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.
Moreover, Woodhull’s punishment, a nascent form of waterboarding, is both undocumented and inappropriate to the period. On the show, it appears that Woodhull’s captors tortured him to extract information not inflict punishment. Torture for the sake of gaining information certainly occurred during the war, but was far less common than torture as a form of punishment. As a smuggler who was caught dead to rights, Woodhull would have been questioned, detained in jail, tried by court martial, flogged, and imprisoned, but not waterboarded. If they suspected him of spying, Woodhull’s captors would have put him on trial and executed him according to an August 1776 resolution of Congress . Woodhull’s treatment looks more like 2006 than 1776.
(2) The treatment of British Captain John Graves Simcoe in the series is even more outrageous. As a commissioned British officer who was captured by elements of the Continental army, Simcoe should have been granted a lenient parole that would have allowed him to take up residence in a nearby town. At this early stage of the war, American officers would not only have allowed Simcoe to keep and wear his sword, they would have hosted him at lavish dinners and even offered generous loans if he were in need of cash. Given that he was wounded during the battle, the ranking American officer would have sought immediate medical treatment for Simcoe. Once arrived at his place of imprisonment, usually a tavern or inn, Simcoe would have been responsible for housing, feeding, and clothing himself, but he would have had the liberty to roam about freely, usually within a twenty mile radius, while he awaited exchange for an American officer of equal rank in British hands.
Instead (as seen in the video above), Simcoe is brutally interrogated by Caleb Brewster and Captain Benjamin Tallmadge. Tallmadge even agrees to personally execute Simcoe when it becomes clear the British officer will not divulge the desired information. Only the arrival of General Scott stays his hand. The whole scene is utter fantasy. As Scott informs Simcoe, he should have been treated with courtesy. Yet, even after Scott releases Simcoe from Tallmadge’s grasp, he is still handcuffed, deprived of his sword, and guarded by ruffians. Ironically, the real John Graves Simcoe was actually captured by American forces in 1779. As will be discussed in a future blog post, Simcoe’s real treatment as a prisoner was nothing like how it has been portrayed in the show thus far.
(3) The final group of prisoners we see, the Pennsylvania militiamen who mutiny against Tallmadge and Scott, also suffer bizarre and inaccurate treatment at the hands of their captors. At the end of Episode 3, General Scott – who had earlier assured Simcoe that he would be treated according to the prevailing rules of war – orders the immediate execution of two of the men. Violating the Continental army’s articles of war, Scott executes the prisoners without any semblance of trial. In perhaps the strangest depiction in the series so far, Scott shoots one of the men himself before ordering Tallmadge to shoot the other man or face court martial for disobeying orders. This scene is not only historically inaccurate, it is incompatible with Scott’s own character in the show, since he is portrayed as a professional officer who protects enemy prisoners in the first two episodes of the series. As a general in the Continental army, Scott would never have personally executed a prisoner, no matter how heinous the crime. Tallmadge’s shock at being asked to partake in the execution is the only part of the scene that feels accurate to the period portrayed.
This is not to say that the rogue militiamen would have been spared, however. Desertion and attempted murder would likely have earned the men death by hanging, but only after they were tried for their crimes by court martial. The prisoners would have been too valuable to simply execute on the spot. By publically trying the men, parading them through the army, and hanging them in full view of soldiers and civilians alike, the Continental army would have demonstrated to all concerned that desertion and treason had severe consequences. The exemplary execution of the men in this fashion would have had a symbolic effect that was far more important to the American cause than their actual punishment. Instead, in the show, Scott simply shoots the men, squandering both this personal honor and the valuable opportunity to make an example of them.
So, in the final analysis, how accurate are TURN’s portrayals of prisoner treatment? Despite the other achievements of the show, TURN is guilty of an anachronistic presentism that leaves this viewer with the impression that the producers and writers wanted to create an eighteenth-century version of Homeland or 24 rather than a true to the period story. Prisoners were abused and executed during the Revolutionary War – just not in the ways TURN depicts. In the end, TURN tells us more about our own society’s concern over prisoner treatment than it does Revolutionary America’s. But perhaps that’s the point.
T. Cole Jones is a Ph.D. Candidate in Early American History at The Johns Hopkins University. He is currently a Dissertation Fellow at the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. Jones will defend his dissertation, “Deprived of Their Liberty: Enemy Prisoners and the Culture of War in Revolutionary America,” on June 18th, 2014.