Tag Archives: Turn

Turn to the books

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 InkSpies 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.

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In Rev War and dino entertainment news

Today‘s Jenna Bush Hager visited the Jurassic World set and talked to the cast.  Mostly they discussed Chris Pratt’s abs, but there were also some tantalizing glimpses of what the park is going to look like.

Meanwhile, it looks like AMC has renewed Turn for a second season.  As much as I like having some Rev War fare on TV, I’m not a fan of putting a fictional love triangle at the center of the story.  I’d much rather see the plot unfold from the circumstances of what the Culper Ring was actually doing.  You’d think there would be drama enough involved without manufacturing all these romantic interests for the characters.

And they really need to stop teasing us with the prospect of showing iconic battles without following through.  That stunt where one of the main characters was unconscious during Trenton?  That was just mean.

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Blundering nincompoops and sneering sadists

A few weeks ago, as you might recall, I expressed some frustration with the way AMC’s Turn indulges in some common stereotypes about British officers in the Revolutionary War.

Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy’s book The Men Who Lost America has won the George Washington Book Prize, and speakers at the ceremony noted this tendency to remember the British commanders as either villains or fools:

In a statement praising the winner, Adam Goodheart, director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, said: “Countless popular books and Hollywood films have portrayed the redcoats and their leaders as blundering nincompoops at best, sneering sadists at worst. O’Shaughnessy’s work ought to kill these stereotypes once and for all — and, in the process, give Americans a richer and more nuanced understanding of our nation’s origins.”

…Publishers in the U.K. told O’Shaughnessy that “no one wants to read about wars we lost.” But he had long been troubled by what he called “a tendency to parody the British commanders as aristocratic buffoons, which was even more pronounced in Britain than in the U.S. It is a thesis that is perpetuated in movie caricatures, popular history and even college text books.”

These stereotypes about the British serve as a foil to what we Americans would like to believe about our own ancestors.  If the British were “sneering sadists,” then the Patriots’ virtue looks that much more sterling by comparison, even though Whigs could be extremely brutal to Tories in American-controlled territory.  And if the British were “blundering nincompoops,” it makes sense to believe that the Americans could defeat them with nothing but pluck and good old Yankee ingenuity, even though American commanders like Washington and Greene knew that the only way to defeat the British regulars was to create an army with the same discipline, hierarchy, and professionalism.

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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.

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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First impressions of Turn

Watched the premiere last night, and it was pretty good.  It didn’t grab me by the lapels and yank me off my feet, but I’ll definitely be tuning in again.  I like the fact that it conveys the uncertainties and disruptions the war presented to civilians caught between the two armies.  The impact of the armies’ behavior on civilians’ attitudes and allegiance in the Revolution has long been an interest of mine.

My main criticism at this point is probably the portrayal of British officers.  The haughty, snotty Redcoat officer is something of a stock character in films about the Rev War.  One of the great things about cable drama is the room to develop full, three-dimensional characters.  In Game of Thrones, just about everybody wears a gray hat instead of a white or black one.  Of course, any show which features American spies as its protagonists is bound to have British officers as bad guys, but it would be nice to see a little more subtlety and complexity in the way they’re depicted.  But we’re only one episode in, so we’ll see where things go from here.  So far it’s not bad.

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Teaser trailer for AMC’s Rev War series

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