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Did George Washington have a mental breakdown at Valley Forge?

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Greeting, TURNcoats, and Happy Finale Day! As Season 2 of TURN: Washington’s Spies comes to a close, there are certainly lots of plot points both factual and fictional to reflect upon.

One of the most controversial parts of Season 2 was undoubtedly the portrayal of George Washington in the episode “Valley Forge.” In that episode, Washington has an extreme mental breakdown resulting in flashbacks, hallucinations, nonsensical outbursts, and even a violent attack on his enslaved manservant, Billy Lee. The writers of TURN justified Washington’s “madness” by having Dr. James Thatcher diagnose him with “melancholia” as brought on by extreme stress — but as the Oxford English Dictionary notes, that term was rarely used in that context in the 18th century.

melancholia
While “melancholy” was a popular adjective in the 18th century, formal diagnoses of “melancholia” as a synonym for depression mental illness were not.

Perhaps the most memorable scene of the episode featured a dramatic camera angle that directly parodied a popular 20th century portrait depicting Washington kneeling in the snow. In the original painting, titled “The Prayer at Valley Forge,” Washington is meant to be praying to God. In TURN, Washington is pleading with a hallucination of his dead half-brother Lawrence in the midst of a mental breakdown.

Needless to say, this iconoclastic treatment of Washington caused quite a stir with TURN viewers. This blog was flooded with questions about whether or not there was any historical basis for Washington having a mental breakdown at Valley Forge, e.g.:

“In a recent episode George Washington appeared to have a mental breakdown as he struggled to make a decision. Is there evidence to support that?

“Is there any basis for Washington’s breakdown and conversation with his dead half brother at Valley Forge?

Given the potentially far-reaching implications of TURN’s insinuations that Washington was mentally unstable, I knew it was time to call in reinforcements to help set the record straight. To answer those questions, we TURN to a formidable authority on the subject: Mary V. Thompson, a Research Librarian at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington who has been researching, writing, and teaching about Washington for over thirty years at Mount Vernon.

Washington in the midst of a hallucination.
Washington in the midst of a hallucination in the TURN episode “Valley Forge.”

Mary V. Thompson writes:

All of the questions you’ve received are basically asking the same thing and would get the same answer. There is no evidence at all that George Washington was dealing any kind of mental breakdown either at Valley Forge, or any other time in his life.  Throughout that winter of 1777 – 1778, he was dealing with serious supply issues, which he was able to rectify, as well as some rather under-handed attacks on his competency as commander-in-chief (the Conway Cabal), which he handled rather deftly.

As she did for all eight years of the Revolution, Martha Washington spent the winter at Valley Forge with her husband.  In a letter to a friend she wrote about what she found in camp that year:

The letters of Martha Washington, who was with her husband at Valley Forge, provide some of the best insight into the General's mental state.
The letters of Martha Washington, who was with her husband at Valley Forge, provide some of the best insight into George Washington’s mental state.

“I came to this place about the first of February whare I found the General very well…The General is in camped in what is called the great Valley on the Banks of the Schuykill officers and men are cheifly in Hutts, which they say is tolerable comfortable; the army are as healthy as can well be expected in general – the Generals appartments is very small he has had a log cabben built to dine in which has made our quarter much more tolarable than they were at first.”

Please note that there was no mention of a crisis on the part of her husband.

This is in decided contrast to a letter she wrote two years later, after the winter at Morristown, New Jersey, which was the worst of the war, in regard to the weather.  At that time, George Washington was also dealing with soldiers angry about not being paid and threatening mutiny.  This is what Mrs. Washington had to say about that winter after it was over:

“…we were sorry that we did not see you at the Camp – there was not much pleasure thar the distress of the army and other difficultys th’o I did not know the cause, the pore General was so unhappy that it distressed me exceedingly.”

Again, her husband was unhappy and preoccupied, but nothing worse.

There were times in the early years of the war, when George Washington seems to have been feeling overwhelmed or pessimistic about the incredible burden he had taken on as head of the American army, but that is a far cry from having a mental breakdown.  I’ve pulled together some of these below.  I think it is particularly interesting that, in many of them, he turns to his religious beliefs as a way of putting the situation into context.  Although the story about Washington praying in the snow at Valley Forge has been discredited, it does seem to me that, if Washington turned to anyone about the terrible months at those winter quarters, it would have been to his God.

George Washington to Joseph Reed, January 4, 1776

“…for more than two months past, I have scarcely immerged [sic] from one difficulty before I have [been] plunged into another.  How it will end, God in his great goodness will direct.  I am thankful for his protection to this time.  We are told that we shall soon get the army completed, but I have been told so many things which have never come to pass, that I distrust every thing.”

George Washington  to Joseph Reed, January 14, 1776

“…If I shall be able to rise superior to these and many other difficulties, which might be enumerated, I shall most religiously believe, that the finger of Providence is in it, to blind the eyes of our enemies; for surely if we get well through this month, it must be for want of their knowing the disadvantages we labour under….”

George Washington to his favorite brother, John Augustine Washington, December 18, 1776

“You can form no Idea of the perplexity of my Situation.  No Man, I believe, ever had a greater choice of difficulties and less means to extricate himself from them.  However under a full persuasion of the justice of our Cause I cannot [but think the prospect will brighten, although for a wise purpose it is, at present hid under a cloud] entertain an Idea that it will finally sink tho’ it may remain for some time under a Cloud.”

George Washington to his step-son, John Parke Custis, January 22, 1777

“…How we shall be able to rub along till the new army is raised, I know not.  Providence has heretofore saved us in a remarkable manner, and on this we must principally rely….”

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Mary V. Thompson is a Research Librarian at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington in Mount Vernon, VA. She is currently responsible for research to support programs in all departments at Mount Vernon, with a primary focus on everyday life on the estate. Mary has authored a variety of articles, as well as chapters in a number of books, and entries in encyclopedias. She curated the travelling exhibition, Treasures from Mount Vernon: George Washington Revealed, which opened in 1998 and travelled to five cities over the next 18 months. More recently, she authored the book In the Hands of a Good Providence: Religion in the Life of George Washington (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008), for which she received the 2009 Alexandria History Award from the Alexandria [Virginia] Historical Society and the 2013 George Washington Memorial Award from the George Washington Masonic National Memorial. She was a major contributor to both The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association: 150 Years of Restoring George Washington’s Home and Dining with the Washingtons: Historic Recipes, Entertaining, and Hospitality from Mount Vernon, published by Mount Vernon in 2010 and 2011, respectively. She is currently putting the finishing touches on a book focused on slave life at Mount Vernon.

Sources:

“Worthy Partner”:  The Papers of Martha Washington, compiled by Joseph E. Fields (Westport, CT:  Greenwood Press, 1994

The Writings of George Washington, compiled by John C. Fitzpatrick (available in multiple formats, including e-book)

National Archives’ Founders Online database

 

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Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hewlett: The Loyal-est Loyalist

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As of this point in Season 2, Major Hewlett’s character has taken a rather interesting TURN (forgive the pun). He’s undoubtedly one of the most complex characters in the entire show, and has more fans than one might expect, given the color of his coat! This week, Todd Braisted brings us yet another detailed look at one of the most influential Loyalists in the TURN universe — and who was a major player in the real-life history of Revolutionary Long Island, too! -RS

.law order authority

Often lost in the shuffle of TURN’s vision of Setauket is Richard Hewlett, played by actor Burn Gorman. The show has decided to have this Long Island-born American loyalist portrayed as only a major, but in actuality, Hewlett served his whole seven year career in the Revolutionary War as a lieutenant colonel. In TURN, Burn Gorman delivers a convincing portrayal of Hewlett as a somewhat mild-mannered professional veritably obsessed with “law, order, and authority.” On screen, Hewlett is an aloof British outsider to the Long Island community whose unflinching dedication to his duty and occasional displays of humanity and compassion make him a sympathetic character, in spite of his role as an antagonist. His likeability has prompted many TURN viewers to wonder: What was the real Richard Hewlett like?

Richard Hewlett was born on 1 November 1729 at Hempstead, Queens County, Long Island to Daniel Hewlett and Sarah Jackson. In 1753, at the age of 24, he married Mary Townsend (five years his junior) in Hempstead, and over the next twenty years they would have eleven children together, all Long Island natives just like their parents.

(Editor’s note: As you may have guessed by this point, there is nothing to substantiate any rumor of romantic interest or infatuation between Richard Hewlett and Anna Strong. They were both in lasting, stable marriages and raising very large families of their own by the 1770s, with no documented evidence of marital strain. Yet another fictional Anna Strong romance invented for the TURN storyline. When will we reach critical mass? – RS)

Soon after his marriage, Hewlett would soon be swept up in the winds of war blowing between France and Great Britain – a conflict known in America as the French and Indian War. Hewlett served as Captain in a New York regiment of Provincial (read: American) troops under Colonel Oliver DeLancey and saw plenty of action in Canada. In 1758, Hewlett’s corps helped capture Fort Frontenac from the French, the site of modern Kingston, Ontario.

Hewlett Belt Plate
Sword Belt Plate, ca. 1778. Stamped ‘L. FUETER’ Verso; Silver, Lt. Col. Richard Hewlett, 3rd Battalion, DeLancey’s Brigade. New Brunswick Museum, Saint John, 2005.42.2.2 (Click to enlarge.) For more information about the New Brunswick Museum: http://www.nbm-mnb.ca

With the end of hostilities in 1763, Richard Hewlett returned to Long Island where he became a leader in the Hempstead community and served as lieutenant colonel of the Queens County Militia. As the Revolution approached, Hewlett, through inclination and family connections, remained steadfastly loyal to the British. Indeed, Queens County by far was overwhelmingly Loyalist in its support of the British, so much so that New Jersey militia under Colonel Nathaniel Heard were sent in January 1776 to confiscate the arms of the inhabitants and render them less dangerous. Hundreds of Hempstead residents likewise signed a submission, apologizing for causing “uneasiness” in their neighbors by their politics and pledging to never take up arms against the Americans. Six members of the Hewlett family were amongst those that signed this document – but not Richard.

By August 1776, William Howe’s army had landed on Long Island and by the end of the month had routed Washington’s forces at Brooklyn Heights. Amongst the first to greet the British was a large group of Loyalists from the island, possibly including Hewlett. Within a week, these men would become the very first officers and soldiers in a brigade of three battalions to be raised by (now) Brigadier General Oliver DeLancey, Hewlett’s former commander from the French & Indian War. DeLancey’s recruits would come primarily from Loyalists in Queens and Suffolk Counties of Long Island, as well as Connecticut, with a smattering of Rebel deserters and prisoners of war.

Recruiting could be dangerous on Long Island during the war. Even the very first episode of TURN featured the murder of a British officer (Captain Joyce) as a major plot point. On September 24th, 1776, one of DeLancey’s would-be officers named Miller was shot and killed by a raiding party on their way to… yes, the town of Setauket!

But Richard Hewlett would face no such danger. To the west of Setauket, Queens County (despite Nathaniel Heard’s previous efforts) still remained predominantly loyal to the British, with hundreds of recruits flocking to the royal standard after hostilities began. Hewlett was commissioned on September 5th 1776 as lieutenant colonel of the 3rd Battalion, DeLancey’s Brigade, commanded by Colonel Gabriel G. Ludlow. Although liable for service anywhere in America, Lieutenant Colonel Hewlett never left Long Island during the war, nor did the majority of his battalion. As we have discussed in previous posts, Hewlett and his men were stationed at Setauket during Parsons’ August 1777 raid, a.k.a. the Battle of Setauket (depicted with considerable artistic license in in TURN’s Season One finale).

The Battle of Setauket, as minor as it was in the overall scope of the war, was actually Hewlett’s only moment of glory in the contest. While he received considerable praise from General Clinton for his defense of the post, Hewlett was no fan of the town itself, as evidenced by his letter to Major General William Tryon soon after the Setauket raid. Hewlett’s letter wonderfully describes the chaos of the town during Parsons’ visit, and even sheds some interesting light a certain Setauket resident viewers of TURN might recognize by name! (The letter below has been slightly edited for readability; to read a direct transcription, click here.)

 

I take the Liberty to give You an Account of the Behaviour of some of the Inhabitants of this County when lately visited by the Rebels, that Your Excellency may have an Idea what kind of Subjects many of them are.

            Our Hospital was at some Distance from the Works – as there was not a convenient House nearby – When we were attacked by the Rebels – a Party of them was sent to it – those Sick who were able [to walk], attempting to make their Escape – were fired at. Jonathon Thompson who lives next to the Hospital, seeing which Way they ran, Called out to the Rebels “here here they run” pointing with his Hand the Way they went. Samuel Thompson Son of the above at the same Time endeavoured to intimidate the Inhabitants – By telling them – Our Fort had surrendered – that the Rebels intended staying two or three Days – and had a twenty Gun Ship and [a] Number of Privateers in the Sound – Stories well calculated to prevent our having Assistance.

            Men of this ungenerous Stamp endeavour further by sly underhand Methods to defraud [the] Government. Their Young Men go over to Connecticut and enter the Rebel Service while their Fathers and Friends take Mortgages on their Estates – and secure in the Oath of Fidelity – hug themselves when they think they have saved their Property. There is a constant Correspondence between Connecticut & this Country carried on to a most daring Degree I am well convinced. The late Party that came over robbed only me and my Officers] Doctor Punderson & Mr. Hubbard of our Horses – they must have been particularly pointed out to them as they made great Inquiry after a fine Horse of Captn. Allisons on which one of our Men made his Escape that Morning…           

selah1
Selah Strong, as played by Robert Beitzel.

            I have this Instant while writing the following authentic Information lodg’d against a Justice Selah Strong by a Gentleman from Connecticut – that he [Strong] wrote to Genl. Parsons there were a Number of Vessels collecting Forage at Southold – Guarded by a fourteen Gun Schooner and fifty Men on Shore under the Command of Captn. Raymond – who might easily be surprised. That he secreted a Deserter three Weeks who went by the Name of Boyd – that he has repeatedly sent Intelligence to the Rebels in Connecticut of the Situation of the Troops in this Place by John and Cornelius Clark. This very Mr. Strong has pretended to be our Friend – and several Times given Information of the last named Persons being over – but not until they were gone. What Security can Government receive – while there are such Villains ready to stab her in secret?

            That Success may attend your Excellency’s Arms and all Traitors be discover’d is the sincere Wish of Your most oblig’d humble Servt.

            Richard Hewlett
.           Lieutenant Colonel.

The above letter deliciously gives a real look at what was going on in Setauket at the time. It also foreshadows the arrest of Selah Strong, who was detained for “treasonable correspondence with His Majesty’s enemies” and then sentenced to imprisonment on one of the infamous British Prison Ships in New York harbor. (Selah’s arrest and imprisonment is depicted over the course of several episodes in Season 1 of TURN – although, like most real events in the show, it didn’t happen until years later in the war.)

Lloyd's Neck
Map of Lloyd’s Neck, showing the fort on the left side. Courtesy Library of Congress. Click to enlarge.

For the remainder of the war, Hewlett and his battalion would garrison different posts on Long Island, only occasionally seeing combat. On September 29th, 1779 Hewlett was commanding at the major post of Lloyd’s Neck, on the north shore near Huntington, when four vessels flying British colors sailed into the harbor protected by the fort where the garrison lay. Upon sailing by the fort, the ships lowered their British flags and “Showed their Thirteen Stripes.” The four rebel privateers immediately boarded and captured a brig and three sloops before being fired on by the two small four pounder cannon within the fort. Hewlett credited this artillery with the saving of over a dozen other vessels, as the rebels “Seemed not to like our Cannon.” The ships sailed off, content with their four prizes.

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Major Hewlett fanart courtesy of Kiku Hughes (geniusbee.tumblr.com)

Hewlett’s last official command was the dubious honor of commanding all the Provincial regiments heading to the River Saint John, Nova Scotia in September 1783. The end of the war left thousands of Loyalists seeking asylum in what remained of British North America. For many, that translated to what is now modern Canada. Hewlett’s instructions, which must have been extremely painful, were to take charge of the remainder of the Provincial Forces in what would become the Province of New Brunswick and disband them. The war was over, their side had lost, and their services to the king were no longer needed. The lieutenant colonel would retire on half-pay and settle on a free grant of land in the small hamlet called Gagetown on the Saint John River. Here the former resident of Queens County and defender of Setauket would die in 1789, six years after the official end of the war. Judge Thomas Jones, the contemporary Loyalist historian remembered him as “a bold, spirited, resolute, intrepid man.” Another British officer, in sizing up the various Provincial field officers at the end of the war, summed up our Loyalist character simply and succinctly as a “good, useful man.”

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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. His newest book, Grand Forage 1778: The Revolutionary War’s Forgotten Campaign, will be published in 2016.

“Repulsed with Disgrace”: The Battle of Setauket

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Just in time for the premiere of Season 2 of TURN: Washington’s Spies, we’ve got the real story behind the Battle of Setauket, the historical event that (very loosely) inspired the Season 1 finale. But wait… red-coated Continentals and green-coated Loyalists? How’s a TURN viewer supposed to tell the two sides apart? Thankfully, we’ve got a new post from Todd Braisted below to help set the record straight. He’s even dug up the story of a little-known likely British informant whose ability to blend in may have determined the battle’s outcome before the first boat set sail from Connecticut.  For more historically-accurate intrigue, read on — and don’t forget to tune into AMC tomorrow night for the two-hour premiere of Season 2!  -RS

The morning of August 22nd, 1777 dawned hot and humid over Long Island Sound. Through the early mist, vigilant sentries would have seen a small flotilla of different sized vessels approaching the area of Crane’s Neck, a jut of land northwest of the town of Setauket. In those vessels, sloops, whaleboats and other small craft, those same sentries would have espied scores of red coats, coming to surprise the garrison of Americans in the town.

…Except the men in red were Continental Army troops, men of Colonel Samuel B. Webb’s Additional Continental Regiment, fighting for George Washington – and the Americans garrisoning Setauket, dressed in green, were loyalists in Brigadier General Oliver DeLancey’s 3rd Battalion, fighting for King George.  Huh?

.hewlitt yeesh
When we last left our friends at TURN during the Season 1 finale, the British were holed up in a church in Setauket, Continental troops were trying to dislodge them, and the psychotically evil Simcoe was blowing some poor sod’s brains out.  This was their version of the Battle of Setauket, a real event which took place on 22 August 1777. Like most things in the show, however, what is seen on the screen is not exactly as it was in 1777.

The origins of what would become known as the Battle of Setauket started nearly a week before, when Major General Israel Putnam, commanding officer of the Continental troops guarding the Hudson Highlands, sent orders to Brigadier General Samuel Holden Parsons to gather up 400-500 Continentals from the troops under his command at Fairfield, Connecticut, joined to whatever number of Connecticut Militia he found necessary, as well as artillery, and “deplete and destroy” all parties of the enemy at Huntington and Setauket, Long Island. Besides the enemy, Parsons was to bring off or destroy all “military stores, magazines, provisions, forage or naval stores” found on Long Island. Finally, if all went swimmingly, he was to release all the U.S. officers held as prisoners on the island – which would have been no small task to accomplish, given that they were actually dozens of miles away in Brooklyn and Queens.

Samuel B. Webb, commander of the chromatically confusing Continental "redcoats."
Samuel B. Webb, commander of the chromatically-confusing Continental “redcoats.”

Parsons in turn placed the Continental troops, drawn from the Connecticut Line, under the command of Colonel Samuel B. Webb. Webb himself commanded one of the sixteen “additional regiments” of the Continental Army, so-called because they were over and above the quotas of regiments raised in specific states. Webb’s regiment would have certainly confused the majority of TURN viewers, because they were clothed in red coats with yellow facings – actual British uniforms captured en route to Canada. And given they would be fighting against green-coated Loyalists (as opposed to the red coated British depicted in the show), there is no doubt viewers without a deep knowledge of period military material culture would have been left scratching their heads trying to figure out what the hell was going on.

On the eve of the expedition, Parsons issued his orders, which in turn were read to the troops. The orders rather resembled a locker room pep talk, reminding the men of the “honor of our arms and the righteousness of our contest.” They were by no means to “distress the helpless women or honest citizen,” nor were they to plunder, leave their ranks, or talk on the march. Those violating these orders were told they would receive “the most exemplary punishment.”

"Map of Connecticut and Parts Adjacent," 1777. If you look closely you can see Suffield, CT (top center), Fairfield (central CT coast), Setauket (North shore of LI), and Crane's Point. Map courtesy of the Historical Map Collection (MAGIC) at UConn: http://magic.lib.uconn.edu/historical_maps.htm
“Map of Connecticut and Parts Adjacent,” 1777. Click for full resolution. If you look closely you can see Suffield, CT (top center), Fairfield (central CT coast), Setauket (North shore of LI), and Crane’s Point. Map courtesy of the Historical Map Collection (MAGIC) at the University of Connecticut: http://magic.lib.uconn.edu/historical_maps.htm

One of the “militiamen” that may have been mingling amongst the gathering expedition in Fairfield was a short twenty-one year old with a contracted hand and crooked finger named Stephen Pangburn. With a musket and bayonet, and wearing a brown coat and other civilian clothes, Pangburn would have looked like any other militiaman, except he was in fact a soldier in the 3rd Battalion, DeLancey’s Brigade. Pangburn was not a spy, but rather an escaped prisoner of war, captured in a raid on Sag Harbor the previous May. Lodged in a private home in Suffield, CT to assist with labor, Pangburn escaped with the arms of the house on 10 August 1777 and apparently traveled the 75 or so miles south to Fairfield, where he would have seen all the preparations for the expedition. Stealing a boat or perhaps hitching a ride with a Loyalist heading to Long Island, Pangburn returned to Setauket – and his battalion – on August 20th and no doubt gave complete intelligence of what was headed their way. Parsons’ element of surprise was gone.

While the strategic surprise was gone, the actual timing was still unknown, so when Parsons’ troops landed on Crane’s Neck, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hewlett and his men belonging to DeLancey’s Brigade were not entirely ready to receive them. To be sure, Hewlett had taken great pains to fortify himself as best he could. The Presbyterian Church in town was indeed fortified as seen in the show – but not with gravestones.  The church had an earthen breastwork thrown around it, six feet high by six feet wide and thirty feet from the building itself, in which were mounted four swivel guns – very light artillery pieces meant for short range work. The church and the earthworks would safely accommodate Hewlett and his green-coated garrison. Where Hewlett fell short was in removing his sick men from town.  It must have been a chaotic scene, with the ill and injured making their way, running, stumbling, limping to the church while under fire, and some of the town’s residents pointing out their whereabouts to the invaders.

When all of Parsons’ troops assembled – 749 by one count, including Caleb Brewster – the general sent a summons to Colonel Hewlett, demanding the post be surrendered “to prevent the effusion of human blood.” The Loyalist officer, who had previously sent word of the invasion to his commander Brigadier General Oliver DeLancey at Huntington, sought to play for time to allow reinforcements to arrive. Hewlett sent his compliment to Parsons, and requested thirty minutes to consult with his officers on the matter. Parsons granted but ten minutes, when he received the reply that Hewlett “is determined to defend his post while he has a man left.” The battle was on.

A photo of the blue historical marker on the present-day Setauket Green.
A photo of the blue historical marker on the present-day Setauket Green.

After all the huffing and puffing, it was not much of a battle. Parsons opened fire with his artillery, which was returned by the Loyalists. There was no great charge, or glorious repulse. Some men were hit on both sides, by one American account Parsons himself was wounded in the left arm. Two Loyalists, Chambers Townsend and John Wilson, both privates in DeLancey’s, were killed in the fighting. At least one soldier under Webb was hit, and Loyalist newspapers reported “great quantities of blood [were] found on the ground the rebels occupied.”

Samuel Holden Parsons3
Brigadier General Samuel Holden Parsons. In 1780, Loyalist Judge Thomas Jones met Parsons and described him this way: “He was a plain, mean-looking old man, had more the appearance of his original occupation [shoemaker] than that of a soldier; he had long hair which hung about his ears, a brown homespun coat, buckskin breeches, a red laced waistcoat, blue yarn stockings, a pair of shoes that I fancy were made by himself, and an amazing long silver hilted sword.”
After all of three hours in the town, the firing ceased. No drama was forthcoming. Both sides were probably uncomfortably hot and tired. What was envisioned by Israel Putnam as a dramatic sweep through Suffolk County was over after it had barely begun. Parsons embarked and returned to Connecticut with his trophies: some blankets and the horses of Lieutenant Colonel Hewlett and his officers. The reinforcements sent to Hewlett’s relief, some men from the 1st Battalion DeLancey’s and Queens County Militia, never even made it to town before Parsons was safely sailing back across the Sound.

So why the hasty departure? The reason sometimes given by the Americans was that British armed vessels were in route to trap the invaders on the island, although no such ships were ever sent. The army gave the reason that their artillery fire was ineffectual against the works surrounding the church and that sound of battle would draw British reinforcements from all over. Captain Frederick Mackenzie of the British Adjutant General’s Department made note in his journal of a final letter sent by Parsons to Hewlett. Mackenzie would only comment that the entire exchange was “somewhat curious,” before transcribing in his journal: “General Parsons’s Compliments to Colonel Hewlett, and should have been happy to have done himself the pleasure of paying him a longer visit, but the extreme heat of the weather prevents him.”

For their part, the British were very pleased with the conduct of the Setauket garrison. Sir Henry Clinton, commanding at New York, issued orders saying he “desired particularly to Express his Approbation of the Spirited behaviour and good Conduct of Lieutenant Colonel Hewlet, and the Officers and Men under his Command in defence of the Redoubts at Satauket on Long Island, in which Lieutenant Coll. Hewlet was attacked by a large body of the enemy with Cannon, whom he repulsed with disgrace.”

It should be noted that, purely by coincidence, there ended up being three major attacks on the British around New York City that day, all completely coincidental and entirely uncoordinated. That fact of course was not known by the British. Some of Hewlett’s compatriots in the 2nd Battalion of DeLancey’s were engaged in fierce though small fight at Valentine’s Hill, north of Kingsbridge, who likewise drove off their attackers. Most seriously, two thousand Continentals under Major General John Sullivan landed on Staten Island, capturing about 130 Loyalist New Jersey Volunteers, but losing over 270 badly needed troops intended to reinforce Washington in Pennsylvania. And speaking of Pennsylvania… At the time of the Battle of Setauket, Captain John Graves Simcoe of the 40th Regiment of Foot was at that moment on board a transport ship with the rest of Sir William Howe’s Army nearing the Head of Elk, Maryland. It is not believe the captain arbitrarily executed any civilians on board during the voyage.

Myth busted: Simcoe was in Pennsylvania when the real Battle of Setauket occurred. (With half-hearted apologies to what is perhaps TURN's most iconic scream.)
Myth busted: John Graves Simcoe was off the coast of Maryland when the real Battle of Setauket occurred. (With half-hearted apologies to what is perhaps TURN’s most iconic scream.)

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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. His newest book, Grand Forage 1778: The Revolutionary War’s Forgotten Campaign, will be published in 2016.

 

The 1777 Garrison of Setauket

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Greetings, readers! We’re kicking off the TURN postseason with a series of posts by Todd Braisted covering a number of heavily-requested topics related to the Battle of Setauket. Today’s post covers the British — or rather, not-so-British — military presence in Setauket in 1776 and 1777, and includes a primer on the distinctions between American-born “Provincials” and British regulars. Contrary to what we’ve seen on screen, Setauket was not awash in a sea of redcoats in the months leading up to the Battle of Setauket in August 1777.  In fact, there were likely no redcoats stationed there at all… -RS

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One of many tense scenes between the townspeople of Setauket and British troops in Season 1 of TURN. (Episode 104: Eternity How Long)

The first season of TURN has brought the central Long Island town of Setauket to life, showing us residents of one political persuasion or another living amongst a garrison of British soldiers. In TURN, the townspeople, though technically British colonists, are not thought of as “British,” and the scarlet-clad soldiers shown interacting with the residents certainly wouldn’t be considered American. But how does the Hollywood setup compare to what actually happened? In this piece, we will examine the actual troops that were in town during the time the show has covered in its first season, from December 1776 to August 1777. The historic reality may surprise you…

For the bulk of this time period, the main British and Hessian forces were located around New Brunswick, New Jersey under Sir William Howe, or in New York City and its immediate environs. Located nearly 60 miles from lower Manhattan, the Setauket garrison was quite isolated from other British posts, the bulk of which were in Brooklyn or Queens. The job of the troops stationed there was simply one of defense and the protection of the countryside from rebel incursions from Connecticut. The British therefore saw little need to waste valuable European troops in Setauket. Instead, they used loyal American forces.

Detail of a 1777 map that shows the relatively remote location of Setauket compared to the rest of the British Army. Setauket is circled in blue to the right; New York City is circled in red, and New Brunswick is located just west of Amboy, in the direction of the red arrow. Click to view the full original map. (Library of Congress)

Throughout the 18th century, the British had authorized their colonies to raise their own regiments to augment the relatively limited number of British Regulars available to fight the French and/or Indians during the different wars then raging (known collectively as the Colonial Wars).  During the French and Indian War of 1756-1763, these Provincial Forces, or “Provincials,” consisted of tens of thousands of Americans who provided valuable service in successfully driving the French out of North America.

TURN01 - Rogers2
Robert Rogers was renowned for his exploits as an American-born soldier in service to the British Crown during the French and Indian War. Twenty years later, British officials hoped that Provincial units would once again turn the tide of war in their favor during the American Revolution.

At the outbreak of war in America in 1775, the British saw no reason not to repeat the process: Let the “good” Americans help subdue the “bad” Americans. But the process for doing this in the American Revolution would be far more complicated than during the previous wars. Previously, colonial legislatures, flush with subsidies from Parliament, had raised regiments on a colony by colony basis to serve against the French – but there was no such infrastructure to do that in 1776. The British, therefore, needed to rely on influential individuals to raise troops both where the British held sway and more commonly, clandestinely behind the lines. One such individual, as we have seen on TURN, was Robert Rogers, whose Queen’s Rangers became one of the first Provincial regiments raised in the New York City area. In September 1776 though, the wheels would be in motion to raise troops specifically on Long Island. Lots of them.

By 1776, Oliver DeLancey had been a prominent New York politician for decades. Through his political and family connections, he was a man involved in all aspects of the colony’s governance. He had seen service in the French and Indian War and was considered by the British as both influential and reliable, having a son then serving as a captain in the British 17th Light Dragoons. On 5 September 1776, the senior DeLancey was authorized to raise a brigade of three battalions for service “Solely for the defence of [Long] Island and to reestablish Order, and Government within the Same, to Apprehend or drive all Concealed Rebels from among his Majesties well Affected Subjects & other essential Purposes…”

DeLancey's
Reenactors dressed in the documented green and white uniforms worn by DeLancey’s Brigade and the majority of other American Loyalist (Provincial) forces. Click for more information about this regiment.

DeLancey immediately set about picking out the men he wished to lead his battalions. They in turn would issue warrants to those who would recruit the men (their success in recruiting would earn them their commissions as officers). Based on family names, the 1st Battalion under Lieutenant Colonel John Harris Cruger appears to have been raised primarily in Suffolk County, the 2nd Battalion under Colonel George Brewerton from western Long Island, New York City and Connecticut, while the 3rd Battalion under Colonel Gabriel G. Ludlow was heavily recruited in Queens County. It was actually Colonel Ludlow’s loyalist battalion, not any British redcoats, that formed the garrison of Setauket during the time when TURN takes place.

Far from the spiffy looking British portrayed in the show, the 3rd Battalion of DeLancey’s would not have even had uniforms of any sort until clothing arrived from England at the end of March 1777. And it would not have been the red coats folks are used to seeing Crown Forces wear, but rather a green regimental coat, with white lapels, cuff and collar. This was the uniform worn by the 5,000 or so Provincial troops raised in the New York City area at that time. Prior to this, the men would have served in whatever they wore from home, looking much like their rebel counterparts.

What is not known is exactly when the DeLancey’s 3rd Battalion (i.e., the battalion led by Colonel Ludlow) arrived at Setauket. In the beginning of 1777 the battalion was at Huntington NY, moving to Oyster Bay the 2nd week of May. Ludlow and his men were then relieved by the 1st Battalion and the King’s American Regiment about three weeks later, at which point they most likely moved to Setauket. WhileColonel Ludlow may have led the troops there in early June, the command soon devolved upon the battalion’s second-in-command, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hewlett. Yes, the real Hewlett, who (like Robert Rogers) was an American-born Loyalist.

We have a very good idea how many men were in town at the time of the Battle of Setauket (which we’ll discuss in a forthcoming post), as muster rolls of the battalion are dated just two days after the attack took place in August 1777. In addition to Lieutenant Colonel Hewlett, there were five other named officers, along with 5 lieutenants, 4 ensigns, 4 or 5 staff officers, 13 sergeants, 14 corporals, 5 drummers and 145 privates present and fit for duty, organized into five companies. Others were either absent elsewhere or sick. Relatively speaking, as far as battalions and garrisons were concerned, this one was pretty small.

While it may have been confusing for a general audience, it would have been wonderful to see an accurate portrayal of green-coated Loyalists – mostly native Long Islanders – interact with the residents of a Long Island town! Of course, “British vs. colonist” confrontation is easier to write, easier to portray, and easier for most to relate to. To expect more of an entertainment series is probably just wishful thinking, but still… (n.b. What an incredible dynamic that would have created!)

In any case, the Setauket garrison would be short-lived. On 17 November 1777, Sir Henry Clinton, commanding at New York and stripped of troops to reinforce Sir William Howe at Philadelphia, ordered Setauket abandoned and the fortifications there destroyed. Lieutenant Colonel Hewlett and his men dutifully complied, moving to Herricks, Queens County, about 35 miles to the west. While British troops would again occupy posts in Suffolk County, Setauket would generally spend the rest of the war free from a military presence, other than troops occasionally passing through.

hewlett horseAs for Lieutenant Colonel Hewlett, we will cover him (and his men) in greater depth over the next few weeks. He’s not going anywhere. And while the series is off for the summer, someone should tell Burn Gorman — aka “Major Hewlett” — that he needs to lobby Craig Silverstein and the producers for a promotion!

(n.b. For more information about the men and officers of the Provincial brigades mentioned in this post, check out the library of transcribed primary source documents on royalprovincial.com.)

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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.

 

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.

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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:

moffet letter
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.

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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

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.

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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.

 

The Calamitous Captivity of John Graves Simcoe

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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

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John Graves Simcoe as portrayed by Samuel Roukin in TURN.

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.

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Detail of an 18th century map showing the distance between British occupied New York City and Perth Amboy (bottom left). Click to view full map.

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 »