21. An Extraordinarily Successful Spy Who Chose to Fade Into Obscurity
Robert Townsend also discovered that the British knew that the French, who had joined the war on America’s side, planned to send a fleet to land soldiers in Rhode Island. The powerful British Royal Navy planned to intercept and capture or sink the French at the sea before they disembarked their troops. Armed with Townsend’s report, George Washington fed the British false information about a nonexistent plan to attack New York City. As a result, the British stayed put in New York and prepared to defend it against an attack that never came, while the French safely landed their forces in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1780. That link up between French and American armies ultimately doomed the British. The allied Franco-American forces won effectively won the war in 1781, when they trapped a British army in Yorktown, Virginia, and forced its surrender.
Robert Townsend never sought recognition, and chose to fade away after the war. His wishes to remain anonymous were respected by those who knew of his exploits as a spy. He wrapped up his business activities in New York City, and returned to the family home in Oyster Bay, Long Island. He never married, although he fathered an illegitimate son upon a housemaid. Townsend lived with his sister in Oyster Bay until he died of old age in 1838, and took his Revolutionary War “Culper” identity to the grave with him. It was not until 1930, when a New York historian finally uncovered the true identity of the wartime spy master “Samuel Culper, Jr.”, that Robert Townsend’s accomplishments finally came to public light.