York College Associate Professor of History Tim McNeese has contracted with the Barnes and Noble publishing house, Sterling Publishing, to write a book about espionage during the American Revolution.
McNeese was approached by Sterling recently with the project proposal, which will involve the writing of a 100,000-word manuscript on the history of American and British spies and spy rings during the Revolutionary War. The text will also focus on spycraft as practiced during the 18th century—tactics that included elaborate codes, dead drops, invisible ink, and secret identities.
“I suspect that most people know little about spying during the American Revolution,” notes McNeese, “with the exception of Nathan Hale, the famed American spy who was caught and hanged by the British.” McNeese says that Hale was, in fact, not a particularly skilled spy and accomplished very little. Hale is generally remembered for the immortal phrase he allegedly said before he was hanged: “I only regret that I have but one life to give to my country.”
“Because of Hale’s failures, General Washington decided to create a covert spy ring that operated out of New York City,” says McNeese. “It involved five men and one female, whose name we still do not know for certain. The shadowy female spy is still known today only as Agent 355.”
This is a popular topic, says McNeese, noting the new television series, Turn, which is currently running on AMC. The series focuses on the Secret Six, the New York City group of spies known at the time as the Culper Ring.
“They are taking a lot of liberties on the television series about the Secret Six,” says McNeese, “so it is important that people get an accurate version of what really happened and of who these people were who risked their lives for the cause of the American Revolution.”
McNeese explains that the project represents a wonderful opportunity for him to flesh out the story of spying during the Revolution for a general audience.
“The publisher wants a street-level, highly readable book that will be well-illustrated,” says McNeese. “It will be a Barnes and Noble exclusive, which makes the project that much more exciting for me.”
The story of spies during the Revolutionary War is much more involved than many think, says McNeese. Not only did Washington’s Secret Six operate out of New York, there were other agents, as well, including Paul Revere in Boston, who ran a spy ring prior to outbreak of the war in 1775. The infamous traitor Benedict Arnold’s story is one involving spies, including a British handler, Major John Andre, who tipped off Patriots that Arnold had passed off the plans to West Point to the enemy in exchange for several thousand pounds.
“It really is an involved story of secrets, cloak-and-dagger missions, coded messages, and the like; the kinds of things that we associate with spies and spying.”
The publisher’s deadline for the manuscript is set for December, and the book is slated for publication in the fall of 2015.
McNeese has been busy otherwise, both on and off campus. This spring, he, along with professors Beverly McNeese and Christi Lones, finished a book on the history of York College from 1890 to the present. That book is scheduled for publication this September as the college celebrates its 125th anniversary.
This spring, McNeese flew to Chicago during spring break and interviewed for a couple of episodes of the Military Channel series, “America: Fact or Fiction.” The filming included the YC professor talking about myths associated with building the Transcontinental Railroad and the Panama Canal, as well as Custer’s Battle of the Little Bighorn. The Military Channel episodes will be broadcast later this year.
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