prisoners of war

Reader Requests: Deadly discipline and button-spotting

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Happy Tuesday, readers! I’m just starting to put a dent in the backlog of questions and comments that suddenly poured in over the last week and a half – here’s a quick pair of reader-submitted questions for you while I finish prepping a new post on General Lee. (The Revolutionary War general, not the car.)
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  • In “Mr. Culpeper” (TURN Episode 6) General Scott and Ben Tallmadge witness the hanging of John Herring.  The scene seemed to have a lot of specific details… did this really happen?

Yes, it DID really happen! The sentencing and execution of John Herring is mentioned in the Continental Army General Orders issued on October 23, 1778:

Moses Walton and John Herring soldiers and Elias Brown Fifer of His Excellency the Commander in Chief’s guard were tried for breaking into the house of Mr Prince Howland on or about the 3rd instant and robbing him of several silver spoons, several silver dollars, some Continental dollars and sundry kinds of wearing Apparel to a considerable amount…

The Court (upwards of two thirds agreeing) do sentence John Herring to suffer Death.

So as you can see  (and as I’m pleased to report), most of this brief scene was based on the historical record. Like most of the “real life” events we’ve witnessed in TURN so far, it happened later in the historical timeline than the show’s “current” date of 1777 — but the scene is still very appropriate, since discipline was a constant problem throughout the war’s duration for the Continental Army.   These same General Orders are rife with criminal offenses both great and small, including stealing, “swearing and unsoldierly behaviour,” fistfights and harassment (“John Smith did call Corporal Wingler a Hessian Bougre”), and vandalism.

Benjamin Tallmadge peering up at General "No Mercy" Washington
Benjamin Tallmadge peering up at General “No Mercy” Washington during the execution of John Herring

The American army was still very young in 1777, especially when compared to the professional armies of Europe, and its officers often struggled to find the proper balance between enforcing a necessary level of discipline while championing the cause of liberty and independence. (Quite the existential conflict, if you think about it.) To the 21st-century viewer, John Herring’s punishment might seem excessively harsh – and Washington’s unflinching reaction excessively cold. However, that aspect of the hanging scene is also historically accurate. Near the end of this very same document we read:

His Excellency the Commander in Chief approves these sentences—Shocked at the frequent horrible Villainies of this nature committed by the troops of late, He is determined to make Examples which will deter the boldest and most harden’d offenders—Men who are called out by their Country to defend the Rights and Property of their fellow Citizens who are abandoned enough to violate those Rights and plunder that Property deserve and shall receive no Mercy.

Well, when you put it THAT way things make a little more sense, right?  The dialogue in the show is directly lifted from the above paragraph — which, I might add, makes historians and history buffs absolutely giddy to see in a historical drama.  (SOME of us, anyway.)  If anyone tells you that historical accuracy is boring, or doesn’t work in a TV show, save your breath and show them this scene. (Or pretty much the entire John Adams miniseries from HBO… but I digress.)  In no way did the accuracy detract from the drama of the execution.  In fact, I would argue that the drama is enhanced for most viewers upon discovering that this event DID actually happen, unlike several other storylines in the show thus far. Fingers crossed that this happens a lot more often in future episodes!

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And speaking of documentation: Shortly before the execution scene in Episode 6, we see Washington striding through camp, dictating a letter to his aides addressed to General Howe regarding the “cruel treatment” of American prisoners on British prison ships in New York harbor.  Guess what?  The dialogue from that scene is ALSO directly lifted from a letter Washington wrote to Howe on January 13, 1777.  You can rewatch the scene for yourself and read along with the original letter:

The first two paragraphs of Washington’s letter to Lord Howe, Jan 13, 1777. Click to read the entire transcription.

Pretty cool stuff.  I can say with confidence that this latest episode (“Mr. Culpeper”) is by far my favorite episode of TURN yet, in no small part because it had a much more even balance between artistic license and the historical record than any other episode thus far.  It seems (I hope) that the show has turned a corner and will start to focus more clearly on documented history instead of anachronistic fiction (some of which we’ll mention in the forthcoming post on Charles Lee).

  •  While watching episode 3 (“Of Cabbages and Kings”) I noticed that Benjamin Tallmadge’s uniform buttons all had USA on them.  Is that historically accurate?   I’m not sure when “USA” would have come into common enough use as an acronym to be on uniforms.  It seems like a bit of an obscure question, but I’m a hobbyist needleworker interested in historical techniques and clothing, so it caught my eye.  Thanks!
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Pewter USA buttons spotted on Tallmadge’s regimental coat in TURN. Click to enlarge.

I’m not surprised that a needleworker would be so eagle-eyed! Those are indeed pewter USA buttons on Benjamin Tallmadge’s uniform in TURN. USA buttons were common throughout the Continental Army  during the middle and later years of the Revolutionary War, and came in a number of variations. (You can view some of them on this website, which features several images of original Revolutionary War buttons. Heads up: there’s a media player at the bottom of the site that plays music automatically upon loading!)

One example of a USA button dating from 1777.

Your hunch is right about the timing – 1776 is a bit too early for these buttons to make their debut. The earliest extant (i.e. surviving original) USA buttons are dated to mid-1777. Many things about Tallmadge’s dragoon uniform are a couple years too early.  Some of the most iconic elements of the uniform, including the blue regimental coat with white facings and the brass dragoon helmet, aren’t documented until 1778-1779.  (Even the very existence of Tallmadge’s Second Light Dragoons in autumn of 1776 is too early, as you can see by glancing at the historical timeline.)

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Sergeant, 2nd Continental Light Dragoons, circa 1778. Painting by Don Troiani.

I hope to have the opportunity to discuss the Second Dragoons in much greater detail once they make another appearance in TURN.  But in the meantime, if you’re a fan of Revolutionary War buttons, you can check out another impressive collection of extant buttons on Don Troiani’s Historical Image Bank website.  And if you dabble in sewing and/or other needlework and are interested in making historical reproductions of 18th century clothing, I recommend trying to find as much documentation as possible before you start — there are plenty of helpful, well-researched tailors and seamstresses out there who are happy to point you in the right direction.  Like I’ve said before on this blog: regardless of who you talk to, make sure they can show you historical documentation for the items they’re selling and patterns they’re using!  It’s the best guarantee you’ll have against making inaccurate (and potentially expensive) mistakes.  Good luck!

-RS

 

 

The Calamitous Captivity of John Graves Simcoe

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In keeping with the theme of “prisoner’s week” here at TURN to a Historian, today we’re discussing the capture of the “real” John Graves Simcoe, the British officer everyone loves to hate on the show. The real-life story, which took place in 1779 instead of 1776, involves plenty of its own drama – including cavalry skirmishes, angry mobs, pretended insanity, and plenty of vengeance on both sides — and provides an intriguing glimpse into Simcoe’s character. This excellent post, once again courtesy of Loyalist scholar Todd Braisted, will remind you that historical fact is often stranger than fiction. -RS

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John Graves Simcoe as portrayed by Samuel Roukin in TURN.

The story line in TURN has placed the British Captain John Graves Simcoe into the hands of his Rebel foes in Autumn of 1776. It seems that everyone rooting against the British wants Simcoe dead. Benjamin Tallmadge almost carries out the deed before halted in the nick of time by a superior officer. As with virtually everything in TURN, real events are twisted and fictionalized to suit the story – which is to be expected in any presentation of historical fiction. But did any of this ever happen? Are any elements of the show’s portrayal actually correct?

To some degree, yes. In the pilot episode, the charmingly arrogant Simcoe leads a detachment of Regulars over to Connecticut where they conveniently walk into an ambush, killing everyone but him. No such raid ever happened in history. (For one thing, Tallmadge’s Second Regiment of Light Dragoons didn’t exist until December 1776.) However, that being said, Simcoe was captured in a raid into New Jersey in 1779, and the unpleasantness of his captivity certainly has its parallels with the show. Let’s take a look at the real captivity of John Graves Simcoe, shall we?

Fast forward to October 1779. The war in America has raged on for over four years. France and Spain have entered the fray, making it a world conflict, and reducing the British to primarily defensive operations in the north. Loyalist spies provide the British with every movement made by Washington’s troops, looking out for any sign that New York may be attacked. Of particular interest are a number of large flat bottomed boats on travelling carriages located near Bound Brook, New Jersey — the sort of boats perfect for carrying troops, horses and artillery to attack the British in New York.

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

At two in the morning on 26 October 1779, Simcoe led 80 officers and men on horseback from both his own corps and other Loyalist units into New Jersey via Perth Amboy to destroy this collection of boats and military stores. Simcoe was by now the lieutenant colonel commandant of the Queen’s American Rangers, the same corps raised by Robert Rogers in 1776. Without being detected, Simcoe had his men used hand grenades (something much rarer in the Revolution than today) and hatchets to chop and blow apart the flat-bottomed boats, carriages and every other store found inBroad Brook. From here the troops galloped off to Somerset Court House, where they released three Loyalists who had been imprisoned there, including one (according to Simcoe) who was nearly starved and chained to the floor. Infuriated at the treatment of fellow Loyalists, Simcoe allowed his men to burn the court house as retribution.

The task accomplished, Simcoe started to lead his men back, but they lost their way in the dark. Missing a crucial turnoff, the raiders rode straight into an ambush of militia, who fired into the mass of horsemen. While missing Simcoe himself, the volley cut down his horse, throwing him and knocking him unconscious. After Simcoe’s men left him for dead, they rode on until confronted by another group of militia near New Brunswick, under the command of Captain Peter Van Voorhies, a Continental Officer from New Jersey. The Loyalist cavalry routed the militia, hacking up the American captain with their swords in the process, before making their way back to British lines.

When Simcoe awoke, his men were gone and he found himself a prisoner. Even worse, word of the popular Captain Voorhees’s death at the hands of the Queen’s Rangers quickly spread to Simcoe’s captors. Read the rest of this entry »

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.
Read the rest of this entry »