So Turn: Washington’s Spies has run its course, and now you’re itching to know more about the history behind the show. Allow me to recommend some reading material.
I should note at the outset that this is a very Turn-centric selection. In other words, it’s not a well-rounded reading list on the American Revolution. This is intended mainly for those of you who are relatively new to the whole Rev War aficionado thing and want to start out by learning more about the people and events depicted in the series.
First, though, let’s take a look at some general histories of the era. My favorite overview is Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804. It’s the most comprehensive and up-to-date single-volume book on the Revolutionary era available. If a narrative approach to the Revolution’s origins and military campaigns is more to your liking, try Robert Middlekauff’s The Glorious Cause. I think Middlekauff is better on the run-up to the war and the actual fighting than he is on the Revolution’s social dimensions and its aftermath, but Glorious Cause is still well worth a read. I’d also recommend two books by John Ferling: A Leap in the Dark for the Revolution’s political history and Almost a Miracle for the military side of the story. And Gordon Wood’s The American Revolution is a concise overview of what was at stake in the struggle for independence, as well as a distillation of an influential and insightful scholar’s life work.
Okay, now for books that deal directly with the show’s subject matter. Turn is all about espionage, and when it comes to Revolutionary spycraft, you can’t do better than John Nagy, author of George Washington’s Secret Spy War, Invisible Ink, Spies in the Continental Capital, and Dr. Benjamin Church, Spy. Of course, you can’t do a list of Turn-related books without mentioning Washington’s Spies, the story that inspired the series.
The most famous Revolutionary to put in an appearance in the series was the commander of the Continental Army. Joseph Ellis’s His Excellency is a great introduction to Washington and the qualities that made him exceptional. John Ferling’s First of Men is also quite good and remarkably balanced; in fact, Ferling has written a number of fine books on different aspects of Washington’s life and career. Both the one-volume abridgment of James Thomas Flexner’s biography and Ron Chernow’s life of Washington are also good reads. Robert Middlekauff covers the general’s rise to fame and the war years in Washington’s Revolution.
One of the reasons Benedict Arnold’s treason shocked so many Revolutionaries was the fact that he had been one of the most revered Patriot commanders. James Kirby Martin’s Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary Hero: An American Warrior Reconsidered examines the course of his career before he sold out to the British. Flexner’s The Traitor and the Spy covers Arnold, André, and the plot to hand over West Point. Peggy Shippen Arnold is the subject of a popular biography by Stephen Case and Mark Jacob. Another controversial Continental commander who appeared in the series was Charles Lee, the subject of recent biographies by Phillip Papas and Dominick Mazzagetti.
On the British side, the Queen’s Rangers figured prominently throughout the show’s run. Check out Donald Gara’s history of the unit. War on the Run by John F. Ross is an engaging look Robert Rogers’s exploits, but it’s mostly focused on the French and Indian War. While members of the British high command didn’t make too many appearances in the show, I also recommend The Men Who Lost America for a sense of the challenges imperial officials and generals faced in subduing the colonies.
What about Turn‘s African American characters? Gary Nash’s The Forgotten Fifth is a great and very concise overview of the Revolution’s impact on black colonists, both slave and free. Douglas Egerton’s Death or Liberty is also handy, and Benjamin Quarles’s The Negro in the American Revolution is a classic that’s still worth a read.
Another classic work that will give you some insight into the experiences of women like Mary and Anna is Liberty’s Daughters. Carol Berkin’s Revolutionary Mothers also deals with women’s participation in the struggle for liberty.
For life in the Continental Army’s camps and hospitals, Caroline Cox’s A Proper Sense of Honor is a very valuable work by a historian whose death was a tremendous loss to scholarship on the Revolution. And I’m a huge fan of Charles Royster’s A Revolutionary People at War, a fascinating look at how young officers like Tallmadge understood their own service and sacrifices.
Turn also featured some of the war’s most important campaigns and battles. Barnet Schecter’s The Battle for New York deals with the city that was ground zero for many of the early episodes. In the first season, Tallmadge is unconscious during the attack on Trenton; you can catch up on what he missed by reading David Hackett Fischer’s splendid book Washington’s Crossing. For Monmouth Courthouse, Joseph Bilby and Katherine Bilby Jenkins’s work is a good place to start, and if you want more detail, Fatal Sunday is outstanding. The British invasion of Virginia in 1781 is the subject of a brand new book, and Jerome Greene’s The Guns of Independence is a thorough examination of the Siege of Yorktown.
One final recommendation. The series didn’t shy away from the Revolution’s uglier aspects. For an examination of the war’s dark, violent, and bloody side, check out Holger Hoock’s Scars of Independence.
If any of you Rev War buffs have other Turn-related books you’d like to recommend, let us know in the comments.