Abraham Woodhull – Washington’s Spy in New York

Abraham Woodhull (code name: Samuel Culper Sr.) was a key operative of Washington’s secret service in New York during the Revolutionary War, starting October 1778. The Culper Spy Ring provided Washington with crucial information on the British Army which was headquartered in NYC and is credited with significant contributions to the patriot war effort and success.

Woodhull and his associates informed Washington on British troop strengths in the NY area, defenses, morale, state, transport of supplies and provisions and any other activities. The Culper Spy Ring is credited with uncovering Benedict Arnold‘s treason, preventing an attack against 6,000 French soldiers in Rhode Island, plots against George Washington, a plot of the British to counterfeit and weaken American currency, and obtaining the British naval codes.

Even though several members of the Culper Spy Ring including Abraham Woodhull were subject of British suspicion and some even arrested over the five years of their activity, not a single one was exposed, and their existence and identities were only revealed in 1929 through correspondence. They were New Yorkers (mainly from Long Island) and connected as friends, family members and/or neighbors.

Abraham Woodhull was born on October 7, 1750 in Setauket (Long Island, NY) as son of Margaret Smith and Judge Richard Woodhull into a prosperous, landowning family. As only living son, he became a farmer, taking care of his parents property. He supported the patriot cause, but aside from serving very briefly in his local militia in 1775, he did not get actively involved. However, he most likely secretly despised the British, after his cousin Nathaniel Woodhull, a Continental Army general, was murdered, denied medical care and left to die miserably while being a British prisoner of war in 1776. This event is considered an important cause for him to risk his life as civilian spy.

In 1778, Woodhull started to smuggle his produce across the Long Island Sound and sell it in British-held New York, which was illegal and considered trading with the enemy. In summer 1778, he was caught and imprisoned. Around the same time, George Washington had instructed his intelligence director, Major Benjamin Tallmadge, to create a spy ring in New York City, the headquarters of the British. Tallmadge was a Setauket native and had been Woodhull’s neighbor and childhood friend. He had Abe released and recruited him to collect information for the Continental Army, and Abraham Woodhull accepted.

Woodhull established himself as an immensely talented and effective spy and became the Spy Ring’s lead agent while pretending to be loyal to the crown and continuing business with British soldiers.

He began making regular trips to New York City under the pretext of visiting his sister or doing business. The British forces in NYC obtained most of their food supplies from Long Island including Setauket, which provided him with a good cover for his travels, namely selling his produce. While he was in the city, he observed activities of the British, gathered information from asking for news, listening to gossip, and eavesdropping on British soldiers in taverns and his sister’s boarding house. He wrote down the information and hid it on his way back home in a secret cove. Caleb Brewster, a fellow Setauket native, whaleboat operator, and Continental Army officer, picked it up and brought the intel across the Long Island Sound to Connecticut to Tallmadge, who then passed it on to Washington in New Jersey.

All spies all had pseudonyms and not even Washington was aware of their true identities. In addition to invisible ink, a number system was used in messages. Tallmadge’s codebook consisted of 763 numbers representing names, places, nouns, verbs, and adjectives. For example, General Washington was 711, Abe Woodhull 722, Tallmadge 721, New York 727, reinforcement 584, defense 143, request 561.

The British frequently detained, questioned, and searched travelers, so each trip to New York City put Woodhull at risk to be found out and hanged. Since couples raised less suspicion, Abe started to travel with a woman pretending to be his wife – presumably Anna Strong, wife of openly patriot tavern keeper Selah Strong, who had been arrested by the British.

Despite all security measures, capture was always just around the corner. In 1779, a loyalist who had been imprisoned for privateering and – to be released- he told British officers that Woodhull was acting suspiciously. The Queens Rangers, under command of Colonel John Graves Simcoe, went to Setauket looking for Woodhull to arrest him. Because he wasn’t at home, they beat up his father. Abraham managed to avert the suspicion by having a local Loyalist vouching for him.

To reduce the frequency of his travels, he started to recruit informants in the city to collect intel. The most important of them was Robert Townsend who was given the alias “Samuel Culper Jr.”. He was a merchant with British business contacts, co-owned a tavern frequented by British soldiers, and also worked with his tavern partner James Rivington, who published a Loyalist newspaper. All of these activities were perfect covers and opportunities to gather valuable information.

After Woodhull stopped going to NYC and Austin Roe, a Port Jefferson (Long Island) native and tavern owner in Setauket became the Spy Ring’s main courier. Roe rented a pasture on Woodhull’s property were to used a dead drop (a buried box) to pass on information. Legend says that Anna Strong served as a signal between Caleb Brewster and Abraham Woodhull by hanging specific clothes on her line.

In 1781, Abraham Woodhull married his friend Mary Smith, with whom he had three children. After becoming a family man and several close calls he stepped back from his espionage activities. After the war he was appointed magistrate in Suffolk County for over ten years, later he became a judge. His wife died in 1806. He re-married only in 1824 and died in Setauket on January 23, 1826.

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