I have to apologize for my long and unintentional absence from this blog. The past three months saw me dealing with a tsunami of grading work (as well as two important conferences), which ate up all my energies. I started to write this post, then had to set it aside, and the longer I was away from it, the harder it was for me to gather my thoughts and remember the things I wanted to comment on, without rewatching the first season again. But, now that my semester is finally over, I’m back!
In my previous post, I talked about the American side of Turn: Washington’s Spies. This post is going to look at the four major British characters in the first season: Major Edmund Hewlett (Burn Gorham), Lt-Col. John Simcoe (Samuel Roukin), Major John André (JJ Fields), and Major Robert Rogers (Angus Macfadyen). Once again, they’re all real people.
Major Edmund Hewlett
In the first season, the British Major Hewlett spends his time in Setauket. He’s taken over the church and is using it as a stable for his horse, as an administrative office, and as a courtroom in one episode. Historically, the British did use the church as a stable, so I doubt they were using it for an office as well, because who wants horse shit all over their office? But let’s not worry about that. Hewlett’s a committed Loyalist who is very serious about law and order, and generally comes across as decent, if quite strict. He’s very focused on keeping order in the town, but eventually has a falling out with Lt-Col. Simcoe because Hewlett at least tries to be a reasonable man.
As this article explains, the historical Richard Hewlett (actually a lieutenant colonel, not a major, and having been given a less American-sounding name) was actually a native of Long Island and spent the entirety of the war there, assigned to various locations. At the time of the Revolution, he was in his 40s, married, and was in the process of fathering eleven children. In fact, Hewlett’s unit were not British redcoats but American loyalists.
Assigned to Setauket, he was aware that the town was vulnerable and decided to fortify the church by pulling up gravestones to create a defensive perimeter for his troops to crouch behind. The show builds a whole episode around that issue. Historically, I doubt we know much about that process, but the show does a nice job dramatizing what might have been a moment of significant social tension in Setauket (although the episode studiously avoids touching on any actual religious ideas anyone might have had at the time). The actual Battle of Setauket seems to have been a pretty minor affair; there was a three-hour exchange of gunfire that left one Patriot wounded, and the Patriots decided to retreat for fear that British warships might spot the conflict and intervene. Hewlett received praise from his superiors for his actions.
Hewlett, like many Loyalists, emigrated to Canada when the British surrendered.
Overall, Burn Gorman’s Hewlett is probably as realistic a portrait of the man as is possible, given that we don’t know a lot about the man in terms of his personality, although one person who knew him described him as ‘spirited’, not quite the rather calm, focused figure the series gives us.
Lt-Col. John Simcoe
Samuel Roukin’s John Simcoe is a violent man to the point of sociopathy; he seems like a sadist who has few morals apart from a loyalty to the British Crown. Over the course of the first season he repeatedly demonstrates a willingness to kill with virtually no hesitation. In one episode, he concludes that the man seated next to him at a dinner party must be an American spy, so he casually stabs the man in the throat like he’s spearing a piece of meat to put on his plate. That depiction is a serious problem, because Simcoe is actually an important historical figure.
John Graves Simcoe grew up in England and enlisted in the British army in 1770 when he was 18. His unit was sent to the colonies and when the war broke out, he saw considerable action, including the Siege of Boston in 1775-76, and the Philadelphia Campaign in 1777-78, which resulted in the capture of Philadelphia, the capital of the young country. During that campaign, he organized a unit of rangers made up of free blacks and led the battle of Crooked Billet, inflicting significant damage on the Revolutionary forces. His unit proved extremely effective throughout the war, and was the first unit of rangers to wear green instead of red (a rather important innovation for troops that were intended to sneak through forests).
During the war, Simcoe ordered a number of massacres. In 1778, he ordered the slaughter of ten Americans caught asleep in southern New Jersey. But an additional 20 men were taken prisoner either during the assault or soon thereafter. The same year, he ordered the massacre of 40 Native Americans who were serving alongside the Continental Army in the Bronx. So on the surface that would seem to justify the series’ treatment of Simcoe as a maniac.
However in 1777, during the Battle of Brandywine, Simcoe is rumored to have restrained his men from firing on fleeing rebels (one of whom is said to have been George Washington). This act of restraint or mercy potentially changed the course of history, since if Washington had died in 1777, not only the war, but all of American history would have gone quite differently. In another incident, after he forbade his troops to confiscate the property of captives, he discovered that his troops decided to simply kill those who surrendered. Disturbed by this, Simcoe reversed his policy and allowed the confiscation of property in order to reduce the loss of life. He is also known to have approved General Howe’s restraint during the Siege of Boston and Howe’s decision to not burn the city. None of this is in line with Roukin’s portrayal of the man.
But Simcoe’s real importance lies after the war. He was elected to Parliament in 1790. In 1792, he resigned from Parliament to become the lieutenant governor of the newly created loyalist province of Upper Canada (or as we call it today, Ontario). In this capacity, he was responsible for the abolition of slavery in Canada. In 1793, a political incident arose involving Chloe Cooley, a young slave woman brought to Canada by her owner Adam Vrooman. Vrooman had emigrated from New York after the American victory in the Revolutionary War, taking his slave with him. But he began to worry that the government of Canada might abolish slavery, so he decided to sell her to an American who lived across the Niagara River. In the process of loading the tied-up Chloe into a boat for transport across the river, he beat her, and Chloe struggled and screamed for help. Vrooman seems to have successfully completed the sale, but after he returned, charged were brought against him for disturbing the peace, because witnesses had seen the altercation between him and Chloe. The charges were eventually dropped because Chloe was legally his property.
This outcome offended Simcoe, who leaned heavily on the government council to outlaw slavery, against the opposition of nearly half the council, who were themselves slave owners. The result of his efforts was the 1793 Act Against Slavery, which forbade the importation of slaves into Canada and declared that the children of slave women would automatically be freed when they reached 25 years of age. The Act made Upper Canada the first British colony to take solid action against slavery, although it did not abolish slavery within the province. That wouldn’t happen until 1833, when the British Parliament outlawed slavery throughout the Empire. In a speech to the council in support of the Act, Simcoe declared
“The principles of the British Constitution do not admit of that slavery which Christianity condemns. The moment I assume the Government of Upper Canada under no modification will I assent to a law that discriminates by dishonest policy between natives of Africa, America, or Europe.”
Hardly the sentiments of a sociopath. In fact, one historian has opined that Turn’s depiction of Simcoe is so egregious that it would “undoubtedly expose the producers to a defamation of character suit were the people portrayed in the series still alive.“
Incidentally, Simcoe also helped found the city that became Toronto, and he named Simcoe County in Ontario after his father.
Fun fact: Simcoe also sent the first known Valentine in America in 1779, to Sarah Townsend, who unbeknownst to him was the sister of a member of the Culper Ring and who was actively passing information to the ring.
Major John André
John André was a British citizen of French and Swiss descent who joined the 7th Royal Fusiliers based in Quebec. But after about a year he was captured when the Americans invaded Quebec and successfully sieged Ft. Saint-Jean. The siege stalled out the American invasion and ultimately they burned the fort and retreated, taking André and other prisoners back to Pennsylvania. At the end of 1776, he was freed during a prisoner exchange. He became a major in 1778 after joining Henry Clinton’s staff. His charming manner, fluency in four languages, and artistic skills all made him both socially popular and highly useful to Clinton during the occupations of New York and Philadelphia. In Philadelphia he lived in Benjamin Franklin’s house. In April of 1779, Clinton gave him charge of the British intelligence operations.
So the show has him conducting espionage about a year too early. But the show’s depiction of an urbane man who hosted popular parties is basically accurate. He was not, however, a master of espionage. He did effectively impose some organization on Clinton’s intelligence efforts, but he was not especially good at deception and his recruiting of Benedict Arnold seems to have been his one major accomplishment in British espionage. There’s no reason to think that he and Abraham Woodhull ever met.
One detail of the show stood out to me as bizarre. He is always show wearing a rat-tail braid behind each ear. (Oddly, it’s white, even though his hair is brown.) Take a look.
In a show that made some attempt (but only some) to get basic costuming right, the inclusion of such an obvious 20thcentury anachronism was startling. What the hell were they thinking?
It turns out that the show actually had some legitimate basis for this odd style. Namely, a painting of John André that clearly shows him wearing a rat-tail braid. Take a look.
Unfortunately, as it turns out, this painting isn’t the right John André. But the fact that rat-tail braids were an actual thing in the late 18thcentury floored me.
Major Robert Rogers
Robert Rogers was a moderately important figure in colonial America. His father brought the family to New Hampshire when Robert was 8. In 1756, he joined the British army during the French and Indian War and recruited a unit eventually known as Rogers’ Rangers, proving remarkably effective at operating in winter conditions. He was a skilled woodsman who learned a great deal from the local Indian tribes and frequently employed them in his unit. He was known for being harsh to prisoners, often killing and even scalping them. In 1763, when Pontiac’s Rebellion broke out, Rogers was involved in an ill-fated surprise attack on Pontiac’s position. Unfortunately, Pontiac was aware of the attack and ambushed it, killing or wounding 54 British soldiers.
After that, Rogers went to England and enjoyed some success as the author of play about Pontiac. He got an audience with George III, who gave him an appointment as governor of what became Mackinaw City, Michigan. Unfortunately, Rogers fell afoul of General Gage, who viewed him as a supporter of one of Gage’s chief rivals. Gage felt that Rogers close ties with the Indians marked him as suspect, and so in 1767, he had Rogers arrested for treason. Rogers was found innocent, but was unable to maintain his position. He returned to England badly in debt, wound up in debtor’s prison, and tried to sue Gage, who bought him off by granting him the rank of major.
When the American Revolution erupted in 1775, Rogers returned to America, but he was in an awkward position. He had been a skilled ranger, but by this time he was a hopeless alcoholic and penniless. His service to the Crown rendered him suspect to the Americans but Gage’s hatred of him meant that serving in the British army was out of the question too. So he tried to play both sides off against each other. He was immediately arrested in Philadelphia but released the next day with a promise not to take up arms for the British.
Fortunately for Rogers, soon after his release, Gage resigned, and General Howe proved more willing to employ him. Rogers then contacted Washington seeking a command. But Washington found out about Rogers’ double-dealing and had him arrested. He escaped and went back to New York, where he climbed up the anchor chain of the British flagship docked in the harbor, snuck past the guards, and crashed a dinner party. That show of skill was good enough for Howe, who commissioned him to recruit a new unit of Queen’s Rangers, with a promotion to colonel. Rogers captured Nathan Hale, Washington’s first attempted spy, in September of 1776.
But after that, things went downhill for Rogers. The men he recruited into the Queen’s Rangers were a motley group, notorious for pillaging, which made them a nuisance to both Loyalists and Patriots alike. They were also prone to desertion; by early 1777, 80% of the men Rogers had recruited had abandoned their unit. When that became clear, Howe forced Rogers to resign. He went to Quebec the next year, and thereafter to London, New York, and then Quebec again. In 1781, he was captured trying to get back to New York, and wound up in prison. He was sent back to London when the British pulled their troops out at the end of the war. He died in poverty and obscurity.
Despite a fascinating history, Rogers’ one significant contribution to the story of the American Revolution—the capture of Nathan Hale—was already over with when Turn opens, and the activities of Angus MacFadyen’s Rogers are pretty much entirely made up. In fact, by the time the show starts, Simcoe had already taken charge of the Queen’s Rangers.
Want to Know More?
Turn: Washington’s Spies is available on Amazon.
Alexander Rose’s Washington’s Spies: The True Story of America’s First Spy Network is the basis for the whole series. Rose isn’t a professional historian, but he does a good job of laying out the facts around the Culper Ring, as well as around the unfortunate Nathan Hale, and Benedict Arnold, and he makes extensive use of surviving letters (including the Culper Ring reports). He emphasis narrative over analysis more than I would prefer, but it’s a good introduction into Revolutionary-era espionage.
There’s also a very good blog about Turn: Washington’s Spies, Turn to a historian. It has loads of material on a variety of facets of the series, so if you want to dig into the show more, this would be a good resource.