People

Patriot and Veteran Remembrance: The mystery women behind the name Agent 355

By Terry Pettee

Originally Published on November 16th, 2018

In 1778 General George Washington appointed a young officer on his staff as Chief Intelligence Officer.  Washington was so concerned for security he instructed this young officer to keep even from him the names of those recruited to spy upon the British.  That young officer was Benjamin Talmadge.

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Benjamin Talmadge was 24 years old when called upon to be the spymaster of the Continental Army.  In keeping with Washington’s instructions, Tallmadge personally recruited civilian men and women in strategic locations in New York and Connecticut where the British strongly held positions.

To secure the secrecy of agents, they were given code names or numbers.  Talmadge alone knew the true names of all the spies is his network.  A key figure in the Long Island, New York, Culper Spy Ring, was a man named Robert Townsend.  Townsend’s code name was Samuel Culper, Jr.  It was Townsend who communicated directly through various means with the spies and agents who aided greatly the American cause.

Townsend was a Manhattan dry goods merchant and newspaper society reporter.  His dual occupations gave him reason to travel frequently and socialize with American’s loyal to the British and British military officers and government officials.  He often carried messages and information about British military movement and intentions to a Setauket tavern on the northern shore of Long Island.  From Setauket, vital military information was transported across Long Island Sound by whaleboat captain Caleb Brewster to Connecticut and on to General Washington.

One of the spies in the Culper Spy Ring was a woman designated only as Agent 355 in Talmadge’s surviving documents.  To this date, the identity of Agent 355 remains a matter of speculation.  One of the prime persons thought to be Agent 355 is Anna Smith Strong.

Anna Smith Strong was married to Selah Strong, a captain in the New York militia and a political activist for independence. In January, 1778 Selah Strong was captured by the British. He carried a letter the British believed to be a coded message which implied he was not only combatant but a spy. As a spy he was subject to execution rather than incarceration as a combatant.

He was eventually imprisoned on the prison ship HMS Jersey in New York Harbor because the evidence against him was flimsy and his family was largely British loyalists. Anna, through family connections to the English Tory Party eventually had him released. Conditional Upon his release Selah Strong was restricted to a family owned farm in rural Connecticut with a warning to avoid all military and political activity. Anna remained on Long Island for the duration of the war playing the role of a humiliated wife of a traitorous colonial. Though hundreds of miles apart, the two remained actively involved in espionage against the British throughout the war.

For her part, Anna Smith Strong assumed the role of New York socialite and British loyalist.  Among her frequent acquaintances were British Major John Andre and American General Benedict Arnold.

Major Andre was a handsome bachelor and a womanizer who freely disclosed sensitive information to the women in the circle of loyalists.  Anna Smith Strong, a member of that circle, passed along information to Washington through the Culper Spy Ring network.  Eventually the British discovered Major Andre indiscretions.  He was quickly tried and promptly hanged.  Though the British attempted to discover the spy who conveyed the information gained from Major Andre, they were unsuccessful.  If they had been successful, Anna Smith Strong would have suffered the same fate as Major John Andre.

Anna Smith Strong was also instrumental in passing along to Benjamin Tallmadge information that laid the foundation of suspicion regarding Benedict Arnold.

Selah Strong returned to his family five years after his initial capture by the British in 1783.  During the time of her separation from her husband, Anna Smith Strong cared for their nine children, two of whom died in infancy.  All the while when raising her children, she alone conducted the financial affairs of the Strong family.

Women, throughout the multiple times of American wars and conflicts worried over the fates of their fathers, husbands, sons, brothers and loved ones.  Few served their country as patriotically as Anna Smith Strong and are as deserving of recognition for that service.

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Terry Pettee is a graduate of Eastern Michigan University where his undergraduate study prepared him for a career in secondary education.  Prior to attending EMU, he was Editor-In-Chief of the Erie Square Gazette while a student at the St. Clair County Community College.  Between his community college and university years he was Marysville Editor of the St. Clair County Independent Press where he was a newspaper reporter and columnist.  After a brief teaching stint his life’s journey led him into human resource and industrial relations management; a career spanning four decades.  Now retired, Terry writes both Christian value based fiction and non-fiction for his own amusement, which is babble-speak for saying he has only a single published book to his credit.

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