Let the politicians debate equal pay and pursue the folly of a war on women in America. Personally, I would like to take a moment to salute woman at war—one woman and one war in particular: Agent 355, the female covert operative of the Revolutionary War’s Culper Spy Ring.
When my book "George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring that Saved the American Revolution" ,written with co-author Don Yaeger, was first released in November 2013, over half-a-million people scrambled to buy it and one of the elements that struck a chord most strongly with readers was the enigmatic figure of 355.
Two centuries of research have unearthed the names of the five male civilian spies: Abraham Woodhull, Robert Townsend, Caleb Brewster, Austin Roe, and James Rivington, but no one with certainty can name 355, which was the Culper code for “lady.” When Woodhull wrote that a certain 355 “will outwit them all,” he probably did not imagine that she would still be outwitting our best efforts to unmask her more than 230 years later!
American history is full of women who have done extraordinary things during wartime for our nation. From Clara Barton’s tireless work founding the American Red Cross to the first female Medal of Honor winner, Dr. Mary Walker to our first female combat fighter pilot Lt. Kara Hultgreen, no list of American heroes is complete without the names of some of these extraordinary women. Even the recent news about finding a piece from Amelia Earhart’s plane should be another reminder to us of the incredible determination of those pioneers who opened doors and shattered glass ceilings—simply by doing their jobs effectively and courageously.
It takes tremendous bravery to be among the first in any field and Agent 355 was just such a person—one of the very first female spies in our nation’s history. Although her name is unknown to us, her feats helped save our nation. In order to honor 355’s incredible heroism, we decided to make her the focus for the paperback edition of the book, released last week.
We were moved by the countless correspondence from interested readers and historians making suggestions or offering evidence in favor of one possible contender or another.
We explored every single one of them to see if each woman proposed could have been in the right places at the right times, and if she had the motivation to risk it all for Washington’s Secret Six. We also considered a number of figures we had come across in our own research, chasing down leads and trying to piece together this enduring puzzle.
There were a number of women who seemed as if they could be likely candidates for 355, but for one reason or another, they proved to be unlikely. We knew she had to be a woman with strong ties to New York and at least some connection to the Culpers, but just as importantly we knew she had to be a woman with nerves of steel, the courage of a gladiator, an active and intelligent mind, and a patriotic streak equal to Washington himself.
A few of the women we investigated, such as Anna Smith Strong and Sally Townsend, have names that have long been connected to the ring, whether through family lore or local legend. Others proved to be less well known but every bit as intriguing. In all, we settled on those women we considered the seven strongest candidates as having possibly been Agent 355.
One intriguing possibility was a woman named Sarah Horton Townsend, a cousin of Culper spy Robert Townsend, who worked tirelessly to free her husband being held by the British as a prisoner of war.
A determined woman who was not afraid of aggressively pursuing her goal, Sarah lobbied people of influence and wrote copious letters—including several to General George Washington himself.
She was undoubtedly a strong, determined woman who was aggressive in pursuing her goals, as well as being an ardent Patriot.
Another possibility was a woman named Elizabeth Burgin, who managed to smuggle more than 200 American prisoners off of prison ships in New York Harbor before the British were tipped off to her covert work and she was forced to hide on Long Island for several weeks before fleeing to Connecticut and finally settling in Philadelphia.
Though we have not yet uncovered evidence that absolutely confirms 355’s identity, each of the seven women we outlined in the book proved to be an intriguing possibility and a very interesting potential candidate. Though it is impossible at this point to name anyone definitively, the cases for each of these seven extraordinary women are also too strong to rule them out.
Whoever 355 was, she and many other strong women are prime examples of American grit, determination, and defiance. Their stories are every bit a part of the American fabric as are those of their male counterparts who tend to capture the headlines of history more often.
Whether or not history ever confirms the identity of 355, one thing is for sure: She is a member of a proud and fierce sorority made of up women of every color and creed who have risked life and limb to make America stronger and to create a better future for all citizens.
Smart and savvy, the fearless female member of George Washington’s Secret Six is a testament to the strong women who have helped to alter the course of history in this great nation, both in terms of large-scale battles and in the new opportunities they have helped create for future generations through their own fearless examples.
Brian Kilmeade currently serves as co-host of Fox News Channel's (FNC) FOX & Friends (weekdays 6-9AM/ET). Additionally, he serves as host of Kilmeade and Friends, (weekdays 9AM-12PM/ET) a nationally syndicated three-hour radio show on Fox News Radio. Click here for more information on Brian Kilmeade.