Greetings, TURNcoats! It’s finally here – June 17th, 2017 – the premiere of the fourth and final season of TURN: Washington’s Spies! (It also happens to be the anniversary of the 1775 Battle of Bunker Hill, for all you devoted Revolutionary War fans.)
Tonight’s premiere will be a jam-packed two-hour event that deals, first and foremost, with the fallout of Benedict Arnold’s betrayal at West Point (the subject of Season 3’s dramatic finale). Like all the episodes before it, the premiere is sure to generate plenty of dubious historical claims to assess, dates to plot on the historical timeline, and questions to ask your friendly neighborhood historian(s). I’ll be live-tweeting tonight’s premiere, along with a whole bunch of die-hard fans as well as cast members. Follow @spycurious and the hashtag #TURNamc!
Season 4 Premiere Link Roundup:
If you didn’t have ten hours to devote to re-watching Season 3 of TURN, I’d recommend browsing through the library of individual episode reviews at Den of Geek, written by the always-thorough J. L. Bell of Boston 1775 fame.
USA Today also has a short article about the Season 4 premiere, which (unintentionally) underscores TURN’s gravely inaccurate portrayal of John Graves Simcoe by describing him as “a sociopath with a talent for military strategy who has a personal ax to grind with several of those rebel spies.” As we’ve discussed here in great detail over the past three years, Simcoe is, hands-down, one of the most completely inaccurate and misrepresented historical figures in the entire show. The real John Graves Simcoe, while a fearsome officer in battle, was nothing like the unhinged brute viewers see when they tune into TURN. In addition to our backlog of blog entries here, T. Cole Jones, professor of history at Purdue University, goes into even greater detail about TURN’s misrepresentation of Simcoe in this Common-place Journal article from 2015 which is a must-read for any fan interested in the accuracy of both TURN and the book that inspired it.
Ross Nedervelt at FIU is the latest history academic to pen a review of TURN: Washington’s Spies, this time at the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. While he is more charitable than most other historians have been towards the show, he does point out a number of pet peeves that we share here at the blog (e.g. glaring biographical inaccuracies, the depiction of Simcoe as a psychopath, Caleb Brewster’s anachronistic speech patterns, etc.).
What to make of TURN’s dramatically different Saturday evening time slot? In 2016, AMC “burned off” the final season of Hell on Wheels in the Saturday night timeslot and it looks like they’re giving TURN the same treatment this year – assuming in both cases that devoted fans will tune in to watch the show live, while everyone else will record and watch the episodes later. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of TURN’s audience numbers come from streaming services and DVR viewings – the live numbers for the show have taken a precipitous drop with each successive season. (For example, the Season 1 premiere had 2.12 million viewers; Season 2 had 827,000 viewers; Season 3 had 471,000. You can view live viewing numbers for each episode here.)
The upside is that the showrunners had long known that Season 4 would be TURN’s final season, so they were able to craft the entire season without worrying about potential numbers and ratings at all. At the same time, they’ve got quite a lot of ground to cover in a mere ten episodes.
Historically speaking, unlike the Continental Army at large, the Culper Spy Ring was incredibly active during the final years of the Revolutionary War, even after the surrender of British forces at Yorktown in 1781. Benjamin Tallmadge and the 2nd Dragoons were especially vigilant, leading a number of dramatic shoreline raids across Long Island Sound against British and Loyalist-held strongholds. After the West Point fiasco, Benedict Arnold was quite eager to prove his loyalty to the British by, among other things, raiding and burning a number of prominent American towns – including New London, Connecticut, just a few miles south of his boyhood home of Norwich. (Pretty harsh, Benedict. No wonder New Londoners are still burning you in effigy well into the 21st century!)
As a native Connectican with a professional interest in Connecticut history, imagine my excitement when on-set photos leaked of Owain Yeoman appearing to invade and burn a colonial city with a regiment of British regulars! Alas, according to this in-depth interview with showrunner Craig Silverstein at Entertainment Weekly, the photos likely depicted Arnold’s raid on Richmond, Virginia… not the Connecticut coast. (sigh.) Regardless of my parochial disappointment, the EW interview with Silverstein is incredibly thorough and well worth the read for any TURN fan eager to catch a glimpse of what Season 4 might contain.
How about that slick Season 4 artwork, TURNcoats? Have to admit – I’m a huge fan. (MUCH better than the bizarre, anachronistic, politically-driven marketing campaign of Season 3, which awkwardly tried to compare George Washington’s political views to those of Hilary Clinton, Donald Trump, and Bernie Sanders, and produced many a cringe-worthy gif. Remember that?) If year-over-year improvement is any indication, this season’s graphic artist should get a raise.
Finally, if you’re new to the TURN to a Historian blog: Welcome! Our Topic Index page is a great place to get started in regards to browsing all the historical topics we’ve covered on this blog thus far. If you have a specific question, fire away on the Ask a Question page. In the meantime, pull up a chair and enjoy the two-hour premiere. See you on the flip side!
Greetings, TURNcoats! How about a nice link roundup to compliment the first two episodes of Season 3?
Here we are, technically 1/5 of the way into Season 3, and things have been suspiciously quiet over here at the blog. Sure, we’ve had a blast live-tweeting every episode, but no new articles here at the blog. What gives?
Well, to be honest, there hasn’t been a whole lot of actual historical stuff happening in TURN Season 3 thus far. As a historian watching the show, there’s very little fact-based material to capitalize on, aside from a few name drops (e.g. Joseph Reed, Austin Roe) that don’t yet have enough context in the show to merit a full-length analysis. Nearly all of the first two episodes have revolved around made-up love triangles, fictional family feuds, and other interpersonal relationships that never happened.
Thankfully, we have covered most of those subjects in previous posts – so while we wait for some meatier historical topics to arrive in Season 3, here’s a quick and dirty link roundup for those of you trying to sort fact from fiction regarding all the personal drama in the TURNiverse:
- Abe and Anna: Never happened. (Although thus far in Season 3, their fictional affair seems to have cooled considerably.)
- Abe and Robert Rogers: An amusing (if bizarre) premise – but this also never happened. For more about the real Robert Rogers’ wartime escapades, check out Todd Braisted’s excellent summary here.
- Anna and Hewlett: Never happened. Although if you’re interested in the real Hewlett’s role in occupying the town of Setuaket, we’ve got you covered. We featured an article on the historical Hewlett in the middle of Season 2, right before TURN’s Hewlett dramatically veered away from the (until that time) realistic portrayal of his real-life counterpart.
If you’re a little confused from the “authentic” messaging you’ve been hearing from AMC staff regarding Hewlett – no, you’re not crazy! On Twitter and Reddit, Alexander Rose (who joined the show’s writing staff in Season 2) has repeatedly insisted that TURN’s Edmund Hewlett, the royalist commander of Setuaket during the Revolutionary War, has absolutely no connection whatsoever to the historical Richard Hewlett, the royalist commander of Setauket during the Revolutionary War. It is a total and complete coincidence that both men held the exact same station, at the same time and in the same place, and had the last name “Hewlett.”
Needless to say, viewers of the show are right to be a little skeptical. By that logic, of course Anna Strong could never have had an affair with a fictional Redcoat officer! Not to mention, the real Anna Strong was still (by any reasonable account) contentedly married and the mother to several children by the time the summer of 1778 rolled around, so there’s that, too.
- Austin Roe: Okay, Austin Roe DID happen! He was a real person (definitely not anyone’s pseudonym or alias) and, for a time, an absolutely fascinating member of the historical Culper spy ring who served as the vital link communicating intelligence between New York City and Setauket. I’m seriously hoping the one mention he’s had thus far in Season 3 is some kind of bizarre red herring and/or bad history joke – it would truly be a shame for him to be cut out of this series, regardless of how much the show has already careened off the historical record. We will definitely revisit Mr. Roe here on the blog – after we get a better idea of where the show is going to take him.
- Woodhull family drama (especially concerning Mary and Thomas): Never happened. Thankfully,
we’ve got a post on TURN’s convoluted family trees to help viewers sort things out!
- Peggy Shippen and Benedict Arnold: Oh yes, this happened – although as many of you likely guessed, it wasn’t exactly the bizarre love triangle with ulterior motives depicted in TURN. We’re in the process of reaching out to a few exciting guest authors for this particular topic, so stay tuned!
- Blood-spattered John Graves Simcoe: Well, it looks like TURN’s “Psycho Simcoe” portrayal isn’t going anywhere this season! Only two episodes into the season and we’ve seen plenty of Simcoe-generated ketchup. If you’re only familiar with Simcoe through what you’ve seen in TURN, you may be in for a bit of a shock once you read a little bit about the real Queen’s Ranger commander by that name! Thankfully, Todd Braisted has not one but two excellent articles about the real Simcoe: one about Simcoe’s captivity at the hands of the Continental Army (as loosely portrayed in Season 1) and another about his tenure as leader of the Queen’s Rangers (TURN Season 2 and beyond). At the TURN roundtable on Common-place.org, guest author and Purdue University history professor T. Cole Jones also analyzes the many liberties TURN takes with John Graves Simcoe.
Well, I think that just about does it for tonight’s link roundup. Plenty of reading to re-visit while we wait for bigger and better spy-related history to materialize in TURN Season 3. Enjoy tonight’s new episode, TURNcoats – and if you’re watching live, don’t forget to join in the fun on Twitter and Facebook!
Greetings, TURNcoats! The premiere of Season 3 of “TURN: Washington’s Spies” is upon us — only a few hours away at the time of this posting. First, we’d like to welcome back blog readers both new and old! If you’re new to TURN, or just finishing re-watching Seasons 1 & 2 in anticipation of tonight’s premiere, you probably have a whole bunch of historical questions. We understand. In general, TURN takes a whole lot of liberties with the historical record — to the point where reading real history books won’t help you predict where the show is going to go!
Of course, this blog is here to help with your historical accuracy questions. And now we’re making it a little easier to find the answers you’re looking for with our new Topic Index page, which now happily occupies its own little tab in the header menu at the top of our website. Yes, you can always search the archives of the blog like you have before — by date of posting, by using the search bar, or via tag cloud (all located in the sidebar on the right side of every page). Still, we thought it would make things a little easier to have a general subject listing, especially for those who are new to the blog. Our most popular posts are sorted both by topic (e.g. Revolutionary War spycraft, slavery, material culture) and by character. Let us know what you think — and happy reading!
Finally: If you’re watching the premiere live tonight, don’t forget to join us for live-tweeting and Facebook commenting! We use the standard #TURNamc hashtag on Twitter to tag most of our posts. We already know from the Season 3 previews that Alexander Hamilton — who is definitely America’s trendiest Founding Father at the moment — will grace our televisions this season. But are the swirling rumors true about Martha Washington and Nathan Hale making cameos? And will any of them even remotely resemble their real-life historical counterparts? We can’t wait to find out. Stay tuned, and grab the popcorn! (Or some other tasty 18th century recipe, if you feel so inclined.)
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?
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.