Brian Kilmeade has done historians on Long Island a great favor. With his latest book, George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution (Sentinel, 2013), co-authored by Don Yaeger and currently one of the top-selling non-fiction books in the country, he has focused national attention on the role played by the Culper Spy Ring that operated between New York City and Setauket, bringing information about British plans and troop movements across Long Island Sound to Connecticut and on to General Washington.
Using his bully pulpits on Fox & Friends, carried on Fox News Channel daily from 6 AM to 9 AM, and his nationally syndicated radio program, Kilmeade & Friends, from 9 AM to noon, he has elevated the nation’s awareness of the significance of Long Island to the outcome of the American Revolution.
Their story unfolds seamlessly, with well-written descriptions of General Washington’s loss of New York after the Battle of Long Island that set the stage for Washington’s desperate need for information, and ending with Morton Pennypacker’s handwriting analysis that identified Robert Townsend as the key information gatherer. But there’s the rub: Kilmeade and Yaeger have spun more than one story here. This non-fiction book hovers dangerously close to the side of fiction.
According to the authors, The Secret Six of the title are: Benjamin Tallmadge, check; Abraham Woodhull, check; Robert Townsend, check; Austin Roe, check; Caleb Brewster, check; and . . . “Agent 355.” Who? Was there such a person? The only mention of “355” in the ring’s correspondence was in a letter written by Culper Sr. (Abraham Woodhull) to Benjamin Tallmadge on August 15, 1779: “. . .the assistance of a 355 of my acquaintance, shall be able to outwit them all.” Tallmadge’s coded dictionary assigned the number 355 to the word “lady” but did not mean to refer to a particular lady. Alexander Rose, in his well-researched book of 2006, Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring, wrote, “This mysterious ‘355’ – decoded as “lady in (Tallmadge’s) Dictionary – is mentioned just once in the Culper correspondence. She was Anna Strong, Woodhull’s neighbor . . .”
The sections of Secret Six that describe a female spy mixing with the British at the highest levels of society in order to gather otherwise unobtainable information, and then being captured and left to starve on a British prison ship, are undocumented. The book’s Acknowledgments cite “Andrea Meyer and John Burke for their work on Agent 355.” An example of their work appeared in their article about the Culpers in the New York State Archives in theFall of 2009. Dramatic activities of “Agent 355” were stated as fact, with no footnotes or references given to verify her existence. Then, in Brad Meltzer’s Decoded: The President’s Inner Circle, broadcast on The History Channel on January 20, 2011, Andrea Meyer repeated her claim that “355” must have been a “lady” of the upper classes and probably a lover of Major John Andre who revealed Benedict Arnold’s treachery. She offered no proof of this elaborate work of fiction.
Another fiction, repeated as fact by Kilmeade and Yaeger, concerns John Honeyman, who, legend has it, was recruited by Washington as a double agent prior to the Battle of Trenton. “The Spy Who Never Was”, an article on the CIA website today, repeats the story and then adds, “The problem is, John Honeyman was no spy—or at least, not one of Washington’s. The key parts of the story were invented or plagiarized long after the Revolution and, through repetition, have become accepted truth.“
A side-by-side comparison of Rose’s book with Kilmeade’s and Yaeger’s:
Washington’s Spies Bibliography: 16½ pages, including 4½ pages of primary sources alone.
Notes: 60 pages, documenting every quotation and inference.
Secret Six Bibliography: 6 pages, with 3 primary sources listed
Historians can refer with confidence to Alexander Rose’s book. At the same time, we should be grateful to Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger for writing and promoting a book that will capture the public’s imagination while bringing the story of the Culper Spy Ring to a nationwide audience. An analogy: A Native American chief was asked how he felt about errors of fact in Pocahontas, the first animated feature Disney film to be based on a real historic character. It included not only the known history, but also the folklore and legend that surrounds the Native American woman, and featured a fictionalized account of her encounter with EnglishmanJohn Smith and the settlers that arrived from the Virginia Company. The Indian chief responded, “Anything that shows an American Indian in a positive light has my full support.”
We can say the same about Long Island during the American Revolution. Three cheers for Brian Kilmeade, Don Yaeger, and George Washington’s Secret Six.