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. Just like in TURN, there were indeed many who wished to see Simcoe assume room temperature. Private James Hull of the Middlesex County Militia recalled:
“Simcoe was captured, having his horse shot under him, and barely escaped with his life from the fury of the soldiers who took him. A Capt. Voorhies had been killed, & his friends & relations were greatly exasperated & would have torn Simcoe to pieces.”
The testimony of Hannah Scott, an eyewitness of the incident, also mentions Simcoe’s narrow escape from the wrath of the mob:
“At the time Col. Simcoe made an excursion through the country, passing in sight of this place [Boundbrook Mountain] he was attacked by a party of our Citizens and had his horse shot under him and he left for dead. Dr. [Jonathan Ford] Morris [from the Continental Army Hospital] was not far off and soon came to his assistance…by bleeding and other restoratives the commander revived and was conducted to a place of safety for the night. One of our respectable Citizens had been inhumanely cut down shortly after the Col. fell and it required Dr. Morris’s attention with several others to prevent [Simcoe] being killed by a mob…”
Clearly, both the fictionalized and very real John Graves Simcoe narrowly avoided being put to death upon capture. And, as in the show, the ordeal for the real Simcoe was just beginning.
For the first few days, Simcoe was reasonably well off. Confined in a tavern owned by a local militia colonel, he had his own room, and the surgeon of the regiment, as well as his servant and a soldier of the corps to assist him. (n.b.: As discussed in T. Cole Jones’ post on prisoner treatment in Revolutionary War, this was in keeping with standard POW treatment of officers.) That would soon change, however.
Since Simcoe was taken prisoner by the state’s militia, he was a prisoner of the state of New Jersey, rather than the Continental Army. His welfare and disposition would be decided by Governor William Livingston, a man not known for his lenity towards Loyalists or those who commanded them. Indeed, on November 9th, Livingston wrote to Washington that he intended “hard usage” for Simcoe and other prisoners, as retaliation for two New Jersey militiamen who were held in a similar manner by the British. Livingston added that this was for Simcoe’s own good, for the inhabitants were eager to revenge upon him for his “many acts of barbarity.”
Officers were generally not locked in cells by either army, but that is where the young lieutenant colonel now found himself. A loyalist militia officer, was chained to the floor of the jail and on a bread and water diet. Others in the jail included two recaptured British soldiers who had previously escaped from prison in Maryland and were allowed no food. Two other Loyalists were there to be tried for high treason, as well as a black man chained to the floor who was later condemned to death. Simcoe was definitely not in a good place.
Simcoe began to complain of the wounds he had suffered in the fall from his horse, particularly in his head, but to no avail. By December 3rd, Simcoe decided on a new ploy to obtain his release: insanity. John McGill, one of the Loyalists sent to take care of him, wrote on that day:
“The Colonel suppose to be lunacies – He’s much Pitied, & even his Enemies express their sorrow at so great a man loosing his Reason – This gives rise to some projects for effecting an escape.”
The following day started a procession of those who had heard that Simcoe was now insane, and wanted to see for themselves. On the 4th, John McGill wrote that militia Colonel Daniel Hendrickson “call’d on Col; Simcoe [and] finds [him] singing God Save the King & playing to the Air with Pin stuck in window sash – Hendrickson’s astonishment & firmly believes Col. Simcoe’s brain hurt.” After a few more such incidents, McGill wrote of Simcoe, “He performs his Part admirably.”
In conjunction with his pretended insanity, Simcoe kept up a letter-writing campaign to win his freedom, particularly with Governor Livingston, and eventually George Washington himself. It finally paid off. Within a few days of writing Washington, Simcoe was exchanged and by New Year’s Eve back on Staten Island: “Received at Richmond by the Regiment & Inhabitants with every demonstration of joy.” Simcoe was again a free man after a tumultuous captivity, and soon back in command of the Queen’s Rangers.
As we can see, while the real Simcoe’s captivity deviates considerably from its portrayal on TURN, it still encompassed plenty of drama and life-threatening situations. Fact can trump fiction when given a chance. We shall see what new turmoils and tribulations await the TV Simcoe before he too, presumably, rejoins the British.
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.