Caleb Brewster

Spy Chat in Fairfield: Revolutionary Spies in CT (Featuring Caleb Brewster and the Whaleboat Wars)

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(Edit: No, “Caleb Brewster and the Whaleboat Wars” isn’t the name of a band. But it SHOULD be.)

Happy new year, TURNcoats! The Season 3 premiere is only a few weeks away. Ahh, such anticipation. So much writing and previous-episode-binge-watching to do, and so little time! (Not to mention: So many “Ask a Question” queries to answer! We’re working on the backlog. 491!)

Hopefully you’ve been keeping your new-episode-anticipation in check over the past several months. AMC’s social media hype machine is now in full swing, and we’re dedicating an upcoming post to dissecting all the new official TURN hashtags (e.g. #washington1778), trailers, promo pics, and more. And to all our followers who joined during our inter-season hiatus: Greetings and welcome! You can browse the blog archives for Season 1 and 2 using the calendar in the right sidebar. Have a question or suggestion for an upcoming blog topic? Let us know!

Here at the blog, we’re kick-starting the new season hype with a bang, at a TURN-themed event at the Fairfield Museum and History Center in Fairfield, CT!

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I’ll be giving a general overview of TURN’s accuracies and inaccuracies and chatting about Connecticut’s central role in Revolutionary War espionage; Robert Foley of Black Rock Historical Society will be talking about the REAL Caleb Brewster (who settled in the Fairfield/Bridgeport area after war’s end) and the Caleb Brewster Digital Humanities Project; and Jackson Kuhl, author of Samuel Smedley, Connecticut Privateer, will talk about the many coastal raids of Long Island Sound that took place during the war.

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Fairfield Museum’s “Museum After Dark” series: No dress code (or wigs) required.

If you’re a TURN fan within driving distance of Fairfield County, CT, come join the fun! Plenty of the historical activities of the Culper Ring that (loosely) inspired TURN took place in or near Fairfield County, and Caleb Brewster’s a local hero ‘round these parts. (We’ve already touched upon the anachronistic language, mannerisms, and outfits of TURN’s highly-fictionalized Caleb Brewster, but there’s a whole lot more to the real-life historical figure than mere proper 18th-century dress!)

This talk is part of Fairfield Museum’s “Museum After Dark” program, which features informal panel-type discussions, wine and cheese, and plenty of stimulating, informed conversation. Free for museum members; $5 for non-members.

Interested? Meet us at gnu fiegh lh, jecljcimh 735. (Or you could simply check out the Museum After Dark event site for more details.)

-RS

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Stranger Than Fiction: The Revolutionary Submarine “Turtle”

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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:

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Life size, fully functional reproduction of the submarine Turtle from the Turtle Project, a collaboration between Old Saybrook (CT) High School and the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, Newport, Rhode Island. The submarine, piloted by Roy Manstan, was launched on 10 November 2007 at the Connecticut River Museum in Essex, Connecticut. Source: Naval History and Heritage Command website.

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!)

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Omphalotus nidiformis: One type of bio-luminescent fungus. Foxfire light is often very dim. This photo is the result of a 30-second exposure!

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:

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Drawing of the Turtle in action, attempting to drill into the hull of the HMS Eagle. Source: NavSource Online Submarine Photo Archive (see Further Reading section below)

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.

bt turtleSo 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

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Cutaway model of the Turtle in the US Navy Submarine Force Museum in Groton, CT.

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:

wcbs ledeNo, 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.””

NYpost 2007aug4If 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.

-RS

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.

Spycraft in TURN: Nathaniel Sackett’s Anachronistic Gadgets (Or: What year is this again?)

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Here’s a rhetorical question for you, fellow TURNcoats: Why make a show about Revolutionary War espionage when the spy technology you focus on most is from the 15th, 19th, and even 20th centuries?

You might reply: “Well… because it’s fun. And I can make a cool story out of it.” Great! That’s certainly a fair answer. But in that case — why would you try so hard to convince people that your story is fact-based and “authentic” to the 18th century when that argument is pretty much impossible to support?

I found myself asking these very questions while updating the TURN Historical Timeline to reflect the events portrayed in the last few episodes (thought admittedly not for the first time). We had to reconfigure the location of a few things on the Timeline this week in order to fit in more events at the tail end of it – two which occurred in the 19th century and one that even occurred in the early 20th century, well over 100 years after the end of the Revolutionary War! (You can check out the updated version by clicking on the image below, or visiting the Timeline page for additional information.)

TURN Historical Timeline version 2.1. Click to enlarge.
TURN Historical Timeline version 2.1. Click to enlarge.

“Nice gadgets you have there. But what happened to the 18th century?”

Historians might ask themselves “What year is this supposed to be again?” while watching TURN for a multitude of reasons (issues with clothing, uniforms, other material culture, language, false historical claims, premature character deaths, etc.) — but for this post, we’re focusing on intelligence history, which is what TURN is supposed to be about.  Heck, they even changed the official name of the show after Season 1 to clarify that the show is all about “Washington’s Spies”!  Thus far, however, TURN’s treatment of Revolutionary War espionage has been erratic at best.

When it comes to spycraft, Season 1 of TURN definitely started off in the right place, featuring period-correct techniques like Cardan grilles and even the original Culper Spy code — exciting, cunning, and historically-accurate stuff!  And TURN’s opening credits have been teasing us for over a year with a silhouette of the Turtle, the world’s first military submarine that actually debuted in 1776. (I’m saving a fuller discussion about the Turtle for later, in hopes that we’ll see it in the show soon.)

TURN opening credits montage final
TURN’s opening credits feature a number of espionage techniques. Some are accurate to the Revolutionary period; others are not. Clockwise from top left: Invisible ink on eggshells, the 19th century “polygraph” machine, a Cardan grille, and the Turtle submarine. View the full credit sequence here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zLFP6yCHUoA

We’ve also seen the occasional use of invisible inks (or, as they were often called in the 18th century, “sympathetic stains”) – but even that element of Revolutionary spycraft has been given a strange and uneven treatment in TURN. Instead of focusing on the state-of-the-art chemical compound developed by James Jay for the use of Washington’s spies (which is a fascinating true story)  the show seems near-obsessed with the novelty of writing invisible messages through the shells of hard-boiled eggs – a centuries-old technique that the Culper Spy Ring never actually used.

In his book Invisible Ink: Spycraft of the American Revolution, John Nagy sums up the origins and functionality of the “egg method” we’ve seen so often in TURN:

In the fifteenth century Italian invisible ink coverscientist Giovanni Porta described how to conceal a message in a hard-boiled egg. An ink is made with an ounce of alum and a pint of vinegar. This special penetrating ink is then used to write on the hard boiled egg shell. The solution penetrates the shell leaving no visible trace and is deposited on the surface of the hardened egg. When the shell is removed, the message can be read. (Invisible Ink, p. 7)

It’s a fascinating technique, and leads to quite a few dramatic (and highly amusing) moments in TURN. The only problem is that, according to the historical record, the Culper spies ever used the egg method — and neither did anyone else in the Revolutionary War, for that matter.  There is no record of the technique ever being used by either side.

But if Season 1’s use of Revolutionary War spycraft was fairly solid with a few aberrations, Season 2 is just the opposite — with anachronistic techniques far outnumbering the period-correct ones thus far.  Nathaniel Sackett’s “spy laboratory,” with its vials and beakers and fantastical super-weapons, is better suited to a steampunk movie than anything resembling the 18th century.  (So is the bearded, blunderbuss-carrying, leather-trenchcoat-wearing version of Caleb Brewster, but that’s a whole other post in itself.)

Now, in terms of making a storyline easy to follow, creating a centralized place as a sort of “spy headquarters” might make sense for a work of historical fiction, even if such a place never actually existed. However, nearly everything we’ve seen featured in Nathaniel Sackett’s anachronistic “spy lab” is from the 19th century – or even later. Besides the never-actually-used egg method discussed above, both of the most prominent examples of spy technology showcased in Season 2 so far were both invented long after the American Revolution was over:

1) John Hawkins’ letter-copying machine, or “polygraph,” Jeffersonpolygraph (mjaS2e3)which Tallmadge uses to forge a letter in the episode “False Flag.” Patented in 1803 – twenty years after the end of the Revolution – Hawkins’ machine greatly facilitated the arduous tasking of letter copying. Thomas Jefferson bought one for himself which visitors can still see today at Monticello. Jefferson was a huge fan of the innovative device, and he later said “the use of the polygraph has spoiled me for the old copying press the copies of which are hardly ever legible.” Before the late 19th century, the term “polygraph” was used to described copying devices like this one. You can read more about Hawkins’ polygraph machine in the Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia.

2) Nathaniel Sackett’s bogus “lie detector” from the episode “Sealed Fate.” I’m not even sure where to begin with this one. For starters, the modern-day polygraph or “lie detector” wasn’t invented until 1923. Italian scientists (who always seem to be at the forefront of spy technology!) started experimenting with measuring physical responses to lying and truth-telling in the late 1870s – which is still 100 years ahead of TURN’s Revolutionary War storyline. TURN’s version of Nathaniel Sackett must have been a true visionary to be able to throw together a prototype of a machine that wasn’t invented until after World War I. Too bad they decided to kill him off thirty years too early in the show. (Or as another viewer said on Twitter: “If only Sackett had lived. The Continental Army may have had tanks by 1781.”

Even if the bizarre machine wasn’t supposed to be taken seriously, Tallmadge’s use of the faux-polygraph as a form of psychological torture in order to extract information is just as historically inaccurate as the machine itself. We’ve covered the topic of torture extensively here in the blog.  If you haven’t read the original post, you should, but to make a long story short: Torture was very rarely used as a means to obtain intelligence in the Revolutionary War, in sharp contrast to what we’ve seen portrayed multiple times in TURN.

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The infamous “lie detector” scene was one of TURN’s featured promo pictures on their social media accounts.

Now here’s the frustrating thing: The American Revolution DID have plenty of awesome and innovative spycraft of its own – from creative concealment techniques to cyphers, masks and grilles, invisible ink, flamboyant messengers, and even “strange but true” experimental technology like the Turtle. It’s not as if the writers of TURN are starved for real-life examples of 18th century innovation.  (I’d like to point out that John Nagy’s book referenced above, which only deals with Revolutionary-era spycraft, is nearly 400 pages long.  There’s a LOT of historical material to work with.) It’s disappointing to see a show that was supposed to focus exclusively on Revolutionary War espionage morph into an anachronistic drama that has little regard for the time period in which it takes place — especially when the series started off on a much stronger footing.

Returning to our updated timeline: Season 2 seems to have left the 18th century behind in several other ways as well. In addition to using “futuristic” spy technology, we’ve recently seen real historical characters killed off decades too early and King George III turned into a drooling, raving lunatic long before his first recorded bouts of mental instability.  For all you viewers who were devastated at Nathaniel Sackett’s untimely death, you’ll be pleased to know that in reality, Sackett survived the Revolution intact, dying at age 68 in 1805.  Indeed, he served the contributed to the cause of American independence in a number of different capacities — in addition to his covert operations for Washington, he also was an active member of the Congressional Committee of Safety and later served as a sutler (merchant) for the Continental Army.

sackettintriguing
In reality, Mr. Sackett still had much to offer the young United States after his intelligence activities were over.

Like we’ve said many times before, here at the blog we understand the necessity of shuffling around some historical events in order to present a dramatic narrative that’s easier to follow. Plenty of events in TURN are off by only a year or two, which is reasonable by most people’s definitions. But as the episodes roll on, we’re finding we need to plot more and more events at the extremes of the historical timeline — including major events that play a central role in TURN’s unfolding storylines.  Regarding intelligence history — which is what the entire show is supposed to be about — the most prominently-featured spy techniques of TURN’s second season were never used in the Revolutionary War at all. The evidence strongly suggests that the writers and producers of TURN are increasing their disregard for the historical record as Season 2 progresses.  That’s not to say, of course, that there’s no hope left — indeed, my personal favorite episode of the entire series, chock-full of excellent historically-informed intrigue, occurred after the halfway point of the first season.  (Episode 6 of Season 1, “Mr. Culpepper,” for the record.)  So while the show is in the midst of a rather disappointing trend, there’s still plenty of time left in Season 2 for things to turn a corner. Here’s hoping the 18th century makes a comeback, and soon!

-RS

Accents and Anachronisms: What did people sound like in 18th century America?

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Today we’re tackling a popular subject: What’s going on with all the different accents in TURN? It’s one of our most-requested topics! The questions we’ve received range from skeptical commentary to pure curiosity (which tends to be the case with every topic, not just this one). We’ve chosen one example from each category below.  The greater takeaway is that among TURN viewers, there’s clearly a lot of interest in what people in the 18th century sounded like when they spoke. There’s a wealth of scholarship on 18th century linguistics out there, but for purposes of answering these TURN-related questions, we’ll try to tackle one small slice at a time — with plenty of links for further reading!

Question 1: “Yeah,” “Okay,” and Other Aggravating Anachronisms

Q1: “I am curious about the recent devolution of the King’s English this season. “Yeah”? “Great!”? Seems disappointingly anachronistic.”

Well, yeah! Great question. (wink)  Although as we can see from the pictures below, anachronistic speech has been present throughout TURN’s entire run.

slang1 slang2

(Once again, Caleb Brewster takes first place as the most egregious violator of 18th century standards: a quick script search shows that “Yeah” is one of his favorite replies to just about anything.)

While the words and responses above are good examples of modern words that are inappropriate for 18th century speech, just how “disappointing” they are is a good subject for healthy debate. Most modern viewers don’t even notice anachronistic words, inflections, and turns of phrase like “yeah” and “that’s great” because they’re so deeply ingrained into our everyday conversations. If you find your ears perking up at the sound of modern words in a historical setting, your historical spider-sense is finely tuned, indeed! (Readers: Are you bothered when you hear modern words and phrases in historical TV shows? Do you even notice them at all? Let us know in the comments!)

Your question brings up a very interesting larger point, however: Should a period TV show or movie aspire to linguistic purity as one of its goals? Of course, like everything else in historical fiction, it’s more than just a simple yes or no question; there’s a huge range of historically-informed possibilities to consider. Modern audiences would likely be lost if TURN used nothing but meticulously reconstructed 18th century American accents and vocabulary. However, words like “yeah,” “okay,” and even “hello” are pretty obvious anachronisms (well, obvious to anyone who’s studied the 18th century in depth) that could easily be swapped out for other period-correct alternatives.

The writers of TURN have touted the show’s very sporadic use of 18th century slang (like “chunder bucket” in Episode 8 of Season 1) – but while those occasional trivia tidbits are certainly fun, viewers shouldn’t be fooled into believing that the dialogue in TURN is a faithful representation of how people conversed in 18th century America.

Interested in more word histories? Want to try hunting down linguistic anachronisms yourself? Try searching online dictionaries like the extremely thorough Oxford English Dictionary or free sites like dictionary.com to look up the etymology (historical origins) of common words. Most etymologies specify a date range when the word in question was first observed in common use. Then, if you’re really ambitious, you can even search online transcripts of TURN (or any other historical show) to see if and when they pop up in the script!

words-1-001
Historical clues: What might a proper Englishman have sounded like in the 18th century? Click to see a full list of “Words written very different from their Pronounciation” written by Richard Hall, an 18th century gentleman living in England.

In order to try and piece together accurate vocabulary lists and speech patterns of the past, historians have to cross-reference as many letters, journals, diaries, schoolbooks, and other documents as they can find. It’s no easy task! (Yet another good reason for Hollywood to hire — and actually listen to — reputable historians as behind-the-scenes consultants.)  If you’re feeling ambitious, you can browse through Samuel Johnson’s famous 1755 dictionary for a better idea of how English speakers used certain words. For those who might be intimidated by total immersion in 18th century sources, Colonial Williamsburg has a fun, light, and very readable guide with greetings and phrases appropriate to the Revolutionary era.

Question 2: Anomalous Accents

 Q2: “What kind of accent would people [in colonial America] have in the 1770s?”

In lieu of using 18th century language, it seems like the strategy on TURN has been to give the main characters distinct accents in order to subtly remind viewers that the show takes place in the 18th century. Apparently this strategy has been very successful, if the volume of accent-related questions we’ve received about accents is any indication! While all of the colorful shades of English, Irish, and Scottish accents featured in TURN are pleasing to the modern ear, how appropriate are they for the historical characters and places depicted in the show?

setauket
Setauket, New York, as depicted in TURN. Many of the main characters’ families had been living in the American colonies for generations before the American Revolution began.

In most cases, not very. For example: in TURN, Robert Rogers’ Scottish brogue is so thick you could cut it with a knife. The real Robert Rogers, in marked contrast, was born in Massachusetts and raised in New Hampshire – two colonies with overwhelmingly English populations in the 18th century. And the original ‘Major’ Hewlett (meaning Richard Hewlett, of course, not the “wait, never mind, we decided to call him Edmund, he’s a completely different person now!” Hewlett revealed to viewers during last week’s episode) was a Long Island-born American loyalist who certainly wouldn’t have spoken with an impeccably crisp high British accent. Indeed, many of the most heavily-accented characters in TURN were, in reality, American-born men and women whose families had been anchored in the American colonies for generations. Their families weren’t “fresh off the boat” from England, Scotland, or anywhere else. The Woodhull family alone had been anchored in Long Island for over a hundred years before the Revolution began!

All right, then: So what did American colonists from New England and New York sound like in the 18th century?

First of all, there’s no one right answer to that question. It depends on a number of factors, like the heritage, location, and education level of any given person. In some bustling colonial port cities, an 18th century traveler could find himself surrounded by several strange and exotic-sounding accents all in the course of a single day, as one itinerant doctor observed while traveling through New York in 1744. It would be just as hard to argue for one single representative “Colonial American” accent as it would be to argue for one single representative “Modern American” accent today. (Try getting a Texan and a New Yorker to agree on that!)

Of course, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have SOME ideapaul revere's ride cover of what colonists sounded like in the 18th century! Colonial Americans, especially in the New England and Mid-Atlantic colonies, had a remarkably high rate of literacy, even among women – but few received anything more than a rudimentary education from home or a local tutor or grammar school. These modestly-educated people, for the most part, tended to spell words phonetically – i.e. how they heard them spoken. So, perhaps ironically, the documents left behind by these less-educated colonists are often more helpful in determining the sound of local speech than those written by educated elites!

Take Paul Revere for example. In his (excellent and very readable) book Paul Revere’s Ride, David Hackett Fischer helps us imagine what it might have been like to converse with the famous (and modestly educated) Boston patriot:

“His spelling tells us that Paul Revere talked with a harsh, nasal New England twang. His strong Yankee accent derived from a family of East Anglian dialects that came to Boston in the 17th century, and can still be faintly heard today.

When Paul Revere’s friends wrote in defense of their cherished charter rights, they spelled “charter” as chattaer… and probably pronounced it with no r at all. All his life Paul Revere spelled “get” as git. His mother’s maiden name of Hitchborn was written Hitchbon in the town of Boston, which was pronounced Bast’n. His friends wrote mash for “marsh” and want for “weren’t,” hull for “whole” and foller for “follow,” sarve for “serve” and acummin for “coming.” …This was the folk-speech of an Anglo-American culture that was already six generations old by 1775, and deeply rooted in Paul Revere’s New England.”

Notice that Fischer states that this proto-Boston accent had been in place long before the start of the Revolution!  (Fischer expands on this concept in his book Albion’s Seed.) Indeed, British soldiers and European travelers had been noting since the mid-18th century how odd the speech of American colonists sounded compared to the King’s English.

childscompaniontitleThankfully for historians, Revere and many of his peers weren’t “over-educated” to the point where they stopped spelling words like they heard them. But while that fact makes modern historians happy, it was a thorn in the side of Early American pedants and schoolmasters who saw it as their mission to popularize “proper” spelling and punctuation. As a result, we can find some pretty amusing “corrective” lists well into the early 19th century! We’ve included one such list below for you to browse through and/or download and enjoy. Published in 1808, Caleb Brigham’s “The Child’s Companion” spelling book contained the following appendix of “Improprieties in Pronunciation common among the people of New-England.” While this dates from after the Revolution, you can spot several overlaps between Brigham’s list and Fischer’s description of Revolutionary Boston speech above. I’ll bet some of you New Englanders can find some overlap with modern Boston accents, too!

So, while there’s no single correct answer to “What did people in Early America sound like?”, we can get a fun glimpse of what common New England speech might have sounded like in the late 18th to early 19th century thanks to primary sources like the one below. This is just one of many books, diaries, and journals out there that give us a colorful glimpse into the sounds and speech of Early America. If you have any favorite sources, share them with us on Facebook, Twitter, or in the comments below! Enjoy your browsing, and keep those questions coming!

-RS

Caleb Bingham’s “Improprieties in Pronunciation common among the people of New-England”

Click on the thumbnails to view and/or download the full sized pages. If you’re not used to reading Early American print, keep in mind that many of the “f” characters are actually a lowercase “s.” Google Books has a full copy of Mr. Bingham’s spelling book online, if you’d like to save or view it as a PDF form.

“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.)

———————————————————————————————————————————————————-

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.

 

Abraham Woodhull and Anna Strong Revisited

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Greetings, TURNcoats new and old – abeanna1and a special welcome to the scores of new spy-curious readers that found this site after binge-watching Season 1 on Netflix!  The hardest part about finishing a good TV show binge is waiting for new episodes to start airing again — but thankfully, you won’t have long to wait.  The two hour premiere of TURN Season 2 airs in less than a week from today!

Thanks in no small part to TURN’s debut on Netflix, I’ve recently received an avalanche of queries (either through the ‘Ask a Question’ feature, via Twitter, or via search engine click-throughs) about the historical accuracy of the on-screen romance between Abraham Woodhull and Anna Strong.  For obvious reasons, it’s one of the most frequently-asked questions surrounding the show.  Now, we did feature a short discussion about Abe and Anna last season, but it was tacked onto the end of a much longer blog post, which means it’s easy for new readers to miss.  And given the amount of questions we’ve received on this single topic, it seems like readers are hungry for more details than a simple “Nope, didn’t happen.”  Ask and ye shall receive! (No, really, go ahead and ask us a question!  The submit feature had some issues during the off season, but those should be fixed now. Ask away!)

A whole lot of “shipping” going on

Not to be confused, of course, with Shippen (although there will definitely be a whole lot of Shippen going on in Season 2, according to AMC).

urbandictionaryshipping

For readers who many be unfamiliar with the latest in internet slang, I refer you to the definition above. In the context of TURN, “shipping” is an especially appropriate term to use for Abraham Woodhull and Anna Smith Strong, because their forceful on-screen romance is completely lacking any basis whatsoever in historical fact.

(For the record, I’ve tried to find some kind of proper “ship” name for Abe and Anna, but just can’t make it work. Neither “Abeanna” or “Annabe” has a lot of staying power, and if I start dropping references to “WoodStrong” all over the place, the internet is definitely going to get the wrong impression about this blog.)

So, in the TURN universe (which really does read like historical fanfiction, now that you mention it), both the TV show and TURN Origins comic (pictured below) claim that Abe and Anna, roughly the same age, grew up together as neighbors and best friends in the village of Setauket.  But even that simple description of their childhood background is misleading. A little basic biographical information should help set the record straight. (Nearly all of the genealogical info cited in this post is freely accessible by searching longislandsurnames.com.)

Anna Strong 101: A Primer

Let’s start by addressing the simple premise above. Yes, both Abe and Anna were Setauket born and raised – but in reality, Anna was ten years Abraham’s senior. Born on 14 April 1740, she would have just turned 35 years old when the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired at Lexington and Concord in 1775. (Interestingly enough, Heather Lind – the actress who plays Anna Strong – is currently 32 years old, making her pretty close to the age of the historical Anna at the beginning of the war.)

Anna married Selah Strong, another Setauket native, in November of 1760, when she was 20 and he was a month away from his 23rd birthday. Abraham Woodhull was only ten years old at the time. (While the Woodhull family likely participated in the wedding festivities, I doubt little Abe had much to drink that day, even after taking colonial America’s lax attitudes toward alcohol consumption into consideration.) Needless to say, there was never any kind of engagement or betrothal between Abraham Woodhull and Anna Smith. Anna was happily married and the mother to a handful of children before Abe even hit puberty. In fact, by the time the historical Culper Ring began its operations in 1778 (two years later than the fictional date of 1776 given in TURN), Anna had given birth to seven children, and would have yet one more before the war’s end. (And just in case you had any doubts about where Anna and Selah’s historical loyalties lay, check out some of the names they gave their children!)

annapose1
Admittedly, for a 38 year old mother of seven, Anna looks AMAZING.

Abraham Woodhull: Single, Married, or “It’s Complicated”?

Next, let’s examine Abraham’s side of the equation. Obviously there’s no historical evidence for any kind of romantic attraction between him and Anna – but in addition to that, in TURN he is a not-so-happily married man with a young son. We’ve already pointed out in previous posts (and the Historical Timeline) that Abraham Woodhull didn’t marry until 1784, after the conclusion of the war. (Nor did he ever have a son OR an older brother named Thomas, but we’ve already covered that, too.) In the alternate universe of TURN, the fact that Abraham and Anna are married makes their affair even more dramatic, naturally. But prematurely “marrying off” Abe cancels out one of the most interesting and significant common factors between most members of the Culper Ring: their bachelorhood.

woodhullfamily1
Here we see Abraham Woodhull pictured with two very good reasons NOT to get involved with espionage.

In Season 1 of TURN, we were introduced to Abraham Woodhull, Benjamin Tallmadge, and Caleb Brewster: three major participants of the Culper Spy Ring.  These three men did marry and have families of their own… eventually. But while they were active members of the Culper Ring, they were all young bachelors with nothing left to lose, relatively speaking. They had no wives; they had no children; no one who depended on them for survival. None of them were settled and established as the head of a prosperous business or farm, or even as the head of their own independent household (which was not uncommon for unmarried men in the Northern colonies in their early 20s). For obvious reasons, unattached young men like Tallmadge, Woodhull, and Brewster made much more attractive recruiting targets for intelligence activities that, in the case of failure, often led to death or financial ruin. To put it plainly: single men “only” put their own lives and fortunes at risk, whereas family men incurred more casualties. This rather cold and calculating fact still carries a lot of weight in the intelligence communities of today – both actual and fictional. (Spy movie fans might recall M’s blunt remark to James Bond in Skyfall: “Orphans always make the best recruits.”)

Obviously, giving Abraham Woodhull a wife and son multiplies the level of dramatic tension and nail-biting suspense in the show on both the espionage and romantic fronts. But historically, that’s exactly the kind of family situation that would have likely ruled him out as a participant in the Culper Ring in the first place.

Finally, I should emphasize that none of our favorite young spies had any kind of aversion to the institution of marriage itself — rather, in all likelihood, they solemnly realized that a stable and secure marriage was incompatible with their wartime line of work. In fact, 1784 was quite a banner year for the old Setauket gang, with Woodhull, Tallmadge, and Brewster all tying the knot! The timing seems to underscore their awareness of the dangers of espionage: they were only ready to settle down after they were convinced that the War of American Independence was truly over and that their services would no longer be needed. (The Treaty of Paris that officially ended the war was signed in September 1783.)

In conclusion: The romantic drama between Abraham Woodhull and Anna Strong seen in TURN may be totally made up — but that’s not to say the real Culper saga is lacking in historical romance!

 -RS

 

Interrogation Techniques and Prisoner Treatment in TURN

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Today’s guest post is by T. Cole Jones, who has extensively researched and written about about the treatment of prisoners during the Revolutionary War as the focus of his doctoral dissertation.  In this post, he discusses the three distinct examples of prisoners taken by American forces as seen in the first three episodes of TURN, and puts some of the show’s most shocking scenes into historical perspective. -RS

Click here to see AMC's 30 second recap of Abraham Woodhull's capture from the pilot episode of TURN.
Click here to see AMC’s 30 second recap of Abraham Woodhull’s capture from the pilot episode of TURN.

In a dark, subterranean cell in a contested border region, American officials question a man captured in the act of smuggling contraband goods. Not receiving the answers they want, the interrogators place a damp cloth over his face and submerge his head in water, convincing the prisoner he will soon drown. Mercifully for the man, who is now gasping for air and semi-conscious, the interrogation comes to an abrupt halt when a superior officer enters the room.

This graphic example of American enhanced interrogation techniques did not occur along the borders of Afghanistan or Iraq, but instead on the Connecticut coast of the Long Island Sound during the American Revolutionary War, according to AMC’s television drama TURN. This prisoner was not a Taliban or Al Qaeda militant – just a Long Island farmer, Abraham Woodhull, who was trying to avoid the war while providing for his family.  If the producers of the show were looking to invoke contemporary events in their telling of the Revolutionary War, they could have done little better than to portray makeshift waterboarding.   Anyone acquainted with the Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandals will be left wondering: just how historically correct was this scene? How authentic are the show’s depictions of prisoner treatment in general?

Within the first three episodes, viewers are shown the American treatment of three separate categories of prisoners:

  1. A suspected smuggler (Abraham Woodhull)
  2. A British officer (John Graves Simcoe), and
  3. Several American mutineers (including the Bascombe brothers).

Historically, the Continental Army in 1776 would have treated each category of prisoner differently. TURN gets this much right. Throughout the war, American forces had very different protocols for dealing with British regulars, uniformed loyalist troops, smugglers, counterfeiters, deserters, traitors, and others they deemed subject to civil prosecution. But how true to the historical record are TURN’s depictions?

(1) abecapture gif1 (mja)The first prisoner, Abraham Woodhull, is captured while smuggling goods across enemy lines. The Revolutionaries, who controlled most of the land and consequently the lion’s share of fresh produce and provisions, wanted to deprive the British in New York of food. Smugglers could expect harsh treatment. Under a congressional resolution from 1777, smugglers could be sentenced to hard labor for the rest of the war. (See pg 784 here.) Continental authorities considered smuggling currency even more egregious. In 1778, Abel Jeans was convicted by court martial of smuggling money across enemy lines and sentenced to receive 100 lashes before being confined for the remainder of the war. This type of corporal punishment was very common in early America because it not only inflicted pain but also physically marked the guilty party as someone who had transgressed societal norms. Smugglers such as Jeans, however, were only punished after a formal court martial or civil court proceeding. In TURN, Woodhull received neither.
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