Brian Kilmeade understands the importance of learning and teaching history, and he especially loves stories from the history of his native Long Island. Kilmeade, the longtime co-host of Fox and Friends, has written a book, George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution, about the band of spies during the British occupation of New York known as the Culper ring. He talks to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about what he learned from this story.
BRIAN KILMEADE: I’ve really been researching this project since 1989. As much as I like sports, I have five times the passion for history, with all its mystery. So when Don Yaeger asked me to collaborate on a project, I said “yes” — if it would be about the Culper Spies. He came back to me a week later and said, “We have to do this book.” And so two years later, here we are, with George Washington’s Secret Six.
LOPEZ: What drew you to the story of these six?
KILMEADE: These six who made up the ring risked their lives for almost four years. They knew that if they made one mistake they would likely end up like Nathan Hale — hanged. Robert Townsend worked the city. Abraham Woodhull worked Long Island and sifted all the intelligence that would be packaged to send to General Washington. Austin Roe went the 55 miles from Setauket to New York City and Caleb Brewster led his men across the Long Island Sound — 24 miles — through the British Navy, with just his muscle and a small cannon.
The man who perhaps got more information than anyone was James Rivington. He ran a loyalist newspaper, so he had a reason to interview British officers. He would write up their stories and give the classified intelligence to General Washington.
We also have to highlight Agent 355, the lone female. She jumped the social scene — got to them when their guard was down.
LOPEZ: Why is your entire introduction a brief recounting of the execution of Nathan Hale?
KILMEADE: Well, he is obviously a huge name in American history and he showed tremendous courage. He was also a failed spy. He taught Washington a lesson: You can’t just throw someone into the espionage business. He also served as an example of what can happen to any spy if he is caught — which underscores how much courage the agents in the Culper Ring needed to be successful.
LOPEZ: The Brits killed this 21-year-old and refused him a clergyman and a Bible before he died. What did that tell you about the point in the war, or what we were fighting against?
KILMEADE: At the time, the British showed the Patriots no respect — using Long Island as their supermarket and almost crushing the entire American army in New York City, as they wanted to suppress this uprising quickly and ruthlessly. That backfired on them: The ruthlessness wound up igniting the entire population and helped win the war for Washington.
LOPEZ: Why was there a need for a spy ring?
KILMEADE: Washington knew he could not win the war without New York City and also knew he could not beat the British head-on — he had to out-think them and out-spy them. After all, he had, at maximum, 10,000 men; they topped out at 80,000. Washington had to figure out their next move almost before they did. The only way to do that is to implant agents inside their brain trust — and that’s exactly what he did. He knew that he had to outlast the British, because they just wanted to go home and we wanted a home.
LOPEZ: How did Washington outspy the British?
KILMEADE: He planted Robert Townsend as a New York City spy. Townsend ran a dry-goods store where he interacted with British officers all day. As the owner of a coffee shop who ran a loyalist newspaper, Townsend would also become a reporter for the paper and send all the information to Washington. They used encryption and invisible ink, and set up their own secret code. So even if an invisible-ink letter was brought to light, the British would not be able to understand the messages.
LOPEZ: Why would a tavern keeper stick his neck out?
KILMEADE: Austin Roe used his bar as an excuse to go to the city to get supplies, and he would embed letters inside the goods. He did it because he believed in the ideals of this new country — he wanted true freedom and despised the way the Brits treated him, his family, and friends.
LOPEZ: Why would Americans not have won the Revolutionary War if it were not for the Culper spy ring?
KILMEADE: They may have won, but not as quickly. In fact, it may have taken decades without Culper. This ring stopped a counterfeiting plot that would have destroyed our currency; informed Washington the British were en route to Rhode Island to destroy the French navy as it docked (he staged a fake attack on New York to keep them home); Agent 355, the lone woman, was able to play a huge role in unearthing Benedict Arnold’s plot before he could give away West Point; and we have proof the Culper ring got the British naval codes before the battle of Yorktown — the codes were handed to the French navy, which would corner its global rival.
LOPEZ: Did you learn anything surprising to you about Washington?
KILMEADE: I believe that Washington was one of the few in history who lives up to his hype — and then some. His courage was awe-inspiring and he seemed to know he was destined for greatness. He’d lead charges and never get shot; his men thought he was indestructible. Benjamin Tallmadge was by his side through the war and also set up the ring; we found his memoirs, and the way he describes the man he served under humanized him in a way I didn’t think possible. Read his last words to his officer as he shoves off to Mount Vernon from downtown NYC. I can’t read it without getting chills.
LOPEZ: Is it hard to believe that one of these six actually still remains anonymous, given that we live at a time when it seems no one is anonymous?
KILMEADE: That’s true. And we didn’t want to diminish the book by taking guesses. We have not stopped researching, though, and maybe by the time the paperback hits, I may have a name! There are some who say Agent 355 didn’t exist; we don’t buy that. She was close to their chief spy who was also hanged — John André – and was referenced in letters.
LOPEZ: Did any specific one of these six particularly impress you or otherwise connect with you?
KILMEADE: The most colorful was Caleb Brewster. He reminds me a little bit of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Can you imagine rowing across the Sound avoiding or blowing up British ships in a whaleboat just to deliver a note to Washington? I could not. And he did it in the winter, too!
I feel bad about Townsend: He seemed to have post-traumatic stress disorder after the war, not seeming to be able to get his act together. We found letters from his brothers urging him to go utilize his talents and explore the world but the stress of that war seemed to have worn him out. He never admitted to anyone who he was and what he did. We include a photo of his grave in the book. He was an American largely disregarded by history — and for some reason he wanted it that way.
LOPEZ: Is the movie script being developed?
KILMEADE: Yes. But, of course, any director who takes this movie will want his own hand in the creative process.
LOPEZ: What have the six taught you about humility?
KILMEADE: I’m humbled by them. Washington’s six remind me of the men and women in today’s intelligence services, special forces, and our military in general. Now I know that if you start praising them in front of them, they will want you to hush up: They don’t want to hear it or will deflect it. They serve for their country and fellow countrymen and women, not for money, fame, or praise. In the case of the Culper six, consider that not only did they not get acclaim, they took ribbing for not serving and still kept their mouths shut about their work. These so-called average, ordinary people were anything but that.
LOPEZ: Have you seen similar humility in any interviews you’ve conducted with living people over the years?
KILMEADE: The more an individual accomplishes — especially in our military or intelligence agencies — the humbler they seem to be.
In sports, Mariano Rivera and John Stockton are the humblest I have met of late.
LOPEZ: In a section about Benedict Arnold, you include a heading, “Every Man Has His Price.” Surely we don’t believe that, do we? By contrast, John André seems like he might have been a stand-up guy, save for the treason?
KILMEADE: André’s death by all accounts made all in attendance shed a tear — a charismatic ladies’ man — I sense he never thought he would suffer the same fate as Hale.
In Arnold, you have a flawed man with a persecution complex, if you ask me.
LOPEZ: Did you give thought to the morality of spying while working on the book?
KILMEADE: Back then it was thought by most to be immoral, which is partly why these people kept their mouths shut. As for me: anything for the cause. The United States of America is the planet’s best chance for survival; anything that we could do to keep Americans safe is okay with me.
LOPEZ: As a native New Yorker, do you worry we don’t know much about the history around us?
KILMEADE: Absolutely. Basically, this is the reason I wrote the book with Don. How could I have grown up on Long Island and not been taught this? Our school district had us visiting the organ at Radio City Music Hall rather than Oyster Bay to see Robert Townsend’s house and grave, or Woodhull’s farm, or Roe’s Tavern, where it still stands. The good news is that kids love stories and history is one big true story. We just have to choose to share it with them.
LOPEZ: Are you tempted to do any “What if” books? What Brian Kilmeade’s life growing up on Long Island under British rule, had Washington lost the American Revolution, would have looked like, perhaps?
KILMEADE: Not, not at all. I’m not a fiction guy.
LOPEZ: What have you learned about news, politics, life from your time at the Fox News Channel on Fox and Friends?
KILMEADE: I’ve learned so much about how much politics matters. I’m privileged to be working for an organization that understands we hit the Lotto by being born in America; to work for a company where your bosses are one floor up and an open door away; that roots for you to succeed, not fail; that lets you be yourself.
As for Fox and Friends: It’s a format Roger Ailes directly mandated and it’s been wonderful to be able to talk, not read a prompter, for three hours a day since 1997.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.