Revolutionary War

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:

replicaturtle
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!)

Omphalotus_nidiformis
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:

turtleattack
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

Bushnell_Turtle_model_US_Navy_Submarine_Museum
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.

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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.

The infamous
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

Simcoe Takes Command! Reforming the Queen’s Rangers in 1777

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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

simcoe fall in (mjaS2E2)

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.

Jordan queen's rangers (mjaS2E3)
While Jordan’s rise in the ranks of the Queen’s Rangers is one of TURN’s most sympathetic storylines, nothing like it ever happened during the real Revolutionary War.

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.

Gen[1]._Sir_William_Howe
Sir William Howe, pictured here, was ultimately responsible for placing Simcoe at the head of the Queen’s Rangers in 1777.
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.

green simcoe, Fri Feb 05, 2010,  9:48:12 AM,  8C, 8208x9936,  (216+912), 150%, bent 6 stops,  1/60 s, R111.3, G77.7, B87.2
The basis for Simcoe’s new look in TURN comes from this portrait of him painted long after the end of the Revolutionary War, circa 1790.

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.

Queen's Rangers Light Infantry and Hussars
This painting portrays Queen’s Rangers light infantry and hussars painting as they appeared in the 1780s.

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.

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Todd W. Braisted is an author and researcher of Loyalist military studies. His primary focus is on Loyalist military personnel, infrastructure and campaigns throughout North America. Since 1979, Braisted has amassed and transcribed over 40,000 pages of Loyalist and related material from archives and private collections around the world. He has authored numerous journal articles and books, as well as appearing as a guest historian on episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? (CBC) and History Detectives (PBS). He is the creator of the Online Institute for Advanced Loyalist Studies (royalprovincial.com), the largest website dedicated to the subject.  Braisted is a Fellow in the Company of Military Historians, Honorary Vice President of the United Empire Loyalist Association of Canada, and a past-president of the Bergen County Historical Society. His newest book, Grand Forage 1778: The Revolutionary War’s Forgotten Campaign, will be published in 2016.

Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hewlett: The Loyal-est Loyalist

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

.law order authority

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

selah1
Selah Strong, as played by Robert Beitzel.

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

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

            Richard Hewlett
.           Lieutenant Colonel.

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

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

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

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

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

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Todd W. Braisted is an author and researcher of Loyalist military studies. His primary focus is on Loyalist military personnel, infrastructure and campaigns throughout North America. Since 1979, Braisted has amassed and transcribed over 40,000 pages of Loyalist and related material from archives and private collections around the world. He has authored numerous journal articles and books, as well as appearing as a guest historian on episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? (CBC) and History Detectives (PBS). He is the creator of the Online Institute for Advanced Loyalist Studies (royalprovincial.com), the largest website dedicated to the subject.  Braisted is a Fellow in the Company of Military Historians, Honorary Vice President of the United Empire Loyalist Association of Canada, and a past-president of the Bergen County Historical Society. His newest book, Grand Forage 1778: The Revolutionary War’s Forgotten Campaign, will be published in 2016.

The 1777 Garrison of Setauket

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

grandecaps_trn104_0988
One of many tense scenes between the townspeople of Setauket and British troops in Season 1 of TURN. (Episode 104: Eternity How Long)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Todd W. Braisted is an author and researcher of Loyalist military studies. His primary focus is on Loyalist military personnel, infrastructure and campaigns throughout North America. Since 1979, Braisted has amassed and transcribed over 40,000 pages of Loyalist and related material from archives and private collections around the world. He has authored numerous journal articles and books, as well as appearing as a guest historian on episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? (CBC) and History Detectives (PBS). He is the creator of the Online Institute for Advanced Loyalist Studies (royalprovincial.com), the largest website dedicated to the subject.  Braisted is a Fellow in the Company of Military Historians, Honorary Vice President of the United Empire Loyalist Association of Canada, and a past-president of the Bergen County Historical Society.

 

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

simcoe_01
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.

18thcmap_londongazette_detail
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 »