Month: April 2014
In keeping with the theme of “prisoner’s week” here at TURN to a Historian, today we’re discussing the capture of the “real” John Graves Simcoe, the British officer everyone loves to hate on the show. The real-life story, which took place in 1779 instead of 1776, involves plenty of its own drama – including cavalry skirmishes, angry mobs, pretended insanity, and plenty of vengeance on both sides — and provides an intriguing glimpse into Simcoe’s character. This excellent post, once again courtesy of Loyalist scholar Todd Braisted, will remind you that historical fact is often stranger than fiction. -RS
The story line in TURN has placed the British Captain John Graves Simcoe into the hands of his Rebel foes in Autumn of 1776. It seems that everyone rooting against the British wants Simcoe dead. Benjamin Tallmadge almost carries out the deed before halted in the nick of time by a superior officer. As with virtually everything in TURN, real events are twisted and fictionalized to suit the story – which is to be expected in any presentation of historical fiction. But did any of this ever happen? Are any elements of the show’s portrayal actually correct?
To some degree, yes. In the pilot episode, the charmingly arrogant Simcoe leads a detachment of Regulars over to Connecticut where they conveniently walk into an ambush, killing everyone but him. No such raid ever happened in history. (For one thing, Tallmadge’s Second Regiment of Light Dragoons didn’t exist until December 1776.) However, that being said, Simcoe was captured in a raid into New Jersey in 1779, and the unpleasantness of his captivity certainly has its parallels with the show. Let’s take a look at the real captivity of John Graves Simcoe, shall we?
Fast forward to October 1779. The war in America has raged on for over four years. France and Spain have entered the fray, making it a world conflict, and reducing the British to primarily defensive operations in the north. Loyalist spies provide the British with every movement made by Washington’s troops, looking out for any sign that New York may be attacked. Of particular interest are a number of large flat bottomed boats on travelling carriages located near Bound Brook, New Jersey — the sort of boats perfect for carrying troops, horses and artillery to attack the British in New York.
At two in the morning on 26 October 1779, Simcoe led 80 officers and men on horseback from both his own corps and other Loyalist units into New Jersey via Perth Amboy to destroy this collection of boats and military stores. Simcoe was by now the lieutenant colonel commandant of the Queen’s American Rangers, the same corps raised by Robert Rogers in 1776. Without being detected, Simcoe had his men used hand grenades (something much rarer in the Revolution than today) and hatchets to chop and blow apart the flat-bottomed boats, carriages and every other store found inBroad Brook. From here the troops galloped off to Somerset Court House, where they released three Loyalists who had been imprisoned there, including one (according to Simcoe) who was nearly starved and chained to the floor. Infuriated at the treatment of fellow Loyalists, Simcoe allowed his men to burn the court house as retribution.
The task accomplished, Simcoe started to lead his men back, but they lost their way in the dark. Missing a crucial turnoff, the raiders rode straight into an ambush of militia, who fired into the mass of horsemen. While missing Simcoe himself, the volley cut down his horse, throwing him and knocking him unconscious. After Simcoe’s men left him for dead, they rode on until confronted by another group of militia near New Brunswick, under the command of Captain Peter Van Voorhies, a Continental Officer from New Jersey. The Loyalist cavalry routed the militia, hacking up the American captain with their swords in the process, before making their way back to British lines.
When Simcoe awoke, his men were gone and he found himself a prisoner. Even worse, word of the popular Captain Voorhees’s death at the hands of the Queen’s Rangers quickly spread to Simcoe’s captors. Read the rest of this entry »
Today’s guest post is by T. Cole Jones, who has extensively researched and written about about the treatment of prisoners during the Revolutionary War as the focus of his doctoral dissertation. In this post, he discusses the three distinct examples of prisoners taken by American forces as seen in the first three episodes of TURN, and puts some of the show’s most shocking scenes into historical perspective. -RS
In a dark, subterranean cell in a contested border region, American officials question a man captured in the act of smuggling contraband goods. Not receiving the answers they want, the interrogators place a damp cloth over his face and submerge his head in water, convincing the prisoner he will soon drown. Mercifully for the man, who is now gasping for air and semi-conscious, the interrogation comes to an abrupt halt when a superior officer enters the room.
This graphic example of American enhanced interrogation techniques did not occur along the borders of Afghanistan or Iraq, but instead on the Connecticut coast of the Long Island Sound during the American Revolutionary War, according to AMC’s television drama TURN. This prisoner was not a Taliban or Al Qaeda militant – just a Long Island farmer, Abraham Woodhull, who was trying to avoid the war while providing for his family. If the producers of the show were looking to invoke contemporary events in their telling of the Revolutionary War, they could have done little better than to portray makeshift waterboarding. Anyone acquainted with the Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandals will be left wondering: just how historically correct was this scene? How authentic are the show’s depictions of prisoner treatment in general?
Within the first three episodes, viewers are shown the American treatment of three separate categories of prisoners:
- A suspected smuggler (Abraham Woodhull)
- A British officer (John Graves Simcoe), and
- Several American mutineers (including the Bascombe brothers).
Historically, the Continental Army in 1776 would have treated each category of prisoner differently. TURN gets this much right. Throughout the war, American forces had very different protocols for dealing with British regulars, uniformed loyalist troops, smugglers, counterfeiters, deserters, traitors, and others they deemed subject to civil prosecution. But how true to the historical record are TURN’s depictions?
(1) The first prisoner, Abraham Woodhull, is captured while smuggling goods across enemy lines. The Revolutionaries, who controlled most of the land and consequently the lion’s share of fresh produce and provisions, wanted to deprive the British in New York of food. Smugglers could expect harsh treatment. Under a congressional resolution from 1777, smugglers could be sentenced to hard labor for the rest of the war. (See pg 784 here.) Continental authorities considered smuggling currency even more egregious. In 1778, Abel Jeans was convicted by court martial of smuggling money across enemy lines and sentenced to receive 100 lashes before being confined for the remainder of the war. This type of corporal punishment was very common in early America because it not only inflicted pain but also physically marked the guilty party as someone who had transgressed societal norms. Smugglers such as Jeans, however, were only punished after a formal court martial or civil court proceeding. In TURN, Woodhull received neither.
Read the rest of this entry »
Any Virginians in the house? Todd Post, an avid researcher of the Second Virginia regiment, has a few things to say about their unexpected cameo in the latest TURN episode, “Of Cabbages and Kings.” Definitely worth a read if you’re trying to make sense of the TURN’s convoluted timeline or keep track of the liberties it’s taking with military history. The following post is reblogged from the Second Virginia WordPress blog page.
The AMC series Revolutionary War drama TURN is loosely based on the Culper Ring, a spy ring organized by Major Benjamin Tallmadge which operated primarily in New York, Long Island, and Connecticut. Episode 3 – “Of Cabbages and Kings” opens with Tallmadge and General Scott encountering a group of retreating soldiers and refugees. They confront one of the soldiers and ask what regiment he is from. After the soldier avoids the question, Scott goes on to say “You’re 2d Virginia Regiment, you’re supposed to be at Fort Lee.”, to which the soldier replies with his account of the fall of Fort Washington and evacuation of Fort Lee. While the entire series thus far has taken liberties with the historical timeline, none of the story in this brief scene as it relates to this soldier of the 2d Virginia Regiment has any basis in historical fact.
The 2d Virginia Regiment was not present…
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Greetings, readers, and welcome to Week 3! The demand for historically-informed commentary about TURN is clearly very high, as evidenced by the whirlwind of the past few weeks here at “TURN to a Historian.” I want to take a moment to thank the fans and readers who have submitted questions and comments via social media or the “Ask a question” page or comments threads on this website — your input helps immensely by letting me (and other guest writers) know exactly what people are spy-curious about! This is the first post (of many, I hope!) that will address a reader-requested topic.
Today we’re discussing the most talked-about item of clothing in the TURN series so far: Abraham Woodhull’s gray wool cap.
Yes, you read that correctly. There’s been plenty of talk on social media about women’s too-long gown sleeves and John Andre’s bizarre little braid and the shiny brass helmets of Tallmadge’s dragoons – but none of those have generated as much buzz as Abraham Woodhull’s highly covetable “beanie,” as it’s often referred to on Twitter, tumblr, and Facebook. Of all the material culture shown on TURN thus far, I never would have guessed a humble workman’s cap would be the thing to go viral. Perhaps it’s because the simple hat looks so familiar and modern to 21st-century eyes. In fact, some of you might own a knit cap that looks nearly identical to the one pictured above.
First, a note on etymology: while the 20th-century word “beanie” has been the descriptive word of choice on social media, it has never been used in the show itself. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “beanie” was first used to describe small knit caps in America in the 1940s. In the 18th century, a beanie-style head covering would simply be referred to as a “cap.”
Abe’s popular little cap is a bright spot of authenticity amidst a lot of less-than-stellar material culture in the show so far. While cocked hats were common for business, travel, and formal occasions (for example, if one were solemnly swearing a loyalty oath to King George III in front of the entire town), they were hardly the only headwear option available for men in the late 18th century. Material culture historian and Colonial Williamsburg curator Linda Baumgarten puts it simply: “When men relaxed at home or performed physical labor, they often removed their cocked hats and wigs and put on soft caps.” (What Clothes Reveal, 108.) These caps ran the gamut from plain, simple, wool caps (like Woodhull wears in TURN while working in the field) to exquisitely embroidered linen caps that wealthy men would wear with matching banyans (fashionable kimono-style robes) when lounging around at home. (Colonial Williamsburg has a great glossary of men’s clothing terms for readers unfamiliar with the basics of 18th century fashion, which covers banyans and several types of hats/caps.)
While knitted caps came in a variety of shapes and sizes in the 18th century, the gray cap seen in TURN closely resembles a Monmouth cap, a simple knitted wool cap popular among seamen and other working-class men because they were functional and inexpensive. Monmouth caps, named after a bustling port city on the English-Welsh border, were a common sight throughout the British Empire for centuries – they’re mentioned by name in the works of Shakespeare and remained popular well into the 19th century. And depending on what you use as an example, you could make a good argument that Monmouth caps are still with us, in spirit at least, in the shape of modern-day beanies.
For more information on hats and caps of the 18th century, you can check out a slideshow of primary sources at the 18th Century Material Culture Resources Center – the section on wool caps begins on slide 90 — or costumer Mara Riley’s list of secondary sources pertaining to knitted caps. Finally — for the real hardcore TURN fans — there are many “sutlers” (merchants) who sell hand-made reproductions of 18th century knitted caps. Reputable sutlers like South Union Mills use period-correct materials, period-correct processes, and are always eager to discuss the sources and documentation behind the items they sell. (And yes, their caps come in gray.)
So that wraps up our first reader requested blog post topic. More to come soon! Thanks to all you fans and loyal readers for your support thus far — and keep the questions and comments (and amazing tumblr gifsets) coming!
It’s my pleasure to present the following guest post on the real Robert Rogers and Queen’s American Rangers of 1776 written by Todd Braisted, a foremost scholar of American Loyalists during the Revolutionary War. If you’ve seen TURN and haven’t yet cracked open a history book to find out more about Rogers, you might be surprised at some of the facts that follow! -RS
Robert Rogers of 1776
One of the main characters in the premiere episodes of TURN has been Robert Rogers, leader of the Queen’s Rangers. Rogers is a fascinating and colorful figure of America’s military past. Born in Massachusetts in 1731 and raised in New Hampshire, his exploits in leading a corps of rangers for British military service during the French & Indian War (1754-1763) became the stuff of legend. Rogers’ “Rules of Ranging,” a manual of (then) unconventional military tactics for guerrilla warfare on the colonial frontier, are still used today (in an updated form, of course) by the modern United States Army Rangers.
But the Robert Rogers who joined the British on Staten Island in the summer of 1776 was a very different person from the famous ranger of ten or twenty years earlier. In 1767, he had been arrested by British Commander in Chief Thomas Gage and tried for a supposedly treasonous plot with the French. After being acquitted, he eventually went to England, returning to America only in 1775, after the breaking out of hostilities at Lexington and Concord.
As an eminently famous (or perhaps infamous) British officer upon half-pay, Rogers was mistrusted by the Americans. When found at Perth Amboy in New Jersey, he was placed under arrest and sent to George Washington in New York City. Rogers claimed he was simply heading to Congress in Philadelphia with recommendations for him to offer his services. Washington eventually sent Rogers on his way, under escort of an officer bearing a letter from Washington recommending that Rogers was not to be trusted.
Washington’s concern was well founded. Rogers gave his escort the slip and joined the British Army under Lieutenant General William Howe on Staten Island, where he made a tender of his services. Howe immediately accepted Rogers’ offer, authorizing him in early August 1776 to raise a battalion of rangers, believing they “may be very usefully employed in obtaining intelligence and otherwise Facilitating the operations now carrying on in America,” and making the American-born officer a lieutenant colonel. (Why the show calls him a major and he himself has a Scottish accent can only be answered by the producers…)
Rogers immediately set about issuing warrants to would-be officers who were expected to raise the men for the corps in order to receive their commissions. The gentlemen he issued warrants to were an interesting set of characters, which is putting it mildly. Normally, officers were indeed “gentlemen,” drawn from at least the middle class of society. Those of other Provincial (i.e. Loyalist) units were most often farmers, meaning they owned land, typically worked by others. Rogers’ crew was different. The officers of the new Queen’s American Rangers (as the corps was officially known) were not well received by either the British or the Inspector General of Provincial Forces, Alexander Innes, who later wrote of them: “Mr. Rogers had introduced into this Corps a number of persons very improper to hold any Commission, and their Conduct in a Thousand instances was so flagrant, that I could not hesitate to tell the General [Howe,] that until a thorough reformation took place, he could expect no service from that battalion…”
So what sort of men were these that had so riled up the Inspector? Again, in Innes’ words: “…many of these Officers recommended by Lieut. Colo. Rogers had been bred Mechanecks [mechanics] others had kept Publick Houses [inn keepers,] and One or Two had even kept Bawdy Houses in the City of New York.” (Yes, that means what you think it means.) One Captain Daniel Frazer, formerly a private soldier and tailor in the British 46th Regiment, was “an illiterate, low-bred fellow. Another, Captain John Eagles of Westchester County, New York, was “still more illiterate and low bred than Frazer…”
Despite this, the new corps recruited hundreds of men, many of them Loyalists from New York and Connecticut, but others amongst deserters and prisoners of the Continental Army. Contrary to their portrayal in TURN, however, the new corps looked nothing in appearance to the Ranger corps of the previous war (meaning: no bonnets). Indeed, the Queen’s Rangers of 1776 had no uniforms whatsoever, serving in the clothes they had on their backs when they enlisted. The British had been slow to realize they would need clothing, arms and accoutrements for thousands of American recruits once the war shifted to New York. With the first shipments of uniforms not arriving until the end of March 1777, the Rangers, as all other Loyalists raised in the area at the time, pretty much looked like the troops they were fighting.
Rogers only led his men in one battle, and it was not against Benjamin Tallmadge and his dragoons. On 20 October 1776, Rogers led his corps into Mamaroneck, Westchester County, New York, where they immediately became the target of 750 Continental and militia troops led by Colonel John Haslet of Delaware. The next night, the Continentals overwhelmed Captain Eagles’ Company of the Rangers, but the rest of the corps under Rogers managed to repulse the attack. Unknown to anyone at the time, Rogers had pretty much fought his one and only battle of the American Revolution.
Dismayed by Rogers and his officers, Inspector General Innes, with the consent of Sir William Howe, removed the old ranger officer from his corps in January 1777 and put it under the command of Major Christopher French of the British 22nd Regiment. Of the 33 officers under Rogers’ command, Innes and Howe on 30 March 1777 summarily removed all but 6 of them without benefit of trial. They would be replaced by proper gentlemen. Meanwhile, Robert Rogers would crawl into a bottle, at times taking leave of reality, and sinking into a financial abyss. In 1779, he would convince a new British commander in chief, Sir Henry Clinton, to allow him to raise a new corps, the King’s American Rangers, but that is a story for another time.
Interestingly, Rogers’ one historical anecdote of 1776 that involved spies has been conspicuously absent from TURN – his alleged involvement in the capture of that most famous of Rebel spies, Nathan Hale. Since the show does not appear to be keeping to any particular historical timeline, perhaps that will be discussed in a future episode.
And no, Robert Rogers did not have a beard.
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.
Greetings, spy-curious readers:
I have been contacted by someone closely connected with the production of TURN who expressed concern about the tone of the previous blog post. Let me be perfectly clear: “TURN to a Historian” DOES NOT and never will advocate, encourage, or endorse the illegal downloading of copyrighted material (including episodes of TURN) or any other form of piracy.
Since this blog has a vested interest in the ongoing success of TURN, the thought that we would encourage readers to undermine the show financially is pretty silly. Viewers should support the show in whatever way they are able, and for most people, that involves watching TURN via cable or purchasing episodes individually on iTunes or Amazon. Some fans, however, may not have the financial means to purchase conventional access to cable TV shows, and I meant to suggest that they seek out episodes of TURN via legally alternative means — for example, gaining online access or checking out DVDs from their local library (It IS National Library Week, after all!) or organizing a viewing party at a friend’s house, community center, or historical society. These “alternative sources” are just some of the many ways to legally view and support the show that do not involve illegal downloading or piracy.
If you know of a place where such a gathering is taking place, by all means, I hope you will generously share your “secret intelligence” with fellow fans — either here in the blog comments, on Facebook, Twitter, tumblr, or through your own channels of communication. The very existence of this blog revolves around using TURN as a source of historical discussion and we want to welcome as many people into that discussion as possible, regardless of their financial status.
So huzza for history, cheers to the ongoing success of TURN, and a pox on internet piracy. We are NOT a fan of the latter here. Any playful suggestions of spycraft written on these (web)pages should NEVER be read as an invitation to partake in piracy. Carry on, dear readers!
As of this morning, AMC has made the second episode of TURN, “Who By Fire,” available online at http://www.amctv.com/full-episodes/turn/3466609710001/who-by-fire.
The rumors I heard about AMC offering the first several episodes of TURN completely free of charge have, unfortunately, been proven false. The episode IS free to view on AMCtv.com for the next 27 days — if you can prove you’re a cable subscriber. You will need to login via your cable subscriber’s website first before viewing the full episode on AMCtv.com. (The pilot episode of TURN is still available for all to view, free of charge, no login required.) Amazon Instant Video requires payment to purchase Episode 2 in any form. AMC will also be showing multiple re-runs of episodes 1 and 2 throughout the week, so check your local listings if you want to see it again “on the air” over the next few days.
Or, since many of you reading this might be of the clandestine persuasion, you might be able to check various social media outlets for other suggestions on how one could view “Who By Fire.” If you find an alternative source, I encourage you to consider disseminating your newfound intelligence among your fellow compatriots — exercising the appropriate amount of discretion, of course. Good luck!
One of the most exciting elements of the TURN premiere is the debut of 18th century spycraft in the form of a shiny copper grille used by Abraham Woodhull to decipher a secret message hidden within a British letter. Not only is it a dramatic signal of Abraham’s decision to become involved in intelligence gathering — it’s also an authentic, documented method of spycraft used during the American Revolution!
This particular method of secret message writing is known as the Cardan system, and the copper plate is a version of a Cardan (or Cardano) Grille, named after Girolamo Cardano (aka Jerome Cardan), who invented it in the 16th century. John Nagy, in his book Invisible Ink: Spycraft of the American Revolution, provides a handy description:
“[A] Cardano Grille [was] a sheet of stiff material with irregularly spaced rectangular holes which was placed over the writing paper. The secret message was then written in the holes, the grille or mask removed from the writing paper, and a harmless message was filled in around the secret message to camouflage its being there. To read the message, an identical grille or mask was placed over the writing.” (Invisible Ink, p3)
When executed successfully, the “dummy” or cover message would be unremarkable enough to avoid raising suspicion that a secret message was contained within it. A letter authored by a British or Continental officer full of broken or awkward sentences would almost certainly be scrutinized for secret meanings if intercepted by the enemy. Even then, it’d be nearly impossible to discern the secret message without possessing the matching grille, which makes the Cardan system a fairly secure one. You need both pieces in order to decipher the real message.
The system was not without its weaknesses, however. The presence of the grille itself is almost guaranteed to arouse suspicion – as we see in the pilot episode when Abraham pulls the copper grille out of its envelope. Only after discovering the grille does he look around for something to match it with. (For that matter, the grilles were usually stiff paper or cardboard, and not shiny copper sheets that would attract attention and be more difficult to conceal. Paper grilles are much easier to create, and can be folded or rolled up for easier transport.) Abraham was also pretty fortunate to have discovered the correct orientation of the grille on the first try – since there are four possible ways to position a rectangular grille like the one we saw in the show. There’s a slight chance that the reader might take away an incorrect message if they position the grille incorrectly.
Some people expand the definition of the “Cardan system” to include all shapes and forms of message masks, but Cardano’s original method used rectangular cutouts exclusively. Sir Henry Clinton — the British general who appointed John André as his Chief of Intelligence — used numerous Cardan grilles and message masks in both personal and official correspondence, even as early as 1776. Many of them still survive in the Clinton Papers which are housed at the University of Michigan’s Clements Library. The contents of that collection strongly suggest that we’ll see other variations of “masked” messages in future episodes of TURN — so I won’t discuss those just yet.
During the Revolutionary War, the Americans preferred other forms of cryptography (secret writing) over grilles and masks. The Cardan Grille system is more accurately described as a form of steganography: a specific subset of cryptography that involves concealing a secret message within a larger, unrelated message.
This method of secret writing is an ancient one: both the Cardan grille and the usage of the word “steganography” date back to the 16th century. Just because it’s old, however, doesn’t mean it’s obsolete. Steganography is finding new life in our modern age of computers, with messages being subtly slipped into lines of computer code, or even into the arrangement of pixels in a digital image. (And you might even remember an especially amusing example of steganography that went viral and made headlines earlier this year.)
So there’s no denying it — some forms of 18th century spycraft are still alive and well today. I’m definitely hoping to see more excellent examples embedded into tonight’s new episode of TURN. Stay tuned for another “First Impressions” post after the debut of Episode 2, and don’t forget to follow @spycurious on Twitter for some live tweets during the show!
Talk about mixed messages: One of Hollywood’s most vexing — and most easily avoidable — vexillology anachronisms has shown up again in the TURN universe.
As you can see by the dates posted above, the flag pictured at left is the only British standard that’s appropriate to use for any sort of recreation of the American Revolution. Information on the Union Jack is fairly easy to come by, but for those who prefer more authoritative sources, you can check out this BBC News article, or this page from the British Monarchy’s official website.
We’ve already pointed out the appearance of the 19th century Union Jack in the cover of the TURN: Origins online comic, along with some other Hollywood examples. (There sure are a lot of them!) Early in TURN’s premiere episode, however, as the camera pans across a scene of occupied Setauket, the most prominently featured British flag flying is the correct one for the late 18th century. It’s the visual focal point in a striking scene:
A very encouraging sign! (Especially if you’re a loyalist.) However, the eagle-eyed viewer might have spotted a couple of curious inconsistencies elsewhere in the pilot episode. Fast-forward to the dockside scene in Brooklyn Harbor:
I spy not one, but two 19th century flags — though they are admittedly easy to miss in this epic and visually busy spectacle. Granted, this particular anachronism is a small detail that is (like little Thomas’ baby couture) not hugely integral to the larger storyline of TURN. But I’m a bit surprised by the internal inconsistency regarding — to paraphrase Major Hewlett — the British “beacon of authority.” Since the footage of the King’s Colours in Setauket was used during the promotions leading up to the premiere, I wasn’t expecting to see Union Jacks appear anywhere in the show footage. That said, the harbor scene above didn’t surprise me as much as the theme song, after taking a second look at it:
Obviously the theme song is a heavily stylized artistic rendering, but would it have been that difficult to include the correct British flag? What do you think, readers — does the Union Jack in the theme song get a free pass because of artistic license? (For the record, I’m a big fan of the “two-sided flag” concept — just one of many very clever visual transformations that take place in the opening theme.)
For many historians keeping an eye on TURN, including myself, it’s difficult to resist falling into the tempting trap of focusing on details that aren’t major enough to impact the show’s main storyline. In general, we’ll focus on historical topics of greater consequence here — but the anachronistic Union Jack is admittedly a bit of a pet peeve. It’s almost ubiquitous in historical Hollywood productions, despite an abundance of easily-obtainable and widely known information. However, there ARE bigger and better things to be said for what we’ve seen in the show so far — including the debut of an ancient (and very cool) form of spycraft. We’ll be discussing that soon, along with what might be considered a shocking exposé of the REAL state of Abraham Woodhull’s family in 1776. So stay tuned!
While I’m working on a longer post concerning the convoluted chronology of TURN’s pilot episode, I thought I’d write a short post concerning a (literally) tiny realm of 18th century material culture seen in the show thus far: babies!
Little Thomas Woodhull, whom Abraham fondly calls “Sprout,” steals the spotlight at the beginning and end of the TURN pilot episode. (His very appearance is a bit of a chronological anomaly, but we’ll discuss that later.) Abraham mentions that his son is “almost a year old” as he eggs him on to start walking on his own. Adorable outfit he’s wearing, right? Breeches and a linen shirt, like the little colonial man he is! Except what he should be wearing at that tender age is… a gown.
Yes, a gown, as in “a dress.” Sometimes boys even wore stays, too.
For the first few years of a child’s life in the late 18th century, regardless of gender, he or she would wear a gown, a loose-fitting garment that could be tied, pinned, or buttoned shut. Once they were several years old, boys and girls would then make the transition to outfits that were miniature versions of men’s and women’s adult clothing. For boys, this was often a celebrated childhood milestone. Linda Baumgarten of Colonial Williamsburg writes:
“The time when a little boy went from skirts to pants, which was called, ‘breeching,’ occurred anytime from age three to seven and was symbolic of his first step toward becoming a ‘little man.'”
So yes, if you were to time-travel back to the era of the American Revolution, you might very well see a young six-year-old boy wearing stays and a gown. In fact, in 1790, Benjamin Tallmadge’s own son was wearing them at the tender age of three. For more information, I highly recommend reading Linda Baumgarten’s primer on colonial children’s clothing (the source of the above quote). And if you weren’t sure what I was talking about when I mentioned ‘stays’ earlier, don’t forget to check out Baumgartner’s very helpful glossary of clothing terms, too. Additionally, you can browse through a slideshow of primary source images concerning children and babies over at the 18th Century Material Culture Resource Center.
So little Thomas “Sprout” Woodhull appears to be quite the little hipster baby — wearing breeches before they were cool. (He’s not even a year old and he’s already turning Setauket into the Brooklyn of the 18th century!)
In this case, I could understand the rationale behind “breeching” little Thomas several years early in TURN. A little boy wearing a feminine gown would be confusing and strange to the average 21st-century viewer, and distracting enough to detract from the main storyline. (Don’t believe me? Look at the above painting and take a guess as to how much airtime would be needed to explain that boy’s outfit to a modern-day viewer.) Still, the fact is that little hipster Sprout’s outfit IS several years ahead of his time, according to the historical record. I know — not exactly a hugely significant issue in the greater storyline of TURN (and definitely not as big of a sartorial gaffe as, say, the bizarre garb that the Queen’s Rangers are wearing), but I thought readers might enjoy a small and pleasant domestic diversion while I finish making sense of the premiere episode’s Swiss-cheese timeline. And don’t worry — we’ll be discussing plenty of military details here on the blog soon enough.
Also, if you haven’t seen the preview for next Sunday’s episode yet, you can view it here. And don’t forget to join the fun over at TURN to a Historian’s Facebook Page and tumblr account. More on the way soon!