May 20, 2021
I came across John A. Nagy’s Invisible Ink: Spycraft of the American Revolution in recent years, and I decided to take a closer look at this book. I especially wanted to read this book since my work at the Three Village Historical Society also focuses on engaging visitors on the history of the Culper Spy Ring which utilized the invisible ink method during the American Revolution. The book discussed various spy methods that were implemented during that time period. It also provided some history of spying to provide context for what spying during the American Revolution was like for both the British and the Patriots (colonists who opposed British rule over the colonies). As a historian and as an Education Committee member for the Three Village Historical Society, I thought it would be important to also take a closer look at the information Nagy utilized and described in his book.
There were a couple of things I kept in mind when examining how Nagy discussed the Culper Spy Ring in his book. For instance, while there was some information he shared throughout the book, he did focus one chapter on the Culper Spy Ring (specifically in 15 pages) as part of the overall history of spycraft in the American Revolution. The Culper Spy Ring was not the main focus of the overall book.
I noticed within the Appendix section that Nagy labeled the code in Appendix B as “Culper Spy Ring Code”. The issue I have with this description is that the code is actually known as Tallmadge’s Code; it is named for Benjamin Tallmadge, a dragoon officer during the American Revolution, who General Washington appointed as intelligence officer and Tallmadge would serve in this role between 1778 and 1783. Tallmadge recruited his childhood friends in Setauket, New York as the main spies in the Culper Spy Ring. At first, I thought Nagy may have called it “Culper Spy Ring Code” because I saw it on Mount Vernon’s website; the title of the webpage for the collections on Mount Vernon’s website was titled “Culper Spy Ring Code”. However, I did not see any reference to Mount Vernon in his bibliography section nor does he make a reference to the Appendix B within the text itself. Therefore, it cannot be confirmed where he got the Code from. To take a look at the Code Tallmadge developed, I included a link to the code book in Mount Vernon’s collection in the list below.
Nagy’s bibliography section is split into two subsections: manuscript collections and printed materials. With the exception of Morton Pennypacker’s book General Washington’s Spies on Long Island and in New York (published by the Long Island Historical Society in Brooklyn, 1939), there were no resources about the Culper Spy Ring that came from Long Island in his book. The bibliography section included collections that came from New York City (Columbia University Libraries, New York Historical Society, and the New York Public Library) but from what I saw in the book there are no resources that were gathered and utilized in the book from Long Island. Pennypacker’s book was a significant one because until his book was released no one knew about the Culper Spy Ring and who were a part of the Culper Spy Ring. I recommend checking out resources provided by the Three Village Historical Society in East Setauket, Stony Brook University Libraries and Archives in Stony Brook, and the Emma Clark Library’s Culper Spy Ring page called It Happened in Setauket. The links for these resources are available in the list below.
An important thing to keep in mind when reading history books is to take a look at the resources section and how those resources are utilized throughout the books.
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Three Village Historical Society
Emma Clark Library: It Happened in Setauket
Stony Brook University Libraries and Archives: Culper Spy Ring
Mount Vernon: Culper Code Book