Robert Townsend: Possibly Washington’s most important Spy

Robert Townsend (1753 – 1838) was a central member of Washington’s spies in New York, the Culper Spy Ring, during the Revolutionary War. The Culper Spy ring was created by Benjamin Tallmadge, George Washington’s director of intelligence in 1778. It consisted mainly of friends from Setauket in Long Island, NY who operated using pseudonyms, a secret number code, and invisible ink, and is credited with major contributions to the patriot war effort and success.

Although he never took credit for his service and little is known about him, Robert Townsend is considered one of the most important spies in US history. His identity was only uncovered in 1930, and the only picture of him is a drawing at age 59 in 1813.

Robert Townsend was born on November 25, 1753, in Oyster Bay, Long Island, New York. He was the third of eight children to Sarah and Samuel Townsend, a local store owner, for whom Robert worked as a purchasing agent before the war. His father was a liberal Quaker and – rather uncommon – a patriot and member of New York’s Continental Congress, but Robert was less political and only volunteered for a logistic post in the Continental Army (which didn’t require him to fight and kill) after reading Common Sense, the pro-revolution pamphlet by Thomas Paine, who was also of Quaker origin in 1776.

In fall 1776, the Queen’s Rangers under the command of British lieutenant colonel John Graves Simcoe chose his family’s home Raynham Hall. The Townsends had to pledge their allegiance to the British crown to avoid imprisonment and Simcoe’s men vandalized their apple orchard, events that also contributed to Townsend’s eventual decision to risk his life for the patriot cause.

When Abraham Woodhull – whom he had met in Woodhull’s sister’s boarding house – recruited him as a spy for the Culper Ring in 1779, Townsend lived in Manhattan and ran a merchant shipping company in Manhattan with his brother William and a cousin. Townsend was a smart and successful businessman, who got well along with British officers controlling the city and was still conflicted and reluctant about becoming politically active, but finally accepted to work with Woodhull, with whom he had built a trustful relationship.

Besides his mercantile import business, Townsend also freelanced as a journalist and columnist for the Royal Gazette, a loyalist gossip newspaper owned by James Rivington, who likely also was a patriot spy while officially acting as the king’s mouthpiece. Rivington and Townsend also partnered up and owned a coffee house together.

George Washington’s instructions for Townsend were “to remain in the City, to collect all the useful information he can, to […] mix as much as possible among the officers and refugees, visit the coffee houses, and all public places.” Townsend’s business activities provided him with a perfect cover to do so. He attended social events, visited taverns, strolled around the docks to observe activities of British troops, and gather information through eavesdropping and socializing with British officers in his coffee house.

Townsend (code name “Samuel Culper Jr.”) sent his letters via a courier, Austin Roe, a Port Jefferson (Long Island) native and tavern owner in Setauket, to Abraham Woodhull (“Samuel Culper”) in Setauket. Woodhull hid them in a secret spot to be picked up by Caleb Brewster, a whaleboat operator and Continental Army officer, for transport across Long Island Sound to Connecticut to Benjamin Tallmadge (“John Bolton”), who passed them on to General Washington. Legend says that Anna Strong, also a Setauket tavern owner, served as a signal between Caleb Brewster and Abraham Woodhull by hanging specific clothes on her line.

Robert Townsend is credited with collecting and passing on crucial information. One of them was a plot by the British to flood the country with counterfeit dollars to collapse the American economy and thus end the patriot war effort. He was involved in discovering Benedict Arnold‘s treason and plot to hand over West Point (and possibly George Washington) to the British Army Robert’s sister Sally Townsend had overheard Major John André, the British head of intelligence, mention the defection of a high-ranking officer of the Continental Army when he visited their house, which was occupied by the British. He also warned Washington that the British Navy planned to intercept the French fleet, so Washington could trick the British and the French could land safely in Long Island. Saving the French fleet might have saved the American Revolution.

Tallmadge’s codebook consisted of 763 numbers representing names, places, nouns, verbs, and adjectives. For example, General Washington was 711, Abe Woodhull 722, Townsend 723, Tallmadge 721, New York 727, reinforcement 584, defense 143, request 561.

After the war, worn out from the chronic stress and fear of being discovered, Townsend ended his business connections in New York and moved back to Oyster Bay. He never married and grew old with his sister Sally in their family home Raynham Hall. He likely had a son, Robert Townsend Jr., and the mother was possibly his housekeeper. He lived quietly and never mentioned his espionage activities even to his family and friends.

He died there on March 7, 1838, at the age of 84. His secret was only uncovered in 1930, almost 100 years after his death, by historian Morton Pennypacker through handwriting analysis.

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