Fact And Fiction In Brian Kilmeade’s ‘Secret Six’


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george washingtons secret sixBrian 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

Notes: None

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.

 

 

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Elizabeth Kahn Kaplan

About Elizabeth Kahn Kaplan

Elizabeth Kahn Kaplan is an educator, writer, and lecturer about art, artists, and American history to both adult and school-age audiences. Formerly the Director of Education with the Three Village Historical Society in Setauket, NY, she curated their exhibit "Spies! How A Group of Long Island Patriots Helped General Washington Win the Revolution." She is a co-editor of the Society's publication, William Sidney Mount: Family, Friends and Ideas, about the world-renowned 19th century American genre artist.

5 thoughts on “Fact And Fiction In Brian Kilmeade’s ‘Secret Six’

  1. Pingback: AMC’s “Turn” – First Season Review | Journal of the American Revolution

  2. Robert B. Miller

    How do I purchase a copy of George Washington’s Secret Six…signed with a message from Brian Kilmeade…to be a Christmas present for my wife? Please respond ASAP.

    Reply
  3. Tom Garroutte

    Much of history is made up of legend, including the content of George Washington’s Secret Six. Real events are eventually converted, over time, into accounts that make us feel good about the accomplishments (and errors) of our predecessors. The balderdash of Washington and the cherry tree is an example of pure propaganda which glorifies him as a person “who could not tell a lie”. Actually, a close reading of the book reveals, according to the author, that he did lie about an event or two.

    In the guise of patriotism, we tell school children many half truths and outright lies. The most tyrannical dictators do the same. Are we any better than they in this matter? Forgive me, I’m just a Native American.

    Reply
  4. Michael Mauro DeBonis

    Alexander Rose’s book “Washington’s Spies,” on the whole, is a much better book than Brian Kilmeade’s “George Washington’s Secret Six.” A careful student of history may present an argument in favor of one historical hypothesis over another….but it has to be one based on historical fact, and not conjecture. In other words, historical conjecture must be predicated on actual historical circumstances, specifically when the historical record is ambiguous, or lacking all-together. A good historian, when presenting his/her argument(s) must allow for this philosophical “shortfall.” In the history business, facts must always take priority over fiction, or wishful thinking.
    Kilmeade’s book about the Culper Spy Ring, is a good one…though it is far from a historical masterpiece. With respect to Rose’s book, on this same subject, (which is a great book) Kilmeade gets the story right about Culper spy James Rivington, whereas Rose’s book gives a rather scant historical (and rather incomplete) account of George Washington’s secret Tory spin-doctor. Kilmeade’s argument, although an interesting one (about Anna Strong and Agent 355) is one largely based on hokum, as opposed to fact. Three Village historian Beverly Tyler has thoroughly debunked Kilmeade’s opinion that Anna Strong was not a primary Culper spy, but (she) was more of an auxiliary one. Please read Tyler’s 2015 history article, “A Case for Anna Smith Strong and the Setauket-based Culper Spy Ring.” It may be found posted online.
    Anna Smith Strong was (indeed) a lady of means. She was the great-grandaughter of William “Tangier” Smith, 1st Lord of the Manor in Town of Brookhaven, and one of the earliest magistrates of New York Colony. Anna Smith Strong was married to Judge Selah Strong, a high-ranking civic leader in Brookhaven Town, and a steadfast American patriot. The word variation in Colonel Benj. Tallmadge’s codebook that Kilmeade is making reference to (355-lady vs. 701-woman) maybe disregarded as cryptographic hyperbole. This is to say that Tallmadge (aka “John Bolton”) while encoding his crypto-system did not distinguish “lady,” from “woman.” The two terms for Tallmadge were (in fact) synonymous. This is Kilmeade’s 1st glaring oversight.
    Kilmeade’s second error in judgement is that he outright dismisses Anna Smith Strong’s overwhelming significance in the Culper Spy Ring as a Culper Spy. Contrary to both Rose and Kilmeade, Strong’s importance in the Culper Ring is not only well documented in the Strong family’s oral tradition, it is well documented by both Morton Pennypacker in his 1939 book “General Washington’s Spies on Long Island and in New York,” and by Beverly Tyler and other Long Island historians. Anna Strong was the Culper Spy Ring’s principal signal person. Geography (on Strong’s Neck) affirms this notion beyond any doubt. Caleb
    Brewster would not have been able to land his whaleboat successfully at Long Island’s (and Setauket’s) north shore without Anna Strong’s sage intervention. One can say with great historical confidence, that without Anna Smith Strong there would be no Culper Spy Ring…because once her presence is removed from the Culper Ring, the Culper Ring instantly collapses and becomes totally dysfunctional, espionage-wise.
    Despite Caleb Brewster’s spectacular daring and outstanding geographic knowledge of Long Island’s north shore inlets and coves…it was mainly Anna’s subtle and careful beaconing skills that allowed Brewster to retrieve intelligence reports from Woodhull and Townsend. Otherwise, Brewster would have been caught by Setauket’s redcoat garrison early on in Culper’s history (1778-1783). Has anyone ever wondered why Brewster never got captured a single time while crossing Long Island Sound from Connecticut? The answer is Anna Smith Strong, whose integration into the Culper Spy Ring made the Ring fully efficient and cohesive in Culper’s operating and its purpose. Please read my own article, “Busting Buckles: How Captain Caleb Brewster Broke the Devil’s Belt,” in the New York History Review’s 2017 Annual Edition. I discuss much of Culper’s mechanics and history there.
    As far as Culper’s history is concerned: Rose’s book wins out almost every time. It’s tremendously thorough, compelling and historically relevant. Like Warren S. Walker before him, Rose’s scholarship brought Culper’s story lightyears ahead from 1939 and he made the Spy Ring’s history more pertinent than ever before by literally and responsibly bringing every single historical “circumstance” up in the Culper Ring’s inception and its execution. Kilmeade in no way can match him in this sense at all, both as a historian, or, as a writer. And Rose’s narrative is eloquent the whole way through. Kilmeade is never boring (to his credit)…but he plays too loose with the facts (e.g. Agent 355).
    But to all those who say any bit of history is 100 percent known, I’ll give you my perpetual thumbs down. New facts come to light every day on American history and about world history….this is what makes history interesting and worth studying. Anyone else who thinks differently about history is probably in the wrong business.

    M. DeBonis.

    PS-Robert Townsend was not the better intelligence gatherer for either Washington or for Tallmadge. Woodhull’s intelligence reports are all as vital and and shrewdly delivered was those of Townsend. Without Woodhull’s careful noting of British troop positions and numbers, Tallmadge’s key victories against the redcoats at Fort Saint George in Mastic and at the King’s supply depot at Coram in 1780, and again, at Fort Salonga in 1781 would never have been possible.

    Reply

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