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.)
TURN 1x06 execution 1

  • 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

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Reader Requests: Deadly discipline and button-spotting

    John Johnson said:
    May 14, 2014 at 12:13 am

    >(Or pretty much the entire John Adams miniseries from HBO… but I digress.)

    There are lots of things wrong with HBO’s John Adams. The first episode is particularly bad, but there are many historical inaccuracies throughout the series. It does a pretty good job with the atmosphere (i.e. set, clothing, props, etc.), which isn’t surprising given the relative difference in budget between Turn and John Adams.

    Regarding the “USA” stamp, early American-made rifles were being stamped with “U.S.”, “U.States”, or “United.States” as early as 1777–so probably about the same time as buttons with the “USA” stamp on them.

      spycurious responded:
      May 14, 2014 at 9:05 am

      Oh yes — I didn’t mean to give the impression that “John Adams” was perfect, by any means! Like TURN and other tv shows/movies, it’s historical fiction, not a documentary. (Well… it’s often described as a “docu-drama,” which is really another way of saying “historical drama” that tries to sound more serious.)

      However, I would argue that “John Adams” is the best example of a historical drama currently available. (And yes, I think its very generous HBO budget has something to do with that.) Those who are familiar with the fine details of Massachusetts history and/or 18th century material culture will still find plenty of errors to point out. But the balance it strikes between artistic license and documented history weighs more heavily on the side of history than any other drama out there that I’m aware of, which I personally find very refreshing.

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