By Michael Mauro DeBonis
It is late November, in 1780. The City of New York and its adjacent territory of Long Island have been under total British military control since the autumn of 1776. It was then that British General Lord William Howe chased American General George Washington and his ragtag ranks of bluecoat battalions from the Isle of Manhattan and its neighboring vicinities of Staten Island and Long Island. Despite the rebel army being outgunned and out-manned by their British opponents, Washington skillfully flees from upper Manhattan north to Westchester County (Tallmadge, 13) by crossing the Harlem River, and he miraculously keeps most of his body of Continental troops intact.
Much of New York City mysteriously burned to cinders during the American withdrawal to the mainland (Rose, 35). But, one fact remains plainly glaring and undisputed… the principal portion of the British Army is in command of Manhattan and its suburbs, and Britain enforces its presence in these dominions with martial law (Rose, 47-48).
In spite of this humiliating defeat at the hands of the British, Washington and his Continental Army fight on. Between the end of December of 1776 and early January 1777, Washington defeats the British forces in the New Jersey Battles of Trenton and Princeton (Rose, 42). American morale is no longer depleted. Yet the American goal of independence in 1780 has not been achieved.
New York City is the headquarters of British Military Intelligence. And in order for Washington to defeat the British, he needs to be able to read his enemies’ minds. In the fall of 1778, he decides to create a spy network that will be first-rate and that will put all others to shame. It will be called the Culper Spy Ring (Rose, 75) and it will be operated from three locales: New York City, Connecticut and Setauket, Long Island.