After a season full of historically-inappropriate spy gadgetry (and almost two full seasons of teasing us with cameos in the TURN opening credits), it was truly refreshing to see one of the most famous and most bizarre inventions of the American Revolution in action on the small screen. I’m talking, of course, about the submarine Turtle, invented by Connecticut patriot David Bushnell in the 1770s.
At first glance, the real-life story of the Turtle seems too fantastical to be true. Even its very design – an odd, bulbous, wooden contraption with a small copper tower, detachable gunpowder kegs, and all sorts of hand-cranks, pedals, screws, and knobs – seems more appropriate to the world of Victorian steampunk fiction than the 18th century. It’s no wonder the Turtle has been an object of cultural fascination ever since news of it trickled into the public consciousness. Even today, you can find all sorts of Turtle paraphernalia for purchase: from t-shirts to 1/32 scale models to pre-made 3-D renderings of the 18th century submarine “ready for your game development.”
But beyond its funky quasi-steampunk appeal, there is a whole lot of historical significance ascribed to the Turtle – and for good reason. The US Navy’s historical division (a.k.a. Naval History and Heritage Command) has put together an excellent summary of the Turtle’s military achievements, which you can read in full on their research website devoted to the tiny wooden sub:
The submersible Turtle [was] the world’s first combat submarine. Named Turtle because its inventor, David Bushnell, believed the craft resembled “two upper tortoise shells of equal size, joined together,” it saw action in the first days of the American Revolution. Designed in 1771-1775 while Bushnell was a Yale College undergraduate, it embodied the four basic requirements for a successful military submarine: the ability to submerge; the ability to maneuver under water; the ability to maintain an adequate air supply to support the operator of the craft; and the ability to carry out effective offensive operations against an enemy surface vessel.
To achieve these requirements, Bushnell devised a number of important innovations. Turtle was the first submersible to use water as ballast for submerging and raising the submarine. To maneuver under water, Turtle was the first submersible to use a screw propeller. Bushnell was also the first to equip a submersible with a breathing device. Finally, the weaponry of Turtle, which consisted of a “torpedo,” or mine that could be attached to the hull of the target ship, was innovative as well. Bushnell was the first to demonstrate that gunpowder could be exploded under water and his mine was the first “time bomb,” allowing the operator of the Turtle to attach the mine and then to retire a safe distance before it detonated.
That’s quite a long list of firsts! In multiple ways, the Turtle was an engineering marvel ahead of its time. Another remarkable feature of the Turtle was its use of bioluminescent fungi as a light source. No, really! Known both then and now as “foxfire,” the phenomenon of glowing blue-green fungus found in decaying wood is documented back to ancient times, and Bushnell was smart enough to see it as a viable alternative to oxygen-sucking candle flames. (If you love ingenious details like these, then I highly recommend you check out the original description of the Turtle’s form and function as written by Dr. Benjamin Gale in November, 1775. It reads like a science fiction novel!)
The Turtle’s Maiden Mission
The fact that the American forces had a fully-functional submarine in their arsenal in 1776 is impressive enough – but on top of that, the Turtle’s wartime mission was remarkably complex, especially for an experimental piece of technology. The Turtle was conceived and built not for reconnaissance or stealthy transport, but to blow up enemy vessels by means of attaching timed underwater mines (i.e. small kegs of gunpowder with special fuses) to their hulls. Once again, from the Naval History and Heritage Command website:
Bushnell had devised Turtle as a means of breaking the British blockade of Boston harbor but because of problems with the vessel… the British fleet had departed from that harbor before Turtle was operational. The first attack on an enemy vessel [the British warship HMS Eagle] by Turtle took place in New York harbor in September 1776. Turtle functioned as anticipated, but the attack… did not succeed. Two subsequent attempts to attack British warships were thwarted by navigational issues and tides. Before Turtle could be re-deployed, it was sunk along with the sloop transporting it by enemy fire on 9 October 1776. Although recovered, Turtle saw no further service. Its eventual fate remains a mystery.
Although it did not achieve military success, Turtle was seen by men of the time as a revolutionary development. In 1785, George Washington wrote Thomas Jefferson: “I then thought, and still think, that it was an effort of genius.” The problem with Turtle, as the former head of the Naval Historical Center, Admiral Ernest M. Eller wrote, was Bushnell’s expectation that just one man could “carry out the combined duties of diving officer, navigator, torpedoman, and engineer, while at the same time fighting tides and currents and propelling the boat with his own muscles.”
While a submarine “practical” for warfare with range, power and reliability had to await the coming of the mechanical age, Turtle was an indispensable first step, which made future developments possible.
In short: The Turtle was a truly Revolutionary submarine, and it led to David Bushnell being credited as the Father of Submarine Warfare. But why did Ezra Lee’s attack fail? This excerpt from Connecticut History’s excellent article on the Turtle explains it, using Lee’s own testimony:
Later [in life], Lee described his unsuccessful attempt to fasten the mine [to the HMS Eagle]. “When I rowed under the stern of the ship, could see men and deck and hear them talk-then I shut all doors, sunk down, and came up under the bottom of the ship, up with the screw against the bottom but found that it would not enter.” Unable to affix the mine and with daylight upon the water, Lee decided to make for shore before the vessel was discovered by passing boats. But it was too late. Guard boats put off from shore in his direction and soldiers mounted the fort on Governor’s Island to catch sight of the strange craft.
Lee writes that he “let loose the magazine [mine] in hopes, that if they should take me, they should likewise pick up the magazine, and then we should all be blown up together…” Ezra Lee did not lack courage, only experience in a craft no one on earth had ever before piloted in action. The mine did explode, frightening off the pursuing guard boat; Lee escaped with his life and with Bushnell’s machine.
So how accurate is TURN’s use of the Turtle in the Season 2 episode “Providence”? TURN scores much higher than usual regarding historical accuracy when it comes to their use of the Turtle! In case there was any doubt, none of the Turtle’s missions involved Caleb Brewster or any part of the Culper Spy Ring whatsoever; if you look at our TURN Historical Timeline, you’ll find that the real-life Turtle set sail two full years before the Culper Spy Ring was even formed.
That said, the show’s incorporation of the submarine into its alternate history storyline was certainly entertaining, and it very closely paralleled pilot Ezra Lee’s original mission of 1776. (The notable exception being Caleb’s success in blowing up an enemy ship with an underwater mine where Lee had failed!) The Turtle used in the show is a dead ringer for the meticulously-researched 21st century museum replicas, and Caleb even mentions the use of Foxfire as a light source! Regarding Ben Tallmadge and “Davey” Bushnell meeting at Yale: Tallmadge (Class of 1773) was two years ahead of Bushnell (Class of 1775) at Yale, so their educations did overlap by two years. However, since Bushnell matriculated at the unusually ripe old age of 30 and was therefore twice as old as the average Yale student, he may have had less social interaction with his fellow undergraduates than a typical student — so Tallmadge’s line about how he “didn’t know much” about him makes a lot of historical sense, too.
All the Turtles of the World
If you want to see (or climb into) a Turtle yourself, Connecticut is a good place to start. The State of Connecticut is pretty darn proud of its submarine heritage: During the Revolutionary War, CT native David Bushnell’s efforts found widespread support among prominent Connecticut patriots like Silas Deane and Governor Jonathan Trumbull, who actually ended up convincing George Washington to support the Turtle venture. Modern-day Groton, Connecticut, the “Submarine Capital of the World,” is home to an active US sub base, the nuclear submarine manufacturer Electric Boat, and a museum that houses the first nuclear submarine in the world, the USS Nautilus.
So it’s little surprise that Connecticut is home to at least three full-size Turtle replicas. Two of them reside at the Connecticut River Museum in Essex; one is a cutaway model you can climb in yourself, and the other is a fully-functional reproduction that embarked on its maiden voyage in November of 2007. Another cutaway model, complete with a mannequin of Ezra Lee inside, can be found at the same Submarine Force Museum in Groton, CT that is home to the USS Nautilus.
The Royal Navy Museum in Gosport, England also has a Turtle replica, although their model is likely an older one, given that it’s much more spherical than the more recent, 21st century American replicas.
Finally, I thought I’d end this post by sharing some modern-day Turtle-related News of the Weird. It turns out that not every replica of the Turtle belongs to a museum; at least one of them belongs to an eccentric artist in New York City who found himself in trouble with the authorities on more than one occasion. Observe:
No, this isn’t a parody account of a Loyalist newspaper from 1776 — this incident happened in 2007! Philip “Duke” Riley, an artist with a history of embarking on legally-questionable stunts, built a working Turtle replica out of cheap plywood with the goal of stealthily approaching a British ship in New York Harbor (in this case, the Queen Mary II) in order to take pictures for an upcoming art installation. Riley and his two co-conspirators were promptly arrested after the New York Police and Coast Guard swooped in to intercept the little wooden sub. The New York Times (and plenty of other NY-area papers) published a full account of the bizarre and comical event that, like the Turtle itself, is almost too incredible to believe. The usually-stoic NYT wrote that Riley’s sub “resembled something out of Jules Verne by way of Huck Finn, manned by cast members from “Jackass.””
If you were feeling charitable, I suppose you could argue Mr. Riley was helping to keep the fascinating legacy of the Turtle alive in his own… unique way. On his own website, which has plenty of additional pictures and video of the submarine launch, he claims his voyage helped expose persistent security lapses surrounding New York Harbor. Whatever your opinion of Riley’s “marine mischief,” at least we got to see a replica of a Revolutionary War submarine on the cover of the New York Post, complete with a snarky headline!
There’s so much for to be said about the history of the Turtle and the brilliant innovation that went into it, but alas, there is only so much we can stuff into one blog post! For more Turtle articles, primary sources, sketches, and other resources, see the Further Reading section below.
Further Reading/Resources on the Turtle:
US Naval History and Heritage Command: Research page on the Submarine Turtle
This page is the online mother lode of primary source documents concerning the Turtle. Several of these descriptions of the Turtle sound like old science fiction novels — they are some of the most easy-to-read and engrossing 18th century documents you’ll ever come across. Be sure to check out Benjamin Gale’s original description of the Turtle in 1775, and Ezra Lee’s firsthand account of his adventures piloting the Turtle in 1776! You can also read post-war correspondence between George Washington and Thomas Jefferson concerning the Turtle.
Connecticut History article: David Bushnell and his Revolutionary Submarine
Excellent article with more detail on Bushnell and the innovations that made the Turtle unique.
NavSource Online: Turtle Submarine Photo Archive
Collection of photos, diagrams, and sketches of the Turtle from a variety of sources.
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.
It’s my pleasure to present the following guest post on the real Robert Rogers and Queen’s American Rangers of 1776 written by Todd Braisted, a foremost scholar of American Loyalists during the Revolutionary War. If you’ve seen TURN and haven’t yet cracked open a history book to find out more about Rogers, you might be surprised at some of the facts that follow! -RS
Robert Rogers of 1776
One of the main characters in the premiere episodes of TURN has been Robert Rogers, leader of the Queen’s Rangers. Rogers is a fascinating and colorful figure of America’s military past. Born in Massachusetts in 1731 and raised in New Hampshire, his exploits in leading a corps of rangers for British military service during the French & Indian War (1754-1763) became the stuff of legend. Rogers’ “Rules of Ranging,” a manual of (then) unconventional military tactics for guerrilla warfare on the colonial frontier, are still used today (in an updated form, of course) by the modern United States Army Rangers.
But the Robert Rogers who joined the British on Staten Island in the summer of 1776 was a very different person from the famous ranger of ten or twenty years earlier. In 1767, he had been arrested by British Commander in Chief Thomas Gage and tried for a supposedly treasonous plot with the French. After being acquitted, he eventually went to England, returning to America only in 1775, after the breaking out of hostilities at Lexington and Concord.
As an eminently famous (or perhaps infamous) British officer upon half-pay, Rogers was mistrusted by the Americans. When found at Perth Amboy in New Jersey, he was placed under arrest and sent to George Washington in New York City. Rogers claimed he was simply heading to Congress in Philadelphia with recommendations for him to offer his services. Washington eventually sent Rogers on his way, under escort of an officer bearing a letter from Washington recommending that Rogers was not to be trusted.
Washington’s concern was well founded. Rogers gave his escort the slip and joined the British Army under Lieutenant General William Howe on Staten Island, where he made a tender of his services. Howe immediately accepted Rogers’ offer, authorizing him in early August 1776 to raise a battalion of rangers, believing they “may be very usefully employed in obtaining intelligence and otherwise Facilitating the operations now carrying on in America,” and making the American-born officer a lieutenant colonel. (Why the show calls him a major and he himself has a Scottish accent can only be answered by the producers…)
Rogers immediately set about issuing warrants to would-be officers who were expected to raise the men for the corps in order to receive their commissions. The gentlemen he issued warrants to were an interesting set of characters, which is putting it mildly. Normally, officers were indeed “gentlemen,” drawn from at least the middle class of society. Those of other Provincial (i.e. Loyalist) units were most often farmers, meaning they owned land, typically worked by others. Rogers’ crew was different. The officers of the new Queen’s American Rangers (as the corps was officially known) were not well received by either the British or the Inspector General of Provincial Forces, Alexander Innes, who later wrote of them: “Mr. Rogers had introduced into this Corps a number of persons very improper to hold any Commission, and their Conduct in a Thousand instances was so flagrant, that I could not hesitate to tell the General [Howe,] that until a thorough reformation took place, he could expect no service from that battalion…”
So what sort of men were these that had so riled up the Inspector? Again, in Innes’ words: “…many of these Officers recommended by Lieut. Colo. Rogers had been bred Mechanecks [mechanics] others had kept Publick Houses [inn keepers,] and One or Two had even kept Bawdy Houses in the City of New York.” (Yes, that means what you think it means.) One Captain Daniel Frazer, formerly a private soldier and tailor in the British 46th Regiment, was “an illiterate, low-bred fellow. Another, Captain John Eagles of Westchester County, New York, was “still more illiterate and low bred than Frazer…”
Despite this, the new corps recruited hundreds of men, many of them Loyalists from New York and Connecticut, but others amongst deserters and prisoners of the Continental Army. Contrary to their portrayal in TURN, however, the new corps looked nothing in appearance to the Ranger corps of the previous war (meaning: no bonnets). Indeed, the Queen’s Rangers of 1776 had no uniforms whatsoever, serving in the clothes they had on their backs when they enlisted. The British had been slow to realize they would need clothing, arms and accoutrements for thousands of American recruits once the war shifted to New York. With the first shipments of uniforms not arriving until the end of March 1777, the Rangers, as all other Loyalists raised in the area at the time, pretty much looked like the troops they were fighting.
Rogers only led his men in one battle, and it was not against Benjamin Tallmadge and his dragoons. On 20 October 1776, Rogers led his corps into Mamaroneck, Westchester County, New York, where they immediately became the target of 750 Continental and militia troops led by Colonel John Haslet of Delaware. The next night, the Continentals overwhelmed Captain Eagles’ Company of the Rangers, but the rest of the corps under Rogers managed to repulse the attack. Unknown to anyone at the time, Rogers had pretty much fought his one and only battle of the American Revolution.
Dismayed by Rogers and his officers, Inspector General Innes, with the consent of Sir William Howe, removed the old ranger officer from his corps in January 1777 and put it under the command of Major Christopher French of the British 22nd Regiment. Of the 33 officers under Rogers’ command, Innes and Howe on 30 March 1777 summarily removed all but 6 of them without benefit of trial. They would be replaced by proper gentlemen. Meanwhile, Robert Rogers would crawl into a bottle, at times taking leave of reality, and sinking into a financial abyss. In 1779, he would convince a new British commander in chief, Sir Henry Clinton, to allow him to raise a new corps, the King’s American Rangers, but that is a story for another time.
Interestingly, Rogers’ one historical anecdote of 1776 that involved spies has been conspicuously absent from TURN – his alleged involvement in the capture of that most famous of Rebel spies, Nathan Hale. Since the show does not appear to be keeping to any particular historical timeline, perhaps that will be discussed in a future episode.
And no, Robert Rogers did not have a beard.
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.
One of the most exciting elements of the TURN premiere is the debut of 18th century spycraft in the form of a shiny copper grille used by Abraham Woodhull to decipher a secret message hidden within a British letter. Not only is it a dramatic signal of Abraham’s decision to become involved in intelligence gathering — it’s also an authentic, documented method of spycraft used during the American Revolution!
This particular method of secret message writing is known as the Cardan system, and the copper plate is a version of a Cardan (or Cardano) Grille, named after Girolamo Cardano (aka Jerome Cardan), who invented it in the 16th century. John Nagy, in his book Invisible Ink: Spycraft of the American Revolution, provides a handy description:
“[A] Cardano Grille [was] a sheet of stiff material with irregularly spaced rectangular holes which was placed over the writing paper. The secret message was then written in the holes, the grille or mask removed from the writing paper, and a harmless message was filled in around the secret message to camouflage its being there. To read the message, an identical grille or mask was placed over the writing.” (Invisible Ink, p3)
When executed successfully, the “dummy” or cover message would be unremarkable enough to avoid raising suspicion that a secret message was contained within it. A letter authored by a British or Continental officer full of broken or awkward sentences would almost certainly be scrutinized for secret meanings if intercepted by the enemy. Even then, it’d be nearly impossible to discern the secret message without possessing the matching grille, which makes the Cardan system a fairly secure one. You need both pieces in order to decipher the real message.
The system was not without its weaknesses, however. The presence of the grille itself is almost guaranteed to arouse suspicion – as we see in the pilot episode when Abraham pulls the copper grille out of its envelope. Only after discovering the grille does he look around for something to match it with. (For that matter, the grilles were usually stiff paper or cardboard, and not shiny copper sheets that would attract attention and be more difficult to conceal. Paper grilles are much easier to create, and can be folded or rolled up for easier transport.) Abraham was also pretty fortunate to have discovered the correct orientation of the grille on the first try – since there are four possible ways to position a rectangular grille like the one we saw in the show. There’s a slight chance that the reader might take away an incorrect message if they position the grille incorrectly.
Some people expand the definition of the “Cardan system” to include all shapes and forms of message masks, but Cardano’s original method used rectangular cutouts exclusively. Sir Henry Clinton — the British general who appointed John André as his Chief of Intelligence — used numerous Cardan grilles and message masks in both personal and official correspondence, even as early as 1776. Many of them still survive in the Clinton Papers which are housed at the University of Michigan’s Clements Library. The contents of that collection strongly suggest that we’ll see other variations of “masked” messages in future episodes of TURN — so I won’t discuss those just yet.
During the Revolutionary War, the Americans preferred other forms of cryptography (secret writing) over grilles and masks. The Cardan Grille system is more accurately described as a form of steganography: a specific subset of cryptography that involves concealing a secret message within a larger, unrelated message.
This method of secret writing is an ancient one: both the Cardan grille and the usage of the word “steganography” date back to the 16th century. Just because it’s old, however, doesn’t mean it’s obsolete. Steganography is finding new life in our modern age of computers, with messages being subtly slipped into lines of computer code, or even into the arrangement of pixels in a digital image. (And you might even remember an especially amusing example of steganography that went viral and made headlines earlier this year.)
So there’s no denying it — some forms of 18th century spycraft are still alive and well today. I’m definitely hoping to see more excellent examples embedded into tonight’s new episode of TURN. Stay tuned for another “First Impressions” post after the debut of Episode 2, and don’t forget to follow @spycurious on Twitter for some live tweets during the show!