I fell for George Washington when I was thirty-six. It was an unexpected love affair, which forever altered my life’s direction and focus.
I’d been floundering around trying to get a contract for a picture book about a mischievous moose who moves in with a Long Island family. I still love that story, and every once and a while I’ll pull up the file and query someone. Hey, Olivia was in the drawer for years.
One day I took a break from pimping out my moose to visit a sick friend. He’d just moved away from Setauket, Long Island. He was sad, which I couldn’t understand, because Setauket is so very far away from life (aka: New York City) and it seemed to have little to do. He’d moved to Merrick, so much closer to New York! What could be the problem?
“Why do you miss Setauket?” I asked him.
“Because it’s so historical there,” he lamented.
“What’s historical about it?” I asked, to be polite. Local history equaled snooze time to me.
“George Washington had a spy ring that operated out of Setauket,” he said. “A woman hung her laundry as signals to the spies.”
Whoa! I sat up, in disbelief. I’d never heard of such a thing. I grew up on Long Island. And no one mentioned us being involved in the war – let along a spy ring run by George Washington!
He told me what he knew. When I went home I started Googling, and found out about The Culper Spy Ring. Washington didn’t have enough men to fight the British, so he turned to espionage.
I became smitten with this man who refused to give up. Against seemingly impossible odds, he would simply maneuver around them. A powerful, timeless lesson. George Washington was, from then on, my hero.
When I researched the spy ring, it was tough going. That’s because they were spies. Top secret. I read the memoir of Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge, who organized the ring under Washington’s direction. He didn’t mention being a spy. That’s because they were spies. Top secret.
Also it was not a glorified thing to be a spy. And one spy in particular wrestled with the moral implications of lying. (If you want to know more about all this, it’s in my book Upon Secrecy.)
So Tallmadge remained mum about the Culpers, but he did write about losing at the Battle of Long Island, and sitting in a trench waiting to die. But he didn’t die – because George Washington devised a plan to sneak his troops across the East River in ten small boats. Back and forth they rowed all night long, and then a fortuitous fog settled in. The result: The American Army was safe, and ready to fight another day!
OMG! This was clearly George Washington’s greatest moment! But no one talked about it. It was all about the Delaware. But they never would’ve gotten to the Delaware if they hadn’t gotten across the East River first. (If you want to know more about this, it’s in my book By the Sword.)
Too bad no one made a painting of George Washington crossing the East River.
Human moments like this are what move me to write about American history. To reveal George Washington as the flesh and blood man that he was – not just a guy with wooden teeth and an axe.
There is so much glory and purpose to be gleaned from The American Revolution. But the one person who was utterly indispensable was George Washington.
Happy birthday George! I love you.
PS: Anyone want to publish a book about a moose?
Bye for now.