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.
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.
Margaret Corbin: The First “Molly Pitcher”
This is a tale about “Molly Pitcher”–and I don’t mean the one that has a rest stop named after her on the New Jersey Turnpike.
In fact, during the Revolutionary War, there were numerous “Molly Pitchers.”
Although many believe “Molly” to be a composite character, there was much truth to the name. “Molly” was a common nickname for the female wives and companions of soldiers on both sides, known as camp followers. In order to receive half-rations, camp followers had to prove useful to the troops through cleaning, cooking, and caring for the wounded.
Some “Mollies”, like Mary Ludwig Hays (the most well-known “Molly”) even stepped into battle when their beau had fallen. This was the case in June 1778, when Hays picked up his husband’s rammer and manned a cannon at the Battle of Monmouth, NJ.
Yet today’s story is not about her, nor her rest stop. It is about the first woman to be wounded in the Revolution, the first true “Molly Pitcher.” That honor goes to another Pennsylvania housewife named Margaret Corbin.
Margaret Cochran Corbin was born on November 12, 1751 to Scots-Irish immigrants in the rugged frontier of Western Pennsylvania. During the French and Indian War, a native attack killed her father and took her mother captive, leaving young Margaret into the care of her uncle. She marries a young Virginia farmer, John Corbin, in 1772, and the story pretty much stays put. If events didn’t turn, she would be just another housewife along the Pennsylvania wilderness.
Then came news of Lexington and Concord.
John enlisted in a Pennsylvania artillery company, loading and firing cannons. Margaret came along, and quickly assumed a leadership role amongst the wives in camp, earning the nickname “Captain Molly.” Her booming voice and commanding presence encouraged the women as they cooked, cleaned, mended uniforms, shined boots, and cared for the sick and wounded.
Like most camp followers, Margaret did her work in full view of the marching, drilling and practice fire sessions of her husband’s unit. Observing each day, the wives became astute at soldiering themselves–a useful tool in the thick of battle. Margaret would become a “Molly Pitcher” like the other wives, not because they brought water to drink, but because their buckets of water cooled the over-heated cannon barrels during the fighting.
On November 16, 1776, as the British continued their relentless advance north through Manhattan, John was assigned to a cannon crew defending Fort Washington in upper Manhattan from an overlooking ridge, today known as Fort Tryon. There were only two cannon on the ridge, and only 600 Continental and militia troops to defend the fort against 4000 Hessian mercenaries: brutal German troops hired by the British.
John was killed by a Hessian assault, leaving Margaret to man his cannon. She quietly witnessed his death and took up her station at the gun. Ever the astute observer, Margaret fired and fired her weapon exactly as John did on the parade grounds in camp. She stayed at her post until wounds to her jaw, chest and arm forced her gun silent, wounds that left her disabled for the rest of her life.
The more popular “Molly” merely had her petticoats torn from cannon fire while her hubby was overheated from the sun. There’s simply no comparison.
The American forces surrendered Fort Washington, and Margaret was taken prisoner by the British who released her on parole as a wounded combatent. Crippled by injuries that would never fully heal–including the complete loss of use of one arm–Margaret struggled to make ends meet until 1779, when Pennsylvania awarded her $30 to cover her present needs.
Her case was then sent to the Board of War of the Continental Congress, who were impressed by her service, her bravery, and her perseverence due to her wounds. She received half the monthly pay of a Continental soldier, including a new set of clothes (some say she received cash in lieu of the clothes). The Congress concluded that:
With this act, Margaret Corbin became the first woman to receive a military pension from the United States.
Margaret Corbin remained on the military rolls as a wounded soldier until she finally left the Continental Army in 1783. Receiving help from both Pennsylvania and the United States for the rest of her life, Margaret died in Highland Falls, New York in 1800 at the age of 48. According to many records, her neighbors described “Captain Molly” as a rough, disagreeable woman who kept to herself, was drunk and surly to others, and could not keep normal hygiene due to her disabilities, which repulsed the ladies of polite society. She preferred the company of fellow veterans to the “ladies” of New York.
To be fair, after the life she led, Margaret earned the right to being a snarling, grumpy spinster.
Alone, impoverished, drunk and forgotten, Margaret Corbin was–willfully or not–forgotten for a century and a half. Corbin’s legacy faded as the legend of her contemporary, Mary Hays (later Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley) grew in popular folklore. Perhaps this was because Hays stayed married, and remarried after John Hays’ death, ever the dutiful wife. Her story was more palatable, more “sellable” than that of a widowed invalid who repulsed more genteel elements of society. In fact, the Hays story would often steal elements from the Corbin story, as historians for centuries would confuse the two “Mollies”, never realizing they were talking about two entirely different people.
In 1926, the Daughters of the American Revolution worked to restore Corbin’s legacy, and give her an honor that Mary Hays could only dream about in her tattered petticoats.
The DAR disinterred Corbin’s remains and reburied them with a special monument at the cemetery behind the Old Cadet Chapel at the United States Military Academy at West Point. She is one of only two Revolutionary War soldiers buried there. On her monument is a bronze relief of Margaret, holding her ramrod next to the cannon she tended on that terrible day in 1776.
The American Revolution is littered with stories of important and famous women. There were many more “Molly Pitchers” whose names were forgotten to history. Even the more popular Mary Hays deserved recognition for her bravery.
Yet the unvarnished, often distasteful details about a person should not negate their rightful place in history.
Margaret Corbin’s sin was her crippled status. It made her a pariah, while Mary Hays could bask in relative glory in marriage (though her second marriage was quite violent). So history decided to make the more marketable Hays the “Molly Pitcher” by which all “Molly Pitchers” are measured.
Yet Margaret Corbin was the genuine article. She was the original “Molly Pitcher”…
…and she had the battle scars to show for it.
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