- And the historian laughed...
- May 30th, 2015
I've followed the Revolution Era Spy series "Turn" from the outset on and it is a fine television programme. Wonderful costumes, adequately correct scene buildings (for a good part i understand thanks to the museum village at "Colonial Williamsburg"... ) and a thrilling, meandering, surprising storyline throughout all episodes. It may not be the best program ever made, but it sure knows how to entertain while upholding a good look and feel for the time of America#s struggle for independence those 240 years ago.
That got me interested in the often talked about book that started the whole idea of making such a program about Washington's most important spy ring. And i took up "Washington's spies" by Alexander Rose. A good choice as it turned out to be an excellently written account full of carefully collected hints about their hidden activities and how it was both put into existance and how it was historically connected into the greater effort to achieve insights into future deployments and movements of the enemy's armies. And there the conflict began. As interesting and as life-threatening as the activities of the "Culper-Ring" were, they had only the barest resemblance to the full out portrayal of a modern type spy story the AMC series gave us. Well, a lot of names actually fit both the historical account and the action packed reenactment on the small screen... but almost every scene is embellished, blown up out of proportion and warped beyond recognition.
Where the television makes it almost look as if "Culper" was the best source on New York with nearly a running commentary going on about troop movements, strengths and missions, the truth is far less shinier, such messages were few and far in between. Most often it was hearsay or rumours about where this or that transport would be going or how much more supplies they had just received from Europe... Abigail the brave slave in Major Andrés employ seems to be completely fictional, Anna Strongs man never died in loyalist captivity, her own role is not even mentioned in Rose#s book and called pretty much folklore and local tradition by the sources of the Wikipedia article on the Ring... Also nearly half of what Rose has to tell about the Ring's correspondence comprises of complaints about the dangers and lacks of secrecy in the handling of the spying, questions after money for expenses paid in the course of the achievement of their intelligence like for the courier riders connecting York City and Setauket or for Townsend once he joined up for fresh paper to use with the secret stain (invisible ink) Tallmadge provided... Most of which is put in dialogue form by the tv crew spoken between the conspirators in weak moments.
Even aspects like the "invasion" (a raid by cavalry elements) of Setauket or the mugging of magistrate Woodhull (abraham's father) are grossly overstated in scape and importance when judging by the tv version. Not to forget the "villains", Robert Rogers, J. Simcoe and "Major Hewlett" who are almost unrecognizable if you try to bring historical account and television version into concordance. There simply is not enough flesh on the Culper story to fill twenty or more tv episodes with the level of action and suspense the producers would love to have in it...
Long story short: it's a nice TV show, but historically as accurate as let's say "300" or that musketeer thing half my Flist is so fangirly about.
And i have the greatest of respect for all the persons involved in the real story, risking or sometimes losing their lives so that others may continue to fight for the freedom of their chosen homeland... If you think that the two big polar opposites in Rose's story are Nathan Hale and Benedict Arnold, the poor honorable but steadfast soldier who got hanged for the attempt to gain little intelligence about the situation on Long Island and the big traitor who almost went over to the British with Washington and his intelligence chief Tallmadge on a silver platter and trying to add the whole garrison as turncoats as cream on top of the pie? And for what? Bitter resentment that his - admittedly excellent - service was not honored or rewarded enough by the congress and his army superiors and jealousy that others tried to harvest his effort's benefits instead of him?