Apr 15, 2014
AMC's 'Turn' Features Connecticut Spies of the American Revolution
Image courtesy of AMC
Four of the main characters of AMC's "Turn," based on actual members of the Culper Spy Ring: Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall), Abraham Woodhull (Jamie Bell), Anna Strong (Heather Lind) and Benjamin Tallmadge (Seth Numrich).
They always say the truth is more compelling than fiction. In the case of AMC's "Turn," a healthy dose of both is making for some great TV.
Set during the American Revolution, "Turn," chronicles the true story of the Culper Spy Ring, which operated in and around New York City, a British stronghold at the time. The primary action (so far) happens in Setauket on Long Island, but there are scenes set in Connecticut as well as numerous state mentions and personalities. As with any TV spy series, there's plenty of danger, intrigue and drama, although in this case, it's all (mostly) culled from reality.
The Culper Spy Ring was headed by Benjamin Tallmadge, a Setauket native, a 1773 Yale graduate (and classmate of Nathan Hale) and a teacher in Wethersfield before joining the Continental Army in 1776. Originally commissioned as a lieutenant, he rose to the rank of major of the 2nd Continental Light Dragoons, and was eventually selected in 1778 by Gen. George Washington to be his chief intelligence officer. He recruited a number of his childhood friends from Setauket as spies. (Tallmadge would later settle in Litchfield, and his historic house there is currently on the market.)
|The full cast of AMC's "Turn."|
Tallmadge also played a key role in helping to expose the treachery of Connecticut's own Benedict Arnold. Immediately after the capture of British spy Maj. John Andre in upstate New York, Tallmadge suspected that Gen. Arnold was Andre's accomplice, and although he couldn't persuade Col. John Jameson to not inform Arnold (who was Jameson's commanding officer) of Andre's capture, Tallmadge was able to at least convince Jameson to not send the incriminating documents recovered from Andre's boot to Arnold. The documents instead were sent directly to Washington, who immediately realized the traitorous plot.
Another key member of the spy ring was Caleb Brewster, who moved from Long Island to the Black Rock section of Bridgeport after the war's outbreak. He ostensibly commanded a fleet of whaleboats but was heavily involved in smuggling to help support the Revolution. Tasked with disrupting enemy shipping on the Sound, he also ferried military intelligence across the Sound from Setauket to Fairfield, where he would deliver it to Tallmadge who would then pass it along to Washington.
Tallmadge, Brewster, the Culper Ring and other local intelligence-gathering efforts of the American Revolution are featured in Spies of Revolutionary Connecticut: From Benedict Arnold to Nathan Hale, by Hebron author Mark Allen Baker.
"There were far more spies than any of us realize," says Baker, who chronicles the clandestine exploits, intrigue and double-crosses of local agents on both sides of the American Revolution. "The state has a bunch of monikers: The Constitution State, the Nutmeg State, the Provision State, but often overlooked was how much intelligence we supplied. So that's the underlying premise to the book, to basically form the argument that Connecticut could easily have the moniker 'The Intelligence State,' and it would be an accurate one, and just as accurate as 'The Land of Steady Habits.'"
As "Turn" demonstrates, although not really well-known until more recently espionage was a key part of the American Revolution. "There were not only spies, but informants as well," says Baker. "You can literally go anywhere around here, to the different taverns, for example, in any one of the towns, be it Litchfield or Lebanon, and there were people headed there to specifically do some eavesdropping. So the frequency by which spies came into Connecticut and spied in general during the Revolutionary War, is surprising."
The Culper Ring, which is at the center of "Turn," was only part of the complex espionage network being employed by Washington. "He was running spy rings out of New Jersey, and he was running his own independent spies in and out of New York City," says Baker. "He was a leader who learned to trust, but also to verify. I was surprised at the sheer amount of intelligence—not all good, naturally—that he had and used, and depended on. Another thing that Washington did, and you can see in his expenses, is payment for spying in Boston. So he's not going into the Revolution blind; this is an experienced leader who knows about covert intelligence and he's going to use it to his advantage."
In his book, Baker profiles key players in the state's covert activities such as Silas Deane, Edward Bancroft and even Benedict Arnold. "I enjoyed uncovering some of the stories that have been swept under the table, so to speak," he says. "One that comes to mind, when I wrote the introduction to the book, I did a piece on John Trumbull, the painter. A lot people don't realize that Trumbull was arrested for spying and put in jail." Trumbull had the bad timing of being in London when news reached there of Arnold's attempted betrayal and Andre's execution; he was imprisoned for seven months before being released and going to Amsterdam in the hopes of finding a quick return to America. While in Amsterdam, however, he was approached to try and negotiate a loan with Holland for Connecticut, but it never came to fruition.
In his book, Baker also delves into the art of espionage. "Spying was sophisticated to a certain extent," he says. "Obviously, it had been around for a long time, so the British had a head start. They were doing certain techniques like concealment. Henry Clinton and his staff were great with it. They would do concealment, forgery, invisible ink—they had a lot of the techniques down very well, and a lot of them were very proficient in using these techniques during these activities."
And of course, there's Nathan Hale, the Connecticut state hero. "You're looking at a Yale graduate from a fine family in Coventry, who also befriends some great individuals like Benjamin Tallmadge, and then because of his own military skills and prowess, gets to become part of Thomas Knowlton's Rangers, a fearless band that Washington really counted on," says Baker. "To think that this gentleman would undertake a mission like he did, is extraordinary. And he's perfect for it in a lot of ways. If you read his letters, and see how educated, articulated and open-minded he was—he was ahead of his time while teaching to include women in his scholarship. The whole situation of him volunteering to take an incredible mission during a very volatile time, is something you have to look up to."
Ultimately, "Connecticut had an enormous impact on spying in the revolution," says Baker. “I probably speak for many historians when I say that I am delighted that AMC has chosen air the period drama "Turn." The Culper Spy Ring, which seems to surface periodically in our analysis of history, has never received the attention it deserves. For me, along with many Connecticut residents, Benjamin Tallmadge's role as intelligence czar has long been understated, hopefully he will shine in "Turn."
Baker will be at Byrds Bookstore in Bethel on June 28 and at The Nathan Hale Schoolhouse in New London on August 16 to promote Spies of Revolutionary Connecticut.
AMC's 'Turn' Features Connecticut Spies of the American Revolution