LITCHFIELD — The town of Litchfield proved vitally important in winning for the colonials the War of American Independence.
The “Parlour Town” supplied both men and material to the Revolutionary War effort. One of the largest towns in population at the time, it was also home to some of the greatest thinkers and “social influencers” (to borrow a modern phrase) of the era, among them Lt. Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge.
Ah yes, you say — the Tallmadge House and that quite impressive burial site in the old cemetery off Route 202, east of Litchfield center. Well, Tallmadge was much more than a beautifully-preserved house and a grave site. Literally laying it on the line, he was a distinguished officer in the Continental Army, serving with distinction at the battles of White Plains, Brandywine and Germantown, as a Continental Army dragoon, and leading a successful raid across Long Island that culminated in the Battle of Fort St. George. Perhaps more importantly, he was a master spy and led the “Culper Ring,” a group of espionage agents working in and around New York, keeping an eye on the British forces that were based there. After the war he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a staunch Federalist.
The activities of Tallmadge, a true patriot, will be one of the topics at the “American War Spy Symposium” to be held at the Litchfield Inn, 432 Bantam Road, Litchfield on Sept. 8. The symposium, at which a number of prominent historians and authors will speak, is being held in conjunction with the town’s 300th anniversary and Revolutionary War Weekend in Litchfield.
“It is quite appropriate that we hold this event in Litchfield during its 300th anniversary year to give everyone an opportunity to learn more about the history of their town and its importance to the American cause during the Revolutionary War,” said organizer Damien Cregeau. He is an independent historian and has spoken on spies in the American Revolution since 2007. He serves as president of the Connecticut Society of the Sons of the American Revolution. He has been published in a number of historical journals, and quite fittingly lives in a former Continental Army private’s house in Wethersfield. He also owns the General Jedediah Huntington House in Norwich.
Cregeau, who grew up in Washington, Ct., and graduated from Shepaug Regional High School, will give two presentations, one on the “Historiography of American Revolution Espionage,” and the second on “Patriot Counter-Intelligence in the American Revolution.”
Other scheduled speakers include: Kenneth Daigler, a retired CIA agent, author and historian, who will address “Three Patriot Spies; Hercules Mulligan, Lewis Costigan and James Armistead”; Don Hagist, a historian and editor of the “Journal of the American Revolution”; Christian McBurney, author and historian who will discuss “Kidnapping Operations During the Revolutionary War”; and Rachael Smith, a researcher and project manager for the Office of the Connecticut State Historian, who will discuss ”Tallmadge and the Culper Ring.”
There will be book signing and an optional cocktail hour and dinner at the Litchfield Inn following the symposium, which starts at 11 a.m. and concludes around 5 p.m. Check-in is between 10:30 and 11 a.m.
“Spies were vitally important to both sides during the Revolutionary War,” said Cregeau during a recent visit to Litchfield. “You have to remember, the armies, although in close proximity to one another at times, needed information on one another’s exact whereabouts and activities so they could plan their moves accordingly.”
Washington actually relied on two rings that operated in and around New York, with the Culper Ring being the most famous and reliable. He would often take the information from the two rings and compare it and find areas where the information from the rings agreed. There was concern there could be infiltrators that might get into the rings and spread false intel. By comparing notes, Washington could be sure that if both groups presented a piece of information it was likely accurate.
There are sure to be some interesting discussions at the symposium, not just about Tallmadge and the Culper Ring. Cregeau will explain code-breaking efforts and a Tory (Americans loyal to Great Britain) plot to capture or kill George Washington and General Israel Putnam. Luckily for the American cause, the plot never came to fruition. His second presentation will close with a look at the difficulty or lack of counter-intelligence efforts surrounding Major Benedict Arnold’s treachery that spanned 18 months between 1779 and 1780.
The most well-known spies of the Revolutionary War were Nathan Hale, a Yale University graduate who uttered the famous words before his hanging, “I only regret that I have one life to give to my country,” on the Continental side, and Major John Andre on the British side, a gentleman of the highest order whom the Americans found emotionally hard-pressed to put to death after they caught him, although they did. And we can’t leave out Arnold, who turned coat on the American cause and gave the British valuable information.
Cregeau said the timing is ideal to educate the public, especially younger people (who are sometimes underserved by school systems as to difficult, although important knowledge of their country’s sometimes violent beginning) on the Revolutionary War. There have been two recent television series that have brought attention to the era, “The Sons of Liberty” and “Turn: Washington’s Spies” (in which Tallmadge is a main character), as well as the hit musical “Hamilton,” which focuses on the life and times of patriot and Federalist extraordinaire Alexander Hamilton. Still, spy activity during the war is just beginning to get serious discussion in intellectual circles.
“In many ways, I believe spies helped turn the tide of the war, although it is difficult to prove this,” said Cregeau. “Washington was constantly saying that he needed intelligence about the British.” Who else was going to supply him with that intelligence but Colonial spies, including Tallmadge? Incidentally, there will be a ceremony at the grave site of Tallmadge at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, the day of the symposium.
“This was a challenging symposium to pull off,” explained Cregeau, a former school teacher. “We have some of the best scholars in their fields. We will also be having a kids event during the symposium and it will be a great opportunity for them and their parents to get a taste of American history in a fun fashion.”
During Revolutionary War Weekend in Litchfield there will also be “Patriot Committee” public events on the Litchfield Green, Sept. 7, involving historical re-enactors. The commemoration will conclude on Sept. 8.
Registration for the symposium is available online by going to www.EventBrite.com’s “American Revolutionary War Spy Symposium” page. The event costs $75, which includes a hot buffet lunch. The registration deadline is August 27.
You may just find out what you don’t know about the Revolutionary War — and your town’s role in it.