Introducing the “Topic Index” page (Just in time for the Season 3 Premiere!)

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Greetings, TURNcoats!  The premiere of Season 3 of “TURN: Washington’s Spies” is upon us — only a few hours away at the time of this posting. First, we’d like to welcome back blog readers both new and old! If you’re new to TURN, or just finishing re-watching Seasons 1 & 2 in anticipation of tonight’s premiere, you probably have a whole bunch of historical questions. We understand. In general, TURN takes a whole lot of liberties with the historical record — to the point where reading real history books won’t help you predict where the show is going to go!

Of course, this blog is here to help with your historical accuracy questions. And now we’re making it a little easier to find the answers you’re looking for with our new Topic Index page, which now happily occupies its own little tab in the header menu at the top of our website.  Yes, you can always search the archives of the blog like you have before — by date of posting, by using the search bar, or via tag cloud (all located in the sidebar on the right side of every page).  Still, we thought it would make things a little easier to have a general subject listing, especially for those who are new to the blog.  Our most popular posts are sorted both by topic (e.g. Revolutionary War spycraft, slavery, material culture) and by character. Let us know what you think — and happy reading!

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One of TURN’s promotional banners for Season 3. Overall, AMC’s promotions for TURN Season 3 have leaned heavily on references to the themes and candidates running in the current presidential election.

Finally: If you’re watching the premiere live tonight, don’t forget to join us for live-tweeting and Facebook commenting!  We use the standard #TURNamc hashtag on Twitter to tag most of our posts. We already know from the Season 3 previews that Alexander Hamilton — who is definitely America’s trendiest Founding Father at the moment — will grace our televisions this season.  But are the swirling rumors true about Martha Washington and Nathan Hale making cameos? And will any of them even remotely resemble their real-life historical counterparts? We can’t wait to find out.  Stay tuned, and grab the popcorn! (Or some other tasty 18th century recipe, if you feel so inclined.)

-RS

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Spy Chat in Fairfield: Revolutionary Spies in CT (Featuring Caleb Brewster and the Whaleboat Wars)

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(Edit: No, “Caleb Brewster and the Whaleboat Wars” isn’t the name of a band. But it SHOULD be.)

Happy new year, TURNcoats! The Season 3 premiere is only a few weeks away. Ahh, such anticipation. So much writing and previous-episode-binge-watching to do, and so little time! (Not to mention: So many “Ask a Question” queries to answer! We’re working on the backlog. 491!)

Hopefully you’ve been keeping your new-episode-anticipation in check over the past several months. AMC’s social media hype machine is now in full swing, and we’re dedicating an upcoming post to dissecting all the new official TURN hashtags (e.g. #washington1778), trailers, promo pics, and more. And to all our followers who joined during our inter-season hiatus: Greetings and welcome! You can browse the blog archives for Season 1 and 2 using the calendar in the right sidebar. Have a question or suggestion for an upcoming blog topic? Let us know!

Here at the blog, we’re kick-starting the new season hype with a bang, at a TURN-themed event at the Fairfield Museum and History Center in Fairfield, CT!

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I’ll be giving a general overview of TURN’s accuracies and inaccuracies and chatting about Connecticut’s central role in Revolutionary War espionage; Robert Foley of Black Rock Historical Society will be talking about the REAL Caleb Brewster (who settled in the Fairfield/Bridgeport area after war’s end) and the Caleb Brewster Digital Humanities Project; and Jackson Kuhl, author of Samuel Smedley, Connecticut Privateer, will talk about the many coastal raids of Long Island Sound that took place during the war.

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Fairfield Museum’s “Museum After Dark” series: No dress code (or wigs) required.

If you’re a TURN fan within driving distance of Fairfield County, CT, come join the fun! Plenty of the historical activities of the Culper Ring that (loosely) inspired TURN took place in or near Fairfield County, and Caleb Brewster’s a local hero ‘round these parts. (We’ve already touched upon the anachronistic language, mannerisms, and outfits of TURN’s highly-fictionalized Caleb Brewster, but there’s a whole lot more to the real-life historical figure than mere proper 18th-century dress!)

This talk is part of Fairfield Museum’s “Museum After Dark” program, which features informal panel-type discussions, wine and cheese, and plenty of stimulating, informed conversation. Free for museum members; $5 for non-members.

Interested? Meet us at gnu fiegh lh, jecljcimh 735. (Or you could simply check out the Museum After Dark event site for more details.)

-RS

New Scholarly Roundtable on Historical Accuracy vs. “Truth” in TURN

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Academia finally joins the conversation about TURN! The newest issue of Common-place, an online scholarly journal of Early American life and culture, just launched yesterday — and it features a Roundtable discussion about historical accuracy in TV and film, using TURN: Washington’s Spies as a case study.  Don’t let the “scholarly journal” part scare you off — the two main articles in this Roundtable are spirited and highly-readable commentary pieces that are must-reads for any serious fan — or critic — of TURN.

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The newest issue of Common-place, Issue 15:3.5, features a Roundtable discussion on TURN: Washington’s Spies.

Back in February of this year, we mentioned a most unlikely meeting of the minds at the College of William & Mary, where TURN producers, writers, and cast members gathered onstage alongside William & Mary professors to discuss the role and importance of historical accuracy in film. Happily, footage of the entire 90 minute event was released on Youtube in May, with shorter highlights posted in a William & Mary press release (in case you don’t have an hour and a half to spare).

This new issue of Common-place continues that incredibly important conversation, featuring some names that might be familiar to readers of this blog. To kick things off, I wrote the brief introduction to the Roundtable, framing the debate’s central questions:

  • Do the virtues of inaccurate historical films outweigh their vices?
  • How much weight should accuracy have in our evaluation of historical film?
  • Most importantly, are there historical narrative truths that supersede factual accuracy?

To devoted students of history, that last question might sound silly, if not completely ridiculous — after all, if facts don’t matter, then what does?  But it’s a question that more and more people these days — including the writers and producers of TURN — are answering with a resounding “YES.”

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The original poster for William & Mary’s “Television, History, & Revolution” event. Click to enlarge.

Jeremy Stoddard, a professor of education and film studies, gives TV and film writers the benefit of the doubt, arguing that fictional historical narratives DO have value (that is, beyond the monetary sort), referencing his own quest to learn more about Robert Rogers after watching the TURN series premiere. Stoddard, who attended the William & Mary event in person, gives readers a thoroughly detailed summary of the arguments given by TURN’s writers, producers, and other staff (e.g. the costumer) for why they deviated from the historical record in the way that they did. Read Jeremy Stoddard’s Roundtable article here.

On the other end of the debate, T. Cole Jones explains why he finds TURN’s blatant disregard for historical fact extremely problematic.  Longtime readers of this blog are already familiar with Dr. Jones, who penned an excellent piece analyzing the treatment of prisoners of war in Season 1 of TURN.  In his article for Common-place, Jones targets the show’s portrayal of John Graves Simcoe as a murderous sociopath and cartoonish British villain. He doesn’t mince words, arguing that TURN’s “artistic liberties” are so factually untrue they’d “undoubtedly expose the producers to a defamation of character suit were the people portrayed in the series still alive.” According to Jones, a number of TURN’s factual problems can be traced back to the show’s alleged source material: Alexander Rose’s book Washington’s Spies. It’s a solemn reminder that not all history books are created equal. (We’ll be offering our own concurring opinion on this point sometime later in the TURN offseason.) Read Cole Jones’ Roundtable article here.

Like I said, these pieces are must-reads for any serious fan or critic of TURN — or of historical fiction in general. If you have a Disqus account, you can leave comments on the articles themselves, or join the conversation on Twitter.

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Finally: It’s incredibly refreshing to see academics engaging this issue in a scholarly forum — and my thanks to the event organizers at William & Mary for providing an excellent icebreaker back in February.  Far too many scholars of Early America have asked the same question voiced by certain TURN fans upon finding this blog: So what? Who cares if some TV show is historically accurate or not? Over the past two years, I’ve been stunned — though not entirely surprised — at how many academics have plugged their ears to the debates taking place over historical accuracy in TURN, often dismissing the subject as insufficiently intellectual or otherwise not worth their attention.  They couldn’t be more wrong.

Granted, the primary purpose of TV shows is to entertain, not educate. (And make money doing it.) However, as I argue in the introduction I authored for the Roundtable, the question of accuracy in film does matter because, for better or for worse, historical fiction influences popular historical memory. These TV shows and films are affecting how Americans remember their own history. And for that reason, among others, scholars of Early America ought to weigh in on these debates — which, in many cases, are already happening all around them.  As we’re seeing with a number of recent events (e.g. the Confederate Flag brouhaha), the intersection of history and memory impacts an awful lot of people. We do the American public a grave disservice if we let the same people who write questionable “history” books — and the shows and films based on them — be the loudest voices in the conversation.

Check out a 60-second video preview of the new Common-place issue below:

(Note, Jan. 2016: Last year, a few months after the TURN Roundtable was published, Common-place unveiled a  brand-new look and a more modern, streamlined format. Eventually, the TURN Roundtable articles will be migrated over to the new journal format, along with the rest of Common-place’s back issues – but until then, they can be found at common-place-archives.org. All the links in this post have been updated to reflect this change. Enjoy!)

-RLS

TURN: Washington’s Spies renewed for Season 3!

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Providential news, TURN fans: “TURN: Washington’s Spies” has officially been renewed for a third 10-episode season, airing in Spring 2016!

 

The unusually-long five-week silence from AMC had plenty of fans worried. (And we thought LAST year’s waiting period for renewal was long!) As of the time this post was published, AMC had not published a standalone press release, though the news was announced on TURN’s official Facebook page and Twitter account.  Oddly enough, the only notice on the show’s official website is a small snippet of text that says “Returns in 2016.” The news was confirmed by reputable entertainment news sites like The Hollywood Reporter, which included the following justification by AMC’s top exec:

“We loved what we saw creatively from the Turn: Washington’s Spies team in season two, and the show achieved something that is increasingly rare in television today — a growing audience during the season,” said AMC and SundanceTV president Charlie Collier. “Turn continues to attract a dedicated and distinctively upscale audience across multiple platforms, and it has carved out a meaningful space in AMC’s ‘eclectic by design’ programming palette. We look forward to working with Craig Silverstein, Barry Josephson, the expanded cast and entire Turn team on season three.”

That’s right, TURN fans — the president of AMC thinks you’re a “distinctively upscale audience”!  While we’re happy taking that compliment at face value, other sites have interpreted this to mean that AMC is well aware of the numbers that suggest that TURN’s audience, while small, is markedly more affluent than those of other cable dramas.

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AMC’s composite image of the average TURN viewer.

In regards to ratings, the same Hollywood Reporter article, however, misrepresents TURN’s anemic Season 2 viewing numbers that originally had AMC executives on the fence about renewalSeason 2 of TURN averaged 1.6 million viewers in “live +7” ratings, not “live + same day” ratings as the Reporter claims.  (Other websites list this stat correctly.)  “Live +7 ratings” are the most generous numbers you’ll find for any given show, since they take into account a week’s worth of DVR viewings in addition to live numbers for each episode’s debut.  TURN’s “live + same day” ratings never broke a million viewers for any episode of Season 2, and were roughly one-half the numbers of Season 1, when the show was in direct competition with Game of Thrones!  There is some good news to be gleaned out of these ratings, however: First, as mentioned above, there was a slight uptick in audience numbers as Season 2 went on — and even though numbers didn’t come close to those of TURN’s first season, the trend was going in the right direction. Second, DVR recordings made a huge impact — as TVwise points out, TURN’s viewing audience more than doubled when taking a week’s worth of DVR viewings into account. Apparently TURN is a hot show on DVR and Netflix, in spite of its cringeworthy live numbers. And in this brave new world of multi-platform TV viewing, that merits a thumbs-up from AMC — although, of course, the fact that TURN’s audience is an unusually wealthy one helps, too.

Any way you slice it, this is cause for celebration for TURN fans!  This blog will continue to post articles, links, and other TURN news during the off-season, though at a bit of a slower pace than we usually do with live episodes airing. In fact, we’ll have some substantial new scholarly reading on TURN ready for you by month’s end, so stay tuned!

-RS

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#RenewTURN is now #RenewedTURN!

 

Historical Timeline updated: Season 2 Finale edition

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Season 2 of TURN: Washington’s Spies is a wrap, which means we’ve got one last timeline update for the season!  You can click on the image above to view the full-size Timeline, or better yet, visit the Timeline Page to view a chronological list of every event along with links for further reading.

TURN Historical Timeline version 2.2. Click graphic to enlarge, or click the “Timeline” tab at the top of the page for more information.

The Season 2 Finale merited quite a few additions to the Timeline, including the Battle of Monmouth, one of the largest engagements of the Revolutionary War in terms of troop numbers.  John Andre was present, but Benjamin Tallmadge and the 2nd Dragoons were not; historically, the young Marquis de Lafayette played a crucial role in the battle, but TURN left him on the sidelines for the entire episode in spite of having introduced him to much fanfare just a few episodes earlier.

The Thomas Hickey affair (a fascinating true story from earlier in the war) received similarly strange treatment in the finale.  In the TURN universe, Hickey was the final piece that wrapped up an episodes-long treasonous plot to kidnap Washington, but the entire scene felt like an afterthought hastily shoved into the last five minutes of the episode. The very title of the Season 2 Finale — “Gunpowder, Treason, and Plot” — was actually a reference to the English poem about Guy Fawkes as quoted in one of the most well-known eyewitness accounts of the Thomas Hickey execution, quoted at the beginning of this well-written summary of the event.

Additionally, we have yet another event to add to the right-hand extreme of the Historical Timeline. A central plot point of the finale episode was Akinbode/Jordan’s plot to take Abigail and Cicero to Canada. As J.L. Bell points out in his latest weekly review of TURN, this makes no sense, given that slavery was legal in all British colonies, including Canada, in 1778. The writers appear to be setting up Canada as some anachronistic, proto-Underground Railroad destination for this sympathetic Revolutionary War family, even though the abolition of slavery in Canada was a gradual process that began in the 1790s and wasn’t complete until well into the 19th century. (You might find a few unexpected TURN-related names if you were to browse the history of slavery and abolition in Canada.)

Finally, there’s also an event in the Timeline related to Peggy Shippen’s final relationship status — even though we’re getting slightly ahead of the show’s chronology — on account of so many readers inquiring about it. (As you can tell from the rest of the Timeline, the actual historical record doesn’t necessarily act as a “spoiler” for TURN, since the show departs so radically from documented history.)

Today: #RenewTURN Twitter Rally

Last year, TURN fans waited two long weeks after the Season 1 finale for confirmation that the show would be renewed for Season 2.  We can expect more of the same waiting period this year, if comments made last week by AMC network CEO Josh Sapan are any indication.

Click for details on how to participate in a #RenewTURN rally scheduled for later today.
Click for details on how to participate in a #RenewTURN rally scheduled for later today.

According to Variety, Sapan said that the cable network would “assess” the futures of both “TURN: Washington’s Spies” and “Halt and Catch Fire.” Both historical dramas (Yes, the 1980s counts as a historical time period, as depressing as that might be to some) debuted in 2014 and have struggled in the ratings despite amassing small, devoted fanbases.  If it’s any consolation, the raw numbers for Season 1 of “Halt & Catch Fire” (in 2014) were very close to the numbers for Season 2 of TURN (in 2015) — and last year AMC gave “Halt and Catch Fire” the green light for another season.

For you devoted TURN fans who are on Twitter, @TurnonAMC (an unofficial handle) is leading an effort to get the hashtag #RenewTURN trending later tonight. Details can be found here. We’ll be keeping tabs on the latest TURN renewal news and will post it on Twitter, Facebook, and (of course) here on the blog once we hear any official word!

-RS

 

Did George Washington have a mental breakdown at Valley Forge?

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Greeting, TURNcoats, and Happy Finale Day! As Season 2 of TURN: Washington’s Spies comes to a close, there are certainly lots of plot points both factual and fictional to reflect upon.

One of the most controversial parts of Season 2 was undoubtedly the portrayal of George Washington in the episode “Valley Forge.” In that episode, Washington has an extreme mental breakdown resulting in flashbacks, hallucinations, nonsensical outbursts, and even a violent attack on his enslaved manservant, Billy Lee. The writers of TURN justified Washington’s “madness” by having Dr. James Thatcher diagnose him with “melancholia” as brought on by extreme stress — but as the Oxford English Dictionary notes, that term was rarely used in that context in the 18th century.

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While “melancholy” was a popular adjective in the 18th century, formal diagnoses of “melancholia” as a synonym for depression mental illness were not.

Perhaps the most memorable scene of the episode featured a dramatic camera angle that directly parodied a popular 20th century portrait depicting Washington kneeling in the snow. In the original painting, titled “The Prayer at Valley Forge,” Washington is meant to be praying to God. In TURN, Washington is pleading with a hallucination of his dead half-brother Lawrence in the midst of a mental breakdown.

Needless to say, this iconoclastic treatment of Washington caused quite a stir with TURN viewers. This blog was flooded with questions about whether or not there was any historical basis for Washington having a mental breakdown at Valley Forge, e.g.:

“In a recent episode George Washington appeared to have a mental breakdown as he struggled to make a decision. Is there evidence to support that?

“Is there any basis for Washington’s breakdown and conversation with his dead half brother at Valley Forge?

Given the potentially far-reaching implications of TURN’s insinuations that Washington was mentally unstable, I knew it was time to call in reinforcements to help set the record straight. To answer those questions, we TURN to a formidable authority on the subject: Mary V. Thompson, a Research Librarian at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington who has been researching, writing, and teaching about Washington for over thirty years at Mount Vernon.

Washington in the midst of a hallucination.
Washington in the midst of a hallucination in the TURN episode “Valley Forge.”

Mary V. Thompson writes:

All of the questions you’ve received are basically asking the same thing and would get the same answer. There is no evidence at all that George Washington was dealing any kind of mental breakdown either at Valley Forge, or any other time in his life.  Throughout that winter of 1777 – 1778, he was dealing with serious supply issues, which he was able to rectify, as well as some rather under-handed attacks on his competency as commander-in-chief (the Conway Cabal), which he handled rather deftly.

As she did for all eight years of the Revolution, Martha Washington spent the winter at Valley Forge with her husband.  In a letter to a friend she wrote about what she found in camp that year:

The letters of Martha Washington, who was with her husband at Valley Forge, provide some of the best insight into the General's mental state.
The letters of Martha Washington, who was with her husband at Valley Forge, provide some of the best insight into George Washington’s mental state.

“I came to this place about the first of February whare I found the General very well…The General is in camped in what is called the great Valley on the Banks of the Schuykill officers and men are cheifly in Hutts, which they say is tolerable comfortable; the army are as healthy as can well be expected in general – the Generals appartments is very small he has had a log cabben built to dine in which has made our quarter much more tolarable than they were at first.”

Please note that there was no mention of a crisis on the part of her husband.

This is in decided contrast to a letter she wrote two years later, after the winter at Morristown, New Jersey, which was the worst of the war, in regard to the weather.  At that time, George Washington was also dealing with soldiers angry about not being paid and threatening mutiny.  This is what Mrs. Washington had to say about that winter after it was over:

“…we were sorry that we did not see you at the Camp – there was not much pleasure thar the distress of the army and other difficultys th’o I did not know the cause, the pore General was so unhappy that it distressed me exceedingly.”

Again, her husband was unhappy and preoccupied, but nothing worse.

There were times in the early years of the war, when George Washington seems to have been feeling overwhelmed or pessimistic about the incredible burden he had taken on as head of the American army, but that is a far cry from having a mental breakdown.  I’ve pulled together some of these below.  I think it is particularly interesting that, in many of them, he turns to his religious beliefs as a way of putting the situation into context.  Although the story about Washington praying in the snow at Valley Forge has been discredited, it does seem to me that, if Washington turned to anyone about the terrible months at those winter quarters, it would have been to his God.

George Washington to Joseph Reed, January 4, 1776

“…for more than two months past, I have scarcely immerged [sic] from one difficulty before I have [been] plunged into another.  How it will end, God in his great goodness will direct.  I am thankful for his protection to this time.  We are told that we shall soon get the army completed, but I have been told so many things which have never come to pass, that I distrust every thing.”

George Washington  to Joseph Reed, January 14, 1776

“…If I shall be able to rise superior to these and many other difficulties, which might be enumerated, I shall most religiously believe, that the finger of Providence is in it, to blind the eyes of our enemies; for surely if we get well through this month, it must be for want of their knowing the disadvantages we labour under….”

George Washington to his favorite brother, John Augustine Washington, December 18, 1776

“You can form no Idea of the perplexity of my Situation.  No Man, I believe, ever had a greater choice of difficulties and less means to extricate himself from them.  However under a full persuasion of the justice of our Cause I cannot [but think the prospect will brighten, although for a wise purpose it is, at present hid under a cloud] entertain an Idea that it will finally sink tho’ it may remain for some time under a Cloud.”

George Washington to his step-son, John Parke Custis, January 22, 1777

“…How we shall be able to rub along till the new army is raised, I know not.  Providence has heretofore saved us in a remarkable manner, and on this we must principally rely….”

——————————————————————————

Mary V. Thompson is a Research Librarian at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington in Mount Vernon, VA. She is currently responsible for research to support programs in all departments at Mount Vernon, with a primary focus on everyday life on the estate. Mary has authored a variety of articles, as well as chapters in a number of books, and entries in encyclopedias. She curated the travelling exhibition, Treasures from Mount Vernon: George Washington Revealed, which opened in 1998 and travelled to five cities over the next 18 months. More recently, she authored the book In the Hands of a Good Providence: Religion in the Life of George Washington (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008), for which she received the 2009 Alexandria History Award from the Alexandria [Virginia] Historical Society and the 2013 George Washington Memorial Award from the George Washington Masonic National Memorial. She was a major contributor to both The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association: 150 Years of Restoring George Washington’s Home and Dining with the Washingtons: Historic Recipes, Entertaining, and Hospitality from Mount Vernon, published by Mount Vernon in 2010 and 2011, respectively. She is currently putting the finishing touches on a book focused on slave life at Mount Vernon.

Sources:

“Worthy Partner”:  The Papers of Martha Washington, compiled by Joseph E. Fields (Westport, CT:  Greenwood Press, 1994

The Writings of George Washington, compiled by John C. Fitzpatrick (available in multiple formats, including e-book)

National Archives’ Founders Online database

 

Stranger Than Fiction: The Revolutionary Submarine “Turtle”

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After a season full of historically-inappropriate spy gadgetry (and almost two full seasons of teasing us with cameos in the TURN opening credits), it was truly refreshing to see one of the most famous and most bizarre inventions of the American Revolution in action on the small screen. I’m talking, of course, about the submarine Turtle, invented by Connecticut patriot David Bushnell in the 1770s.

At first glance, the real-life story of the Turtle seems too fantastical to be true. Even its very design – an odd, bulbous, wooden contraption with a small copper tower, detachable gunpowder kegs, and all sorts of hand-cranks, pedals, screws, and knobs – seems more appropriate to the world of Victorian steampunk fiction than the 18th century. It’s no wonder the Turtle has been an object of cultural fascination ever since news of it trickled into the public consciousness. Even today, you can find all sorts of Turtle paraphernalia for purchase: from t-shirts to 1/32 scale models to pre-made 3-D renderings of the 18th century submarine “ready for your game development.”

But beyond its funky quasi-steampunk appeal, there is a whole lot of historical significance ascribed to the Turtle – and for good reason. The US Navy’s historical division (a.k.a. Naval History and Heritage Command) has put together an excellent summary of the Turtle’s military achievements, which you can read in full on their research website devoted to the tiny wooden sub:

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Life size, fully functional reproduction of the submarine Turtle from the Turtle Project, a collaboration between Old Saybrook (CT) High School and the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, Newport, Rhode Island. The submarine, piloted by Roy Manstan, was launched on 10 November 2007 at the Connecticut River Museum in Essex, Connecticut. Source: Naval History and Heritage Command website.

The submersible Turtle [was] the world’s first combat submarine. Named Turtle because its inventor, David Bushnell, believed the craft resembled “two upper tortoise shells of equal size, joined together,” it saw action in the first days of the American Revolution. Designed in 1771-1775 while Bushnell was a Yale College undergraduate, it embodied the four basic requirements for a successful military submarine: the ability to submerge; the ability to maneuver under water; the ability to maintain an adequate air supply to support the operator of the craft; and the ability to carry out effective offensive operations against an enemy surface vessel.

To achieve these requirements, Bushnell devised a number of important innovations. Turtle was the first submersible to use water as ballast for submerging and raising the submarine. To maneuver under water, Turtle was the first submersible to use a screw propeller. Bushnell was also the first to equip a submersible with a breathing device. Finally, the weaponry of Turtle, which consisted of a “torpedo,” or mine that could be attached to the hull of the target ship, was innovative as well. Bushnell was the first to demonstrate that gunpowder could be exploded under water and his mine was the first “time bomb,” allowing the operator of the Turtle to attach the mine and then to retire a safe distance before it detonated.

That’s quite a long list of firsts! In multiple ways, the Turtle was an engineering marvel ahead of its time. Another remarkable feature of the Turtle was its use of bioluminescent fungi as a light source. No, really! Known both then and now as “foxfire,” the phenomenon of glowing blue-green fungus found in decaying wood is documented back to ancient times, and Bushnell was smart enough to see it as a viable alternative to oxygen-sucking candle flames. (If you love ingenious details like these, then I highly recommend you check out the original description of the Turtle’s form and function as written by Dr. Benjamin Gale in November, 1775. It reads like a science fiction novel!)

Omphalotus_nidiformis
Omphalotus nidiformis: One type of bio-luminescent fungus. Foxfire light is often very dim. This photo is the result of a 30-second exposure!

The Turtle’s Maiden Mission

The fact that the American forces had a fully-functional submarine in their arsenal in 1776 is impressive enough – but on top of that, the Turtle’s wartime mission was remarkably complex, especially for an experimental piece of technology. The Turtle was conceived and built not for reconnaissance or stealthy transport, but to blow up enemy vessels by means of attaching timed underwater mines (i.e. small kegs of gunpowder with special fuses) to their hulls. Once again, from the Naval History and Heritage Command website:

Bushnell had devised Turtle as a means of breaking the British blockade of Boston harbor but because of problems with the vessel… the British fleet had departed from that harbor before Turtle was operational. The first attack on an enemy vessel [the British warship HMS Eagle] by Turtle took place in New York harbor in September 1776. Turtle functioned as anticipated, but the attack… did not succeed. Two subsequent attempts to attack British warships were thwarted by navigational issues and tides. Before Turtle could be re-deployed, it was sunk along with the sloop transporting it by enemy fire on 9 October 1776. Although recovered, Turtle saw no further service. Its eventual fate remains a mystery.

Although it did not achieve military success, Turtle was seen by men of the time as a revolutionary development. In 1785, George Washington wrote Thomas Jefferson: “I then thought, and still think, that it was an effort of genius.” The problem with Turtle, as the former head of the Naval Historical Center, Admiral Ernest M. Eller wrote, was Bushnell’s expectation that just one man could “carry out the combined duties of diving officer, navigator, torpedoman, and engineer, while at the same time fighting tides and currents and propelling the boat with his own muscles.”

While a submarine “practical” for warfare with range, power and reliability had to await the coming of the mechanical age, Turtle was an indispensable first step, which made future developments possible.

In short: The Turtle was a truly Revolutionary submarine, and it led to David Bushnell being credited as the Father of Submarine Warfare.  But why did Ezra Lee’s attack fail? This excerpt from Connecticut History’s excellent article on the Turtle explains it, using Lee’s own testimony:

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Drawing of the Turtle in action, attempting to drill into the hull of the HMS Eagle. Source: NavSource Online Submarine Photo Archive (see Further Reading section below)

Later [in life], Lee described his unsuccessful attempt to fasten the mine [to the HMS Eagle]. “When I rowed under the stern of the ship, could see men and deck and hear them talk-then I shut all doors, sunk down, and came up under the bottom of the ship, up with the screw against the bottom but found that it would not enter.” Unable to affix the mine and with daylight upon the water, Lee decided to make for shore before the vessel was discovered by passing boats. But it was too late. Guard boats put off from shore in his direction and soldiers mounted the fort on Governor’s Island to catch sight of the strange craft.

Lee writes that he “let loose the magazine [mine] in hopes, that if they should take me, they should likewise pick up the magazine, and then we should all be blown up together…” Ezra Lee did not lack courage, only experience in a craft no one on earth had ever before piloted in action. The mine did explode, frightening off the pursuing guard boat; Lee escaped with his life and with Bushnell’s machine.

bt turtleSo how accurate is TURN’s use of the Turtle in the Season 2 episode “Providence”? TURN scores much higher than usual regarding historical accuracy when it comes to their use of the Turtle! In case there was any doubt, none of the Turtle’s missions involved Caleb Brewster or any part of the Culper Spy Ring whatsoever; if you look at our TURN Historical Timeline, you’ll find that the real-life Turtle set sail two full years before the Culper Spy Ring was even formed.

That said, the show’s incorporation of the submarine into its alternate history storyline was certainly entertaining, and it very closely paralleled pilot Ezra Lee’s original mission of 1776. (The notable exception being Caleb’s success in blowing up an enemy ship with an underwater mine where Lee had failed!)   The Turtle used in the show is a dead ringer for the meticulously-researched 21st century museum replicas, and Caleb even mentions the use of Foxfire as a light source! Regarding Ben Tallmadge and “Davey” Bushnell meeting at Yale: Tallmadge (Class of 1773) was two years ahead of Bushnell (Class of 1775) at Yale, so their educations did overlap by two years. However, since Bushnell matriculated at the unusually ripe old age of 30 and was therefore twice as old as the average Yale student, he may have had less social interaction with his fellow undergraduates than a typical student — so Tallmadge’s line about how he “didn’t know much” about him makes a lot of historical sense, too.

All the Turtles of the World

Bushnell_Turtle_model_US_Navy_Submarine_Museum
Cutaway model of the Turtle in the US Navy Submarine Force Museum in Groton, CT.

If you want to see (or climb into) a Turtle yourself, Connecticut is a good place to start. The State of Connecticut is pretty darn proud of its submarine heritage: During the Revolutionary War, CT native David Bushnell’s efforts found widespread support among prominent Connecticut patriots like Silas Deane and Governor Jonathan Trumbull, who actually ended up convincing George Washington to support the Turtle venture. Modern-day Groton, Connecticut, the “Submarine Capital of the World,” is home to an active US sub base, the nuclear submarine manufacturer Electric Boat, and a museum that houses the first nuclear submarine in the world, the USS Nautilus.

So it’s little surprise that Connecticut is home to at least three full-size Turtle replicas. Two of them reside at the Connecticut River Museum in Essex; one is a cutaway model you can climb in yourself, and the other is a fully-functional reproduction that embarked on its maiden voyage in November of 2007. Another cutaway model, complete with a mannequin of Ezra Lee inside, can be found at the same Submarine Force Museum in Groton, CT that is home to the USS Nautilus.

The Royal Navy Museum in Gosport, England also has a Turtle replica, although their model is likely an older one, given that it’s much more spherical than the more recent, 21st century American replicas.

Finally, I thought I’d end this post by sharing some modern-day Turtle-related News of the Weird. It turns out that not every replica of the Turtle belongs to a museum; at least one of them belongs to an eccentric artist in New York City who found himself in trouble with the authorities on more than one occasion. Observe:

wcbs ledeNo, this isn’t a parody account of a Loyalist newspaper from 1776 — this incident happened in 2007! Philip “Duke” Riley, an artist with a history of embarking on legally-questionable stunts, built a working Turtle replica out of cheap plywood with the goal of stealthily approaching a British ship in New York Harbor (in this case, the Queen Mary II) in order to take pictures for an upcoming art installation. Riley and his two co-conspirators were promptly arrested after the New York Police and Coast Guard swooped in to intercept the little wooden sub. The New York Times (and plenty of other NY-area papers) published a full account of the bizarre and comical event that, like the Turtle itself, is almost too incredible to believe. The usually-stoic NYT wrote that Riley’s sub “resembled something out of Jules Verne by way of Huck Finn, manned by cast members from “Jackass.””

NYpost 2007aug4If you were feeling charitable, I suppose you could argue Mr. Riley was helping to keep the fascinating legacy of the Turtle alive in his own… unique way. On his own website, which has plenty of additional pictures and video of the submarine launch, he claims his voyage helped expose persistent security lapses surrounding New York Harbor. Whatever your opinion of Riley’s “marine mischief,” at least we got to see a replica of a Revolutionary War submarine on the cover of the New York Post, complete with a snarky headline!

There’s so much for to be said about the history of the Turtle and the brilliant innovation that went into it, but alas, there is only so much we can stuff into one blog post! For more Turtle articles, primary sources, sketches, and other resources, see the Further Reading section below.

-RS

Further Reading/Resources on the Turtle:

US Naval History and Heritage Command: Research page on the Submarine Turtle
This page is the online mother lode of primary source documents concerning the Turtle. Several of these descriptions of the Turtle sound like old science fiction novels — they are some of the most easy-to-read and engrossing 18th century documents you’ll ever come across. Be sure to check out Benjamin Gale’s original description of the Turtle in 1775, and Ezra Lee’s firsthand account of his adventures piloting the Turtle in 1776! You can also read post-war correspondence between George Washington and Thomas Jefferson concerning the Turtle.

Connecticut History article: David Bushnell and his Revolutionary Submarine
Excellent article with more detail on Bushnell and the innovations that made the Turtle unique.

NavSource Online: Turtle Submarine Photo Archive
Collection of photos, diagrams, and sketches of the Turtle from a variety of sources.