Book Review: George Washington, Spymaster

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Ages 9-12

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Once in a while, a book comes along that makes you the reader sit up and take notice, both for the engaging subject matter and for the way it is written. Throw in a healthy dose of "I never knew that," and you have the response to George Washington, Spymaster, the excellent new book by Thomas B. Allen.

The stories of Washington's ragtag army somehow defeating the vaunted British Army and Navy are commonplace and familiar. So are the stories of Nathan Hale and Benedict Arnold. But who knew that Washington himself was a spymaster, directing dozens of espionage elements up and down the Atlantic coast throughout the Revolutionary War?

First of all, the book is written in an entertaining style, one that urges the reader to keep on turning pages, until the entire book is finished. It's a small book, in size, and so the relatively few words on each page makes the reading even more engrossing. The illustrations, by fellow American history author Cheryl Harness, seem lifted out of another time, so period-accurate and compelling are they.

This wonderful little book tells the story of dozens of spy escapades—some successful and some disastrous—performed by both sides in the Revolutionary War. The focus is on the American side, of course. Washington is revealed to be Agent 711, so named in a coded scheme to prevent detection should a coded message be intercepted. Agent 711 it is who directs double agents, single agents, and even wives of agents. One agent's wife, Anna Smith Strong, used her back yard clothesline as a signal: If she hung a black petticoat on her clothesline, then that meant that another member of the spy ring had arrived; the number of white handkerchiefs that she also hung on the clothesline corresponded to which of six coves the spy was hiding in awaiting a meeting.

Another telling incident involved a double agent who managed to "escape" and convince the Hessians camped across the Delaware River in late December, 1776, that the Americans who were just on the other side of the river were tired farmers who wouldn't fight even among themselves. This information led directly to Washington's daring victories at Trenton and Princeton and restored faith in the American cause.

Yet another time, Washington managed to "plant" information in the British camp, suggesting that a large American force was going to attack soon, when, in reality, the Americans were miles away and had very few men. The deception worked to perfection, as the British commander panicked and moved his troops away from would have been a sure British victory.

Espionage is not often mentioned when talk turns to the Revolutionary War. As this book shows, however, it was a vital part of the goings-on, the ups and the downs, the successes and failures, and the ingenuity displayed by that singular first of American wars.

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