She was a wife, mother, patriot, and Revolutionary War spy. The only female in George Washington’s Culper Spy Ring (aka Setauket Spy Ring), Anna Smith Strong, had an ingenious way to send messages under the noses of the British… her laundry.
The British Take New York City
The American Revolutionary War had been raging for six months. In late August 1776 under General William Howe, a force of 30,000 British Regulars, 10 ships of line, 20 frigates, and 170 transports engaged George Washington’s troops at the Battle of Brooklyn.
The British outflanked George Washington’s Continental Army. But General Howe did not storm the redoubts at Brooklyn Heights. That allowed Washington and his troops to retreat to Manhattan by boat.
The Americans suffered 1,000 casualties to the British loss of only 400 men.
On September 15th, the British occupied New York City. This gave the British control of the Hudson River. The river split the rebellious colonies in half geographically.
Shortly after that British authorities caught Nathan Hale. They caught Hale on his way back to his regiment after gathering information behind the British lines. They hanged Hale in New York City, a warning for all spies.
The Continental Army’s Secret Service
In mid-1778, General George Washington appointed twenty-four-year-old Major Benjamin Tallmadge as the head of the Continental Army’s secret service.
Tallmadge, from Setauket on Long Island, was to establish a permanent spy network. The spies would work behind enemy lines. He started with two of his trustworthy childhood friends, the farmer Abraham Woodhull and Caleb Brewster.
Tallmadge established an elaborate system of riders and couriers. They used aliases, a coded dictionary and invisible ink to pass on messages. All but one member of the Spy Ring was born and raised in Setauket.
Using the code name, Samuel Culper Sr., Woodhull ran the day-to-day operations on Long Island. He evaluated reports and determined and created dispatches to be taken to Washington. Sometimes he traveled back and forth to New York. There, he would observe British maneuvers and collect information.
Brewster would boat from Connecticut across the Devil’s Belt (Long Island Sound). His job was to retrieve the Spy Ring’s messages for Tallmadge. Brewster hid in one of six coves along the shore of Long Island to avoid detection by the British frigates that patrolled the Sound.
Wife, Mother, Patriot, and Revolutionary War Spy
Born on April 14, 1740, to a family of Tories (British supporters) Anna Smith Strong married Judge Selah Strong III. Anna and her husband were Patriots. They had nine children.
Strong’s Neck, their manor home in Setauket, and her husband’s political position made them a target of the British. Woodhull was their neighbor.
The British arrested her husband for corresponding with the enemy. They held him on the British prison ship Jersey in New York harbor. Conditions on the ship nearly killed him. Anna’s Tory relatives bribed the British to parole him. He and their children went to Connecticut and stayed there for the rest of the war.
Anna stayed alone on Strong’s Neck to prevent looting and damage to their home. And because Woodhull needed her.
In plain sight of British soldiers, she hung her laundry out to dry. She hung up a black petticoat and up to six white handkerchiefs. The petticoat signaled Woodhull that Brewster had arrived. The number of handkerchiefs identified in which cove Brewster hid.
In 1939, they found a trunk of old letters in Robert Townsend’s family home. Historian Morton Pennypacker noticed Townsend’s handwriting match handwriting in some letters to George Washington. Eventually Pennypacker learned about the Culper Spy Ring and identified Anna, among others.
Many women were Revolutionary War Heroes. The British underestimated Anna Smith Strong, wife, mother, patriot, and Revolutionary War spy. By doing her laundry in plain sight, Anna and the Culper Spy Ring helped win the war against the British. The British never broke her code or any of the Ring’s codes. And they never caught even one member of the Culper Spy Ring.