Brian Kilmeade, co-host of Fox & Friends and radio show host of Kilmeade & Friends, joins Kurt Wallace to discuss his new book, “George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution.”
He shares some of the thrilling details in the book, telling us an overview of the six spies who helped Washington win the Revolutionary War. He also shares how he thinks Washington would handle things today regarding National Security Agency spying on Americans.
Kurt Wallace for Rare: This year spying has taken center stage here in the U.S. and around the world with Edward Snowden revealing details of the NSA spy program. Some would ask, “What would our Founding Fathers think of such a thing?” But did you know that one of the greatest of these men had his own spy program that helped win the revolutionary war?
Here to discuss is Brian Kilmeade, co-host of Fox and Friends and the radio show host of Kilmeade and Friends. He is the author of a new book, “George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution.” And Brian, it’s good to have you with us today on Rare.
Brian Kilmeade: Hey, thanks for having me on.
Kurt Wallace for Rare: One of the important facts in the book is that George Washington himself was a very successful spy.
Brian Kilmeade: Yeah, no doubt about it. I mean, that’s one of his many skills. He also knew that he could not win the war, straight up. I mean the Battle of Brooklyn/ Long Island was the biggest battle of the war. It happened early, and we almost were destroyed.
So, the British had 30,000 minimum and we had, at maximum, 8,000, down as low as 3,000 troops, and they were ill-trained because they were learning on the fly where the British were coming off of war — a bunch of wars. They were well-trained — they had navy, army — they had everything. So we really had no right, even having the success that we had. So, Washington knew we had to come up with a Plan B.
So, when Nathan Hale is commissioned to go be that first spy and was hanging in a matter of days and Washington says, you know, the risks are going to be great but we have to do this right – I have no choice. And then what I found is that even when they wanted to keep their identity secret, that was their goal, it was pretty clear that Washington did put together a bunch of citizen spies — that what they did is almost unthinkable and what they were able to accomplish was not described before in this detail, I don’t think, until we put together George Washington’s secret six.
Kurt Wallace for Rare: Now, you and Don Jaeger wrote this book together. Give us an overview of the secret six spy network that Washington developed.
Brian Kilmeade: So, what Washington did is he got this guy. First, he had a few people who had some forays onto Long Island. So, if your listeners aren’t aware of Long Island, just picture the island right off New York and the body of water between Connecticut and New York being the Long Island Sound. So, Washington was hanging out in Connecticut/upstate New York — in and around that area but knew he had to find out what’s happening in New York, if you had any shot of winning the war. So to do that, he needed people with a good cover story — that had spines of steel and nerves of steel and could learn in the middle of a war how to do something it would take years to know.
So, after Nathan Hale was first commissioned and was a failure, even though he was noble and courageous and a Yale graduate and you know, a patriot, he was not a good spy. He was ill-trained. They went ahead and got Benjamin Tallmadge, who knew the area and was by George Washington’s side the entire war. They said, “Hey, you know Long Island. Find some people we can trust.” So, he went to his childhood friend, Abraham Woodhull, a farmer, who went ahead and got a tavern on a well-known area named Austin Row, who knew a buddy that was a long shore man and had five others that would row across the Long Island Sound regularly with a cannon on the front of a whale boat. And then they had to get somebody who had a cover story to be in New York City just like today and work to where Greenwich Street is today, and his name was Robert Townsend. And they formed together, over a pattern of a year-and-a-half, this slick working network, they would function for about three-and-a-half years. They would go ahead and tell you what ships and troops we’re doing. What conversations were going on amongst officers because the British headquarters was New York City.
And they were able to give this secret information — have numbers for letters and sites — for example, George Washington would be 711 and Abraham Woodhull, the farmer, would be 714 and Townshend would be 713. They would use encryption — what the CIA uses today and most spy agencies do. They also used invisible ink to communicate, so they are able to write in books with invisible ink. And then people were able to open it up and say, okay, that’s the novel — that’s the famous novel — or I understand that newspaper. But what Washington had was special liquid, those sympathetic stain that he would pore on and would bring all these messages to light — just for him.
Kurt Wallace for Rare: Now, Benedict Arnold was significant here – his volatile relationship with General Washington and the British — but in the book, you talk about his wife, Peggy, and her influence.
Brian Kilmeade: I mean, she was somebody that he remarried. And they were together at West Point. He was concerned for her welfare. But he also knew that he was more capable of running what Washington was doing. He felt as those he was being treated right by the patriots. He was never paid for his personal expenses. He walked with a limp — the later half of his life, because of injuries he got in battle and was never really fully appreciated.
So, he and his wife together would conspire to turn over West Point to the British, and if it wasn’t for this spy ring, unearthing that there was a patriot officer about to change sides and be on the lookout, we think he’s in upstate New York and then them realizing it was Benedict Arnold. And if they weren’t able to intercept them when they did and Benjamin Tallmadge wasn’t able to know what he knew, this whole thing could have been over in 1780.
Kurt Wallace for Rare: Brian, it’s a fantastic read, and I want to thank you for sending me a copy. Today, with the NSA spying on Americans in the name of national security, what do you think George Washington would do if he were here?
Brian Kilmeade: I think George Washington would do whatever he could to — the ends justify the means. He would do whatever he could — while preserving people’s liberty but to find out what the enemy’s doing before they knew it because in war, you have to do what it takes to be successful, and I’ll go back to how he treated prisoners in that when it became clear when the British were brutal from hanging Nathan Hale to when they got our guys in the Battle of Brooklyn, in particular, they tortured him. They were starving them to death, putting them on slave ships and sending them out to sea. And when word got out, Washington said, “Yeah, we’re better than that. But the only thing that’s going to get the British’s attention is to start doing the same thing to their troops.” And when he started treating them harshly, that’s when the British stopped.
So, for Washington, I can’t put words into his mouth or tell you exactly what he would do. But if you look at his body of work, as much as he coveted civil liberties, he knew he had to do certain extraordinary members in a war to be successful, and if you trust the people you’re with to do the things that’s in the best interests of the country, you can do the things the NSA can do and pull it off. The fact is, in America, there’s a lot less trust going on right now. So nobody gets the benefit of the doubt.
Kurt Wallace for Rare: Well, the book is “George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring that Saved the American Revolution” and Brian Killmeade, thanks for being with us today on Rare.
Brian Kilmeade: Thanks for your interest, and I look forward to talking to you again, Kurt.