Spycraft in TURN: Nathaniel Sackett’s Anachronistic Gadgets (Or: What year is this again?)

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Here’s a rhetorical question for you, fellow TURNcoats: Why make a show about Revolutionary War espionage when the spy technology you focus on most is from the 15th, 19th, and even 20th centuries?

You might reply: “Well… because it’s fun. And I can make a cool story out of it.” Great! That’s certainly a fair answer. But in that case — why would you try so hard to convince people that your story is fact-based and “authentic” to the 18th century when that argument is pretty much impossible to support?

I found myself asking these very questions while updating the TURN Historical Timeline to reflect the events portrayed in the last few episodes (thought admittedly not for the first time). We had to reconfigure the location of a few things on the Timeline this week in order to fit in more events at the tail end of it – two which occurred in the 19th century and one that even occurred in the early 20th century, well over 100 years after the end of the Revolutionary War! (You can check out the updated version by clicking on the image below, or visiting the Timeline page for additional information.)

TURN Historical Timeline version 2.1. Click to enlarge.
TURN Historical Timeline version 2.1. Click to enlarge.

“Nice gadgets you have there. But what happened to the 18th century?”

Historians might ask themselves “What year is this supposed to be again?” while watching TURN for a multitude of reasons (issues with clothing, uniforms, other material culture, language, false historical claims, premature character deaths, etc.) — but for this post, we’re focusing on intelligence history, which is what TURN is supposed to be about.  Heck, they even changed the official name of the show after Season 1 to clarify that the show is all about “Washington’s Spies”!  Thus far, however, TURN’s treatment of Revolutionary War espionage has been erratic at best.

When it comes to spycraft, Season 1 of TURN definitely started off in the right place, featuring period-correct techniques like Cardan grilles and even the original Culper Spy code — exciting, cunning, and historically-accurate stuff!  And TURN’s opening credits have been teasing us for over a year with a silhouette of the Turtle, the world’s first military submarine that actually debuted in 1776. (I’m saving a fuller discussion about the Turtle for later, in hopes that we’ll see it in the show soon.)

TURN opening credits montage final
TURN’s opening credits feature a number of espionage techniques. Some are accurate to the Revolutionary period; others are not. Clockwise from top left: Invisible ink on eggshells, the 19th century “polygraph” machine, a Cardan grille, and the Turtle submarine. View the full credit sequence here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zLFP6yCHUoA

We’ve also seen the occasional use of invisible inks (or, as they were often called in the 18th century, “sympathetic stains”) – but even that element of Revolutionary spycraft has been given a strange and uneven treatment in TURN. Instead of focusing on the state-of-the-art chemical compound developed by James Jay for the use of Washington’s spies (which is a fascinating true story)  the show seems near-obsessed with the novelty of writing invisible messages through the shells of hard-boiled eggs – a centuries-old technique that the Culper Spy Ring never actually used.

In his book Invisible Ink: Spycraft of the American Revolution, John Nagy sums up the origins and functionality of the “egg method” we’ve seen so often in TURN:

In the fifteenth century Italian invisible ink coverscientist Giovanni Porta described how to conceal a message in a hard-boiled egg. An ink is made with an ounce of alum and a pint of vinegar. This special penetrating ink is then used to write on the hard boiled egg shell. The solution penetrates the shell leaving no visible trace and is deposited on the surface of the hardened egg. When the shell is removed, the message can be read. (Invisible Ink, p. 7)

It’s a fascinating technique, and leads to quite a few dramatic (and highly amusing) moments in TURN. The only problem is that, according to the historical record, the Culper spies ever used the egg method — and neither did anyone else in the Revolutionary War, for that matter.  There is no record of the technique ever being used by either side.

But if Season 1’s use of Revolutionary War spycraft was fairly solid with a few aberrations, Season 2 is just the opposite — with anachronistic techniques far outnumbering the period-correct ones thus far.  Nathaniel Sackett’s “spy laboratory,” with its vials and beakers and fantastical super-weapons, is better suited to a steampunk movie than anything resembling the 18th century.  (So is the bearded, blunderbuss-carrying, leather-trenchcoat-wearing version of Caleb Brewster, but that’s a whole other post in itself.)

Now, in terms of making a storyline easy to follow, creating a centralized place as a sort of “spy headquarters” might make sense for a work of historical fiction, even if such a place never actually existed. However, nearly everything we’ve seen featured in Nathaniel Sackett’s anachronistic “spy lab” is from the 19th century – or even later. Besides the never-actually-used egg method discussed above, both of the most prominent examples of spy technology showcased in Season 2 so far were both invented long after the American Revolution was over:

1) John Hawkins’ letter-copying machine, or “polygraph,” Jeffersonpolygraph (mjaS2e3)which Tallmadge uses to forge a letter in the episode “False Flag.” Patented in 1803 – twenty years after the end of the Revolution – Hawkins’ machine greatly facilitated the arduous tasking of letter copying. Thomas Jefferson bought one for himself which visitors can still see today at Monticello. Jefferson was a huge fan of the innovative device, and he later said “the use of the polygraph has spoiled me for the old copying press the copies of which are hardly ever legible.” Before the late 19th century, the term “polygraph” was used to described copying devices like this one. You can read more about Hawkins’ polygraph machine in the Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia.

2) Nathaniel Sackett’s bogus “lie detector” from the episode “Sealed Fate.” I’m not even sure where to begin with this one. For starters, the modern-day polygraph or “lie detector” wasn’t invented until 1923. Italian scientists (who always seem to be at the forefront of spy technology!) started experimenting with measuring physical responses to lying and truth-telling in the late 1870s – which is still 100 years ahead of TURN’s Revolutionary War storyline. TURN’s version of Nathaniel Sackett must have been a true visionary to be able to throw together a prototype of a machine that wasn’t invented until after World War I. Too bad they decided to kill him off thirty years too early in the show. (Or as another viewer said on Twitter: “If only Sackett had lived. The Continental Army may have had tanks by 1781.”

Even if the bizarre machine wasn’t supposed to be taken seriously, Tallmadge’s use of the faux-polygraph as a form of psychological torture in order to extract information is just as historically inaccurate as the machine itself. We’ve covered the topic of torture extensively here in the blog.  If you haven’t read the original post, you should, but to make a long story short: Torture was very rarely used as a means to obtain intelligence in the Revolutionary War, in sharp contrast to what we’ve seen portrayed multiple times in TURN.

The infamous
The infamous “lie detector” scene was one of TURN’s featured promo pictures on their social media accounts.

Now here’s the frustrating thing: The American Revolution DID have plenty of awesome and innovative spycraft of its own – from creative concealment techniques to cyphers, masks and grilles, invisible ink, flamboyant messengers, and even “strange but true” experimental technology like the Turtle. It’s not as if the writers of TURN are starved for real-life examples of 18th century innovation.  (I’d like to point out that John Nagy’s book referenced above, which only deals with Revolutionary-era spycraft, is nearly 400 pages long.  There’s a LOT of historical material to work with.) It’s disappointing to see a show that was supposed to focus exclusively on Revolutionary War espionage morph into an anachronistic drama that has little regard for the time period in which it takes place — especially when the series started off on a much stronger footing.

Returning to our updated timeline: Season 2 seems to have left the 18th century behind in several other ways as well. In addition to using “futuristic” spy technology, we’ve recently seen real historical characters killed off decades too early and King George III turned into a drooling, raving lunatic long before his first recorded bouts of mental instability.  For all you viewers who were devastated at Nathaniel Sackett’s untimely death, you’ll be pleased to know that in reality, Sackett survived the Revolution intact, dying at age 68 in 1805.  Indeed, he served the contributed to the cause of American independence in a number of different capacities — in addition to his covert operations for Washington, he also was an active member of the Congressional Committee of Safety and later served as a sutler (merchant) for the Continental Army.

sackettintriguing
In reality, Mr. Sackett still had much to offer the young United States after his intelligence activities were over.

Like we’ve said many times before, here at the blog we understand the necessity of shuffling around some historical events in order to present a dramatic narrative that’s easier to follow. Plenty of events in TURN are off by only a year or two, which is reasonable by most people’s definitions. But as the episodes roll on, we’re finding we need to plot more and more events at the extremes of the historical timeline — including major events that play a central role in TURN’s unfolding storylines.  Regarding intelligence history — which is what the entire show is supposed to be about — the most prominently-featured spy techniques of TURN’s second season were never used in the Revolutionary War at all. The evidence strongly suggests that the writers and producers of TURN are increasing their disregard for the historical record as Season 2 progresses.  That’s not to say, of course, that there’s no hope left — indeed, my personal favorite episode of the entire series, chock-full of excellent historically-informed intrigue, occurred after the halfway point of the first season.  (Episode 6 of Season 1, “Mr. Culpepper,” for the record.)  So while the show is in the midst of a rather disappointing trend, there’s still plenty of time left in Season 2 for things to turn a corner. Here’s hoping the 18th century makes a comeback, and soon!

-RS

Simcoe Takes Command! Reforming the Queen’s Rangers in 1777

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At the end of TURN’s first season, actor Samuel Roukin hinted that Season Two would only be bigger and better for John Graves Simcoe and the Queen’s Rangers. Revolutionary War historians immediately assumed this likely meant that he would take command of the Queen’s Rangers – but then again, given the many liberties the show had already taken with the character of Simcoe, nobody could be certain. Sure enough, by the end of Episode 2 in the second season, Simcoe had undergone quite the dramatic change as commander of the Queen’s Rangers – emphasis, of course, on “dramatic.” For more illuminating detail on this fateful TURN of events, we once again turn to Loyalist expert Todd Braisted. Enjoy!  -RS

simcoe fall in (mjaS2E2)

Did Simcoe’s takeover of the Rangers really occur as portrayed on TURN, with a psychotic madman scalping and shooting one of his own men to get some street cred with a band of ruffians who look better suited to fight the Pirates of the Caribbean? If you have been following our posts for the past year, you likely know the answer – but before we discuss Simcoe’s entrance, let’s take a step back and examine exactly why (a beardless) Robert Rogers actually lost command of the Rangers in the first place.

When the corps was first raised in the summer and fall of 1776, Rogers appointed a number of rather interesting men as his officers. Some of these men were “mechanics,” (tradesmen), while “others had kept Publick Houses and one or two had even kept Bawdy Houses in the city of New York.” A “bawdy house” was an 18th Century term for a brothel – the keepers of which were generally not considered worthy to be officers in His Majesty’s Service. Some of Rogers’ appointed officers were accused of “scandalous and ungentlemanlike behaviour” in robbing and plundering the inhabitants, along with defrauding soldiers of their enlistment bounty money. The rank and file of the unit were a mix of Loyalists from the greater New York City area along with rebel deserters and prisoners of war. One company of the Rangers, under Captain Robert Cook of Massachusetts, appears to have been composed primarily or even entirely of blacks. The composition of the Queen’s Rangers under Robert Rogers was unconventional, to say the least. Before too long, the unit found itself a target for reformation and reorganization.

Jordan queen's rangers (mjaS2E3)
While Jordan’s rise in the ranks of the Queen’s Rangers is one of TURN’s most sympathetic storylines, nothing like it ever happened during the real Revolutionary War.

The first step to reforming the corps was to remove Rogers from command, which was effected on 30 January 1777 when Major Christopher French of the British 22nd Regiment of Foot was placed in charge of the corps. French, a former hero of the French and Indian War, was ordered to report to the newly appointed Inspector General of Provincial Forces, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Innes, whose first piece of official business was to examine the accounts of the Queen’s Rangers. For the next two months Innes reviewed all the financial paperwork of the unit, as well as the state of the different companies and the conduct of the officers. By the middle of March 1777, Innes began to make his mark on the Provincial Forces, attempting to mold them into the same image as regular (and more respectable) British corps. With the approval of Sir William Howe, British commander-in-chief, Innes ordered all the corps to discharge any blacks, mulattoes, Indians, sailors or other “improper persons.” Blacks afterwards would not serve in the Provincial Forces (other than the unarmed corps of Black Pioneers) except as pioneers, drummers, trumpeters and musicians. They definitely would not be made second in command of the Queens Rangers…

Once Innes had accomplished this piece of business, he was ready to lay the hammer down on the officers of the Queen’s Rangers. The day after Innes had requested Howe’s permission to discharge the black Loyalists from the units, Rogers was ordered to present a list of all his officers, and those who had received warrants to recruit men. Of the thirty-three officers examined Innes determined only seven were worthy of continuing in the corps (which would almost immediately be diminished by one when Captain Job Williams murdered Lieutenant Peter Augustus Taylor). Rogers and the remaining twenty-six officers would all be stripped of their commissions (without benefit of any courts martial, a legal requirement for which Howe and Innes would be sued after the war) and set at liberty to pursue new careers. To be fair, some of these men were guilty of nothing more than serving in the wrong corps at the wrong time. Seven of these dismissed officers soon found their way into other Provincial units and served with distinction for the remainder of the war. A nucleus of the dismissed officers would become a major pain in the butt for any British officer or government official willing to listen to them, spending the remainder of the war constantly applying to have their commissions – and all their back pay – restored.

Gen[1]._Sir_William_Howe
Sir William Howe, pictured here, was ultimately responsible for placing Simcoe at the head of the Queen’s Rangers in 1777.
The officers who took the place of Rogers’ officers were a mix of American Loyalists and young volunteers from Great Britain who had come to make their mark in the war and start their careers in the army. Major French, who had served as the caretaker commander of the Queens Rangers during its reformation, was allowed to return to his British regiment while the Rangers received another British officer to lead them: twenty-nine year old Scottish Major James Wemyss of the 40th Regiment of Foot (the actual unit John Graves Simcoe was then serving in as a captain.)

It was Wemyss who really put the discipline in the corps that it would display later that summer of 1777 when it was a part of the Philadelphia Campaign. That discipline would be put to the test on September 11th, 1777, when the Queen’s Rangers was ordered to assault across the Brandywine Creek, in the face of close range Continental Artillery. As a part of the force under Hessian General Knyphausen, the corps boldly charged the artillery and helped win the day for the British. As The Pennsylvania Ledger later reported:

“No regiment in the army has gained more honor in this campaign than the Queen’s Rangers; they have been engaged in every principal service and behaved nobly; indeed most of the officers have been wounded since we took the field in Pennsylvania. General Knyphausen, after the action of the 11th September at Brandywine, despatched an aide-de-camp to General Howe with an account of it. What he said concerning it was short but to the purpose. “Tell the General,” says he, “I must be silent as to the behaviour of the Rangers, for I want even words to express my own astonishment to give him an idea of it.”

The following appeared in orders: “The Commander in Chief desires to convey to the officers and men of the Queen’s Rangers his approbation and acknowledgement for their spirited and gallant behaviour in the engagement of the 11th inst. and to assure them how well he is satisfied with their distinguished conduct on that day. His excellency only regrets their having suffered so much in the gallant execution of their duty.”

That one day would be the bloodiest in the history of the corps, with seventy-three of their men (including eleven officers) killed and wounded. (Among them was Captain Job Williams, who perhaps became reacquainted with Lieutenant Taylor in the afterlife.) This was probably a quarter of the Rangers who fought in the battle, and at least a third of the officers.

Elsewhere on the same battlefield, a red-coated British Grenadier officer, Captain John Graves Simcoe, was also wounded. It would be his last battle as a red coat.

green simcoe, Fri Feb 05, 2010,  9:48:12 AM,  8C, 8208x9936,  (216+912), 150%, bent 6 stops,  1/60 s, R111.3, G77.7, B87.2
The basis for Simcoe’s new look in TURN comes from this portrait of him painted long after the end of the Revolutionary War, circa 1790.

On October 15th, 1777 Captain Simcoe was on duty “at the Batteries on Mud Island” in the Delaware River when he received orders to take command of the Queen’s Rangers. The twenty-five year old Englishman arrived in the City of Philadelphia the following day, where he joined the corps. The Rangers at that time were indeed in the city, not in the woods, and needless to say, Simcoe did not scalp or shoot any of them upon his arrival. They also did not have any palpable disdain for regular British officers, having served commendably under their command for the past nine months. It should be pointed out that, contrary to what we’ve seen on TURN, there were more than just two dozen badly-dressed men in the regiment. The strength of the corps was about 425 enlisted men, wounded and absent included.

Queen's Rangers Light Infantry and Hussars
This painting portrays Queen’s Rangers light infantry and hussars painting as they appeared in the 1780s.

Simcoe would model the Rangers more or less on British lines, at least at first. The corps would have a grenadier and light infantry company, but also an “eleventh [company] was formed of Highlanders” who “were furnished with the Highland dress, and their national piper, and were posted on the left flank of the regiment.” By the end of November, Simcoe would mount a few of his men as “hussars” or light cavalry as well as arm a few of the men with rifles, the weapon so often associated with Washington’s frontiersmen. The dress of the corps at this time was almost certainly the same as the other Provincial units of the time — green coats faced white with hats — not the distinctive dress later associated with the Rangers and which is now shown in the series. That uniform would be first worn in late February 1780, after the corps received the honor of being awarded the name of 1st American Regiment — an appellation still used by the modern-day Queen’s Rangers, who now serve as an Armoured Corps of the Royal Canadian Army.  The real Rangers under the real Simcoe would be very active around Philadelphia through the winter of 1780. It will be interesting to see what the showrunners decide to do with that historical information.  If we are to believe Mr. Roukin, only bigger and better things lie ahead for Simcoe and the Rangers…

Finally: Many readers have also asked about the significance of the crescent moon on the Queen’s Rangers uniforms. Again, there is no evidence this symbol (or “device”) was used before 1780 which is when the Rangers received their famous and distinct uniforms pictured above. As for the history of the device, this is what the modern-day Queen’s Rangers have to say about it:

During the American Revolution, and later during service in Upper Canada, Rangers wore on their headdress a crescent moon, symbol of Diana, Roman goddess of the hunt. As a reminder of this, the symbol is emblazoned on the Regimental guidon. The crescent moon has taken on a mythology of its own among members of the Regiment, and remains a popular unofficial symbol to this day. It is often found sewn discreetly to the back of bush hats, or perhaps more recently attached with velcro to body armour. Rumour has it the Ranger crescent has been spotted (or, ideally, not spotted) as far afield as Bosnia, Afghanistan, Cyprus, and many other places in between.

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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.

Accents and Anachronisms: What did people sound like in 18th century America?

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Today we’re tackling a popular subject: What’s going on with all the different accents in TURN? It’s one of our most-requested topics! The questions we’ve received range from skeptical commentary to pure curiosity (which tends to be the case with every topic, not just this one). We’ve chosen one example from each category below.  The greater takeaway is that among TURN viewers, there’s clearly a lot of interest in what people in the 18th century sounded like when they spoke. There’s a wealth of scholarship on 18th century linguistics out there, but for purposes of answering these TURN-related questions, we’ll try to tackle one small slice at a time — with plenty of links for further reading!

Question 1: “Yeah,” “Okay,” and Other Aggravating Anachronisms

Q1: “I am curious about the recent devolution of the King’s English this season. “Yeah”? “Great!”? Seems disappointingly anachronistic.”

Well, yeah! Great question. (wink)  Although as we can see from the pictures below, anachronistic speech has been present throughout TURN’s entire run.

slang1 slang2

(Once again, Caleb Brewster takes first place as the most egregious violator of 18th century standards: a quick script search shows that “Yeah” is one of his favorite replies to just about anything.)

While the words and responses above are good examples of modern words that are inappropriate for 18th century speech, just how “disappointing” they are is a good subject for healthy debate. Most modern viewers don’t even notice anachronistic words, inflections, and turns of phrase like “yeah” and “that’s great” because they’re so deeply ingrained into our everyday conversations. If you find your ears perking up at the sound of modern words in a historical setting, your historical spider-sense is finely tuned, indeed! (Readers: Are you bothered when you hear modern words and phrases in historical TV shows? Do you even notice them at all? Let us know in the comments!)

Your question brings up a very interesting larger point, however: Should a period TV show or movie aspire to linguistic purity as one of its goals? Of course, like everything else in historical fiction, it’s more than just a simple yes or no question; there’s a huge range of historically-informed possibilities to consider. Modern audiences would likely be lost if TURN used nothing but meticulously reconstructed 18th century American accents and vocabulary. However, words like “yeah,” “okay,” and even “hello” are pretty obvious anachronisms (well, obvious to anyone who’s studied the 18th century in depth) that could easily be swapped out for other period-correct alternatives.

The writers of TURN have touted the show’s very sporadic use of 18th century slang (like “chunder bucket” in Episode 8 of Season 1) – but while those occasional trivia tidbits are certainly fun, viewers shouldn’t be fooled into believing that the dialogue in TURN is a faithful representation of how people conversed in 18th century America.

Interested in more word histories? Want to try hunting down linguistic anachronisms yourself? Try searching online dictionaries like the extremely thorough Oxford English Dictionary or free sites like dictionary.com to look up the etymology (historical origins) of common words. Most etymologies specify a date range when the word in question was first observed in common use. Then, if you’re really ambitious, you can even search online transcripts of TURN (or any other historical show) to see if and when they pop up in the script!

words-1-001
Historical clues: What might a proper Englishman have sounded like in the 18th century? Click to see a full list of “Words written very different from their Pronounciation” written by Richard Hall, an 18th century gentleman living in England.

In order to try and piece together accurate vocabulary lists and speech patterns of the past, historians have to cross-reference as many letters, journals, diaries, schoolbooks, and other documents as they can find. It’s no easy task! (Yet another good reason for Hollywood to hire — and actually listen to — reputable historians as behind-the-scenes consultants.)  If you’re feeling ambitious, you can browse through Samuel Johnson’s famous 1755 dictionary for a better idea of how English speakers used certain words. For those who might be intimidated by total immersion in 18th century sources, Colonial Williamsburg has a fun, light, and very readable guide with greetings and phrases appropriate to the Revolutionary era.

Question 2: Anomalous Accents

 Q2: “What kind of accent would people [in colonial America] have in the 1770s?”

In lieu of using 18th century language, it seems like the strategy on TURN has been to give the main characters distinct accents in order to subtly remind viewers that the show takes place in the 18th century. Apparently this strategy has been very successful, if the volume of accent-related questions we’ve received about accents is any indication! While all of the colorful shades of English, Irish, and Scottish accents featured in TURN are pleasing to the modern ear, how appropriate are they for the historical characters and places depicted in the show?

setauket
Setauket, New York, as depicted in TURN. Many of the main characters’ families had been living in the American colonies for generations before the American Revolution began.

In most cases, not very. For example: in TURN, Robert Rogers’ Scottish brogue is so thick you could cut it with a knife. The real Robert Rogers, in marked contrast, was born in Massachusetts and raised in New Hampshire – two colonies with overwhelmingly English populations in the 18th century. And the original ‘Major’ Hewlett (meaning Richard Hewlett, of course, not the “wait, never mind, we decided to call him Edmund, he’s a completely different person now!” Hewlett revealed to viewers during last week’s episode) was a Long Island-born American loyalist who certainly wouldn’t have spoken with an impeccably crisp high British accent. Indeed, many of the most heavily-accented characters in TURN were, in reality, American-born men and women whose families had been anchored in the American colonies for generations. Their families weren’t “fresh off the boat” from England, Scotland, or anywhere else. The Woodhull family alone had been anchored in Long Island for over a hundred years before the Revolution began!

All right, then: So what did American colonists from New England and New York sound like in the 18th century?

First of all, there’s no one right answer to that question. It depends on a number of factors, like the heritage, location, and education level of any given person. In some bustling colonial port cities, an 18th century traveler could find himself surrounded by several strange and exotic-sounding accents all in the course of a single day, as one itinerant doctor observed while traveling through New York in 1744. It would be just as hard to argue for one single representative “Colonial American” accent as it would be to argue for one single representative “Modern American” accent today. (Try getting a Texan and a New Yorker to agree on that!)

Of course, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have SOME ideapaul revere's ride cover of what colonists sounded like in the 18th century! Colonial Americans, especially in the New England and Mid-Atlantic colonies, had a remarkably high rate of literacy, even among women – but few received anything more than a rudimentary education from home or a local tutor or grammar school. These modestly-educated people, for the most part, tended to spell words phonetically – i.e. how they heard them spoken. So, perhaps ironically, the documents left behind by these less-educated colonists are often more helpful in determining the sound of local speech than those written by educated elites!

Take Paul Revere for example. In his (excellent and very readable) book Paul Revere’s Ride, David Hackett Fischer helps us imagine what it might have been like to converse with the famous (and modestly educated) Boston patriot:

“His spelling tells us that Paul Revere talked with a harsh, nasal New England twang. His strong Yankee accent derived from a family of East Anglian dialects that came to Boston in the 17th century, and can still be faintly heard today.

When Paul Revere’s friends wrote in defense of their cherished charter rights, they spelled “charter” as chattaer… and probably pronounced it with no r at all. All his life Paul Revere spelled “get” as git. His mother’s maiden name of Hitchborn was written Hitchbon in the town of Boston, which was pronounced Bast’n. His friends wrote mash for “marsh” and want for “weren’t,” hull for “whole” and foller for “follow,” sarve for “serve” and acummin for “coming.” …This was the folk-speech of an Anglo-American culture that was already six generations old by 1775, and deeply rooted in Paul Revere’s New England.”

Notice that Fischer states that this proto-Boston accent had been in place long before the start of the Revolution!  (Fischer expands on this concept in his book Albion’s Seed.) Indeed, British soldiers and European travelers had been noting since the mid-18th century how odd the speech of American colonists sounded compared to the King’s English.

childscompaniontitleThankfully for historians, Revere and many of his peers weren’t “over-educated” to the point where they stopped spelling words like they heard them. But while that fact makes modern historians happy, it was a thorn in the side of Early American pedants and schoolmasters who saw it as their mission to popularize “proper” spelling and punctuation. As a result, we can find some pretty amusing “corrective” lists well into the early 19th century! We’ve included one such list below for you to browse through and/or download and enjoy. Published in 1808, Caleb Brigham’s “The Child’s Companion” spelling book contained the following appendix of “Improprieties in Pronunciation common among the people of New-England.” While this dates from after the Revolution, you can spot several overlaps between Brigham’s list and Fischer’s description of Revolutionary Boston speech above. I’ll bet some of you New Englanders can find some overlap with modern Boston accents, too!

So, while there’s no single correct answer to “What did people in Early America sound like?”, we can get a fun glimpse of what common New England speech might have sounded like in the late 18th to early 19th century thanks to primary sources like the one below. This is just one of many books, diaries, and journals out there that give us a colorful glimpse into the sounds and speech of Early America. If you have any favorite sources, share them with us on Facebook, Twitter, or in the comments below! Enjoy your browsing, and keep those questions coming!

-RS

Caleb Bingham’s “Improprieties in Pronunciation common among the people of New-England”

Click on the thumbnails to view and/or download the full sized pages. If you’re not used to reading Early American print, keep in mind that many of the “f” characters are actually a lowercase “s.” Google Books has a full copy of Mr. Bingham’s spelling book online, if you’d like to save or view it as a PDF form.

Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hewlett: The Loyal-est Loyalist

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As of this point in Season 2, Major Hewlett’s character has taken a rather interesting TURN (forgive the pun). He’s undoubtedly one of the most complex characters in the entire show, and has more fans than one might expect, given the color of his coat! This week, Todd Braisted brings us yet another detailed look at one of the most influential Loyalists in the TURN universe — and who was a major player in the real-life history of Revolutionary Long Island, too! -RS

.law order authority

Often lost in the shuffle of TURN’s vision of Setauket is Richard Hewlett, played by actor Burn Gorman. The show has decided to have this Long Island-born American loyalist portrayed as only a major, but in actuality, Hewlett served his whole seven year career in the Revolutionary War as a lieutenant colonel. In TURN, Burn Gorman delivers a convincing portrayal of Hewlett as a somewhat mild-mannered professional veritably obsessed with “law, order, and authority.” On screen, Hewlett is an aloof British outsider to the Long Island community whose unflinching dedication to his duty and occasional displays of humanity and compassion make him a sympathetic character, in spite of his role as an antagonist. His likeability has prompted many TURN viewers to wonder: What was the real Richard Hewlett like?

Richard Hewlett was born on 1 November 1729 at Hempstead, Queens County, Long Island to Daniel Hewlett and Sarah Jackson. In 1753, at the age of 24, he married Mary Townsend (five years his junior) in Hempstead, and over the next twenty years they would have eleven children together, all Long Island natives just like their parents.

(Editor’s note: As you may have guessed by this point, there is nothing to substantiate any rumor of romantic interest or infatuation between Richard Hewlett and Anna Strong. They were both in lasting, stable marriages and raising very large families of their own by the 1770s, with no documented evidence of marital strain. Yet another fictional Anna Strong romance invented for the TURN storyline. When will we reach critical mass? – RS)

Soon after his marriage, Hewlett would soon be swept up in the winds of war blowing between France and Great Britain – a conflict known in America as the French and Indian War. Hewlett served as Captain in a New York regiment of Provincial (read: American) troops under Colonel Oliver DeLancey and saw plenty of action in Canada. In 1758, Hewlett’s corps helped capture Fort Frontenac from the French, the site of modern Kingston, Ontario.

Hewlett Belt Plate
Sword Belt Plate, ca. 1778. Stamped ‘L. FUETER’ Verso; Silver, Lt. Col. Richard Hewlett, 3rd Battalion, DeLancey’s Brigade. New Brunswick Museum, Saint John, 2005.42.2.2 (Click to enlarge.) For more information about the New Brunswick Museum: http://www.nbm-mnb.ca

With the end of hostilities in 1763, Richard Hewlett returned to Long Island where he became a leader in the Hempstead community and served as lieutenant colonel of the Queens County Militia. As the Revolution approached, Hewlett, through inclination and family connections, remained steadfastly loyal to the British. Indeed, Queens County by far was overwhelmingly Loyalist in its support of the British, so much so that New Jersey militia under Colonel Nathaniel Heard were sent in January 1776 to confiscate the arms of the inhabitants and render them less dangerous. Hundreds of Hempstead residents likewise signed a submission, apologizing for causing “uneasiness” in their neighbors by their politics and pledging to never take up arms against the Americans. Six members of the Hewlett family were amongst those that signed this document – but not Richard.

By August 1776, William Howe’s army had landed on Long Island and by the end of the month had routed Washington’s forces at Brooklyn Heights. Amongst the first to greet the British was a large group of Loyalists from the island, possibly including Hewlett. Within a week, these men would become the very first officers and soldiers in a brigade of three battalions to be raised by (now) Brigadier General Oliver DeLancey, Hewlett’s former commander from the French & Indian War. DeLancey’s recruits would come primarily from Loyalists in Queens and Suffolk Counties of Long Island, as well as Connecticut, with a smattering of Rebel deserters and prisoners of war.

Recruiting could be dangerous on Long Island during the war. Even the very first episode of TURN featured the murder of a British officer (Captain Joyce) as a major plot point. On September 24th, 1776, one of DeLancey’s would-be officers named Miller was shot and killed by a raiding party on their way to… yes, the town of Setauket!

But Richard Hewlett would face no such danger. To the west of Setauket, Queens County (despite Nathaniel Heard’s previous efforts) still remained predominantly loyal to the British, with hundreds of recruits flocking to the royal standard after hostilities began. Hewlett was commissioned on September 5th 1776 as lieutenant colonel of the 3rd Battalion, DeLancey’s Brigade, commanded by Colonel Gabriel G. Ludlow. Although liable for service anywhere in America, Lieutenant Colonel Hewlett never left Long Island during the war, nor did the majority of his battalion. As we have discussed in previous posts, Hewlett and his men were stationed at Setauket during Parsons’ August 1777 raid, a.k.a. the Battle of Setauket (depicted with considerable artistic license in in TURN’s Season One finale).

The Battle of Setauket, as minor as it was in the overall scope of the war, was actually Hewlett’s only moment of glory in the contest. While he received considerable praise from General Clinton for his defense of the post, Hewlett was no fan of the town itself, as evidenced by his letter to Major General William Tryon soon after the Setauket raid. Hewlett’s letter wonderfully describes the chaos of the town during Parsons’ visit, and even sheds some interesting light a certain Setauket resident viewers of TURN might recognize by name! (The letter below has been slightly edited for readability; to read a direct transcription, click here.)

 

I take the Liberty to give You an Account of the Behaviour of some of the Inhabitants of this County when lately visited by the Rebels, that Your Excellency may have an Idea what kind of Subjects many of them are.

            Our Hospital was at some Distance from the Works – as there was not a convenient House nearby – When we were attacked by the Rebels – a Party of them was sent to it – those Sick who were able [to walk], attempting to make their Escape – were fired at. Jonathon Thompson who lives next to the Hospital, seeing which Way they ran, Called out to the Rebels “here here they run” pointing with his Hand the Way they went. Samuel Thompson Son of the above at the same Time endeavoured to intimidate the Inhabitants – By telling them – Our Fort had surrendered – that the Rebels intended staying two or three Days – and had a twenty Gun Ship and [a] Number of Privateers in the Sound – Stories well calculated to prevent our having Assistance.

            Men of this ungenerous Stamp endeavour further by sly underhand Methods to defraud [the] Government. Their Young Men go over to Connecticut and enter the Rebel Service while their Fathers and Friends take Mortgages on their Estates – and secure in the Oath of Fidelity – hug themselves when they think they have saved their Property. There is a constant Correspondence between Connecticut & this Country carried on to a most daring Degree I am well convinced. The late Party that came over robbed only me and my Officers] Doctor Punderson & Mr. Hubbard of our Horses – they must have been particularly pointed out to them as they made great Inquiry after a fine Horse of Captn. Allisons on which one of our Men made his Escape that Morning…           

selah1
Selah Strong, as played by Robert Beitzel.

            I have this Instant while writing the following authentic Information lodg’d against a Justice Selah Strong by a Gentleman from Connecticut – that he [Strong] wrote to Genl. Parsons there were a Number of Vessels collecting Forage at Southold – Guarded by a fourteen Gun Schooner and fifty Men on Shore under the Command of Captn. Raymond – who might easily be surprised. That he secreted a Deserter three Weeks who went by the Name of Boyd – that he has repeatedly sent Intelligence to the Rebels in Connecticut of the Situation of the Troops in this Place by John and Cornelius Clark. This very Mr. Strong has pretended to be our Friend – and several Times given Information of the last named Persons being over – but not until they were gone. What Security can Government receive – while there are such Villains ready to stab her in secret?

            That Success may attend your Excellency’s Arms and all Traitors be discover’d is the sincere Wish of Your most oblig’d humble Servt.

            Richard Hewlett
.           Lieutenant Colonel.

The above letter deliciously gives a real look at what was going on in Setauket at the time. It also foreshadows the arrest of Selah Strong, who was detained for “treasonable correspondence with His Majesty’s enemies” and then sentenced to imprisonment on one of the infamous British Prison Ships in New York harbor. (Selah’s arrest and imprisonment is depicted over the course of several episodes in Season 1 of TURN – although, like most real events in the show, it didn’t happen until years later in the war.)

Lloyd's Neck
Map of Lloyd’s Neck, showing the fort on the left side. Courtesy Library of Congress. Click to enlarge.

For the remainder of the war, Hewlett and his battalion would garrison different posts on Long Island, only occasionally seeing combat. On September 29th, 1779 Hewlett was commanding at the major post of Lloyd’s Neck, on the north shore near Huntington, when four vessels flying British colors sailed into the harbor protected by the fort where the garrison lay. Upon sailing by the fort, the ships lowered their British flags and “Showed their Thirteen Stripes.” The four rebel privateers immediately boarded and captured a brig and three sloops before being fired on by the two small four pounder cannon within the fort. Hewlett credited this artillery with the saving of over a dozen other vessels, as the rebels “Seemed not to like our Cannon.” The ships sailed off, content with their four prizes.

tumblr_n4xw8xqAIz1qg6krdo1_1280
Major Hewlett fanart courtesy of Kiku Hughes (geniusbee.tumblr.com)

Hewlett’s last official command was the dubious honor of commanding all the Provincial regiments heading to the River Saint John, Nova Scotia in September 1783. The end of the war left thousands of Loyalists seeking asylum in what remained of British North America. For many, that translated to what is now modern Canada. Hewlett’s instructions, which must have been extremely painful, were to take charge of the remainder of the Provincial Forces in what would become the Province of New Brunswick and disband them. The war was over, their side had lost, and their services to the king were no longer needed. The lieutenant colonel would retire on half-pay and settle on a free grant of land in the small hamlet called Gagetown on the Saint John River. Here the former resident of Queens County and defender of Setauket would die in 1789, six years after the official end of the war. Judge Thomas Jones, the contemporary Loyalist historian remembered him as “a bold, spirited, resolute, intrepid man.” Another British officer, in sizing up the various Provincial field officers at the end of the war, summed up our Loyalist character simply and succinctly as a “good, useful man.”

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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.

New Historical Timeline and Reviews for TURN Season 2

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Greetings, TURNcoats – and Happy Patriots Day!

Still recovering from the highly-anticipated 2-hour premiere of TURN: Washington’s Spies last week? So are we! The Season 2 premiere – which was technically two separate episodes played back-to-back – covered an awful lot of historical ground. The show’s timeline has leaped ahead several months to the fall of 1777, and viewers quickly learn that several major events of the Revolutionary War have already passed them by, including the Battle (technically, “Battles” plural) of Saratoga and the start of the British occupation of Philadelphia. And most Americans have at least heard of how King George III went “mad” later in life – but was he really starting to lose his marbles in 1777?

NOT NOW BILL

To help clear things up, we’ve updated the Historical Timeline feature with several events that will be especially interesting to TURN fans trying to sort out the events referenced in the Season 2 premiere. You can view the full-size Timeline by clicking on it below, but I recommend visiting the full Timeline page for even more useful information – including informative links!

TURN Historical Timeline version 2.0. Click graphic to enlarge, or click the “Timeline” tab at the top of the page for more information!

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Re-watch the Season 2 Premiere on AMC.com

For a limited time (of course) you can watch the Season 2 premiere of TURN on AMC.com for free with no cable subscriber login required. Better hurry — as of this posting, the free premiere (technically Episodes 1 and 2 of the second season aired together) is only available for 9 more days!

amc free premiere1.

Review Roundup

No doubt about it: TURN: Washington’s Spies has captured quite a lot of people’s attention. The heavily-promoted season premiere garnered its fair share of reviews, which range from excited and positive (IGN) to cautiously optimistic (AV Club and Wall Street Journal, who wins the ‘Best Review Title’ award) to unimpressed (Variety). Most reviewers have noted that AMC dramas have a habit of starting off very slowly, only to conclude with riveting, fast-paced drama at the end of each season – which was certainly true of Season 1 of TURN.

My favorite review, however, was written by a fellow Early American historian (shocking, I know). More specifically, written by J. L. Bell, a prolific historian of Revolutionary Boston who also covered Season 1 of TURN at Den of Geek.

While we here at TURN to a Historian opt out of episode summaries to, among other reasons, save space (our posts are lengthy enough already), Bell aptly summarizes the on-screen drama while simultaneously providing insightful commentary from a historian’s point of view. There are lots of excellent takeaways in his latest review, but the quotes that caught my eye were the ones related to the ongoing issues of historical accuracy in the show:

“…The differences between Turn’s king and the real George III, Turn’s sculptress and the real Patience Wright, are significant. Despite its producers’ claims to remaining true to the past, the series veered away from the historical record immediately and continues to follow its own path.

[In conclusion,] You can’t rely on Turn for accurate history, and you can’t read ahead in history books to know exactly how this season will play out.”

These passages hit upon one of the strangest idiosyncrasies of TURN. The show is supposed to be based on Alexander Rose’s book Washington’s Spies — and yet, because the show plays so fast and loose with historical fact, reading Rose’s own book won’t tell you anything about the direction the show will ultimately take. I’m often asked “What’s going to happen to [X character] in TURN?”

excellent question

In short: when following the historical record is option, there’s no way for a historian to tell. For example, producer Craig Silverstein has said in several interviews that he originally planned on killing off Simcoe in the circa-1776 pilot episode. You’d never find that in any history book, because it never happened.

Bell also suggests an excellent prescription for peace of mind for any Revolutionary War history buffs or historians watching the show:

“As I’ve written before, it’s best to think of the history of the Revolutionary War and Turn as two separate continuities, like the Marvel Comics universe and the Marvel movies universe.”

I couldn’t agree more! I’ve often referred to TURN as “alternate universe” myself on this blog. Frankly, this kind of attitude is standard operating procedure for most period dramas. In most cases even the most nitpicky fact-checkers understand the need to bend the truth in order to tell a compelling narrative – as long as it’s acknowledged to be fiction! It’s a shame that the writers and producers of TURN continue to adamantly promote their show as “a true story” and try to claim the mantle of authenticity and “historical truth” when an abundance of evidence (most of it basic, Google-able facts) handily proves otherwise. If only they’d embrace the fact-bending nature of their historical fiction, they’d get a lot more love from history-loving viewers who are hungry for excellent period dramas but cringe at the misrepresentation of the Revolutionary War on TV.

Why, he's barely recognizable
Robert Rogers’ new look for Season 2

Thankfully, there’s still plenty of time for that, since Season 2 is just getting started. And there have already been some notable improvements in historical accuracy – including, as you can see in the Timeline above, more 1777 events actually happening in the show’s version of 1777. Chief among the material culture improvements are Simcoe’s transition to a green-coated Loyalist uniform and Robert Rogers’ freshly-shaven visage. Let’s hope the momentum continues as Season 2 gathers steam!

Oh, and for you social media-savvy folks: Don’t forget to join us on Twitter during tomorrow night’s new episode! I’m live-tweeting at @spycurious and the hashtag to follow is #TURNamc. It’s always a rollicking good time!

-RS

“Repulsed with Disgrace”: The Battle of Setauket

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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?

.hewlitt yeesh
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.

Samuel B. Webb, commander of the chromatically confusing Continental "redcoats."
Samuel B. Webb, commander of the chromatically-confusing Continental “redcoats.”

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.”

"Map of Connecticut and Parts Adjacent," 1777. If you look closely you can see Suffield, CT (top center), Fairfield (central CT coast), Setauket (North shore of LI), and Crane's Point. Map courtesy of the Historical Map Collection (MAGIC) at UConn: http://magic.lib.uconn.edu/historical_maps.htm
“Map of Connecticut and Parts Adjacent,” 1777. Click for full resolution. If you look closely you can see Suffield, CT (top center), Fairfield (central CT coast), Setauket (North shore of LI), and Crane’s Point. Map courtesy of the Historical Map Collection (MAGIC) at the University of Connecticut: http://magic.lib.uconn.edu/historical_maps.htm

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.

A photo of the blue historical marker on the present-day Setauket Green.
A photo of the blue historical marker on the present-day Setauket Green.

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.”

Samuel Holden Parsons3
Brigadier General Samuel Holden Parsons. In 1780, Loyalist Judge Thomas Jones met Parsons and described him this way: “He was a plain, mean-looking old man, had more the appearance of his original occupation [shoemaker] than that of a soldier; he had long hair which hung about his ears, a brown homespun coat, buckskin breeches, a red laced waistcoat, blue yarn stockings, a pair of shoes that I fancy were made by himself, and an amazing long silver hilted sword.”
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.

Myth busted: Simcoe was in Pennsylvania when the real Battle of Setauket occurred. (With half-hearted apologies to what is perhaps TURN's most iconic scream.)
Myth busted: John Graves Simcoe was off the coast of Maryland when the real Battle of Setauket occurred. (With half-hearted apologies to what is perhaps TURN’s most iconic scream.)

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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.

 

Abraham Woodhull and Anna Strong Revisited

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Greetings, TURNcoats new and old – abeanna1and 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).

urbandictionaryshipping

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!)

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Admittedly, for a 38 year old mother of seven, Anna looks AMAZING.

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.

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Here we see Abraham Woodhull pictured with two very good reasons NOT to get involved with espionage.

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!

 -RS