Some day soon I hope to get back to a more regular posting schedule. But my egregious work load last semester seems to be continuing this semester too. I’ve just been way too busy prepping for a new course to get much blogging done. Sorry.
But I did manage to find time to watch the first season of AMC’s Turn: Washington’s Spies. I put off watching it for quite a while because I think I expected a Revolutionary-era Reign. And the first few episodes aren’t easy to get into. But as I watched it, I started to notice something quite interesting. The show is actually moderately serious about using real historical characters. At one point late in the season I watched two scenes with a total of about 8 speaking characters and I suddenly realized that every character with dialog was a verifiable historical figure. Given that the average historical TV show is lucky to have more than 25% of its characters be real people, I find myself kinda impressed.
It helps that the series is rooted in a specific book, Alexander Rose’s Washington’s Spies: The True Story of America’s First Spy Network (New York: Bantam, 2007). Rose tells the story of George Washington’s efforts to establish a network of spies who could get him intelligence about Loyalist-held New York City, a major focus of the war efforts. Although Rose discusses a couple of different spies, he focuses his attention on the Culper Ring, which centered on Abraham Woodhull, Richard Townsend, and their handler Col. Benjamin Tallmadge. The book has been very useful to me in checking the facts in the show.
The Revolutionary War
Modern Americans, when we picture the American Revolution, tend to imagine that everyone in the American colonies hated the British and whole-heartedly supported the war. The reality was far more complex than that. At the start of the war, only about 25% of the population actively supported the Revolution, while around 20% were die-hard Loyalists (or Tories, the term for the faction in British politics who championed the power of the king). The remainder of the population either wanted to remain neutral or felt caught between the two competing groups and simply had to navigate the war as best they could, which sometimes involved making hard choices and sometimes involved being plundered by both sides.
The Mid-Atlantic zone during the Revolutionary War was something of a patchwork. New York City, Long Island, parts of Rhode Island, and patches of New Jersey were basically Loyalist territory, whereas Connecticut, much of rural New York, and parts of New Jersey and Rhode Island were held by the ‘Patriots’ (also called Whigs, the term for the faction in British politics that wanted a weaker king). That patchwork of Loyalists and Patriots created challenges for men and women trying to live their lives and go about their business. A Patriot household could easily be located in the middle of a Loyalist community and vice versa. Merchants traveling for business might have to cross the lines between Patriot and Loyalist communities, and Patriot farmers might have to sell their produce to the British Army.
That sort of messiness created fertile ground for espionage, as Rose repeatedly demonstrates. The fact that New York City and Long Island were linked through the city’s need for food from the farms and yet the region was not far from Connecticut particularly created an opportunity for Patriots on Long Island to spy on New York City for General Washington, who was badly in need of information about troop movements, preparations for military campaigns, and the like.
That need ultimately drove the creation of the Culper Ring, so-called because its two major spies, Abraham Woodhull and Robert Townsend were referred to in correspondence as Samuel Culper Senior and Samuel Culper Junior. The ring was organized by Col. Benjamin Tallmadge, who recruited two men he knew from childhood, Woodhull and Caleb Brewster. Woodhull then recruited Townsend. Using a combination of code, cipher, and invisible ink, these men provided Washington with much-needed intelligence on New York City and its environs.
The basic system they used is that Townsend wrote out his report, give it to a courier who got it to Woodhull’s town of Setauket, Long Island, and buried it in a box on Woodhull’s farm. Woodhull retrieved the message, added his own observations to it, and then had a local woman, Anna Strong, signal Brewster by hanging a black petticoat out to dry (along with a number of handkerchiefs that signaled where Brewster was to meet Woodhull), and when Woodhull passed him Townsend’s report, Brewster would get it to Tallmadge, who then sent it to Washington. (The detail about Strong’s washing line has never been proven, but relies on local tradition and fits what is generally known about the ring’s operation.)
Between 1778 and 1781, the Culper Ring had a number of major successes. It alerted Washington to a planned assault on French forces at Newport, helped thwart a British attempt to collapse the young American currency through counterfeiting, warned Washington that a raid on Connecticut was actually a diversionary feint, and revealed that a high-ranking American office was planning to turn over West Point to the British, although they were unable to identify Benedict Arnold specifically.
So with that in mind, let’s take a look at the American characters in Turn: Washington’s Spies.
Abraham Woodhull was a farmer in Setauket who was recruited by Tallmadge in 1778 to act as a spy because selling his produce gave him a good excuse to be heading into New York City occasionally. Whereas Jamie Bell’s Woodhull is a brave man willing to take risks but reluctant to engage in physical violence, the real Woodhull seems to have been a rather nervous man, constantly worrying about being found out; Tallmadge had to learn to manage the man’s anxieties. But I suppose centering your show around a character like that seemed like a tough sell to audiences.
But other changes are more problematic. The series gives Woodhull a rather complicated back story. He studied law at Yale and was courting Anna Strong (Heather Lind) until his other brother died and his father, Judge Richard Woodhull (Kevin R. McNally), pressured him to return home to Setauket and marry his brother’s fiancé Mary (Meegan Warner), thus creating a rather complicated romantic knot for the characters in the show.
Unfortunately, virtually every word of the preceding paragraph is false. Woodhull never studied at Yale and seems to have just been a farmer. His father was a judge who by the time of the show was in his mid-60s; whether he was a Loyalist, I haven’t been able to determine. There’s no evidence that Abraham ever had any sort of romantic relationship with Anna Strong, who was married to his cousin Selah Strong (the show gets that detail right) and who was a decade older than Woodhull. Woodhull didn’t marry Mary (another cousin of his) until 1781, and there’s no evidence that she had ever been betrothed to his dead older brother.
As a result, the show winds up inventing things for Woodhull to do that are highly implausible. For example, he’s show giving Tallmadge intelligence that leads to Washington’s famous raid on Trenton. That basic idea isn’t unreasonable (someone must have gotten Washington that information), but the raid on Trenton happened in 1776, and Woodhull didn’t start working as a spy until 1778. In other episode, Woodhull uses his legal training at Yale to act as the prosecutor of a bunch of accused rebels (maintaining his cover while finding a way to demonstrate their innocence), but the real Woodhull had no legal training. Nor did he burn down his own farmhouse to cover his murder of a British soldier. But other incidents in the show, such as him encountering a bandit while traveling to New York City and him using a code-book for his reports, are based on fact.
Anna and Selah Strong
In the show, Anna and her husband Selah (Robert Beitzel) run what appears to be a very successful tavern in Setauket, given that they own that tavern, a very large house, and a substantial number of slaves (who seem to be farmhands, suggesting that Selah is also a farmer). At least, they do until the British government confiscates it all from them because of Selah’s support for the rebels. Anna actively works with Woodhull, hanging her black petticoat to send messages to Caleb Brewster. Later, thinking her husband dead, she goes to New York and spies on the British by disguising herself as a prostitute. Selah, meanwhile, becomes a Patriot soldier.
Most of that paragraph is made up too. Selah Strong was a minor figure in the Patriot movement; he participated in New York’s three provincial congresses in 1775 and 76, which were Patriot organizations. He is described in one letter as a ‘justice’, so he was clearly a figure of some local importance. He was arrested and imprisoned, either in the New York sugar house or on the HMS Jersey (which the show does depict). But they seem to have just been farmers (Rice describes them as ‘neighbors’ of Woodhull, which suggests that they did not live in Setauket proper). So far as I know, there’s no evidence that they ran a tavern (and the fact that he was a justice probably points away from that as well). While it’s possible that they owned slaves, since some residents of Long Island did, in order to own the number of slaves the show gives them, they would have to have owned a large plantation. By the start of the Revolution, they already had six children (none of whom appear in the show).
Anna’s involvement with the Culper Ring is poorly-documented. The whole black petticoat story rests on no better authority than family history, making it possible but not provable (and remember, family authority is the basis for the spurious idea that Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag). Beyond that, her only known contribution to Woodhull’s espionage was occasionally pretending to be his wife as he traveled to New York City (a man traveling alone was more likely to be suspected of espionage than a husband and wife traveling together). She may have used Tory family connections to get Selah freed from his imprisonment. Afterward, he took the family’s children to Connecticut, while Anna remained on Long Island, probably because if they had both left their house in Setauket, the British authorities could legally have confiscated the property as abandoned.
Incidentally Selah’s sister was Benjamin Tallmadge’s step-mother. The family ties between the Woodhulls, the Strongs, and the Tallmadges were an important element in the Culper Ring. They tended to recruit people they knew they could rely on, so tapping their family connections was a logical choice.
Benjamin Tallmadge and Caleb Brewster
The series is actually pretty faithful to the facts of Tallmadge’s life. The historical Tallmadge was the son of Rev. Benjamin Tallmadge Senior (who appears in a couple of episodes, although they call him Nathaniel, presumably to avoid audience confusion). The show glosses over Major Tallmadge’s impressive education. He was already fluent in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew before he arrived at Yale, where he was a classmate of the unfortunate spy Nathan Hale.
Tallmadge enlisted early in the war and in 1778 Washington assigned him to assist General Charles Scott in gathering intelligence. Scott found this work boring and his somewhat traditional view of espionage meant that Scott achieved little of note. Eventually Washington reassigned Scott and gave Tallmadge charge over intelligence, perhaps in part because Tallmadge was a childhood friend of Caleb Brewster, the one relatively effective agent Washington had. Tallmadge proceeded to recruit another friend of Brewster, Woodhull. So Tallmadge is the one who established the Culper Ring (which, incidentally, was named by Washington, not Woodhull as the show claims). Seth Numrich’s Tallmadge is pretty true to those facts. The early episodes show him chafing under Scott’s approach, which seems broadly true.
Caleb Brewster was a whaleboatman before enlisting in the Continental Army. In August of 1778, he contacted Washington and offered to act as a scout to provide information on troop movements. His intelligence proved good enough that Washington assigned Gen. Scott the task of managing Brewster and recruiting other agents. So Brewster was responsible for the project that give birth to the Culper Ring. As noted, Brewster’s role in the Ring was primarily to act as a courier, picking up Woodhull’s report and getting across Long Island Sound to Connecticut. Occasionally he added his own observations to the report. The show doesn’t give explore him deeply enough as a character for it get facts wrong or right, although it shows his father Lucas being murdered by Col. Simcoe, which seems to be fabricated (and his father’s name was Benjamin, again probably changed to avoid audience confusion).
In 1776, the British forced Washington to withdraw from Long Island, and Setauket was occupied by the British troops, who seized Setauket Presbyterian Church, which was the parish of Tallmadge Senior. They used it as a stable for their horses, and pulled up gravestones to use to establish a defensive perimeter around the church. In August of 1777, Brewster participated in an amphibious assault on the church. Six whaleboats ferried men across Long Island Sound and the troops laid siege to the church when the British Col. Hewlett refused to surrender it. A fierce gunfight erupted, which the Patriots had to abandon when they discovered that British warships were approaching.
This incident is depicted in the series in relatively true form, except that neither Woodhull nor Tallmadge Junior were present, and Tallmadge Senior was not killed during the siege; in fact, Tallmadge Senior only died in 1786. (Woodhull, incidentally, is buried at the church.) Also note that the attack on the church happened before the establishment of the Culper Ring, not after it.
So although the show takes a lot of liberties with the facts in order to create action and drama, I’d have to rank it several steps above a show like Reign in terms of accuracy. It’s at least trying to remain grounded in fact. In my next post, I’ll tackle the three major British characters: Major Hewlett, Col. Simcoe, and Major Andre.
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.