Tag Archives: Banastre Tarleton

Turns and twists

Here’s a heads-up for Turn viewers who are a few episodes behind–this post contains spoilers. Ye be warned.

Gen. Charles Lee’s capture is one of the most dramatic and humorous episodes of the American Revolution.  Lee was one of the war’s most colorful figures, an eccentric and unkempt British veteran who was habitually accompanied by a pack of pet dogs.  On the eve of the war he hung up his red coat and adopted America as his home country, fired with a commitment to Whiggish principles.  Lee’s experience got him a commission in the Continental Army, where (like his fellow expatriate Horatio Gates) he became one of Washington’s critics.

Despite his commander-in-chief’s entreaties, Lee dithered while the rest of the army retreated across New Jersey and into Pennsylvania in 1776.  On December 12 he stopped for the night at a tavern in Basking Ridge, NJ. British dragoons found him there the next morning, still undressed and several miles from the safety of his troops. Women inside the tavern offered to hide him, but Lee gave himself up when the British threatened to set fire to the building. (Incidentally, one of the dragoons who captured him was Banastre Tarleton, who went on to make a name for himself in the Southern Campaign.)  The troublesome general spent the next sixteen months in captivity, offering advice to the British on how to defeat his former compatriots.

Last week’s episode of Turn depicted Lee’s capture, but changed the circumstances.  The show has Lee falling into the hands of John André while playing hide-and-seek with a young woman who, unknown to him, is a British operative.

It’s an amusing scene.  But it’s no more amusing than the actual circumstances of Lee’s capture.  Why the change to the historical record?

I don’t have a problem with dramatic license. People who adapt history have to compress events, get inside the characters’ heads, and combine historic figures into composites. I get that.

If the story is told well, I can forgive all manner of distortions. I liked 300. I liked The Patriot, for crying out loud. In fact, the grand scheme of things, The Patriot‘s distortions are much more substantial than the liberties Turn took with Lee’s capture, but they don’t irk me as much because I can see the rationale behind them. Modern audiences wouldn’t be comfortable with a slaveowner protagonist, so you make his field hands free men. People want the villain to get what’s coming to him, so instead of having Tarleton/Tavington escape from the field at Cowpens, you have Mel Gibson shove a bayonet in his throat. I get that.

What I don’t get are these little departures that don’t really amount to any improvement over what actually happened. Would a straightforward depiction of Lee’s capture in his nightgown at a Basking Ridge tavern have been any less entertaining than the “Marco Polo” scene? I don’t think so. Nor do I think the notion of Lee passing information to the British before his capture adds anything in terms of entertainment value.

I don’t really intend this to be a criticism of the show. I’ve been enjoying it; in fact, it’s getting better with each episode, especially now that major players like Washington and Cornwallis are putting in appearances. I just get puzzled and irritated when filmmakers sacrifice accuracy for no apparent payoff.

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General Grey makes a cameo

Historical connections pop up in weird places.  The other night I indulged in a repeat viewing of The Duchess, an eighteenth-century romantic biopic about Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire.

I made a point of seeing The Duchess when it hit theaters last year, for three reasons.  First, it’s based on Amanda Foreman’s bestselling biography of Georgiana.  This is one of those books I keep intending to read but somehow don’t get around to.  I figured seeing the movie would make me feel a little less guilty about it.

Second, I could think of far less pleasant ways to spend my time than watching Keira Knightley prance around for a couple of hours.

Third, this movie offered the potential for some interesting Revolutionary War cameos.  One member of Georgiana’s circle of gal pals was the actress Mary Robinson.  Robinson had a well-publicized fling with Banastre Tarleton, who’s most famous for wreaking havoc throughout the South as a cavalry commander during the British campaigns of 1780-81.  I wondered if the filmmakers would include Tarleton in the cast of characters.  He was, after all, a major character in 2006′s Amazing Grace, owing to his vocal opposition to abolishing the slave trade while in Parliament.  (In a nice authentic touch, Amazing Grace‘s Tarleton has a few missing fingers, owing to a wound he suffered in North Carolina in March 1781.)

Tarleton was a no-show in The Duchess.  But, to my surprise, another British veteran of the War for American Independence did put in an appearance: Major General Charles Grey. 

To American history aficionados, he’s more popularly known as “No-flint Grey,” due to his controversial victory over Anthony Wayne at Paoli, PA on September 20, 1777.  The “Paoli Massacre,” like Tarleton’s victory at Waxhaws, is one of those controversial engagements that made for great American propaganda during the war.  Before leading his men on a surprise night attack against Wayne’s Continentals, Grey had the flints removed from their muskets to prevent them from firing their weapons and accidentally alerting the Americans.  The British stormed the camp and laid into Wayne’s men with their bayonets and swords, killing 53 of them and wounding or capturing somewhere around 200.

Grey’s use of stealth and steel proved successful, but Americans accused him of perpetrating a cold-blooded massacre.  The “No-flint” moniker stuck, and “Remember Paoli” became an American motto.  In fact, the nation’s second oldest Rev War monument was erected on the site in 1817, and another was added sixty years later.  Today it’s one of the most well-preserved Revolutionary War sites in the country.

So what in the world is “No-flint” Grey doing in a period romance film?  Much of the movie focuses on Georgiana’s affair with Grey’s son and namesake, a prominent member of the Whig party and future prime minister.  When the two finally had a daughter together Georgiana had to turn the baby over to Grey’s parents to be raised.  In the movie, when she and a friend take a carriage ride out to a desolate spot to turn over the infant, “No-flint” Grey is the guy who shows up.

You wouldn’t expect a movie like this to have anything to do with military history, but there it is.  And if that’s not enough, the actor playing Grey has “Shrapnel” for a last name.  Coincidence?

(Grey portrait from the UK’s National Portrait Gallery, via Wikimedia Commons)

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