Washington’s Spies

Some might know this book as the inspiration for AMC’s Turn. That’s certainly how I heard of it. God, I find my books through TV now. That’s depressing.

I absolutely eat up historical books. ESPECIALLY if they are about war. There’s always a new perspective, a new take, something they never taught you in history class. For example, that George Washington had a series of spies working for him.

Oh, we all know about Nathan Hale. I regret I have but one life to live and all that. Like most of grade school history, that was bullshit. But Hale was one of the very first spies. Looking for info about the enemy encampments and positions in and around New York, Washington sent Hale up Long Island to spy it out for him. Hale, being an absolute wanker, promptly got caught before doing anything remotely resembling spying, and was hanged, for admitting that he was totally trying to spy.

Washington of course moves on to more spies, because information is key. And we get a very in depth look at the minds of both the spies, their handlers, and Washington. It’s amazing to find out how few of them there were, how desperate Washington was to establish a reliable chain of information, and how much of a toll the burden took on different kinds of men. Sourced almost exclusively from surviving letters written back and forth, we get a great glimpse into revolution era New York, it’s citizens, and the surrounding countryside.

The book is filled with incredibly interesting factoids. Like the fact that the preferred method of punishing an arsonist, is to throw him into the fire. That the British lost more money from their own men skimming off the top then they were set to gain from the Stamp Tax. Little facts like these, and the word for word quotes from the men themselves bring the time period to life. We ultimately learn that war is horrible, brings out the worst in men, and eats at the souls of those sneaking around in secret.

You have to really like history to get into this one. Author Alexander Rose digs deep and isn’t afraid to share every single thing he learned. I’m not sure if it’s relevant that I know who’s father did what before the war. I certainly forget it now. Pages that contained more background information than present narrative are lost in a haze of historical fact.

But it’s still a good book about a war you probably know less about than you think you do.

3 out of 4 stars.

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