George Washington, Goodfellow, Women's History and Agent "355"

  • Published
  • By Col. J.D. Willis
  • 17th Training Group Commander
What do Gen. George Washington, Goodfellow, Women's History Month and a mysterious historical character known only as "355" have in common? I'm glad you asked.

By the summer of 1778, the newly born America was in a virtual stalemate with the British. Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, Gen. George Washington, looked to transform intelligence practices as a means to gain a much needed tactical advantage in the war. In June of 1778, Gen. Washington ordered Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge, Chief of Intelligence, to form a spy ring comprised of secret citizen-spies who could perform clandestine intelligence gathering operations on British activities in New York. This mysterious agency was known as the Culper spy ring, named for the founders' aliases, Samuel Culper Sr. and Samuel Culper Jr. It conducted operations mostly in the Long Island region of New York City and was so secretive that even Gen. Washington did not know the identity of many of its operatives. While this surreptitious group is credited with many exploits, one of the most interesting facts about it is that it relied heavily on women for its success. Then, in the 1940s, its history took a fascinating twist when documentation of a secret female spy known only as "355" surfaced.

Two hundred and twenty five years of research on the American Revolution has yielded little information on the enigmatic agent 355. The designation of 355 comes from a numerical code system created by Maj. Tallmadge. The Culper ring often used this system to encode messages, many times with invisible ink, as a means to communicate sub-rosa.

While the intricacies of 355's life and service are not well documented, she is thought to be responsible for bringing to justice Maj. John Andre, the head of British Intelligence and associate of the famous American traitor, Benedict Arnold. That act is considered one of the seminal events which prevented a British victory and allowed the war-weary American Revolutionaries to rally and ultimately gain victory. It is also believed that this incident led to a compromise of 355's cover, resulting in her capture and subsequent execution by the British Army. Unfortunately, the only information available on this female agent is laced with mystery and folklore. But, there is little doubt that such a person existed, and while her fate was presumed to be a dreadful one, many today consider her to be an anonymous heroine of the American Revolution.

With March having just concluded Women's history month, stories such as these cause one to reflect on the important role women have played in America's history. This story proves even more significant to Goodfellow as the home of Air Force intelligence training, where young women and men learn to serve quietly and secretly to preserve freedom. So, what do Washington, Goodfellow, women's history and agent 355 have in common? They are all reminders of the nobility of selfless service and the value of giving to a cause greater than yourself, even if you receive no credit and pay the ultimate price.