Tag Archives: American Revolution

Did the Culper Ring get its due? A review of AMC’s “Turn”

From the poster of AMC's "Turn"

From the poster of AMC’s “Turn”

In the world of espionage, the best recognition is no recognition at all.

The front of the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Langley, Virginia have monuments to fallen agents, sculptures on intelligence gathering, and a statue of Nathan Hale, the Revolutionary war spy who got caught and hanged in September of 1776.  The fallen agents went down due to numerous factors (possibly including incompetence), the intelligence gathering is nothing to celebrate, especially lately, and Hale is remembered more for supposed valor at the gallows than any real prowess as a spy.

Yet there is little public fanfare for the first successful spy agency in American history.

For most Americans, the recent debut of the AMC series Turn is their introduction to the Culper Ring, a network of spies and couriers that operated in New York City, Long Island and Connecticut during the Revolution.  For me, and anyone who went to school on Long Island, the Culper Ring was part of our common knowledge.  Part of my American history class was devoted to local history, and the Culper Ring featured prominently–I had to memorize the names and roles of Benjamin Tallmadge, Abraham Woodhull, Caleb Brewster and the like.

We even used some of their codes and encryption methods in class–which is especially fun when coding out swear words to your classmates.

Yet beyond the spycraft and 18-century Bond-like gadgetry, the Culper Ring was successful in the quality and quantity of their information (they supposedly discovered the Benedict Arnold betrayal and the British ambush on French troops in Rhode Island) as well as keeping their cover.  The original ring kept their identities hidden to the grave, and most of these identities  weren’t discovered until the 1930s.

This was a story that just begged to be made for the screen, and AMC has done it right, for now, in releasing their story as a series.  Is this new drama worthy of the exploits of the Culper gang?  Two episodes in, the verdict is still out, but the results look promising.

The series is based on Alexander Rose’s book Washington’s Spies and begins in a supposed backwater of the war–Suffolk County, Long Island.  Yet it is here, in the north shore hamlet of Setauket, where the ring begins to take shape.  Benjamin Tallmadge, a Continental major (and Yale classmate of Nathan Hale) recruits his reluctant friend Abraham Woodhull on a mission to transmit information to the rebel base across Long Island Sound in Connecticut.  Woodhull is portrayed as a typical non-committal farmer ala Mel Gibson’s melodramatic Benjamin Martin in The Patriot.  His loyalist (for now) father is the local magistrate and friends with the local commander of the British garrison.  As a struggling farmer, Woodhull just wants to stay out of the way, until events push him towards Tallmadge and rebel espionage.

After two episodes (including a one and a half hour pilot) I can see where the creators are going with this.  It’s great that the show is taking its time in developing the establishment of the spy network.  In real life, establishing confidants, sources and “assets” to “turn” (spyspeak for getting an asset to spy on their side) takes time and dangerous planning.  The show is also accurate in developing the perspectives and loyalties of everyday colonists of the time.  Even among the loyalists, you get a sense that the characters are loyal less out of any sense of connection and more of expediency.  The patriots also seem less like the textbook noble heroes and more human, driven by more tangible needs than simply love of liberty.

Selections from the Culper spy code, courtesy of the Three Village School District.

Selections from the Culper spy code, courtesy of the Three Village School District.

Another fun feature of the show is its interactive features.  The Turn website features an option called Story Sync.  Designed to be used simultaneously with the broadcast, Story Sync features information about the historical characters, quizzes, polls, and little asides designed to enrich the experience.  There are also links to interactive maps, spy materials, and other resources that an educator can use.  I already see how these can create a home Blu-Ray or DVD loaded with surprises.

However, the construction of the basic drama, at least now, seems formulaic.  It establishes a clueless British commander in Major Hewlett, a one-dimensional, wooden villain in Captain Simcoe (who reminds me of Colonel Tavington in The Patriot without the charisma), and a somewhat contrived love triangle between Woodhull, his wife, and Anna Strong, a local tavernkeeper who was once engaged to Woodhull and whose husband is in prison for an attack on a British officer.  I will admit, I didn’t read Rose’s book yet, but I do think this romance is more a creation of the screenwriters and less a development of actual events.

In terms of dramatic license, there needs to be some slack given.  Until recently, there was little evidence as to the existence of the ring at all, let alone their day-to-day operations.  So we can forgive the writers somewhat in their zeal to fill in the blanks.

In that vein, Robert Rogers offers a fun way to develop the story.  Rogers, a hero of the French and Indian War and a founder of modern military rangers, had serious legal issues in Britain and returned to America as an erratic alcoholic during the Revolution.  He offered his services to whoever would pay him: first Washington, who (wisely it seems) didn’t trust him, and then the British.  He created another Ranger unit that helped capture Nathan Hale, but Rogers’ behavior got him dismissed the next year, so he probably didn’t have as much involvement in the Culper spy network as the series would like him us to believe.

However, I think Rogers can become the most interesting character in the whole show.

In the series, he is portrayed as a colonial has-been with a hair-trigger temper and a sixth sense for treachery, one who’ll sell his mother for a few guineas.  Of all, I see Rogers as developing into an Al Swearengen type of character: a son of a bitch so ruthless and witty you just have to love him.  The problem with the show right now is that the British are all universally one-dimensional bad guys.  The best villains are those who have something likable about them, and Rogers is definitely someone I would have a drink with.  If Rogers emerges as the main antagonist, this might become a really fun show.

In terms of history, Turn is doing its best with the information it has.  Again, I didn’t read the source material, and once I do, I can make a more informed judgement.  However, as a television show, this has the potential to be fun, exciting and a good starting point in studying espionage in the American Revolution.

If only the show can get away from the cookie cutter formulas, it just might  do justice to an important set of patriots in our history.  Let’s hope the history wins out.

 

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The Revolutionary Age – the Winter Edition of History NOW

The Siege and Relief of Gibraltar, 13 Septembe...

The Siege and Relief of Gibraltar, 13 September 1782″. By John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), c. 1783 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Revolution is truly like a pox, spreading from person to person.

This particularly human sickness is the subject of this winter’s issue of History NOW from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.  Ten essays from a collection of eminent historians detail how the revolutionary fervor of the Americas would spread globally, to France, to Haiti, to Cuba and beyond.

Several of the essays caught my eye.  First was Patrick Spero’s interesting piece on the truly global nature of the American war of independence.  Unbeknownst to many on this side of the pond, the longest and largest battle of the War of Independence did not occur on American soil and involved no US lives: the Spanish seige of British-held Gibraltar from 1779 to 1783.  The British victory was celebrated in a painting by John Singleton Copley, demonstrating the US struggle’s overall limited place in what became a global war.

Susan Dunn’s comparison of the French and American Revolutions is also of note.   The analysis is hardly new–that the moderating nature of the American Revolution made for a long-lasting, yet flawed system, while the increasingly radical French Revolution would self-destruct.  What is new is the view of the American Revolution from the French point of view, particularly how the French perspective changes from that of doting admirers to critical ascendant revolutionaries bent on correcting and improving on the American model.

I would be remiss if I forgot the contributions of my old friend, UCLA professor emeritus Gary Nash.  In an article recovered from Gilder Lehrman’s arch, Nash examines the social and intellectual roots of the Revolution, particularly the various movements advocating for independence and social change.  The ideals of revolution manifested itself through various avenues, as Americans of all stripes struggled to create a new society–a society that would be on the backburner as forces of reaction and stability placed the war and the ensuing Constitution as a priority over social change.

As with any Gilder Lehrman product, History NOW is laden with primary sources for educators to utilize the ideas of the authors.  This issue contains the Stamp Act, Jefferson’s letters on the Haitian and French Revolutions, the Monroe Doctrine, even the 1836 Texas Declaration of Independence.

The Neighborhood is usually very enthusiastic of Gilder Lehrman resources, and History NOW is no exception.  Take your time and really sift through the treasure trove of analysis and insight…it’s among the best issues yet.

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This Day in History 12/16: The Boston Tea Party

"The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor&...

Image via Wikipedia

Today’s story is not about 342 chests of tea dumped into a harbor.

It is not about Sons of Liberty, Samuel Adams or John Hancock.

It is not about Committees of Correspondence, Mohawks or tarring and feathering.

And it sure as hell isn’t about any American Revolution.

Instead, this is about how a seemingly insignificant everyday citizen helped resurrect a central moment in American history.

On December 16, 1773, after a pre-approved signal from a protest meeting in Faneuil Hall in Boston, a group of colonists dressed as “Mohawks” (or what they thought were Mohawks) dumped 342 chests of tea from three ships anchored in Boston harbor.

The act was triggered by the Tea Act of 1773, a new British law giving the British East India Company a monopoly on the tea trade in the colonies, providing cheaper tea and undercutting local smugglers. The colonial governor, Thomas Hutchinson, ordered that tea from incoming ships be unloaded, against the wishes of Boston citizens who wanted none of it.

Unlike other governors who negotiated with colonists and ship owners to reach a compromise on the tea, Hutchinson was playing hardball with the colonists, many of whom had various motives. Some were genuinely concerned about taxation without representation. Others were pissed that their smuggling operations were being sabotaged by legitimate enterprise.

Whatever their reasons, the dumping of the tea galvanized and hardened both sides. Britain closed the port of Boston, suspended the colonial charter and placed Massachusetts under martial law. The colonists stockpiled weapons. British soldiers attempt to seize colonial munitions at Concord…

…you know the rest of the story.

This is all common knowledge today. Yet a half-century afterwards, the events of Boston were dying along with the remaining descendants of the Revolution. The Boston Tea Party, the act of vandalism that helped trigger the American Revolution, would have been lost—if not for a poor centenarian shoemaker and widower from upstate New York.

George Robert Twelves Hewes was the son of a poor tanner in Boston’s South End. As a poor shoemaker and active Son of Liberty, Hewes was present at the Boston Massacre (where he was injured by the butt of a British rifle), at a tarring and feathering (where he was bashed by a cane on his head) and the “Tea Party” itself (he was a boatswain on one of the boarding crews, due to his “whistling” ability.).

During the war, he served on privateer ships and did two stints in the Massachusetts militia. Then, during the next 50 years, Hewes lived the unremarkable life of a poor shoemaker, first in Wrentham, Massachusetts and finally in Otsego County, New York.

Yet a chance encounter in 1833 would change Hewe’s life—and the memory of the Boston Tea Party.

James Hawkes was an author who encountered the now widowed Hewes in Richfield Springs, New York. The moment was all too important: Hewes was among the last survivors of the Revolution. Hawkes would publish a biography, A Retrospect of the Boston Tea-Party. It was soon followed by Benjamin Bussey Thatcher’s Traits of the Tea Party.

Both books revived the age-old events in Boston, and made the humble shoemaker a celebrity in his nineties.

Hewes took a publicity tour of New England, and was guest of honor at speeches and banquets throughout the region. He charmed throngs with his polite demeanor, plainspokenness and an uncanny memory that never failed him.

Even though he wasn’t a big player, Hewes was celebrated as being a witness—and an accurate one—of the pivotal events in the Revolution. It was the culmination of a renewed interest in the period in the 1820s and 1830s, as Americans saw the last of the Revolutionary generation pass away—as Hewes would in 1840.

Yet most importantly, Hewes himself set out the details of that night in Boston when the tea was dumped.

It was a night that neither Hewes nor anyone else at the time called a “tea party,” but rather the “destruction of the tea.”

It took later authors to make the vandalism a bit more…festive.

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