Just in time for the premiere of Season 2 of TURN: Washington’s Spies, we’ve got the real story behind the Battle of Setauket, the historical event that (very loosely) inspired the Season 1 finale. But wait… red-coated Continentals and green-coated Loyalists? How’s a TURN viewer supposed to tell the two sides apart? Thankfully, we’ve got a new post from Todd Braisted below to help set the record straight. He’s even dug up the story of a little-known likely British informant whose ability to blend in may have determined the battle’s outcome before the first boat set sail from Connecticut. For more historically-accurate intrigue, read on — and don’t forget to tune into AMC tomorrow night for the two-hour premiere of Season 2! -RS
The morning of August 22nd, 1777 dawned hot and humid over Long Island Sound. Through the early mist, vigilant sentries would have seen a small flotilla of different sized vessels approaching the area of Crane’s Neck, a jut of land northwest of the town of Setauket. In those vessels, sloops, whaleboats and other small craft, those same sentries would have espied scores of red coats, coming to surprise the garrison of Americans in the town.
…Except the men in red were Continental Army troops, men of Colonel Samuel B. Webb’s Additional Continental Regiment, fighting for George Washington – and the Americans garrisoning Setauket, dressed in green, were loyalists in Brigadier General Oliver DeLancey’s 3rd Battalion, fighting for King George. Huh?
When we last left our friends at TURN during the Season 1 finale, the British were holed up in a church in Setauket, Continental troops were trying to dislodge them, and the psychotically evil Simcoe was blowing some poor sod’s brains out. This was their version of the Battle of Setauket, a real event which took place on 22 August 1777. Like most things in the show, however, what is seen on the screen is not exactly as it was in 1777.
The origins of what would become known as the Battle of Setauket started nearly a week before, when Major General Israel Putnam, commanding officer of the Continental troops guarding the Hudson Highlands, sent orders to Brigadier General Samuel Holden Parsons to gather up 400-500 Continentals from the troops under his command at Fairfield, Connecticut, joined to whatever number of Connecticut Militia he found necessary, as well as artillery, and “deplete and destroy” all parties of the enemy at Huntington and Setauket, Long Island. Besides the enemy, Parsons was to bring off or destroy all “military stores, magazines, provisions, forage or naval stores” found on Long Island. Finally, if all went swimmingly, he was to release all the U.S. officers held as prisoners on the island – which would have been no small task to accomplish, given that they were actually dozens of miles away in Brooklyn and Queens.
Parsons in turn placed the Continental troops, drawn from the Connecticut Line, under the command of Colonel Samuel B. Webb. Webb himself commanded one of the sixteen “additional regiments” of the Continental Army, so-called because they were over and above the quotas of regiments raised in specific states. Webb’s regiment would have certainly confused the majority of TURN viewers, because they were clothed in red coats with yellow facings – actual British uniforms captured en route to Canada. And given they would be fighting against green-coated Loyalists (as opposed to the red coated British depicted in the show), there is no doubt viewers without a deep knowledge of period military material culture would have been left scratching their heads trying to figure out what the hell was going on.
On the eve of the expedition, Parsons issued his orders, which in turn were read to the troops. The orders rather resembled a locker room pep talk, reminding the men of the “honor of our arms and the righteousness of our contest.” They were by no means to “distress the helpless women or honest citizen,” nor were they to plunder, leave their ranks, or talk on the march. Those violating these orders were told they would receive “the most exemplary punishment.”
One of the “militiamen” that may have been mingling amongst the gathering expedition in Fairfield was a short twenty-one year old with a contracted hand and crooked finger named Stephen Pangburn. With a musket and bayonet, and wearing a brown coat and other civilian clothes, Pangburn would have looked like any other militiaman, except he was in fact a soldier in the 3rd Battalion, DeLancey’s Brigade. Pangburn was not a spy, but rather an escaped prisoner of war, captured in a raid on Sag Harbor the previous May. Lodged in a private home in Suffield, CT to assist with labor, Pangburn escaped with the arms of the house on 10 August 1777 and apparently traveled the 75 or so miles south to Fairfield, where he would have seen all the preparations for the expedition. Stealing a boat or perhaps hitching a ride with a Loyalist heading to Long Island, Pangburn returned to Setauket – and his battalion – on August 20th and no doubt gave complete intelligence of what was headed their way. Parsons’ element of surprise was gone.
While the strategic surprise was gone, the actual timing was still unknown, so when Parsons’ troops landed on Crane’s Neck, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hewlett and his men belonging to DeLancey’s Brigade were not entirely ready to receive them. To be sure, Hewlett had taken great pains to fortify himself as best he could. The Presbyterian Church in town was indeed fortified as seen in the show – but not with gravestones. The church had an earthen breastwork thrown around it, six feet high by six feet wide and thirty feet from the building itself, in which were mounted four swivel guns – very light artillery pieces meant for short range work. The church and the earthworks would safely accommodate Hewlett and his green-coated garrison. Where Hewlett fell short was in removing his sick men from town. It must have been a chaotic scene, with the ill and injured making their way, running, stumbling, limping to the church while under fire, and some of the town’s residents pointing out their whereabouts to the invaders.
When all of Parsons’ troops assembled – 749 by one count, including Caleb Brewster – the general sent a summons to Colonel Hewlett, demanding the post be surrendered “to prevent the effusion of human blood.” The Loyalist officer, who had previously sent word of the invasion to his commander Brigadier General Oliver DeLancey at Huntington, sought to play for time to allow reinforcements to arrive. Hewlett sent his compliment to Parsons, and requested thirty minutes to consult with his officers on the matter. Parsons granted but ten minutes, when he received the reply that Hewlett “is determined to defend his post while he has a man left.” The battle was on.
After all the huffing and puffing, it was not much of a battle. Parsons opened fire with his artillery, which was returned by the Loyalists. There was no great charge, or glorious repulse. Some men were hit on both sides, by one American account Parsons himself was wounded in the left arm. Two Loyalists, Chambers Townsend and John Wilson, both privates in DeLancey’s, were killed in the fighting. At least one soldier under Webb was hit, and Loyalist newspapers reported “great quantities of blood [were] found on the ground the rebels occupied.”
After all of three hours in the town, the firing ceased. No drama was forthcoming. Both sides were probably uncomfortably hot and tired. What was envisioned by Israel Putnam as a dramatic sweep through Suffolk County was over after it had barely begun. Parsons embarked and returned to Connecticut with his trophies: some blankets and the horses of Lieutenant Colonel Hewlett and his officers. The reinforcements sent to Hewlett’s relief, some men from the 1st Battalion DeLancey’s and Queens County Militia, never even made it to town before Parsons was safely sailing back across the Sound.
So why the hasty departure? The reason sometimes given by the Americans was that British armed vessels were in route to trap the invaders on the island, although no such ships were ever sent. The army gave the reason that their artillery fire was ineffectual against the works surrounding the church and that sound of battle would draw British reinforcements from all over. Captain Frederick Mackenzie of the British Adjutant General’s Department made note in his journal of a final letter sent by Parsons to Hewlett. Mackenzie would only comment that the entire exchange was “somewhat curious,” before transcribing in his journal: “General Parsons’s Compliments to Colonel Hewlett, and should have been happy to have done himself the pleasure of paying him a longer visit, but the extreme heat of the weather prevents him.”
For their part, the British were very pleased with the conduct of the Setauket garrison. Sir Henry Clinton, commanding at New York, issued orders saying he “desired particularly to Express his Approbation of the Spirited behaviour and good Conduct of Lieutenant Colonel Hewlet, and the Officers and Men under his Command in defence of the Redoubts at Satauket on Long Island, in which Lieutenant Coll. Hewlet was attacked by a large body of the enemy with Cannon, whom he repulsed with disgrace.”
It should be noted that, purely by coincidence, there ended up being three major attacks on the British around New York City that day, all completely coincidental and entirely uncoordinated. That fact of course was not known by the British. Some of Hewlett’s compatriots in the 2nd Battalion of DeLancey’s were engaged in fierce though small fight at Valentine’s Hill, north of Kingsbridge, who likewise drove off their attackers. Most seriously, two thousand Continentals under Major General John Sullivan landed on Staten Island, capturing about 130 Loyalist New Jersey Volunteers, but losing over 270 badly needed troops intended to reinforce Washington in Pennsylvania. And speaking of Pennsylvania… At the time of the Battle of Setauket, Captain John Graves Simcoe of the 40th Regiment of Foot was at that moment on board a transport ship with the rest of Sir William Howe’s Army nearing the Head of Elk, Maryland. It is not believe the captain arbitrarily executed any civilians on board during the voyage.
Todd W. Braisted is an author and researcher of Loyalist military studies. His primary focus is on Loyalist military personnel, infrastructure and campaigns throughout North America. Since 1979, Braisted has amassed and transcribed over 40,000 pages of Loyalist and related material from archives and private collections around the world. He has authored numerous journal articles and books, as well as appearing as a guest historian on episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? (CBC) and History Detectives (PBS). He is the creator of the Online Institute for Advanced Loyalist Studies (royalprovincial.com), the largest website dedicated to the subject. Braisted is a Fellow in the Company of Military Historians, Honorary Vice President of the United Empire Loyalist Association of Canada, and a past-president of the Bergen County Historical Society. His newest book, Grand Forage 1778: The Revolutionary War’s Forgotten Campaign, will be published in 2016.
Greetings, TURNcoats new and old – and a special welcome to the scores of new spy-curious readers that found this site after binge-watching Season 1 on Netflix! The hardest part about finishing a good TV show binge is waiting for new episodes to start airing again — but thankfully, you won’t have long to wait. The two hour premiere of TURN Season 2 airs in less than a week from today!
Thanks in no small part to TURN’s debut on Netflix, I’ve recently received an avalanche of queries (either through the ‘Ask a Question’ feature, via Twitter, or via search engine click-throughs) about the historical accuracy of the on-screen romance between Abraham Woodhull and Anna Strong. For obvious reasons, it’s one of the most frequently-asked questions surrounding the show. Now, we did feature a short discussion about Abe and Anna last season, but it was tacked onto the end of a much longer blog post, which means it’s easy for new readers to miss. And given the amount of questions we’ve received on this single topic, it seems like readers are hungry for more details than a simple “Nope, didn’t happen.” Ask and ye shall receive! (No, really, go ahead and ask us a question! The submit feature had some issues during the off season, but those should be fixed now. Ask away!)
A whole lot of “shipping” going on
Not to be confused, of course, with Shippen (although there will definitely be a whole lot of Shippen going on in Season 2, according to AMC).
For readers who many be unfamiliar with the latest in internet slang, I refer you to the definition above. In the context of TURN, “shipping” is an especially appropriate term to use for Abraham Woodhull and Anna Smith Strong, because their forceful on-screen romance is completely lacking any basis whatsoever in historical fact.
(For the record, I’ve tried to find some kind of proper “ship” name for Abe and Anna, but just can’t make it work. Neither “Abeanna” or “Annabe” has a lot of staying power, and if I start dropping references to “WoodStrong” all over the place, the internet is definitely going to get the wrong impression about this blog.)
So, in the TURN universe (which really does read like historical fanfiction, now that you mention it), both the TV show and TURN Origins comic (pictured below) claim that Abe and Anna, roughly the same age, grew up together as neighbors and best friends in the village of Setauket. But even that simple description of their childhood background is misleading. A little basic biographical information should help set the record straight. (Nearly all of the genealogical info cited in this post is freely accessible by searching longislandsurnames.com.)
Anna Strong 101: A Primer
Let’s start by addressing the simple premise above. Yes, both Abe and Anna were Setauket born and raised – but in reality, Anna was ten years Abraham’s senior. Born on 14 April 1740, she would have just turned 35 years old when the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired at Lexington and Concord in 1775. (Interestingly enough, Heather Lind – the actress who plays Anna Strong – is currently 32 years old, making her pretty close to the age of the historical Anna at the beginning of the war.)
Anna married Selah Strong, another Setauket native, in November of 1760, when she was 20 and he was a month away from his 23rd birthday. Abraham Woodhull was only ten years old at the time. (While the Woodhull family likely participated in the wedding festivities, I doubt little Abe had much to drink that day, even after taking colonial America’s lax attitudes toward alcohol consumption into consideration.) Needless to say, there was never any kind of engagement or betrothal between Abraham Woodhull and Anna Smith. Anna was happily married and the mother to a handful of children before Abe even hit puberty. In fact, by the time the historical Culper Ring began its operations in 1778 (two years later than the fictional date of 1776 given in TURN), Anna had given birth to seven children, and would have yet one more before the war’s end. (And just in case you had any doubts about where Anna and Selah’s historical loyalties lay, check out some of the names they gave their children!)
Abraham Woodhull: Single, Married, or “It’s Complicated”?
Next, let’s examine Abraham’s side of the equation. Obviously there’s no historical evidence for any kind of romantic attraction between him and Anna – but in addition to that, in TURN he is a not-so-happily married man with a young son. We’ve already pointed out in previous posts (and the Historical Timeline) that Abraham Woodhull didn’t marry until 1784, after the conclusion of the war. (Nor did he ever have a son OR an older brother named Thomas, but we’ve already covered that, too.) In the alternate universe of TURN, the fact that Abraham and Anna are married makes their affair even more dramatic, naturally. But prematurely “marrying off” Abe cancels out one of the most interesting and significant common factors between most members of the Culper Ring: their bachelorhood.
In Season 1 of TURN, we were introduced to Abraham Woodhull, Benjamin Tallmadge, and Caleb Brewster: three major participants of the Culper Spy Ring. These three men did marry and have families of their own… eventually. But while they were active members of the Culper Ring, they were all young bachelors with nothing left to lose, relatively speaking. They had no wives; they had no children; no one who depended on them for survival. None of them were settled and established as the head of a prosperous business or farm, or even as the head of their own independent household (which was not uncommon for unmarried men in the Northern colonies in their early 20s). For obvious reasons, unattached young men like Tallmadge, Woodhull, and Brewster made much more attractive recruiting targets for intelligence activities that, in the case of failure, often led to death or financial ruin. To put it plainly: single men “only” put their own lives and fortunes at risk, whereas family men incurred more casualties. This rather cold and calculating fact still carries a lot of weight in the intelligence communities of today – both actual and fictional. (Spy movie fans might recall M’s blunt remark to James Bond in Skyfall: “Orphans always make the best recruits.”)
Obviously, giving Abraham Woodhull a wife and son multiplies the level of dramatic tension and nail-biting suspense in the show on both the espionage and romantic fronts. But historically, that’s exactly the kind of family situation that would have likely ruled him out as a participant in the Culper Ring in the first place.
Finally, I should emphasize that none of our favorite young spies had any kind of aversion to the institution of marriage itself — rather, in all likelihood, they solemnly realized that a stable and secure marriage was incompatible with their wartime line of work. In fact, 1784 was quite a banner year for the old Setauket gang, with Woodhull, Tallmadge, and Brewster all tying the knot! The timing seems to underscore their awareness of the dangers of espionage: they were only ready to settle down after they were convinced that the War of American Independence was truly over and that their services would no longer be needed. (The Treaty of Paris that officially ended the war was signed in September 1783.)
In conclusion: The romantic drama between Abraham Woodhull and Anna Strong seen in TURN may be totally made up — but that’s not to say the real Culper saga is lacking in historical romance!
In case you missed it on social media: AMC released two TURN-related goodies last week. The first was confirmation of TURN’s new airtime and premiere date: Monday, April 13th. You can read the finer details in the official press release, but the takeaways are:
- TURN is moving to Monday nights. This means no more audience competition with blockbuster Sunday night shows like “Game of Thrones.” (AMC has also been experiencing excellent ratings with ‘Better Call Saul’ on Monday nights and is hoping TURN will follow suit.)
- Season 2 will be 10 episodes long.
- The April 13th premiere will be a 2 hour long event (just like the Season 1 premiere). Time to bring back the ‘Next Episode’ countdown clock!
The second item was a thirty second “trailer” for Season 2 of TURN – the first official TV spot of the new season. It definitely merits a look if you haven’t already seen it:
(You can also view the trailer on AMC’s official TURN page.)
Personally, I’m a big action-adventure fan myself, and thought the commercial was a big success in portraying TURN as a “period thriller” TV show. Fast pacing, quick clips of guns firing/people jumping/people shouting, building tension, dramatic music – it grabs your catches your attention, that’s for sure.
But I’m also a historian. And so, unfortunately, the excellent action pacing of the commercial was irredeemably marred by the accompanying text. IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, no less.
Yikes! This does not bode well for the historicity of Season 2.
As far as Hollywood mythbusting goes, this is one of the most open-and-shut cases I’ve ever seen. It’s this simple: Abraham Woodhull was not the first American spy to go behind enemy lines. He wasn’t even close to being first. There were likely dozens of agents who preceded him, only a handful whose names we know. Among them is a young man nearly every American kid heard about in grade school by the name of Nathan Hale.
That’s not to say Woodhull wasn’t a good or effective spy, of course. But this “first spy” claim is truly baffling. It’s not even remotely plausible – anyone with the ability to undertake a thirty-second Google search can debunk it for themselves. (We’ll discuss that in further detail soon — see below.) But it doesn’t make any sense internally, either. Even within the alternate historical universe of TURN, Abraham Woodhull wasn’t the first American spy to go behind enemy lines. In one of the last scenes from Episode 6 of Season 1 (“Mr. Culpeper”), George Washington pulls Benjamin Tallmadge aside and tells him the following anecdote:
Washington: Following our retreat from Brooklyn Heights, I tasked an agent to reconnoiter enemy encampments around Long Island and seek out contacts friendly to our side. His name was Nathan Hale, and he was captured while on a mission for me. He was hanged as a spy.
So there you have it: An American spy predating Abraham Woodhull is mentioned by George Washington — the head spymaster himself — halfway through Season 1. Even within the show’s own timeline the “first spy” claim would rank as a continuity error on IMDB’s “Goofs” list. The anecdote is an important one, too — it shows that Washington is evolving in his role as spymaster as a direct result of the experiences of previous agents like Hale. (Which is well-grounded in historical fact, I might add.)
So what is going on with the Season 2 trailer?
Normally I’d entertain the idea of chalking this up to an overzealous marketing team that didn’t do its homework, but unfortunately, the rather shoddy historical track record of Season 1 makes me think that painting Woodhull as “the first American spy behind enemy lines” is a deliberate call from higher up in the TURN chain of command. What makes this even more troubling is that the showrunners (and marketing team) are trying harder than ever to convince its audience that it’s grounded in meticulously-researched history. Heck, they even changed the name of the show to double-down on its connection to Alexander Rose’s “Washington’s Spies” book. And now, they’re making BOLD HISTORICAL CLAIMS IN ALL CAPS. A claim that happens to be completely false.
The question you’re REALLY waiting for
Finally, for those of you who are wondering, “Well, if Abraham Woodhull wasn’t the FIRST American spy ever, who was?” — stay tuned! Even before AMC released TURN’s Season 2 trailer last week, there have been plenty of dubious claims about the designation of “first spy” flying around, both online and in print. And what about the Culper group being labeled as “America’s first spy ring?” We’ve got the answers on deck here at the blog — right after a short digression on the fifty shades of historical fiction that we’ll post by week’s end.
And did you know that John Graves Simcoe and Benjamin Tallmadge are, in fact, birthday twins? You would have if you followed TURN to a Historian on Facebook or Twitter! Both men were born on February 25th, only two years apart from one another (Simcoe in 1752, Tallmadge in 1754). We’ve got plenty of reading material on both brilliant officers if you’re feeling celebratory — click the links above or search the subject tags on the sidebar to the right, and enjoy!
Greetings, TURNcoats new and old! A new season of TURN will soon be upon us, which means it’s time to dust off the blog and get it fired up again.
Now wait just a minute. You didn’t think we were gone for good, did you? With a second season of TURN on the way amidst a sudden proliferation of (often highly-questionable) television programming about the American Revolution?!
The quiet off-season has officially come to an end. Even though we’re a good two months out from the premiere of Season 2, there’s been plenty of activity and recent buzz surrounding the new season of TURN. We’ve got lots of excellent historical analysis lined up, including a few gems inspired by questions sent by spy-curious readers via the “Ask a question” page. But we would be remiss if we didn’t first recap some of the most important TURN-related news. So in case you missed it, here’s a quick roundup of the more noteworthy headlines:
A TURN by any other name
It’s official: The show we all came to know as “TURN” last season is now “TURN: Washington’s Spies.” The switch actually happened just a few months after the Season 1 finale in June – but while this isn’t exactly late-breaking news, it’s worth acknowledging. The online reaction to the name change has been overwhelmingly positive — which isn’t all that surprising. “TURN: Washington’s Spies” is now instantly self-identified as a period espionage drama, whereas the all-too-postmodern “TURN” didn’t convey anything at all about the show itself. Ever since the beginning of our fair Republic, Americans have been name-dropping George Washington on all sorts of things to help drum up more popularity and support – so in one sense, “TURN: Washington’s Spies” is carrying on a fine American marketing tradition. (We’ll post more about that later.) Here on the blog, we’ll continue to refer to the show as “TURN“ in most cases, for brevity. (The average word count of our blog posts is high enough already!)
Playing Catchup: How to (re)watch Season 1
Those of us in the Northeast only have to look out the window at our snow-covered lawns to remind ourselves that it’s been many long months since the sunny days of June — and the season finale of TURN’s inaugural season. If you find yourself snowed in and/or yearning for the melodrama of the last season of TURN, there are many ways you can catch up — although they all require some form of monetary investment. We’ll post a link here if and when free streaming episodes become available on a legitimate website.
- Via cable TV: AMC is in the midst of airing plenty of TURN
Season 1 reruns from now through April. Check your local listings or browse AMC’s online schedule for showtimes.
- Streaming episodes online: If you can’t be bothered to set your DVR, you can also view the entire first season on AMC.com for “free” – well, “free” if you’re a cable subscriber, that is. AMC.com requires viewers to verify their cable subscription before viewing any full episodes.
- Downloadable episodes: Currently, the entire first season is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video for $24.99 in HD or $15.99 in standard definition. You can also purchase Season 1 in HD for $25.99 from iTunes.
- DVD and Blu-ray: If you can bear to wait until March, you can own a hard copy of TURN Season 1 in a brand new, shiny box of your own! According to a press release published last month, TURN Season 1 will hit stores on DVD and Blu-ray on March 17th.
- Netflix subscribers: Don’t worry, you haven’t been left out! You’ll be able to binge-watch TURN to your heart’s content starting on Wednesday, March 25th.
That’s a wrap!
Filming for season two of TURN wrapped up the first week of February. According to AMC’s website promos, there are lots of new faces, including a pair of rather infamous troublemakers whose names should sound familiar even to viewers who haven’t picked up a history book since grade school. Benedict Arnold and Peggy Shippen, anyone?
A good deal of filming for Season 2 took place on-location at Colonial Williamsburg. CW’s blog has an excellent post (with pictures!) about the complicated logistics of filming a modern production in the midst of a sprawling historic campus that’s open to the public, and throws in some comparisons to the filming of HBO’s John Adams, which was also shot at Williamsburg. While the big, stately, Southern brick mansions found on the Duke of Gloucester Street aren’t exactly representative of 18th century New York architecture, we’ll leave the architectural analysis for a future blog post. At least filming for this particular Revolutionary War show is being done in an 18th century historic site here in the good old US of A, as opposed to, say… Romania. (I’m looking at you, History Channel’s “Sons of Liberty.”)
A meeting of the minds
Speaking of Williamsburg, a marvelous thing happened back on the evening of February 3rd:
Hollywood producers and history professors… in the same room? Talking to each other? If only this kind of thing happened more often! I have a hunch that this mini-symposium had something to do with Colonial Williamsburg requiring visiting film productions “to support the foundation’s educational mission” (a little detail mentioned in the aforementioned CW blog post). At any rate, it’s a very welcome opportunity to engage in a high-profile discussion of a widely-distributed historical drama.
Representing TURN on the stage were both of the show’s executive producers (Craig Silverstein, who has repeatedly claimed that TURN is “a true story,” and Barry Josephson) and Alexander Rose. Representing the hallowed halls of academia are a slew of professors of history, film, and American Studies from the College of William & Mary, including the current editor of the William & Mary Quarterly and the Director of the Omohundro Institute for Early American History. These are big names in the academic world, folks. If you were a graduate student you’d probably be a little weak in the knees after reading the full list.
Yes, gentle readers, I also thought this meeting of the minds was too good to be true — but thankfully, the event was not only real, it was recorded! The edited video should be available for online viewing sometime in the near future. Clearly there were more than just graduate students in attendance: the RSVP list for the event topped out at over 600 people. We’ll share the link in a special post when it becomes available.
In the meantime, enjoy binge-watching Season 1 all over again. It’s good to be back!
Greetings, readers! We’re kicking off the TURN postseason with a series of posts by Todd Braisted covering a number of heavily-requested topics related to the Battle of Setauket. Today’s post covers the British — or rather, not-so-British — military presence in Setauket in 1776 and 1777, and includes a primer on the distinctions between American-born “Provincials” and British regulars. Contrary to what we’ve seen on screen, Setauket was not awash in a sea of redcoats in the months leading up to the Battle of Setauket in August 1777. In fact, there were likely no redcoats stationed there at all… -RS
The first season of TURN has brought the central Long Island town of Setauket to life, showing us residents of one political persuasion or another living amongst a garrison of British soldiers. In TURN, the townspeople, though technically British colonists, are not thought of as “British,” and the scarlet-clad soldiers shown interacting with the residents certainly wouldn’t be considered American. But how does the Hollywood setup compare to what actually happened? In this piece, we will examine the actual troops that were in town during the time the show has covered in its first season, from December 1776 to August 1777. The historic reality may surprise you…
For the bulk of this time period, the main British and Hessian forces were located around New Brunswick, New Jersey under Sir William Howe, or in New York City and its immediate environs. Located nearly 60 miles from lower Manhattan, the Setauket garrison was quite isolated from other British posts, the bulk of which were in Brooklyn or Queens. The job of the troops stationed there was simply one of defense and the protection of the countryside from rebel incursions from Connecticut. The British therefore saw little need to waste valuable European troops in Setauket. Instead, they used loyal American forces.
Throughout the 18th century, the British had authorized their colonies to raise their own regiments to augment the relatively limited number of British Regulars available to fight the French and/or Indians during the different wars then raging (known collectively as the Colonial Wars). During the French and Indian War of 1756-1763, these Provincial Forces, or “Provincials,” consisted of tens of thousands of Americans who provided valuable service in successfully driving the French out of North America.
At the outbreak of war in America in 1775, the British saw no reason not to repeat the process: Let the “good” Americans help subdue the “bad” Americans. But the process for doing this in the American Revolution would be far more complicated than during the previous wars. Previously, colonial legislatures, flush with subsidies from Parliament, had raised regiments on a colony by colony basis to serve against the French – but there was no such infrastructure to do that in 1776. The British, therefore, needed to rely on influential individuals to raise troops both where the British held sway and more commonly, clandestinely behind the lines. One such individual, as we have seen on TURN, was Robert Rogers, whose Queen’s Rangers became one of the first Provincial regiments raised in the New York City area. In September 1776 though, the wheels would be in motion to raise troops specifically on Long Island. Lots of them.
By 1776, Oliver DeLancey had been a prominent New York politician for decades. Through his political and family connections, he was a man involved in all aspects of the colony’s governance. He had seen service in the French and Indian War and was considered by the British as both influential and reliable, having a son then serving as a captain in the British 17th Light Dragoons. On 5 September 1776, the senior DeLancey was authorized to raise a brigade of three battalions for service “Solely for the defence of [Long] Island and to reestablish Order, and Government within the Same, to Apprehend or drive all Concealed Rebels from among his Majesties well Affected Subjects & other essential Purposes…”
DeLancey immediately set about picking out the men he wished to lead his battalions. They in turn would issue warrants to those who would recruit the men (their success in recruiting would earn them their commissions as officers). Based on family names, the 1st Battalion under Lieutenant Colonel John Harris Cruger appears to have been raised primarily in Suffolk County, the 2nd Battalion under Colonel George Brewerton from western Long Island, New York City and Connecticut, while the 3rd Battalion under Colonel Gabriel G. Ludlow was heavily recruited in Queens County. It was actually Colonel Ludlow’s loyalist battalion, not any British redcoats, that formed the garrison of Setauket during the time when TURN takes place.
Far from the spiffy looking British portrayed in the show, the 3rd Battalion of DeLancey’s would not have even had uniforms of any sort until clothing arrived from England at the end of March 1777. And it would not have been the red coats folks are used to seeing Crown Forces wear, but rather a green regimental coat, with white lapels, cuff and collar. This was the uniform worn by the 5,000 or so Provincial troops raised in the New York City area at that time. Prior to this, the men would have served in whatever they wore from home, looking much like their rebel counterparts.
What is not known is exactly when the DeLancey’s 3rd Battalion (i.e., the battalion led by Colonel Ludlow) arrived at Setauket. In the beginning of 1777 the battalion was at Huntington NY, moving to Oyster Bay the 2nd week of May. Ludlow and his men were then relieved by the 1st Battalion and the King’s American Regiment about three weeks later, at which point they most likely moved to Setauket. WhileColonel Ludlow may have led the troops there in early June, the command soon devolved upon the battalion’s second-in-command, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hewlett. Yes, the real Hewlett, who (like Robert Rogers) was an American-born Loyalist.
We have a very good idea how many men were in town at the time of the Battle of Setauket (which we’ll discuss in a forthcoming post), as muster rolls of the battalion are dated just two days after the attack took place in August 1777. In addition to Lieutenant Colonel Hewlett, there were five other named officers, along with 5 lieutenants, 4 ensigns, 4 or 5 staff officers, 13 sergeants, 14 corporals, 5 drummers and 145 privates present and fit for duty, organized into five companies. Others were either absent elsewhere or sick. Relatively speaking, as far as battalions and garrisons were concerned, this one was pretty small.
While it may have been confusing for a general audience, it would have been wonderful to see an accurate portrayal of green-coated Loyalists – mostly native Long Islanders – interact with the residents of a Long Island town! Of course, “British vs. colonist” confrontation is easier to write, easier to portray, and easier for most to relate to. To expect more of an entertainment series is probably just wishful thinking, but still… (n.b. What an incredible dynamic that would have created!)
In any case, the Setauket garrison would be short-lived. On 17 November 1777, Sir Henry Clinton, commanding at New York and stripped of troops to reinforce Sir William Howe at Philadelphia, ordered Setauket abandoned and the fortifications there destroyed. Lieutenant Colonel Hewlett and his men dutifully complied, moving to Herricks, Queens County, about 35 miles to the west. While British troops would again occupy posts in Suffolk County, Setauket would generally spend the rest of the war free from a military presence, other than troops occasionally passing through.
As for Lieutenant Colonel Hewlett, we will cover him (and his men) in greater depth over the next few weeks. He’s not going anywhere. And while the series is off for the summer, someone should tell Burn Gorman — aka “Major Hewlett” — that he needs to lobby Craig Silverstein and the producers for a promotion!
(n.b. For more information about the men and officers of the Provincial brigades mentioned in this post, check out the library of transcribed primary source documents on royalprovincial.com.)
Todd W. Braisted is an author and researcher of Loyalist military studies. His primary focus is on Loyalist military personnel, infrastructure and campaigns throughout North America. Since 1979, Braisted has amassed and transcribed over 40,000 pages of Loyalist and related material from archives and private collections around the world. He has authored numerous journal articles and books, as well as appearing as a guest historian on episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? (CBC) and History Detectives (PBS). He is the creator of the Online Institute for Advanced Loyalist Studies (royalprovincial.com), the largest website dedicated to the subject. Braisted is a Fellow in the Company of Military Historians, Honorary Vice President of the United Empire Loyalist Association of Canada, and a past-president of the Bergen County Historical Society.
Earlier today, AMC officially announced that it was ordering a second season of TURN. Ten new episodes are slated to air in Spring 2015!
The news broke on Twitter shortly after 2:00pm Eastern time this afternoon — and happy TURN fans have been posting rather fantastic celebratory posts all day since.
For commentary from some other entertainment websites, check out the following links. (Most sites have brief announcements and/or copy and paste from AMC’s official press release; the sites below offer some of their own commentary as well.) From the sound of it, renewal was not guaranteed, and the ratings have been almost universally described as “modest.” FYI: The “Live+3″ stat that many of these articles mention means the total viewing numbers of the original airing and all subsequent re-airings over the next three days.
- Entertainment Weekly: AMC’s Revolution Will Continue
- Hollywood Reporter: AMC is Sticking with TURN
- TV.com: AMC Renews TURN for Season 2 Even Though It’s Doing Only So-so
- A/V Club: AMC gives TURN another season to see how this Revolutionary War thing pans out
With an airdate of next spring, that gives us plenty of time to cover all the historic topics of Season 1 in detail here at the blog! More about our off-season (inter-season?) plans coming soon. In the meantime, enjoy the good news, TURN fans!
There has been an awful lot of suspicious silence circulating through the TURN community lately. For example, If your only means of following “TURN to a Historian” is through this WordPress blog, you may have wondered if the historians have TURNed to hibernation, or if this blog was another shocking casualty of the TURN Season Finale. (Don’t worry — we’re not going anywhere! More on that in a moment.)
More curious, however, is the deafening silence surrounding the renewal of TURN for a second season. While showrunner Craig Silverstein has talked at length about his big plans for season 2, there is still no official word from AMC about whether they’ll renew TURN at all. I’m no TV industry insider, but it seems very strange that there’s no official word from the network two weeks after the season finale aired. (TV/film buffs: Is this standard operating procedure for 21st century TV shows? Feel free to chime in!)
We’ll post notice of TURN’s renewal (or non-renewal) as soon as we hear official word from AMC – both here on the main blog and on the other Spycurious social media sites. (I’ve been working on a long retrospective about TURN’s inaugural season, but have been holding back on publishing it, since the news of the show’s renewal/cancellation will definitely affect the tone of that post.)
And just in case you needed another reason to follow @spycurious on Twitter (or tumblr, or Facebook): if your only subscription to “TURN to a Historian” is through the WordPress blog, you likely missed this very interesting exchange on Twitter regarding the ratings for the TURN season finale:
— Joe Waters (@joewaters) June 10, 2014
Like I said before: I’m a historian, not a TV industry insider; since I don’t know how to interpret the information linked above in its proper context, I’ll let these numbers — and opinions — speak for themselves. Clearly some people think the finale numbers are cause for concern, while Alexander Rose (who is not an official spokesperson for AMC, despite whatever inside information he may have) sounds quite optimistic. Only time will tell!
In other news: Hopefully this blog’s little post-season hiatus provided enough time for everyone to digest the craziness that was the season finale (a.k.a. Episode 10: “The Battle of Setauket”). The writers certainly crammed an impressive amount of dramatic plot into a mere 60 minute timeslot, that’s for sure! For all of you who have been aching for some historically-accurate input on the real Battle of Setauket, you’re in luck: Loyalist scholar Todd Braisted is in the middle of writing a multi-part series on the Battle of Setauket, including some much-requested commentary on the occupation of Setauket and everyone’s favorite law-abiding Loyalist Major Lieutenant Colonel: Richard Hewlett.
One of the primary reasons for the post-season blog hiatus was that the site manager was temporarily “detached for special service” on Long Island, which included attending an event that was less than two miles from the historic Setauket Village Green. I’ve visited Setauket many times before, but managed to snap a few fresh photographs of a couple of historic sites last weekend. I plan on going back to Long Island in the near future to take some more professional-grade photos of the many sites that have a historic connection to Revolutionary war espionage. This summer — time permitting — I hope to start a new site project which will feature pictures, histories, and visiting information for these — as well as others in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey — under the heading of “Spy-curious Destinations.”
In conclusion: We’re back! I’ll post a little more about these “Spy-curious Destinations” and other ambitious summer plans for “TURN to a Historian” soon. For now, enjoy the small sampling of first-run photos below! Click on the thumbnails to see the full images with their respective captions.