Friday, January 20, 2017

George Washington's Secret Spy War

The other week, I found myself at the library browsing the shelves of new books. Hey, my next turn to blog was January 20, so perhaps a book review of something presidential would be appropriate. Every four years the President of the United States is sworn into office on January 20 – Inauguration Day. (When we lived in the Washington, DC, area, Inauguration Day was an actual holiday with closed schools and offices.) I passed over a very thick biography of Thomas Jefferson when George Washington’s Secret Spy War:The Making of America’s First Spymaster by John A. Nagy caught my attention.

Okay, it wasn’t quite what I’d envisioned (after all, Washington wasn’t a president yet during the years the book covered), but it sounded like an exciting read.

If you’ve seen AMC’s TV show Turn, you too may have developed a taste for Revolutionary War espionage. The Culpeper Ring (upon which the show is based) operated from 1778-1781, during the British occupation of New York City. (And while I enjoyed the peek at Executive Producer Craig Silverstein’s Post-It clad storyboards (0:20 mark, below), he’s wrong about the Culpeper Ring being America’s first spy ring.)

(Disclaimer: This is not an endorsement of Turn. I watched a few episodes. The spying aspects are interesting, but the series is not something you'd want to watch with minor children in the room. Viewer discretion is certainly warranted.)

George Washington's Secret Spy War begins with a chapter of background. Washington first learned the importance of good intelligence to military action during the French and Indian War (1754-1763) when he served under British general Edward Braddock. Twice Washington suffered the consequences of decisions made with faulty intelligence. When he assumed command of the Continental Army to fight the British in 1775, Washington tried to avoid his earlier errors. Strangely enough, I found this background to be the part of the book I enjoyed the most. (Maybe it just gives me hope to know that mistakes can be preparation for something great in the future if we learn from them.)

Then the book jumps forward 20 years and covers Washington’s war years chronologically. The Revolutionary War was fought in a different manner from the frontier battles of Washington’s early military experiences. The armies used tactics more like those developed in Europe. Furthermore, in many ways it was a civil war, pitting neighbors and families against each other. This made intelligence gathering critical—and difficult. Who could Washington trust? On more than one occasion, he chose the wrong man.

Whenever possible, Washington required more than one source of information before taking action. He could then compare the data to see if his sources agreed. Sometimes, he learned of sources who could not be trusted and were probably working for the British. Washington made use of them to spread disinformation. Throughout the war, the American army was at a numerical disadvantage. Washington ordered his officers to inflate the numbers of men, so that the British would think the army larger than it truly was. It worked so well that on one occasion when the British received an accurate report, they didn’t believe it to be true!

So, what’s my verdict on the book? I wanted to like it more than I actually did. As a reference, this book is fine. It is well referenced – there are over 60 pages of endnotes. If you are an author with an interest in spying and a love of 18th century American history who wants to capitalize on the success of Turn, this would make an excellent place to get ideas for similar spy rings that operated in other places during the war. However, if you are looking for some exciting history to while away cold winter afternoons, this probably isn’t the book for you unless you are a hardcore Revolutionary-phile.

Author John A. Nagy died unexpectedly last spring, so George Washington’s Secret Spy War was published posthumously. You can read an interview with him here.


  1. If you found this interesting, you'll probably enjoy The Culper Ring trilogy by Roseanna M White.

    1. Thank you for the book recommendation, Iola. There was a nonfiction book about the Culpeper Ring that came out about 10 years ago. I wonder if that's what inspired the interest in Revolutionary War spies.

  2. C.J. I agree with Iola. I know Roseanna did a lot of research on this, but the book must have come out too late for her. This is such a great subject. I haven't watched all of Turn but I understand that it tweaks history for dramatic effect. of course! Life is dramatic enough but each show must have it's own mini plot, I suppose. thanks for sharing!

    1. Deb, this book just came out a few months ago, but the author wrote several other books about Revolutionary-era espionage.

      My husband got hooked on Turn when he was working in San Diego a couple years ago. (All those quiet, peaceful, child-free evenings he got to enjoy...) He convinced me to watch it with him. I watched some of it, but I never got into it as much he did.

  3. I wish I had read this book before I wrote my novel about British spies in America. But If nothing else, this book sounds like it would be a useful addition to my bookshelf.

    1. Will you be doing a series or other books set at that time? If you don't have any books by John Nagy, you probably want to check out his backlist. Revolutionary espionage was his area of expertise.

      Some of Nagy's other books have higher reviews on Amazon. (I wasn't the only person who didn't like this one as much as I'd hoped I would.) One reviewer suggested that this book (having been published posthumously) wasn't as polished as his other works.


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