At the end of TURN’s first season, actor Samuel Roukin hinted that Season Two would only be bigger and better for John Graves Simcoe and the Queen’s Rangers. Revolutionary War historians immediately assumed this likely meant that he would take command of the Queen’s Rangers – but then again, given the many liberties the show had already taken with the character of Simcoe, nobody could be certain. Sure enough, by the end of Episode 2 in the second season, Simcoe had undergone quite the dramatic change as commander of the Queen’s Rangers – emphasis, of course, on “dramatic.” For more illuminating detail on this fateful TURN of events, we once again turn to Loyalist expert Todd Braisted. Enjoy! -RS
Did Simcoe’s takeover of the Rangers really occur as portrayed on TURN, with a psychotic madman scalping and shooting one of his own men to get some street cred with a band of ruffians who look better suited to fight the Pirates of the Caribbean? If you have been following our posts for the past year, you likely know the answer – but before we discuss Simcoe’s entrance, let’s take a step back and examine exactly why (a beardless) Robert Rogers actually lost command of the Rangers in the first place.
When the corps was first raised in the summer and fall of 1776, Rogers appointed a number of rather interesting men as his officers. Some of these men were “mechanics,” (tradesmen), while “others had kept Publick Houses and one or two had even kept Bawdy Houses in the city of New York.” A “bawdy house” was an 18th Century term for a brothel – the keepers of which were generally not considered worthy to be officers in His Majesty’s Service. Some of Rogers’ appointed officers were accused of “scandalous and ungentlemanlike behaviour” in robbing and plundering the inhabitants, along with defrauding soldiers of their enlistment bounty money. The rank and file of the unit were a mix of Loyalists from the greater New York City area along with rebel deserters and prisoners of war. One company of the Rangers, under Captain Robert Cook of Massachusetts, appears to have been composed primarily or even entirely of blacks. The composition of the Queen’s Rangers under Robert Rogers was unconventional, to say the least. Before too long, the unit found itself a target for reformation and reorganization.
The first step to reforming the corps was to remove Rogers from command, which was effected on 30 January 1777 when Major Christopher French of the British 22nd Regiment of Foot was placed in charge of the corps. French, a former hero of the French and Indian War, was ordered to report to the newly appointed Inspector General of Provincial Forces, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Innes, whose first piece of official business was to examine the accounts of the Queen’s Rangers. For the next two months Innes reviewed all the financial paperwork of the unit, as well as the state of the different companies and the conduct of the officers. By the middle of March 1777, Innes began to make his mark on the Provincial Forces, attempting to mold them into the same image as regular (and more respectable) British corps. With the approval of Sir William Howe, British commander-in-chief, Innes ordered all the corps to discharge any blacks, mulattoes, Indians, sailors or other “improper persons.” Blacks afterwards would not serve in the Provincial Forces (other than the unarmed corps of Black Pioneers) except as pioneers, drummers, trumpeters and musicians. They definitely would not be made second in command of the Queens Rangers…
Once Innes had accomplished this piece of business, he was ready to lay the hammer down on the officers of the Queen’s Rangers. The day after Innes had requested Howe’s permission to discharge the black Loyalists from the units, Rogers was ordered to present a list of all his officers, and those who had received warrants to recruit men. Of the thirty-three officers examined Innes determined only seven were worthy of continuing in the corps (which would almost immediately be diminished by one when Captain Job Williams murdered Lieutenant Peter Augustus Taylor). Rogers and the remaining twenty-six officers would all be stripped of their commissions (without benefit of any courts martial, a legal requirement for which Howe and Innes would be sued after the war) and set at liberty to pursue new careers. To be fair, some of these men were guilty of nothing more than serving in the wrong corps at the wrong time. Seven of these dismissed officers soon found their way into other Provincial units and served with distinction for the remainder of the war. A nucleus of the dismissed officers would become a major pain in the butt for any British officer or government official willing to listen to them, spending the remainder of the war constantly applying to have their commissions – and all their back pay – restored.
The officers who took the place of Rogers’ officers were a mix of American Loyalists and young volunteers from Great Britain who had come to make their mark in the war and start their careers in the army. Major French, who had served as the caretaker commander of the Queens Rangers during its reformation, was allowed to return to his British regiment while the Rangers received another British officer to lead them: twenty-nine year old Scottish Major James Wemyss of the 40th Regiment of Foot (the actual unit John Graves Simcoe was then serving in as a captain.)
It was Wemyss who really put the discipline in the corps that it would display later that summer of 1777 when it was a part of the Philadelphia Campaign. That discipline would be put to the test on September 11th, 1777, when the Queen’s Rangers was ordered to assault across the Brandywine Creek, in the face of close range Continental Artillery. As a part of the force under Hessian General Knyphausen, the corps boldly charged the artillery and helped win the day for the British. As The Pennsylvania Ledger later reported:
“No regiment in the army has gained more honor in this campaign than the Queen’s Rangers; they have been engaged in every principal service and behaved nobly; indeed most of the officers have been wounded since we took the field in Pennsylvania. General Knyphausen, after the action of the 11th September at Brandywine, despatched an aide-de-camp to General Howe with an account of it. What he said concerning it was short but to the purpose. “Tell the General,” says he, “I must be silent as to the behaviour of the Rangers, for I want even words to express my own astonishment to give him an idea of it.”
The following appeared in orders: “The Commander in Chief desires to convey to the officers and men of the Queen’s Rangers his approbation and acknowledgement for their spirited and gallant behaviour in the engagement of the 11th inst. and to assure them how well he is satisfied with their distinguished conduct on that day. His excellency only regrets their having suffered so much in the gallant execution of their duty.”
That one day would be the bloodiest in the history of the corps, with seventy-three of their men (including eleven officers) killed and wounded. (Among them was Captain Job Williams, who perhaps became reacquainted with Lieutenant Taylor in the afterlife.) This was probably a quarter of the Rangers who fought in the battle, and at least a third of the officers.
Elsewhere on the same battlefield, a red-coated British Grenadier officer, Captain John Graves Simcoe, was also wounded. It would be his last battle as a red coat.
On October 15th, 1777 Captain Simcoe was on duty “at the Batteries on Mud Island” in the Delaware River when he received orders to take command of the Queen’s Rangers. The twenty-five year old Englishman arrived in the City of Philadelphia the following day, where he joined the corps. The Rangers at that time were indeed in the city, not in the woods, and needless to say, Simcoe did not scalp or shoot any of them upon his arrival. They also did not have any palpable disdain for regular British officers, having served commendably under their command for the past nine months. It should be pointed out that, contrary to what we’ve seen on TURN, there were more than just two dozen badly-dressed men in the regiment. The strength of the corps was about 425 enlisted men, wounded and absent included.
Simcoe would model the Rangers more or less on British lines, at least at first. The corps would have a grenadier and light infantry company, but also an “eleventh [company] was formed of Highlanders” who “were furnished with the Highland dress, and their national piper, and were posted on the left flank of the regiment.” By the end of November, Simcoe would mount a few of his men as “hussars” or light cavalry as well as arm a few of the men with rifles, the weapon so often associated with Washington’s frontiersmen. The dress of the corps at this time was almost certainly the same as the other Provincial units of the time — green coats faced white with hats — not the distinctive dress later associated with the Rangers and which is now shown in the series. That uniform would be first worn in late February 1780, after the corps received the honor of being awarded the name of 1st American Regiment — an appellation still used by the modern-day Queen’s Rangers, who now serve as an Armoured Corps of the Royal Canadian Army. The real Rangers under the real Simcoe would be very active around Philadelphia through the winter of 1780. It will be interesting to see what the showrunners decide to do with that historical information. If we are to believe Mr. Roukin, only bigger and better things lie ahead for Simcoe and the Rangers…
Finally: Many readers have also asked about the significance of the crescent moon on the Queen’s Rangers uniforms. Again, there is no evidence this symbol (or “device”) was used before 1780 which is when the Rangers received their famous and distinct uniforms pictured above. As for the history of the device, this is what the modern-day Queen’s Rangers have to say about it:
During the American Revolution, and later during service in Upper Canada, Rangers wore on their headdress a crescent moon, symbol of Diana, Roman goddess of the hunt. As a reminder of this, the symbol is emblazoned on the Regimental guidon. The crescent moon has taken on a mythology of its own among members of the Regiment, and remains a popular unofficial symbol to this day. It is often found sewn discreetly to the back of bush hats, or perhaps more recently attached with velcro to body armour. Rumour has it the Ranger crescent has been spotted (or, ideally, not spotted) as far afield as Bosnia, Afghanistan, Cyprus, and many other places in between.
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.
Here it is, readers: the oft-requested, long-awaited Braid Post. Major Andre’s mysterious white braid has been the subject of heated discussion among TURN viewers since day one, who — regardless if they love it or hate it — are dying to find historical justification for its appearance in the show. If I had a dollar for every time someone mentioned John Andre’s braid in their discussion of TURN, I might have enough money to buy my own cabbage farm on modern-day Long Island. (Although, since I’m more of a Major Hewlett-esque oenophile, I’d probably opt for a vineyard instead).
The reason why I haven’t previously posted anything about The Braid is because my own searches for historical justification had been coming up short for weeks. (Well, actually, I did find a similar braid, but needless to say, it didn’t exactly have an 18th century provenance.)
After sifting through scores of contemporary images — including French fashion plates, satirical macaroni prints, British officer portraits, and even Native American hairstyles — I found nothing resembling the curious, tightly-braided strand that, by all appearances, seems grafted onto either Major Andre’s scalp or his natural hair. (I suppose it could also be his natural hair that he had somehow bleached white, but that would be an even stranger explanation.)
Plenty of 18th century wigs AND natural hairstyles featured braided queues, of course — but nothing like the tiny silver braid running down the side of Andre’s head. As we can see in the screencap to the right, Andre’s “side-braid” is not the same as the braided queue on his dress wig.
While the widespread lack of evidence does show that these little braids were not fashionable or popular during the American Revolution, I figured that the production team at AMC must have seen something that inspired them to include such a conspicuous and unusual fashion accessory for Major Andre’s character. So I held off on writing a post about The Braid, and kept searching.
Finally, I happened upon an obscure painting in the collection of the Huntington Library in San Marino, CA, titled “A Soldier, called Major John Andre.” Lo and behold, there appears to be a tiny silver plait running behind the subject’s left ear! Mystery solved! Historical justification for Major Andre’s braid in TURN. It’s an open-and-shut case, right?
Well… not entirely. For one thing, this isn’t actually John Andre. Not the John Andre we’re all thinking of, anyway.
If you look at the catalog entry for this painting on the Huntington Library’s website, you’ll see that the artist, the provenance, and even the date of the painting are all unknown. We do know, however, that John Andre belonged to the 7th Regiment of Foot, also known as the Royal Fusileers (or Fuzileers, if you use the preferred 18th century spelling). So if this IS the John Andre we’re familiar with, he should be wearing a Royal Fuzileers uniform appropriate to the era of the American Revolution.
Fortunately for us, several years ago this portrait came to the attention of a select group of historians who specialize in 18th century British military history and are perfectly capable of answering any uniform-related questions: William P. Tatum III, Justin Clement, Christian Cameron, and Professor Gregory Urwin of Temple University. Drawing upon their encyclopedic knowledge of British regiments, they weighed in on the subject of the painting and concluded that it was not Major John Andre of the 7th Regiment of Foot. I am indebted to Will Tatum for providing me with the following list, which sums up their main reasons:
- The lace on the regimental coat is the wrong metal– the 7th Royal Fuzileers had gold lace, while this officer has silver.
- The buttons are in pairs, a practice that is as yet undocumented to the 7th Regiment during the period in question, and which in general is more indicative of a later-war or into the 1780s date.
- The wing [patch] on the shoulder, while appropriate for light infantry, features the three feathers of the Prince of Wales. This was a special insignia reserved for a short list of regiments that enjoyed the Prince’s patronage — a list which did not include the 7th Regiment.
- The helmet is of the so-called Tarleton style, so identified because Banastre Tarleton sports one in his British Legion portrait. This one includes a leopard-skin turban, usually seen on Light Dragoons. The helmet does not match the style of light infantry cap authorized for British troops by the 1771 Light Infantry warrant [regulations], nor does it correlate with any of the non-regulation hat-caps and other light infantry headgear that have been documented to this period. There is some suspicion that the Tarleton Cap became the accepted light infantry cap after 1784, but there is as yet no hard documentation to back this idea up. Since the Tarleton Cap was a mid-war innovation, its presence suggests that the portrait dates from after 1777.
- Also notable is the portrait’s background: St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. This would be a strange choice for Andre, who served exclusively in America.
- Finally (though this point might be debatable), the facial features of this sitter don’t match well against other purported portraits of Andre that have superior provenance.
As you can see, the devil is in the details. In this case, the details overwhelmingly prove that the officer in this painting did NOT belong to the 7th Royal Fuzileers, and is NOT Major John Andre of Revolutionary fame. (Hopefully the above list will also help dispel any lingering Hollywood-fueled notions that “all Redcoat uniforms were the same.”)
It’s quite possible that this painting is of another completely unrelated British soldier named John Andre, which was not an especially unique name in late 18th century Britain. It’s also quite possible that this painting was mistakenly mislabeled sometime in its shrouded history. Either way, there is little doubt that this painting was the inspiration for Major Andre’s braid in TURN — so at least that mystery has been solved. It is also clear that this painting does not provide solid historical justification for the way Andre’s braid is depicted in the show. Regardless of the soldier’s identity in this painting, it is clear that the little braid is part of his wig, not grafted onto his natural hair or scalp. As we see in the pictures above, the designers went out of their way to show that the little braid is a separate entity. Even if Major Andre’s braid has some creative backstory that is slated to be revealed on a future episode TURN, it is clearly an example of historical fiction, not historical fashion.
So there you have it, readers — hopefully the above foray into historical fashion has shed some light on one of the most elusive and talked-about depictions of material culture in TURN thus far. (The other one being, of course, Abe Woodhull’s wool cap.) Spread the word! And if you have any more questions or braid-theories, send them this way via the ask page, tumblr, or Twitter. And don’t forget to follow along for the live-blogging on tumblr and Twitter tonight!
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.)
- 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.
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!
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:
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!
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!)
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.)
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!
Greetings, readers, and welcome to Week 3! The demand for historically-informed commentary about TURN is clearly very high, as evidenced by the whirlwind of the past few weeks here at “TURN to a Historian.” I want to take a moment to thank the fans and readers who have submitted questions and comments via social media or the “Ask a question” page or comments threads on this website — your input helps immensely by letting me (and other guest writers) know exactly what people are spy-curious about! This is the first post (of many, I hope!) that will address a reader-requested topic.
Today we’re discussing the most talked-about item of clothing in the TURN series so far: Abraham Woodhull’s gray wool cap.
Yes, you read that correctly. There’s been plenty of talk on social media about women’s too-long gown sleeves and John Andre’s bizarre little braid and the shiny brass helmets of Tallmadge’s dragoons – but none of those have generated as much buzz as Abraham Woodhull’s highly covetable “beanie,” as it’s often referred to on Twitter, tumblr, and Facebook. Of all the material culture shown on TURN thus far, I never would have guessed a humble workman’s cap would be the thing to go viral. Perhaps it’s because the simple hat looks so familiar and modern to 21st-century eyes. In fact, some of you might own a knit cap that looks nearly identical to the one pictured above.
First, a note on etymology: while the 20th-century word “beanie” has been the descriptive word of choice on social media, it has never been used in the show itself. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “beanie” was first used to describe small knit caps in America in the 1940s. In the 18th century, a beanie-style head covering would simply be referred to as a “cap.”
Abe’s popular little cap is a bright spot of authenticity amidst a lot of less-than-stellar material culture in the show so far. While cocked hats were common for business, travel, and formal occasions (for example, if one were solemnly swearing a loyalty oath to King George III in front of the entire town), they were hardly the only headwear option available for men in the late 18th century. Material culture historian and Colonial Williamsburg curator Linda Baumgarten puts it simply: “When men relaxed at home or performed physical labor, they often removed their cocked hats and wigs and put on soft caps.” (What Clothes Reveal, 108.) These caps ran the gamut from plain, simple, wool caps (like Woodhull wears in TURN while working in the field) to exquisitely embroidered linen caps that wealthy men would wear with matching banyans (fashionable kimono-style robes) when lounging around at home. (Colonial Williamsburg has a great glossary of men’s clothing terms for readers unfamiliar with the basics of 18th century fashion, which covers banyans and several types of hats/caps.)
While knitted caps came in a variety of shapes and sizes in the 18th century, the gray cap seen in TURN closely resembles a Monmouth cap, a simple knitted wool cap popular among seamen and other working-class men because they were functional and inexpensive. Monmouth caps, named after a bustling port city on the English-Welsh border, were a common sight throughout the British Empire for centuries – they’re mentioned by name in the works of Shakespeare and remained popular well into the 19th century. And depending on what you use as an example, you could make a good argument that Monmouth caps are still with us, in spirit at least, in the shape of modern-day beanies.
For more information on hats and caps of the 18th century, you can check out a slideshow of primary sources at the 18th Century Material Culture Resources Center – the section on wool caps begins on slide 90 — or costumer Mara Riley’s list of secondary sources pertaining to knitted caps. Finally — for the real hardcore TURN fans — there are many “sutlers” (merchants) who sell hand-made reproductions of 18th century knitted caps. Reputable sutlers like South Union Mills use period-correct materials, period-correct processes, and are always eager to discuss the sources and documentation behind the items they sell. (And yes, their caps come in gray.)
So that wraps up our first reader requested blog post topic. More to come soon! Thanks to all you fans and loyal readers for your support thus far — and keep the questions and comments (and amazing tumblr gifsets) coming!
While I’m working on a longer post concerning the convoluted chronology of TURN’s pilot episode, I thought I’d write a short post concerning a (literally) tiny realm of 18th century material culture seen in the show thus far: babies!
Little Thomas Woodhull, whom Abraham fondly calls “Sprout,” steals the spotlight at the beginning and end of the TURN pilot episode. (His very appearance is a bit of a chronological anomaly, but we’ll discuss that later.) Abraham mentions that his son is “almost a year old” as he eggs him on to start walking on his own. Adorable outfit he’s wearing, right? Breeches and a linen shirt, like the little colonial man he is! Except what he should be wearing at that tender age is… a gown.
Yes, a gown, as in “a dress.” Sometimes boys even wore stays, too.
For the first few years of a child’s life in the late 18th century, regardless of gender, he or she would wear a gown, a loose-fitting garment that could be tied, pinned, or buttoned shut. Once they were several years old, boys and girls would then make the transition to outfits that were miniature versions of men’s and women’s adult clothing. For boys, this was often a celebrated childhood milestone. Linda Baumgarten of Colonial Williamsburg writes:
“The time when a little boy went from skirts to pants, which was called, ‘breeching,’ occurred anytime from age three to seven and was symbolic of his first step toward becoming a ‘little man.'”
So yes, if you were to time-travel back to the era of the American Revolution, you might very well see a young six-year-old boy wearing stays and a gown. In fact, in 1790, Benjamin Tallmadge’s own son was wearing them at the tender age of three. For more information, I highly recommend reading Linda Baumgarten’s primer on colonial children’s clothing (the source of the above quote). And if you weren’t sure what I was talking about when I mentioned ‘stays’ earlier, don’t forget to check out Baumgartner’s very helpful glossary of clothing terms, too. Additionally, you can browse through a slideshow of primary source images concerning children and babies over at the 18th Century Material Culture Resource Center.
So little Thomas “Sprout” Woodhull appears to be quite the little hipster baby — wearing breeches before they were cool. (He’s not even a year old and he’s already turning Setauket into the Brooklyn of the 18th century!)
In this case, I could understand the rationale behind “breeching” little Thomas several years early in TURN. A little boy wearing a feminine gown would be confusing and strange to the average 21st-century viewer, and distracting enough to detract from the main storyline. (Don’t believe me? Look at the above painting and take a guess as to how much airtime would be needed to explain that boy’s outfit to a modern-day viewer.) Still, the fact is that little hipster Sprout’s outfit IS several years ahead of his time, according to the historical record. I know — not exactly a hugely significant issue in the greater storyline of TURN (and definitely not as big of a sartorial gaffe as, say, the bizarre garb that the Queen’s Rangers are wearing), but I thought readers might enjoy a small and pleasant domestic diversion while I finish making sense of the premiere episode’s Swiss-cheese timeline. And don’t worry — we’ll be discussing plenty of military details here on the blog soon enough.
Also, if you haven’t seen the preview for next Sunday’s episode yet, you can view it here. And don’t forget to join the fun over at TURN to a Historian’s Facebook Page and tumblr account. More on the way soon!