Month: May 2014

Benjamin Tallmadge: Washington’s Spymaster (Courant.com)

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Talk about sneaky: If you’re a Connecticut resident who makes a habit of reading the newspaper, you may have had a spy-curious encounter this morning without realizing it!

The Hartford Courant, as part of its 250th anniversary celebration, published a special section on “Connecticut at War” in today’s newspaper, which contains numerous articles about both the people and innovations of “the Provisions State” involved in the past few centuries of American conflict.  One of those articles is about everyone’s favorite Dragoon commander-turned-spymaster, Benjamin Tallmadge.  The article, written by Jessica Moore, features quotes from an interview with Rachel Smith of the Connecticut State Historian’s office (who is also the webmistress and primary author of TURN to a Historian). She tweeted the following image and link to the article earlier today:

The full article is posted in a rather irregular format on Courant.com’s website, appearing as a ‘caption’ for a slide show despite its nearly 1000-word length.  I’ve posted a (somewhat) high-res scan of the physical article below just in case the current link to the article changes in the future. (Fair warning to TURN viewers who are trying not to get ahead of themselves: since this is a biographical article, it contains plenty of “spoilers” about Tallmadge’s later life and military career!)

tallmadgearticlescan

If you’re a Connecticut resident and history buff, I highly recommend picking up your own physical copy of today’s paper if you can get one, which contains large, gorgeous imagery and a beautiful, full-color timeline of Connecticut’s military innovations (including submarines, Colt revolvers, gatling guns, helicopters, and more) in addition to a slew of articles covering famous war veterans from the past 250 years.  I’m delighted to have been able to help with their efforts to commemorate notable Connecticut war veterans (especially since Tallmadge happens to be one of my favorites)!

Enjoy the article, and don’t forget to tune in tonight for an all-new episode of TURN at 9:00pm Eastern!  I’ll be live tweeting @spycurious and tumblring (if that’s what the kids are calling it these days) at spycurious.tumblr.com.

-RS

Dueling: “The Vindictive Spirit of Malice and Revenge”

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Last Sunday’s episode of TURN (Episode 8: Mercy Moment Murder Measure) included a dramatic dueling scene that had plenty of viewers wondering “Did people really do that sort of thing back then?” In today’s guest post, Todd Braisted answers with a resounding “yes” as he shares four fascinating stories of Revolutionary affairs of honor, pulled straight from the historical record. Yet another reminder that truth is often stranger – and more colorful – than fiction. Enjoy! -RS

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“The vindictive spirit of malice and revenge”:
Dueling in the American Revolution

by Todd Braisted

When last we saw TURN’s Captain Simcoe and Abraham Woodhull (a.k.a. Jamie Bell and Samuel Roukin), they were facing off with pistols against each other over the fair Anna Strong (Heather Lind.) While the real Simcoe never dueled anyone (that we know of, anyway), duels, while perhaps not everyday affairs, were frequent enough during the Revolutionary War to be deadly to more than a few participants. And while duels were officially outlawed by both armies, the nuances of honor in the late 18th century virtually demanded that they take place.

James_Thacher
An engraving of James Thatcher, Continental Army surgeon, later in life. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

This is not to say that the practice was universally approved — far from it. Continental Army Surgeon James Thatcher, on 30 August 1780, after two officers had been killed in duels over the past 24 hours, lamented in his journal:

“…two valuable lives been sacrificed within two days, to what is termed principles of honor, or rather to the vindictive spirit of malice and revenge. Is there no remedy for this fashionable folly, this awful blindness and perversion of mind, this barbarous and infernal practice, this foul stain on the history of man!”

The duel the day before involved two cavalry officers of the 4th (Continental) Dragoons, one can be identified as Lieutenant Thomas Overton, the other only as “Mr. P.” Again, according to Thatcher’s journal:

“I learned that a duel had just been fought between Lieutenant O. and Mr. P., both of Colonel Moyland’s [4th] regiment of dragoons, and both of whom were yesterday on the most intimate terms of friendship. Mr. O. killed his antagonist on the spot, and received a dangerous wound in his thigh. When I visited him, his wound had been dressed, and I was astonished at the calmness and composure with which he related all the particulars of this melancholy and murderous catastrophe, and the agonizing state of mind of his late friend in his dying moments. The duel originated in a trivial misunderstanding, which excited these close friends to assume the character of assassins, and to hazard life for life. Nor did O. discover the least sorrow or remorse of conscience for having sacrificed the life of a friend and valuable officer to the mistaken points of honor!”

“Points of honor” concerning a woman’s virtue were the rationale behind Simcoe’s and Woodhull’s on-screen duel. Duels between officers and civilians were rare, if not unheard of. However, there are several recorded cases of two officers seriously disagreeing over a woman, for numerous reasons.

When a drunken Ensign Murdoch McKenzie of the [British] 79th Regiment threw a bottle in a tavern in Jamaica, striking a black woman in the head, a fellow officer, Captain William Townsend of the 88th Regiment “in the presence and hearing of the Officers in the Coffee House, [said] that he was surprized such people (meaning Murdoch McKenzie) were allowed to wear His Majesty’s Cloth, and then desired him…to blindfold himself and go out of the Coffee House, for that after such behaviour, neither he Captain Townshend or any other of the Officers would keep any further Company with him.” The two, attended by their seconds, ended up in a pistol duel at a race track, where the captain was shot in the hand. McKenzie was tried by general court martial for sending a challenge and “assault” on Captain Townsend. He was cashiered but recommended to King George III for a pardon. His Majesty pardoned the intemperate ensign, but not without noting his express disapproval:

“His Majesty cannot however pass over without reprehension the very inconsiderate and unwarrantable Conduct of the Said Ensign McKenzie, and which appears to have been the source of the Quarrel between him and Captain Townshend, in wantonly throwing a Glass bottle at a number of negroes, who were innocently assembled, neither committing nor meditating any outrage, whereby a Negroe Woman received a considerable (tho’ happily not a dangerous) hurt on the head; and His Majesty has… [signified] His royal pleasure, that this animadversion upon the Conduct of the said Ensign McKenzie be notified in Public Orders.”

Evidently, His Britannic Majesty was not a fan of dueling, either.

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There were plenty of disagreements between officers about women in more intimate (and scandalous) circumstances, too – although such disagreements did not automatically lead a duels. One example would be within the Queen’s Rangers (which, as we’ve mentioned earlier, Simcoe would command later in the war). After the British occupied Philadelphia in late 1777, the Rangers formed part of an expedition into Salem County, New Jersey. Not making the trip however was Lieutenant Nathaniel Fitzpatrick, who stayed behind to receive a “cure” for a “violent venereal disorder.” This did not stop him from sleeping with one Mary Duché, the live-in girlfriend of Captain James Murray of the same corps. He promptly transmitted the disease to her, who in turn gave it to the unknowing captain upon his return from New Jersey, thereby “disordering” him as well. Fitzpatrick privately acknowledged to Murray that he slept with Mary, though he mentioned nothing about being “poxed,” which he left for Murray to discover in due course. Since the captain “had many private reasons for wishing that the matter might not be made publick,” he begrudgingly “forgave Lieutenant Fitzpatrick.” Simcoe, however (perhaps somewhat resembling his TURN character) thought the whole matter outrageous and ordered Fitzpatrick to resign his commission over the incident. When the lieutenant refused, Simcoe placed him under arrest, telling him he was “not sensible of the Injury he had done to his own Character and to the Corps in General.” Tried for “behaving in a Scandalous infamous Manner such as is unbecoming the Character of an Officer and a Gentleman,” Fitzpatrick was acquitted, upon condition of apologizing to all the officers of the Rangers. (You can read the transcribed court martial documents, if you feel so inclined, here.)

Finally, there perhaps is no better example of poor judgment combined with liquid courage than when the boastful Ensign John Moffet, also of the Queen’s Rangers, spent one cold January 1780 night drinking in a tavern and making disparaging remarks against another corps in garrison there, the New Jersey Volunteers. When an officer of that battalion, Ensign John Lawrence, took exception, the two took to blows, hurling each other from table to table until both were placed under arrest by a superior officer, Lieutenant Allan McNabb. Several hours later, McNabb sent each officer back his sword and told them to settle it like gentlemen – meaning, of course, to either apologize or shoot lead balls at each other from close range. Moffet believed himself the aggrieved party and immediately penned the following note to Lawrence:

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Original copy of the letter from John Moffet challenging Ensign John Lawrence to a duel. Courtesy of Jan Nordhoff, whose husband is a Lawrence descendant.

Richmond [Staten Island] 13th Jany. 1780

(Sir)
In consequence of your behaviour last night to me (when totally intoxicated) request that satisfaction due by one Gentleman to another. Mr. McNabb sends you your side arms, and wishes that you should not consider yourself longer under an arrest by him. I now call upon you as a Gentleman and a Soldier with your Sword & Pistols to wipe off any Odium I might have received by your Ungentlemanlike treatment to

Yrs
John Moffet

The two met on that frigid January day with their seconds, marked the distance at six yards (as opposed to the 4 yards distance requested by Moffet), and fired simultaneously. Moffet’s ball barely grazed Lawrence near the right breast, not even breaking the skin. Lawrence’s shot however went true, straight into the Ranger’s stomach. Moffet was killed, as he was good enough to tell his second, Lieutenant George Pendred, looking up at him and declaring “My dear fellow I am killed” upon which he immediately died. Moffet was eventually buried at Richmond Church, where he presumably remains today. The burial was delayed several days because of an incursion of 2,700 Continental troops onto Staten Island. This forced Moffet to take one last tour of the island, his corpse taking a sleigh ride from tavern to tavern until the island was secured.

StAndrewEpis
The Church of Saint Andrew (Episcopal) on Staten Island, with a view of the graveyard where Ensign John Moffet was buried in 1780.

Lawrence was tried for murder but made the defense all such officers and gentlemen in similar circumstances made. Appealing to the court’s sense of honor, Lawrence related how he had been challenged, and had to accept, stating “I considered myself bound by the Laws of honor, to give him the Satisfaction he demanded. My reputation as an Officer and a Gentleman, in short my all was at stake—had I omitted meeting him in the manner he requested, I must ever after been treated as a Rascal and Coward…” The court agreed, acquitting him by reason of self-defense.

We don’t know what will become of TURN’s Simcoe and Woodhull in future episodes, but we can only hope we don’t see either looking up at the camera and exclaiming “My dear fellow I am killed…”

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Todd W. Braisted is an author and researcher of Loyalist military studies. His primary focus is on Loyalist military personnel, infrastructure and campaigns throughout North America. Since 1979, Braisted has amassed and transcribed over 40,000 pages of Loyalist and related material from archives and private collections around the world. He has authored numerous journal articles and books, as well as appearing as a guest historian on episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? (CBC) and History Detectives (PBS). He is the creator of the Online Institute for Advanced Loyalist Studies (royalprovincial.com), the largest website dedicated to the subject.  Braisted is a Fellow in the Company of Military Historians, Honorary Vice President of the United Empire Loyalist Association of Canada, and a past-president of the Bergen County Historical Society.

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Postscript (by Rachel Smith)

Benjamin Tallmadge also had very strong feelings about dueling.  In fact, he felt so strongly about it that he devoted the two very last paragraphs of his memoirs (written decades after the Revolutionary War) to the subject. Dueling didn’t fade away with the advent of the new American republic: in fact, it became even more widespread and infamous in the tumultuous first years of the 19th century, epitomized by the fatal duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in 1804.  Anyone familiar with Tallmadge’s personal history knows that he himself harbored plenty of bravado and (occasional) impetuousness while serving as dragoon commander and spymaster during the American Revolution. Nevertheless, here are his final thoughts on dueling, in his own words:
bentallmadgedueling

Spycraft: Download the Original Culper Code Book

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Abraham Woodhull flips through his new code book in Episode 7 of TURN: “Mercy Moment Murder Measure.” For the source of the episode title, look to page 2 of the Culper code book.

218 121, readers! With the debut of the (soon to be “Culper”) code book in last Sunday’s episode of TURN, we can now discuss the real code book here in the blog.  Best of all, we’ve got scans of an original copy for you to use for your own personal correspondence, passing of notes in class, Facebook status updates, and other highly important covert operations. (Can you tell I’ve been waiting for this day since early April?)

Thanks to the wonderful folks at the Library of Congress who have digitized a massive amount of George Washington’s papers, anyone can download an original copy of this particular code book and encrypt messages a la Culper to their heart’s content.

These four pages also provide a fascinating glimpse into 18th century American vocabulary. Obviously, the words included in the code book were words Tallmadge thought the spy ring would use most often in its correspondence. If you use the Culper code to encrypt your own 21st-century letters, you might be surprised at the amount of common words (common to us, anyway) that are not included.

This is just one of multiple original copies of the Culper code book, written in Benjamin Tallmadge’s hand.  I should also point out that “Culper code book” is a modern, not contemporary, title.  Tallmadge, with the same obliqueness he used regarding anything related to espionage, referred to the code book simply as a “numerical dictionary.”

Click on one of the four pages below and then click “view full size” for the largest available size. All images courtesy of the Library of Congress, where this copy of the code book resides.  You might want to keep it readily available for future episodes of TURN… or if you’re feeling REALLY ambitious, you can try to decode one of many original Culper code letters found in the LOC’s online collection of George Washington papers.

(If the image gallery isn’t cooperating, you can also use these links to download the full-size images: Page 1, Page 2, Page 3, Page 4.)

For those of you who haven’t spent hours in an archive familiarizing yourself with 18th century chicken-scratch, a very handy transcription of the entire code book can be found on the Mount Vernon website.  If you ARE, however, feeling confident about your paleography skills, you might try to decipher 277, 617, and other smudged or damaged parts of the manuscript. (Obviously this ‘numerical dictionary’ was well used!)

  • A Note on Codes vs. Ciphers

In certain contexts, the words “code” and “cipher” are often interchangeable, and can carry all sorts of metaphorical meanings. But when it comes to spycraft, their definitions are a bit more black and white. The Language of Espionage glossary on the International Spy Museum’s website contains the following simple definitions:

Cipher: A system for disguising a message by replacing its letters with other letters or numbers or by shuffling them.

Code: A system for disguising a message by replacing its words with groups of letters or numbers.

In other words, ciphers usually involve simple substitution — swapping one letter out for one number, letter, or symbol.  Codes are usually more complicated (e.g. one number could represent an entire word, name, or phrase) and require a code book or other device in order to interpret them.  The Culper code book contains both a code (first three and a half pages) AND a cipher (the simple alphabet cipher used to encrypt words that are not included in the code dictionary).

If you love the nitty-gritty details of spycraft, don’t forget to check out our earlier post on the Cardan system and steganography, featuring the beautiful copper grille seen in the pilot episode of TURN. ipdqs!

LU

The Capture of Charles Lee

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TURN's portrayal of Lee's capture bears hardly any resemblance to how it actually happened.
TURN’s portrayal of Lee’s capture in Episode 4 (Eternity How Long) bears hardly any resemblance to how it actually happened.

There are plenty of tall tales concerning the capture of Charles Lee in 1776, even though the unembellished account of the capture contains plenty of drama of its own, as we see in this week’s guest post by Loyalist scholar Todd Braisted.

Major General Charles Lee, by nearly all accounts, was a difficult man to work with, and (as we’ll discuss in the future) had ego issues that made Washington’s job as Commander in Chief more difficult than it had to be. But depicting Lee as a philandering traitor to the American cause who was caught in the middle of a children’s game-turned-sex romp with a prostitute is a bit over-the-top in terms of gratuitous character assassination, don’t you think? I am especially grateful this week for Todd Braisted’s write-up of the REAL capture of Charles Lee, which will hopefully clear up any confusion about the accuracy of Lee’s questionable debut in TURN.  -RS

 

 

John André Banastre Tarleton and the Capture of Major General Charles Lee

by Todd Braisted

Brian T. Finney is in a lot of trouble. Well, actually his character, Major General Charles Lee is… but not exactly in the way that’s been portrayed in TURN thus far.

CharlesLeemezzotint_britishmus
A print of Major General Charles Lee (circa 1776) from the collections of the British Museum.

Charles Lee was a half-pay (inactive) lieutenant colonel in the British Army when the American Revolution broke out in 1775. A veteran of the Seven Years War, Lee had bounced around Europe, serving both the Poles and Russians before landing in America and settling down in western Virginia. When fighting broke out, Lee took up the cause of the 13 Colonies, fighting against his old comrades in the British Army. Except Lee had never actually resigned his British commission — not in a way that British authorities found acceptable, anyway — and was therefore a traitor to the Crown in the very real sense of the word. (n.b.: See the comments below for some additional insight into this issue.)

As Lee was an experienced officer in both Europe and North America, he commanded great respect in Congress, who made him a major general and 2nd in command of the newly formed Continental Army. Gaining credit for the successful defense of Charleston, SC in June 1776 against a combined British sea and land attack, Lee was welcomed as a hero when he joined the Continental troops around New York in October of that year.

However, Lee’s presence did nothing to prevent the loss of Fort Washington on the New York side of the Hudson, or Fort Lee (named after Lee himself, the celebrated hero of Charleston) just four days later. Five thousand British troops under Lord Cornwallis, soon after joined by Colonel William Harcourt’s 16th Light Dragoons which included a dashing young cornet named Banastre Tarleton, were soon pursuing Washington towards the Delaware River.

While Cornwallis, Harcourt and Tarleton were on Washington’s heels in his retreat across the state, 3,000 Continental troops under Major General Charles Lee crossed the Hudson River from Westchester NY on 2 December 1776, and were taking a more southwesterly course, both avoiding the British and seemingly in little hurry to join Washington. This force was essentially the same number of men that Washington had with him, and joining forces would at least double his strength and give him hopes of saving Philadelphia, the apparent British target. Spending several days at Morristown, claiming his men were “ill shod,” Lee proposed to Washington his force remain in New Jersey and attack the rear of Cornwallis’ army. He then related his uncertainty as to where he might cross the Delaware or meet Washington’s force. Such delays and excuses maddened Washington, who wrote to Lee on the 14th: “I have so frequently mentioned our Situation, and the necessity of your Aid, that it is painfull to me to add a Word upon the Subject.Lee, however, would never receive Washington’s letter…

Miniature portrait of a young Banastre Tarleton, by Richard Cosway.
Portrait of a young Banastre Tarleton by Richard Cosway, a famed English painter of miniatures.

Cornwallis, having chased Washington’s Army across the Delaware, now turned his attention to that of Charles Lee. Not knowing his exact whereabouts, Cornwallis ordered Colonel Harcourt and thirty of the 16th Light Dragoons out to scout the area and learn what they could of the second in command of the Continental Army. Their guide for the expedition would be a seventeen year old Loyalist from Quibbletown, NJ named William Robins. On the morning of 12 December 1776, Harcourt and his men, including Cornet Tarleton, marched eighteen miles to Hillsborough, where the only excitement encountered was the house they put up in for the night caught fire. Continuing on early the next morning, Tarleton was given the advance guard of six men, winding their way towards Morristown. Along the way they captured one soldier, and received information from some residents, that Lee was but four or five miles distant. Advancing further, Tarleton captured two sentries, who informed him that Lee was only a mile further, lodged in a tavern at Basking Ridge, with his entourage and a small guard. (n.b.: Lee was searching for safe and comfortable lodgings, not prostitutes. This was a common practice among both British and American generals.) Taking all the information into account, Colonel Harcourt decided to make an attempt to capture Lee. Tarleton once again spurred on his advance guard, this time riding down a “Yankee Light Horseman” and taking him back to Harcourt, where “The Fear of the Sabre extorted great intelligence.”

The intelligence showed Lee was getting ready to move, and confirmed that his guard was about thirty men. The advantage for the British would come from surprise and speed. On the morning of December 13, Tarleton led on his advance guard, “making all the noise I could.” The sentries posted at the door to Lee’s quarters fled. Being informed officers were fleeing from the back door, Tarleton left one man at the front door and raced with the remaining cavalrymen around the back, scooping up the general’s aides and staff. The sentry Tarleton had left at the front door then apprehended Lee as he alighted from that entryway. In just fifteen minutes, the British had captured the second in command of the Continental Army at the cost of a horse’s leg being grazed by a bullet.

A late 18th century rendition of the capture of Charles Lee (who would not have been wearing his uniform at the time), featuring the 16th Light Dragoons. From the New Jersey State Museum.
A late 18th century rendition of the capture of Charles Lee (who would not have been wearing his uniform at the time), featuring the 16th Light Dragoons. From the New Jersey State Museum.

Sensing the retreat back to their lines might now be full of ambuscades, Colonel Harcourt turned to New Jersey Volunteer Captain Richard Witham Stockton to serve as a local guide. After 13 miles of skirting enemy ambushes and patrols, Tarleton happily wrote “We then forded a River, approached Hillsborough again and gave each other Congratulations with every Symptom of Joy…This is a most miraculous Event, it appears like a Dream. We conducted Genl. Lee…to Lord Cornwallis at Pennington. Our Days March only, exceeded 60 Miles.” Cornet Tarleton was made major-of-brigade, a staff position, to the two regiments of British cavalry in America. That would change before long, as in August 1778 Tarleton was made lieutenant colonel of the newly-raised British Legion, riding on to fame and infamy in the South.  Meanwhile, a despondent Washington learned the news of Lee’s capture just as he was facing the prospect of losing the majority of his troops after their enlistments expired at the end of the year. For the Americans, it seemed like the timing couldn’t have been worse…

So, did Lee then become a traitor and betray Washington and the cause of independence? We will explore Lee’s imprisonment, subsequent actions, and controversial motivations in the future. For now, we’ll just say he was not interrogated by Robert Rogers. (Nor did John André, who at this point in time was finishing up a long stint as an American prisoner of war in Pennsylvania, have anything to do with Lee’s capture.) Stay tuned…

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Todd W. Braisted is an author and researcher of Loyalist military studies. His primary focus is on Loyalist military personnel, infrastructure and campaigns throughout North America. Since 1979, Braisted has amassed and transcribed over 40,000 pages of Loyalist and related material from archives and private collections around the world. He has authored numerous journal articles and books, as well as appearing as a guest historian on episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? (CBC) and History Detectives (PBS). He is the creator of the Online Institute for Advanced Loyalist Studies (royalprovincial.com), the largest website dedicated to the subject.  Braisted is a Fellow in the Company of Military Historians, Honorary Vice President of the United Empire Loyalist Association of Canada, and a past-president of the Bergen County Historical Society.

 

Reader Requests: Deadly discipline and button-spotting

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Happy Tuesday, readers! I’m just starting to put a dent in the backlog of questions and comments that suddenly poured in over the last week and a half – here’s a quick pair of reader-submitted questions for you while I finish prepping a new post on General Lee. (The Revolutionary War general, not the car.)
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  • In “Mr. Culpeper” (TURN Episode 6) General Scott and Ben Tallmadge witness the hanging of John Herring.  The scene seemed to have a lot of specific details… did this really happen?

Yes, it DID really happen! The sentencing and execution of John Herring is mentioned in the Continental Army General Orders issued on October 23, 1778:

Moses Walton and John Herring soldiers and Elias Brown Fifer of His Excellency the Commander in Chief’s guard were tried for breaking into the house of Mr Prince Howland on or about the 3rd instant and robbing him of several silver spoons, several silver dollars, some Continental dollars and sundry kinds of wearing Apparel to a considerable amount…

The Court (upwards of two thirds agreeing) do sentence John Herring to suffer Death.

So as you can see  (and as I’m pleased to report), most of this brief scene was based on the historical record. Like most of the “real life” events we’ve witnessed in TURN so far, it happened later in the historical timeline than the show’s “current” date of 1777 — but the scene is still very appropriate, since discipline was a constant problem throughout the war’s duration for the Continental Army.   These same General Orders are rife with criminal offenses both great and small, including stealing, “swearing and unsoldierly behaviour,” fistfights and harassment (“John Smith did call Corporal Wingler a Hessian Bougre”), and vandalism.

Benjamin Tallmadge peering up at General "No Mercy" Washington
Benjamin Tallmadge peering up at General “No Mercy” Washington during the execution of John Herring

The American army was still very young in 1777, especially when compared to the professional armies of Europe, and its officers often struggled to find the proper balance between enforcing a necessary level of discipline while championing the cause of liberty and independence. (Quite the existential conflict, if you think about it.) To the 21st-century viewer, John Herring’s punishment might seem excessively harsh – and Washington’s unflinching reaction excessively cold. However, that aspect of the hanging scene is also historically accurate. Near the end of this very same document we read:

His Excellency the Commander in Chief approves these sentences—Shocked at the frequent horrible Villainies of this nature committed by the troops of late, He is determined to make Examples which will deter the boldest and most harden’d offenders—Men who are called out by their Country to defend the Rights and Property of their fellow Citizens who are abandoned enough to violate those Rights and plunder that Property deserve and shall receive no Mercy.

Well, when you put it THAT way things make a little more sense, right?  The dialogue in the show is directly lifted from the above paragraph — which, I might add, makes historians and history buffs absolutely giddy to see in a historical drama.  (SOME of us, anyway.)  If anyone tells you that historical accuracy is boring, or doesn’t work in a TV show, save your breath and show them this scene. (Or pretty much the entire John Adams miniseries from HBO… but I digress.)  In no way did the accuracy detract from the drama of the execution.  In fact, I would argue that the drama is enhanced for most viewers upon discovering that this event DID actually happen, unlike several other storylines in the show thus far. Fingers crossed that this happens a lot more often in future episodes!

washingtongif1

And speaking of documentation: Shortly before the execution scene in Episode 6, we see Washington striding through camp, dictating a letter to his aides addressed to General Howe regarding the “cruel treatment” of American prisoners on British prison ships in New York harbor.  Guess what?  The dialogue from that scene is ALSO directly lifted from a letter Washington wrote to Howe on January 13, 1777.  You can rewatch the scene for yourself and read along with the original letter:

The first two paragraphs of Washington’s letter to Lord Howe, Jan 13, 1777. Click to read the entire transcription.

Pretty cool stuff.  I can say with confidence that this latest episode (“Mr. Culpeper”) is by far my favorite episode of TURN yet, in no small part because it had a much more even balance between artistic license and the historical record than any other episode thus far.  It seems (I hope) that the show has turned a corner and will start to focus more clearly on documented history instead of anachronistic fiction (some of which we’ll mention in the forthcoming post on Charles Lee).

  •  While watching episode 3 (“Of Cabbages and Kings”) I noticed that Benjamin Tallmadge’s uniform buttons all had USA on them.  Is that historically accurate?   I’m not sure when “USA” would have come into common enough use as an acronym to be on uniforms.  It seems like a bit of an obscure question, but I’m a hobbyist needleworker interested in historical techniques and clothing, so it caught my eye.  Thanks!
tallmadge_closeup1
Pewter USA buttons spotted on Tallmadge’s regimental coat in TURN. Click to enlarge.

I’m not surprised that a needleworker would be so eagle-eyed! Those are indeed pewter USA buttons on Benjamin Tallmadge’s uniform in TURN. USA buttons were common throughout the Continental Army  during the middle and later years of the Revolutionary War, and came in a number of variations. (You can view some of them on this website, which features several images of original Revolutionary War buttons. Heads up: there’s a media player at the bottom of the site that plays music automatically upon loading!)

One example of a USA button dating from 1777.

Your hunch is right about the timing – 1776 is a bit too early for these buttons to make their debut. The earliest extant (i.e. surviving original) USA buttons are dated to mid-1777. Many things about Tallmadge’s dragoon uniform are a couple years too early.  Some of the most iconic elements of the uniform, including the blue regimental coat with white facings and the brass dragoon helmet, aren’t documented until 1778-1779.  (Even the very existence of Tallmadge’s Second Light Dragoons in autumn of 1776 is too early, as you can see by glancing at the historical timeline.)

Troiani - 2nd Dragoon 1778(1)
Sergeant, 2nd Continental Light Dragoons, circa 1778. Painting by Don Troiani.

I hope to have the opportunity to discuss the Second Dragoons in much greater detail once they make another appearance in TURN.  But in the meantime, if you’re a fan of Revolutionary War buttons, you can check out another impressive collection of extant buttons on Don Troiani’s Historical Image Bank website.  And if you dabble in sewing and/or other needlework and are interested in making historical reproductions of 18th century clothing, I recommend trying to find as much documentation as possible before you start — there are plenty of helpful, well-researched tailors and seamstresses out there who are happy to point you in the right direction.  Like I’ve said before on this blog: regardless of who you talk to, make sure they can show you historical documentation for the items they’re selling and patterns they’re using!  It’s the best guarantee you’ll have against making inaccurate (and potentially expensive) mistakes.  Good luck!

-RS

 

 

Update: TURN Historical Timeline

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Two blog posts in less than 18 hours? This is MADNESS!!

Okay, so this is more of an “announcement” than a full-blown post:  The Timeline page has been updated!  Now, usually an update to the Historical Timeline won’t merit a blog post of its own — the Timeline should be updated a day or two after each new episode airs with new events that were mentioned in that episode.  However, there is now a list of all the events featured in the main infographic, with links (when applicable) to blog posts and/or external sites where you can learn more about each event.  Check it out!

Historical Timeline version 1.1. Click to view full size.
Historical Timeline version 1.1 (last updated 5/8/14)

I’ve also had several people suggest that I should make an “Alternate History Timeline” to accompany the one above that depicts real historical events.  The Alternate Timeline would contain events that occur only in the TURN universe (in other words, events seen in the show that never really happened at ANY point in time).  Viewers could then easily discern, by glancing at both timelines, whether an event in the show was real or fabricated.  I think it’s a great suggestion — thanks to those who brought it to my attention, and please keep the good ideas coming!

In the meantime, enjoy the (relative) plethora of posts!

-RS

First Impressions: TURN’s segue into slavery

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And… we’re back! After a long, refreshing, weekend without the Internet, I finally watched the latest episode of TURN:“Epiphany.”  The biggest storyline of Episode 5 (well, besides the nearly perfectly-executed dramatic reveal of General Washington) brought the issue of slavery front-and-center in the TURN universe. Since this will be a recurring theme in the show, and because there’s quite a backlog of updates here at the blog, I’ll mention just a few major first impressions here.

Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation

Early in the episode, when Anna Strong petitions Major Hewlett about the attainder against her husband Selah, we learn that it apparently contains mention of a “Dunmore proclamation” that frees the slaves of “suspected patriots.” Indeed, there WAS a famous (or infamous, depending on who you asked) proclamation issued by a certain Lord Dunmore, the Royal Governor of Virginia – but naturally, the real story is more nuanced than what we see on-screen.

DunmoresProclamation
The original text of Dunmore’s Proclamation. Click to enlarge.

Colonial Williamsburg, quite appropriately, has a fantastic set of webpages defining and discussing Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation of 1775. Here are the main points:

  • Proclamation issued in November 1775 by the Royal Governor of Virginia (John Murray, fourth Earl of Dunmore).
  • Declared martial law in the colony of Virginia.
  • Promised slaves and indentured servants of Virginia rebels their freedom if they left their masters and took up arms in defense of the Crown (which is a pretty big “if”).
  • Dunmore’s motivations had little to do with the morality of slavery – his primary goal was to disrupt the growing rebellion in Virginia.
  • Dunmore’s proclamation would have no standing in New York (though it did make white slaveowners throughout the American colonies REALLY uneasy).

In short: The Dunmore Proclamation wasn’t the harbinger of universal emancipation that the show might have you believe. Granted, it’s a fascinating piece of Revolutionary War history (and I encourage you to click the links above for more information), but I’m a bit confused as to why the show’s writers mentioned it at all, since its usage in TURN is both unnecessary and out of place. Major Hewlett could have simply confiscated Selah Strong’s property – including his slaves – upon “confirming” (as he says) Selah’s traitorous actions against the Crown. No additional justification would be necessary. Not to mention, anyone trying to enforce a gubernatorial edict from Virginia in New York would probably be laughed out of town. (If you think state rivalries are bad nowadays, they’re nothing compared to the late 18th century, when Americans often equated their neighboring states/colonies with foreign countries.) But hey, if this means someone learned something new about the Dunmore Proclamation today, then I’m a happy camper historian.

attainder1   attainder3

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Slave Literacy Laws

In Episode 5, the fact that Abigail and her son Cicero can read is treated like a terrible, life-threatening secret. Some of you – faintly remembering some distant high school history lessons, perhaps –might wonder if Abigail’s worry was due to slave codes forbidding slave literacy or education. In the 18th century, New York and other northern colonies did not forbid the education of slaves – but certain southern colonies like South Carolina (which passed such laws in 1740 following a major slave rebellion) did. Since the majority of enslaved blacks in the northern colonies (and there were many) worked in households and businesses, literacy could be viewed as a beneficial trait in some cases. In other circumstances, slave literacy was encouraged in order to read and study the Bible, though this encouragement was hardly universal, even throughout the northern colonies.

To be fair, no one in TURN has (yet) stated that slave literacy is a punishable offense, and there are plenty of other good reasons why an educated slave like Abigail would want to avoid drawing attention to herself or her literate son. But if you were pre-emptively wondering about the legality of slave literacy in colonial New York, there’s your answer.  New York had plenty of incredibly restrictive slave laws (click here to read a list of them through the early 18th century) but a ban on slave literacy was not one of them.

Decorum

Also, in case you were wondering: the “BFF” vibe between Anna and Abigail is a painfully inaccurate portrayal of even the “friendliest” possible relationship between a slave and her mistress. If you felt funny watching Anna get on her knees in front of her slave, beg her for forgiveness, and tearfully ask for her advice, that’s a good indicator that your internal historical “spider sense” is working properly.

That about wraps it up for this “First impressions” blog post.  There’s still plenty to discuss on the thorny, complicated, and massively important topic of slavery during the American Revolution — and given Abigail’s new and extremely interesting role in TURN, I have no doubt that upcoming episodes will provide plenty of opportunities to talk about it.  It’s a delicate subject to portray on TV or film, that’s for sure.  What were YOUR first impressions of TURN’s inaugural venture into the subject of slavery, readers? Feel free to sound off in the comments!

.annaabby2 annaabby3

 

 

 

 

 

Other Notices

Site notice 1: Holy backlog, Batman! Between a multi-day absence and a misbehaving spam filter, there are an awful lot of outstanding questions and comments in the blog’s moderation queue. If you’ve submitted a question or comment lately, my apologies – I’m working on them ASAP. It’s great to see that readers’ spy-curiosity remains unabated!

Site notice 2: The post on the gravestone conundrum of Episode 4 (“Eternity How Long”) will be slightly delayed due to ongoing revisions, since I found a few surprising new sources dealing with the subject. And the Historical Timeline will be updated very soon. Thanks for weathering the dry spell, faithful readers! We now return to our regularly scheduled programming…

-RS