills called Jamaica Pass. Washington agreed, and the other generals were convinced the British could never get that far. So, they only had four cavalry officers watching that pass and all the others were heavily defended.
Bill Bleyer (23:13):
So, around midnight, they British quickly captured the four cavalry officers who were there and then swept down back west towards Manhattan behind the primary lines. And it was only a suicidal counterattack by two brigades of content of the troops under General Lord Stirling.
Bill Bleyer (23:34):
They did a whole series of suicidal counterattacks that pushed the British back repeatedly and bought time for the rest of the Americans to escape back to the secondary line on Brooklyn Heights that prevented Washington from losing the entire war on that first day of that battle.
Benjamin Morris (23:52):
It really is remarkable. I mean, Bill, there are lots of accounts of different kinds of managed retreats in military history, but I have to say that yours was for something that happened 250 years ago, I mean, it was absolutely gripping.
Benjamin Morris (24:05):
I mean, you really do feel that tension of these troops fighting at night. They're waiting for reinforcements. They don't know if reinforcements are going to come. They don't know which direction the British are coming from. I mean, it's sort of the atmospherics and the cinematics are so stirring in this moment and decisive.
Bill Bleyer (24:22):
And Washington throughout his military career was extremely lucky. He was not trained in a military academy or something. He was basically a self-taught general. But he was extremely lucky from surviving with the bullet holes in his uniform in the Braddock campaign.
Bill Bleyer (24:40):
In the Battle of Long Island, he had huge luck. He had luck in General Howe being a very conservative general. Howe called off the battle at dusk the first day when the Americans were reeling back into the lines on Brooklyn Heights.
Bill Bleyer (24:57):
The subordinate generals were arguing, "Continue, you can push the Americans into the East River and win the war today." Howe said, "Well, the troops have been marching all night. They're hungry, they're tired. We'll do a siege, and we have plenty of time, we'll win this anyhow.”
Bill Bleyer (25:12):
So, that was one thing. The winds blowing very strongly out of the northeast, so this huge British fleet of warships cannot sail up the East River to cut off Washington's retreat to Manhattan. And then the fog rolls in that night to mass this amazing retreat. And just in time, this brigade from Massachusetts showed up, made up of fishermen from Marblehead who know how to row boats.
Bill Bleyer (25:36):
Washington had already corralled every boat along the shore of Brooklyn and Manhattan for his retreat. But you can imagine if infantry men didn't know their way around the water, were trying to row these boats across a one-mile-wide river with a strong wind blowing what could have happened. But the Marblehead men went back and forth all night.
Bill Bleyer (25:55):
And in the morning when the British centuries, the scouts from the British Army sort of go up into Brooklyn Heights and over Brooklyn Heights down to the river and find everybody's gone, it's because of all those things worked out in Washington's favor.
Benjamin Morris (26:12):
It is almost like sort of the battle of Dunkirk in micro, micro, micro microcosm to take place 150 years later.
Benjamin Morris (26:24):
So, what happens in this moment is kind of interesting. I mean, the British absolutely established themselves on the island and very, very quickly, you begin to see the tensions of occupation, and you see these tensions play out in a lot of different ways.
Benjamin Morris (26:39):
Now, our listeners will recall the interview that we did with History Press author, Peter Zablocki about the tensions between Patriots and Loyalists in New Jersey in the Revolutionary War period. And this account, Bill, mirrors Peter's account in many ways, because it describes at this intimate level what it's like to have occupying forces in your home, eating your pigs, taking your clothes, sort of stealing your jewelry.
Benjamin Morris (27:10):
Some of the townspeople who are loyal to the British are welcoming them with open arms and receiving sort of grace and favor as a result of that. Others begin to feel that simmering kind of resentment of thousands of troops camping out in front of their front door and eating everything in sight. So, can you help us to sort of see that tension as it plays out on the island?
Bill Bleyer (27:35):
Well, what happened is most of the males of military age, the British, basically after the battle surprised Washington yet again by doing — across the East River from Brooklyn, almost trapped Washington in lower Manhattan. The militia on the shore just scatter when the British land. Washington luckily gets his army over to west side of Manhattan and just skirts around the British before he is cut off.
Bill Bleyer (28:04):
And there's a series of battles up into Harlem and in Fort Lee and fought Washington, and then eventually, driven entirely off the island of Manhattan. Meanwhile, the British were moving east on Long Island and very quickly, occupy the entire island all the way out to Montauk and set up a series of forts and strong points in important harbors in important towns.
Bill Bleyer (28:28):
So, while this is going on, most of the males who are Patriots of military age flee to New England, primarily Connecticut. And a lot of them joined the Continental Army units in Connecticut or Rhode Island. And initially, the British were trying to sort out the difference between the Loyalists who left and the Patriots who, for whatever reason, didn't leave.
Bill Bleyer (28:54):
But it quickly sort of degenerates into the British just taking advantage of everybody on Long Island, Loyalist or Patriot or not, burning fences for firewood, stripping orchards of fruit. So, they basically treat everybody like second class citizens.
Bill Bleyer (29:13):
Like if you read these accounts where British officers were riding down the down the street, the residents have to sort of kowtow to them. And they're continually requisitioning food and other supplies from farmers and store owners.
Bill Bleyer (29:32):
So, what it does is it generates a lot of hostility even from the Loyalists because they're treated like the Patriots. And they're saying we support the crown and what are we getting for our support?
Benjamin Morris (29:48):
And one of the things that that struck me in your account was the granular level of ... I mean, we know who some of these individuals were who were experiencing these things because of what they wrote about them or the accounts that have survived.
Benjamin Morris (30:01):
One name that really stood out for me was Miller (I'm going to see if I can get this right) — Paul Amberman.
Benjamin Morris (30:14):
Who was abused by the British and started off with somewhat of a Loyalist tendency, but then very quickly, once these sort of rapacious officers would come in, began to turn the other way and actually suffered greatly for it.
Bill Bleyer (30:32):
Well, I mean, in the beginning, throughout the war, some of the better British offices would take something, requisition it, or buy and give a receipt. And then often, they were just ignored. So, a lot of people that had made contracts with the British never got paid, and a lot of stuff was taken.
Bill Bleyer (30:50):
After the war, you see a lot of these people going to their local town governments were putting in claims for payment against the British, which ultimately, a lot of them were ultimately, paid after the war ended. But a lot of arrogance from the British.
Bill Bleyer (31:07):
And the Miller you mentioned, they took supplies. He tried to get paid and for his trouble, I mean, he was basically chopped up by an officer's sword, people were killed. They were maimed, run off their property. It was a pretty dismal time.
Benjamin Morris (31:23):
So, you mentioned this fog that had sort of enabled Washington to melt away into the night with his army in that pivotal moment. There's another fog that descends over the whole of Long Island, which is the fog of war. And it is the fog of information, and not knowing what is happening on the island.
Benjamin Morris (31:43):
And so, Washington very quickly realizes that in order for him to be able to anticipate troop movements or to find any way of keeping his suppliers safe, he has to somehow get eyes into this now, very hostile occupied zone.
Benjamin Morris (32:04):
So, you write that one of his first attempts comes from a man whose name is very well-known in American history, which is Nathan Hale. But unfortunately, you also write that Nathan Hale, with respect, was not a very good spy. He was heroic, he was noble, he was well-intentioned. His account of "I've been paid for my services to the Continental Army, but I've not actually given or sacrificed anything yet."
Benjamin Morris (32:36):
I mean, that just tugs on our heartstrings. But if anyone was ever untrained or unfit for the job — I mean, my heart broke as I just sort of read about reading what actually happened to Nathan Hale outside of the famous line that was never actually said. So, what happened to Nathan?
Bill Bleyer (33:01):
Well, as I said, Washington was aware of his lack of intelligence. So, the first time he has a chance to really do anything about it, is once he's back in Manhattan, after the Battle of Long Island, he tasked Colonel Thomas Knowlton with forming a special unit called Knowlton's Rangers, which would be made up of young officers, many of them college graduates to spy or gather and process intelligence.
Bill Bleyer (33:24):
Nathan Hale is one of the young officers from the Connecticut Regiment who is recruited for that regiment. And Knowlton says, "We need somebody to cross to Brooklyn to find out what the British are up to because we know they're going to attack Manhattan at some point." All of the others say no, because being a spy is considered ungentlemanly, and they don't want to ruin their reputation for the rest of their lives.
Bill Bleyer (33:53):
Hale misses that first meeting because he's sick with a flu, hears about from his fellow officers what the meeting was about. And when he recovers, he goes to Knowlton and volunteers saying, as you mentioned, that he's been in the army for a year, hasn't done anything to help the cause or earn his pay, and he will become the spy.
Bill Bleyer (34:10):
His fellow officers try to talk him out of it, and they say, "You're the last person we know who can maintain a secret identity without exposing themselves." But he says, "I feel compelled to do this, whatever the risk," and he does it not well. Everybody knows the outcome, but the play by play is kind of interesting as well.
Bill Bleyer (34:33):
He's actually a middle class, relatively prosperous schoolteacher in Connecticut before the war. He decides to portray himself as a poor Dutch school master when he goes to Long Island. So, he takes the silver buckles off his shoes, he leaves his silver watch behind, anything that would indicate he's not a poor Dutch school master. And inexplicably, takes his Yale diploma with his real name on it with him for whatever reason.
Bill Bleyer (35:02):
So, when he's captured by Robert Rogers, the most famous American veteran of the French and Indian War, who's now working for the British, if there was any doubt about who he was or what he was doing, he's got the proof in his pocket.
Bill Bleyer (35:21):
He also landed and was asking people he met what they thought about the British, where the British occupation forces were, and almost everybody he's talking to was touree. So, when Rogers, who's tasked with finding and tracking spies on Long Island lands to follow up and find the spy or spies, he's basically saying, "Okay, have you seen anybody unusual?" And everybody talks to say, "Yeah, he went that away."
Bill Bleyer (35:48):
So, he lands at nine o'clock in the morning, by dinnertime, he's sitting across the table from Hale, getting Hale to incriminate himself by pretending that he's also an American spy and seals his fate. So, his entire spy mission is less than one day on Long Island, because he's a legend, but inept.
Benjamin Morris (36:07):
And next week, when we talk about trade craft, I'm going to bookmark this because I want to ask you about his shoes. His shoes were interesting for other reasons as well as what was incriminating about them.
Benjamin Morris (36:20):
I mean, it is interesting because this one moment, actually, you write that there is comparative silence about the failure of the mission. That there's sort of one brief line recorded in the wartime diaries about Nathan Hale executed and so forth.
Benjamin Morris (36:35):
And his end is very tragic. But it's one of the things that must be said about Washington, is that he always learned from his mistakes. And in this particular instance, this served as the catalyst for him to take additional measures as he began to cultivate his new ring, to think, "Okay, how can I do this more carefully and what can we put in place?"
Benjamin Morris (37:01):
And so, we're now in about 1777, and there is a passage in your book, which I just thought was so illustrative of the tensions at the time and what Washington wanted out of intelligence. And I was wondering if you would be willing to read that passage for us.
Benjamin Morris (37:18):
It is on page 56 of your book as you begin to describe the actual creation of the Culper Ring. And we'll explain what the word "Culper" means shortly. But there's a passage where here we are putting ourselves in the mind of George Washington trying to understand what he knew, what he didn't know, what he needed, what he knew he needed, et cetera.
Benjamin Morris (37:44):
And you have this account, where you start ... it's a paragraph that begins after severing. And sort of those two larger paragraphs right there, we finally get a sense of what Washington was desperate to know. Would you just read that for us?
Bill Bleyer (38:02):
After severing his connection with Sackett — and that's a New York City businessman named Nathaniel Sackett, who Washington hires as his Spymaster after the attempt with Knowlton. Knowlton and most of that regiment was wiped out in the battles in Northern Manhattan. So, he hires Nathaniel Sackett, he was a businessman from upstate in Westchester, who does business in the city.
Bill Bleyer (38:27):
And we're not sure why Washington picks him to be the Spymaster, but he does. It doesn't work out well. So, Washington fires him after a month because he's not getting any useful information. So, the excerpt is:
Bill Bleyer (38:40):
"After severing his connection with Sackett, Washington was forced to rely primarily on reconnaissance rather than espionage. But then, the general got an unexpected gift in the form of an unsolicited letter written on August 7th, 1778, a day that could be considered the start of the Culper Spy Ring."
Bill Bleyer (38:59):
"The letter was written by Lieutenant Caleb Brewster in Norwalk, Connecticut, and sent directly to Washington, bypassing Benjamin Tallmadge, who's the Spymaster. Brewster offered to gather intelligence on Long Island. While the letter has been lost, Washington's replied to the imposing ...” and Phillis Mariner dated the next day, fills in the blanks.
Bill Bleyer (39:20):
"The general instructed Brewster to 'not spare any reasonable expense to come at early and true information always recollecting and bearing in mind that vague and uncertain accounts of things are more disturbing and dangerous than receiving none at all.'"
Bill Bleyer (39:37):
"He emphasized that he was particularly interested in sightings of enemy transport vessels, 'whether they are preparing for the reception of troops and know what number of men are upon Long Island; whether they are moving or stationary, what has become of their draft horses, whether they appear to be collecting them for a move, how they are supplied with provisions, what arrivals, whether the men or provisions, and whether any troops have been embarked.'"
Bill Bleyer (40:06):
So, as you can see, Washington was very interested in nuts and bolts because that's how you win a war.
Benjamin Morris (40:12):
Absolutely, detail. He is paying attention to draft horses, what has become of their draft horses. I mean, little things like that which signal so much about an army of the day. That was incredibly revealing. Thank you for reading that.
Benjamin Morris (40:26):
Now, Bill, as we explore this moment, this sort of creation of the Spy Ring, certain names, you've mentioned a few of them already — certain names begin to appear with more and more prominence. And one of the joys or the beauties of a story like this is that we now have these names: Tallmadge and Woodhull and Caleb Brewster and so forth.
Benjamin Morris (40:56):
But we were never supposed to have. I mean, the whole point of espionage is that their names would never, ever be found out. That they would stay within the shadows this whole time. And I want to ask you — we're going to talk about sort of each of them in turn, just so we can get a sense of what the operation looked like, is it truly flowered.
Benjamin Morris (41:14):
But there was one guy in particular that really caught my attention, and that was John Clark. And you write that very little is known about John Clark. And it struck me that of all of the spies, maybe he was the most successful because we know the least about him.
Benjamin Morris (41:34):
Now, can you just tell us anything at all about this spy who seemed to have vanished from history.
Bill Bleyer (41:44):
Clark is a major in the Continental Army. He's a lawyer from Philadelphia. He comes to Washington's attention and the other generals, and he does everything right, where Nathan Hale did everything wrong. This happens while Sackett is in charge. It's the one thing sort of Sackett did right.
Bill Bleyer (42:04):
But right from the beginning, you see this dichotomy in the thinking of the American commanders between the idea of doing ... I call it the Nathan Hale Model and the John Clark Model.
Bill Bleyer (42:19):
So, with Nathan Hale, it's basically, you pick somebody, you send them behind enemy lines for a few days, hope they don't get caught and executed, see what they can get. And you bring them back.
Bill Bleyer (42:32):
Clark is the opposite. His model is you take somebody and embed them — either you find somebody behind enemy lines, or you send them there, but there's no immediate plan to bring them back. So, you want them sort of to dig in and bury themselves in the culture and landscape of Long Island in this case, and send information back when you can. But don't expose yourself. Don't get caught, don't get executed.
Benjamin Morris (42:58):
We would call that deep cover in today's terminology.
Bill Bleyer (43:01):
So, Clark does this exceptionally well. He moves over to Long Island, lives somewhere, I guess, in the Huntington area, in the middle of the island, and sends back reports across the sound via Caleb Brewster and his whaleboats, and is never suspected by the British and certainly never caught.
Bill Bleyer (43:19):
And he only leaves after nine months because Washington, his interest has shifted down to Philadelphia, and he knows Clark is a native, and he wants Clark to do intelligence gathering in Philadelphia.
Bill Bleyer (43:29):
So, they bring Clark back out unscathed, and then he's back in the dark again, lacking any intelligence for several months. And then fortuitously, gets this unsolicited letter from Caleb Brewster, who to me, is probably the most interesting person in the whole operation because he couldn't care less. He actually sort of wants the British to know who he is, and they do figure out who he is. He sort of taunts them and says "Come find me and capture me if you can."
Bill Bleyer (43:59):
He's engaged in whaleboat battles on the Sound. He goes to Long Island, which is fully enemy territory, constantly. Doesn't even make much of an attempt to hide who he is or what he's doing. Later becomes a captain in the revenue service after the war. Fascinating guy.
Bill Bleyer (44:14):
But he gets this letter from Brewster and as you see, he says "Great, I need the information. Get what you can as quickly as you can, spare no expense." A week later, Brewster sends an amazingly detailed letter about British dispositions back to Washington with the most important thing is that the British are planning to attack the American strong point in Newport, Rhode Island, which is news to all the American commanders.
Bill Bleyer (44:37):
Washington takes that information, sends reinforcement, alerts the commander who takes other precautions, and the British see what's going on, realize that their plan has been exposed, and they call off the attack.
Bill Bleyer (44:51):
So, this is one of the better examples, the first example of the Culper Spy Ring paying off, and there's lots of other examples throughout the war, which is why historians agree that the Culper Spy Ring was the best organized, most valuable intelligence network anywhere in the colonies during the war.
Benjamin Morris (45:11):
These are some remarkable figures. So, there's John Clark, as we said. You've outlined a little bit of Caleb Brewster's work, and I just love the notion of his taking these whaleboat rides at night and just sort of constantly eluding enemy patrols and the purposefulness and that sense of sort of throwing danger to the wind and saying, "I'm going for it."
Benjamin Morris (45:35):
I mean, it's extraordinary. Really gripping reading. You have Benjamin Tallmadge. Now, tell us about, Tallmadge is an aide-de-camp and eventually, becomes a Spymaster at an incredibly young age.
Bill Bleyer (45:46):
Tallmadge is a great figure. A friend of mine has actually done a full biography of Tallmadge — Richard Welch which is a good read. But he's the son of a local Presbyterian minister out in Setauket. Setauket is the focal point for the Spy Ring, because there's so many people out there that know each other and trust each other.
Bill Bleyer (46:07):
It's far out of the way from New York as it is. It's the only place that's really secure enough to run this operation. Tallmadge is a Yale classmate of Nathan Hale. He's a young Calvary officer in the Connecticut regiment early in the war. His valor in battles around Philadelphia bring him to the attention of Washington. And Washington's always looking for talented young officers to put on his staff, as he did with Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.
Bill Bleyer (46:37):
So, Tallmadge ends up as an aide to Washington, and I don't think he's involved with the original intelligence brigade or unit. But he really gets involved when Washington hires Sackett. Sackett is a civilian; Washington says, "I need somebody in headquarters to be the liaison between the civilian and headquarters and picks Tallmadge, one of his promising young aides.
Bill Bleyer (47:07):
And as bad as a lot of the early spy masters are, luckily, Tallmadge again, as is Washington, a self-trained person in the art of spy craft, Tallmadge is brilliant. Tallmadge is very well-organized and very innovative. So, when he works for Sackett, it's really Tallmadge that's making the smart decisions and making things work.
Bill Bleyer (47:30):
There's another general that after Sackett's fired, Washington picks another general who flames out very quickly, general Charles Scott. But Scott is a proponent of what I call the Nathan Hale Model. And based on the experience of Clark, Tallmadge feels very strongly that you don't send somebody in floundering around and likely to be caught.
Bill Bleyer (47:57):
You send somebody like Clark, who just blends into the background, and you get much better information. So, Clark doesn't have much interest in the job. He's also the head of a Virginia infantry brigade fighting regularly north of the city. He doesn't have the interest or really the time to be a good Spymaster.
Bill Bleyer (48:13):
Luckily, Tallmadge does. Washington, he picks up on this tension between the two different models, realizes Clark is not really into this, and Clark gets the hint and resigns from the army goes, back to his firm in Virginia.
Bill Bleyer (48:30):
And then at the young age of 24, Washington appoint Tallmadge as his Director of Military Intelligence, promotes him to major. And now, it's Tallmadge's game. And things really take off at that point
Benjamin Morris (48:43):
You know, Tallmadge is interesting because of course, there's the old Maxim that loose lips sink ships, and it's just as true on land as it is at sea. Tallmadge, I find compelling because, he seemed to understand that even among allied forces, too many people, knowing too much could be deadly.
Benjamin Morris (49:10):
And so, he serves as the insulation, the barrier of information between Washington and the actual agents that he was handling, to the point where he actually prevents Washington from knowing some of these agents' real names.
Benjamin Morris (49:28):
He says, "We are going to keep this information sequestered. It's going to be clandestine." And with very rare exception, all information had to go through him before it reached Washington and the top brass. And so, that leads us, of course, directly to the Woodhull family, which are some of the sort of stars of the show here.
Benjamin Morris (49:52):
Help us to understand what happened, what traumatic moment happened that persuaded Abraham Woodhull to actually join the Ring? Because Abraham kind of caught me by surprise.
Bill Bleyer (50:08):
Okay. So, Abraham Woodhull is a fairly successful, middle-class farmer out in Setauket. And he grew up with all these other players. They go way back; Caleb Brewster, Benjamin Tallmadge, Abraham Woodhull know each other from forever and trust each other. And that's why the Spy Ring ultimately works.
Bill Bleyer (50:29):
So, what happens is when Tallmadge is in charge, he wants to have a spy on Long Island who stays on Long Island, and he approaches his friend Abraham Woodhull, and Woodhull goes into the city occasionally to sell produce from his farm, or buy provisions for the farm. And Woodhull agrees initially just verbally, and then later in writing to make reports about what he sees and learns going to the city.
Bill Bleyer (50:58):
And Woodhull knows what happened to Nathan Hale and he's very conscious of security. So, in a lot of the early letters, you see urging Tallmadge and Washington saying, "Please burn this letter as soon as you read it. I'm afraid of being exposed and hanged by the British."
Benjamin Morris (51:22):
He doesn't want to get made as we would say.
Bill Bleyer (51:24):
In the beginning, Tallmadge and Washington pretty much do that. But then when they get into coded letters, they tend to start saving either the coded letters or the transcriptions. And there's eventually — I think the number is 193 letters have surfaced, either originals or copies or transcriptions. And that's how we know everything about Spy Ring.
Bill Bleyer (51:46):
I mean, if they had done what Woodhull had asked, and then later when Robert Townsend becomes the Chief Spy in the city, he's making the same points because he's in the city and he's in great danger. But Tallmadge and Washington don't destroy everything. And that's how we luck out and we know it.
Bill Bleyer (52:04):
But Woodhull is going back and forth. Woodhull is very nervous, which in part, is probably why he has such bad luck going into and back from the city. He's constantly stopped by British Patrols or Loyalists, militia patrols, searched, beaten, robbed. But luckily, he always puts the letters … he opens up some stitching on his saddle and hides whatever documents he has in that little cavity.
Bill Bleyer (52:33):
And the people that stop him and rob him and beat him up never figure that out. But eventually, after about a year of this, he's so nervous that he writes to Talmadge and Washington and say, "I can't keep doing this, I'm going to be exposed and captured." And he threatens to basically leave Long Island to live in Connecticut with the other refugees.
Bill Bleyer (52:52):
So, Washington and Tallmadge realized they have to accommodate him, otherwise, they'll have nothing. So, they all start looking for somebody who can either be in the city or go in the city and stay there. And they come up with various possibilities that don't work for different reasons. And finally, it's Woodhull who comes up at Robert Townsend, because when Woodhall goes to the city, he stays at his brother-in-law's boarding house.
Bill Bleyer (53:19):
And when Robert Townsend, who's the son of a very prosperous Oyster Bay merchant, goes into the city to do business for his father, he stays at the same boarding house. And they get to know each other. And finally, Woodhull broaches the subject with Townsend.
Bill Bleyer (53:33):
He says, "Yes, I will be your spy in the city, provided nobody knows who I am other than you and Tallmadge and the carriers is going back and forth." And as you alluded to initially, Washington wants to meet Woodhull. He tells Tallmadge to bring him to headquarters, so Washington can get a measure of the man, and they can talk about strategy.
Bill Bleyer (53:52):
Tallmadge and Woodhull violently opposed the idea saying, “We know there are people in headquarters who are spies for the British, including members of your own internal ...” I forgot the right term.
Bill Bleyer (54:04):
It's not quite a cabinet, but yes, it's the-
Bill Bleyer (54:05):
So, they said if Woodhull goes to headquarters, the whole Spy Ring could be unasked. Washington realizes right away that they're right, writes back and saying, "Yes, stay away" and actually states to Tallmadge and Woodhull: "I don't want to know the names of anybody other than Tallmadge." And that they maintain that secrecy through the rest of the war.
Benjamin Morris (54:26):
And with those individuals established, I mean, here we have the creation of the Ring. And I have two questions for you before we take a break for this week. First question is, Culper, where does the name Culper come from?
Bill Bleyer (54:48):
The name comes from ... early on they realized that their letters could be captured by British patrols, and they are both on Long Island and in Connecticut. So, the first level of spy craft that they get involved in is giving code names to Caleb. Caleb Brewster refuses to have one, which is why ... Caleb Brewster is just fascinating to me.
Bill Bleyer (55:11):
Like I said, he couldn't care less. He wants the British to know who he is and what he's doing. But Tallmadge and Woodhull decided to take code names to protect themselves. And Townsend does the same thing when he joins. So, Tallmadge decides he'll be John Bolton. We don't know why he picked that name. And Woodhull decides to be Samuel Culper Sr.
Bill Bleyer (55:34):
We think this might be an homage to Washington, who was surveyor when he was 19 in Culpeper County, Virginia, but we don't know. None of these letters explain why they picked the code names. And the Culper Ring never was called the Culper Ring during the war. This name comes up much later.
Bill Bleyer (55:54):
And we know that was taken from Samuel Culper Sr. And then when Townsend joins, he takes the code name of Culper Jr. So, it becomes, obviously, the Culper Spy Ring because of those two code names. But we don't know why Woodhull and Tallmadge came up with the Culper name in the first place. But the best guess is because of Washington's surveying work in Virginia.
Benjamin Morris (56:18):
So, the last question that I have for you, Bill, and this is a really tricky question to ask. I'm going to try to phrase it in a way that makes sense, but even formulating it was hard for me, even throughout the whole of your book, it kept sort of looming over the shadow of every page.
Benjamin Morris (56:37):
One of the challenges of writing a work like this is working not just through distance, hundreds of years removed, but working in a field in which information is necessarily always partial. It is especially partial. It is especially fragmentary. It is especially dispersed when you're dealing with intelligence, military intelligence.
Benjamin Morris (57:13):
How do you square (as a writer here) the hindsight of what we know now about the course of the war, and about the nature of these movements, and the impacts that these decisions had, with trying to figure out what Washington and his agents knew only fragmentary, knew only in pieces.
Benjamin Morris (57:41):
We know so much more now, and yet your job as a writer is to enter into the minds of these brave men and these soldiers who were only working with limited or fragmentary information at the time. Does that make sense?
Bill Bleyer (57:58):
Yeah. Although it's interesting how much — I mean, when you read the Culper letters, it's stunning how much detail there is. And Washington was getting information from other sources. There was the tailor in the city who was sending him reports through his slave.
Bill Bleyer (58:20):
So, a lot of what the what the Culper would send him was verified by other sources and often, got to Washington before the Culper letter, because they're going through the circuitous route from New York, 55 miles east on Long Island, Setauket across the Sound. And then 55 miles or more back to wherever Washington was in north of the city or even in New Jersey.
Bill Bleyer (58:42):
So, Washington complains throughout the war that the information is extremely detailed and accurate, but it takes forever to get to him, to the point where sometimes, it's stale and no longer usable when he gets it. But when you read the letters, especially with Townsend's letters, we don't know where he's getting his information. But historians agree he must have had contacts or access to British headquarters.
Bill Bleyer (59:07):
Because these letters, it's "This regiment landed with X amount of men on this dock. This ship has this whole list of provisions. This regiment is marching to this location." It was like he was a fly on the wall in the British headquarters. I mean, there's no other explanation how he could have found all this.
Bill Bleyer (59:27):
The tailor I mentioned was making uniforms for British officers who would tend to brag about what they were doing. And in two cases, he literally saved Washington from capture or assassination because the officers bragged about they wanted a new uniform because they were going out to capture George Washington based on intelligence they had gathered.
Bill Bleyer (59:51):
But there were times when Brewster and Woodhull would get information to Tallmadge about logical targets to attack on Long Island and Washington approved at least three or four of them that turned out to be very successful. And they had a lot of very detailed information of where the British were, how many they were, what they were up to.
Bill Bleyer (01:00:13):
And you consider this as the 1780s, late 1770s, it's pretty amazing. And you can see why Washington was concerned when he didn't have it. There was a nine-month period after Benedict Arnold switches sides. He becomes a British General, and the first thing he does is go into New York looking for the spies. He knows they were there.
Bill Bleyer (01:00:33):
And one of the people he captures is Hercules Mulligan, the tailor. Luckily, he talks his way out of getting hanged and is released. Townsend is so unnerved by this, he leaves the city for nine months, goes back to Oyster Bay, and the Culper Ring pretty much ceases to function, and Washington is furious about it, and basically sort of writes them off for that nine months and long after.
Bill Bleyer (01:00:58):
But I mean, you can see when he gets his reports, if he gets them in time where he can actually base his strategy and successful actions on what he's getting.
Benjamin Morris (01:01:11):
It sounds to me like we have a view of the whole chess board and maybe it's too much to say that Washington couldn't see the whole chess board. Maybe he saw just enough of the chess board to try to plan his next move accordingly, and that was enough.
Bill Bleyer (01:01:30):
Bill Bleyer (01:01:32):
Well, let's leave it there for now. We'll come back next week, and we will talk about the absolute best part of it all, which is tradecraft among many other things. Thank you so much.