THE MOVING IMAGE Turn: Washington’s Spies: A History Lesson on Irregular Warfare

By: Ian C. Rice, University of California


If you are interested in learning about one of the most important irregular warfare campaigns in American history, AMC's American Revolutionary War television series, Turn: Washington's Spies, is a great place to start.1 Based on historian Alexander Rose's book Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring, Turn combines drama, suspense, and intrigue to bring to life the spies of the Culper Ring—relatively unknown yet important and audacious actors in early American history.2 For those readers who have more than a casual interest in the dynamics of insurgencies and counterinsurgency operations, Turn also offers some thought-provoking reminders that population-centric conflicts may be more similar than they are unique—a consideration that merits continued investigation in our modern era of persistent irregular conflict.

Abraham Woodhull (Jamie Bell)
Ben Tallmadge (Seth Numrich)
Anna Strong (Heather Lind)
Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall)
Richard Woodhull (Kevin McNally)

In the year 1776, the British are pressing General George Washington's army on the battlefield, and the Continentals (as the colonial forces were called) need more human intelligence if they are going to change the course of the war in their favor. Continental officers Major Benjamin Tallmadge (Seth Numrich) and Lieutenant Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall) devise a scheme to recruit Americans to collect information on British military activities near New York City. To their surprise, Abraham "Abe" Woodhull (Jamie Bell), an old childhood friend from their hometown village of Setauket on Long Island, is their first—albeit reluctant—recruit. After Abe is arrested for smuggling cabbage across the Long Island Sound to British-held New York, Ben and Caleb soon convince him that spying for the American cause is preferable to jail. And so, with the help of another childhood friend, Mrs. Anna Strong (Heather Lind), Abe begins collecting intelligence for Washington's army. As Rose describes it, colonial Setauket was a typical small community where "everyone knows each other." 3 Thus, establishing a spy ring in such a community required confidence in one's close associates as well as knowledge of who might reveal the spies to the occupying British. For Abraham Woodhull and the Culper Ring, operations on Long Island were even more challenging because the area was well behind British lines and traditionally had a strong loyalist support base.4

Though Abraham and Anna, as the rebellion's operatives in Setauket, are the focal characters of the series, Turn also showcases many of the other historical figures who play prominent parts in Rose's book. Most notably, General George Washington (Ian Kahn), Major General Benedict Arnold (Owain Yeoman), Major John André (JJ Feild), and Major Robert Rogers (Angus Macfadyen) follow plotlines that build on their large roles in American history. This additional character development helps breathe some life into these legendary figures, who are often remembered only for their most famous deeds (or in some cases, their infamous misdeeds).

Edmund Hewlett (Burn Gorman)
John Graves Simcoe (Samuel Roukin)
John André ( JJ Feild)
Mary Woodhull (Meegan Warner)
Robert Rogers (Angus Macfadyen)

Although Turn offers interesting glimpses of eighteenth-century American life, including realistic-looking costumes, some creative use of blue-screen backdrops, and of course, many scenes filmed in the beautifully preserved town of Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, the plot is slow to develop, especially for a television spy series. This slow build-up of characters and plot follows Rose's account, however, and should be expected from a historically-based spy story. An actual covert spy ring needs significant time to build itself and develop channels for collecting useful information, all while staying hidden. To prevent the story of the Culper Ring from being boring television, therefore, Turn's writers have predictably spiced up the characters and added some additional plotlines, just as they might for any television crime or spy drama. Turn has three love stories—and two of these are even love triangles! These side plots are endowed with enough colorful and suggestive content to keep cable viewers entertained. Across the first two seasons, the challenge for Turn seems to be how to skillfully interweave the main plotline of the Culper Ring's spying exploits and the overall history of the war with the numerous interpersonal dramas so that viewers stay engaged.

Is Turn historically accurate? Not exactly. But while Turn's writers have not kept the plot historically pristine, Rose's historical account provides the inspiration for the series. For instance, some episodes deviate from the chronological order of certain historical events to help build the subplots and support character development. In one case, the central agent of the Culper Ring, Abraham, is credited with reporting to General Washington on the Hessian garrison in Trenton. This report then becomes the catalyst for Washington's famed surprise attack on that mercenary force on 26 December 1776.5 In reality, Woodhull was not recruited as an agent until the spring of 1778, well after this important American victory.6 There are other minor inaccuracies scattered throughout the episodes, but they do not detract from the overall storyline, and they add some interesting color to a television series that is trying to distill a large amount of historical material into an already short season of 10 one-hour episodes. Thus, Turn may not be the best source for studying the American Revolutionary War, but it is a great starting point for those who are interested in investigating the real history behind this television series.

Though Turn takes creative license with some historical details of the American Revolutionary War, the series writers have done their homework when it comes to depicting irregular warfare. The first two seasons sustain recurring themes that remind us that, regardless of the time and location, population-centric conflicts are often similar. The first theme, which runs through season one, can best be described as "The Battle for Setauket," in which the tiny British garrison struggles to keep the favor of the Setauket residents. Unfortunately for the soldiers, the British command manages to anger the people of Setauket through a series of arrogant missteps intended to improve the garrison's fortifications. Prior to this, many of the townspeople appeared tolerant, if not supportive, of the British garrison, but the soldiers' disrespectful treatment of the elders and traditions of the town turns American opinion from tacit support to overt antagonism. This kind of situation is not unique to eighteenth-century Setauket, but has played out in countless other villages with many different occupiers, whether in Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Northern Ireland, or Vietnam, to name only a few examples. In irregular conflicts, the population remains the decisive terrain to win. The arrogant choices of the British garrison in Setauket lost it the small foothold it had among the people.

George Washington (Ian Kahn)
Peggy Shippen (Ksenia Solo)
Benedict Arnold (Owain Yeoman)
Robert Townsend (Nick Westrate)
Nathaniel Sackett (Stephen Root)

Turn's writers have also nicely crafted a conflict between the British garrison commander, Major Edmund Hewlett (Burn Gorman), and his aggressive subordinate, Captain John Graves Simcoe (Samuel Roukin). To the casual viewer, this is just a classic conflict of supervisor versus conniving subordinate. As the two men struggle for power, their disagreements over style and demeanor become more clear. Anyone who studies irregular warfare, however, will recognize that at the core of this interpersonal rivalry are quite different understandings of how to best ensure that Setauket and its people stay under the heel of British authority. On one side stands Hewlett, who relies on his intellect and legal authority as the town's military government representative to maintain order. Although Hewlett is portrayed as an overly educated, quirky, and paranoid military commander, he is convinced that the best way to "tame" the colony is by "winning hearts and minds" in Setauket. With their invocation of this Vietnam-era cliché, Turn's writers have typecast Hewlett as a strategist who prefers counterrevolutionary methods that do not immediately require the use of military force.

Juxtaposed to Hewlett, Captain Simcoe is temperamentally imposing and physically intimidating—clearly a leader you want on your side in a fight. Simcoe sees himself as a loyal subject of the British Crown and as such, empowered to use all means necessary, especially brutal intimidation and violence, to ensure the Empire's subjects understand their place. Simcoe is more than just a bully, however. He is a tactically capable military leader, as we learn across the series' first two seasons: skilled in single combat as well as conducting operations to root out the American rebels—though perhaps he enjoys administering his brand of authority a little too much. Because he is driven equally by violence and ambition, Simcoe is often shortsighted in how he selects options to deal with the colonial subjects of the crown. In one scene, Simcoe shows his disdain for all American colonists, loyalist or rebel, when he reminds one rebel of who actually owns the town of Setauket.

Except it isn't your town, is it? It belongs to our king. By rights. It's the arrogance of the colonies that you forget this. That's why I joined the Royal Army. To remind you in Guiana, the Caribbean, and now New York. I have enjoyed reminding you all over the world.7

Turn also reminds us that human intelligence operations are integral to winning population-centric warfare, whether the spy is a hidden insurgent biding her time to strike or a counterinsurgent perpetually visible as a symbol of order and authority.8 This theme is apparent throughout the first two seasons of Turn: the paranoia of secret agents is everywhere, whether in sleepy Setauket, bustling New York City, or even in Washington's own camp.

In colonial New York, there were spies, and there were also spy catchers, just as today there are networks of insurgents and terrorists and those who hunt and attack those networks. This aspect of irregular warfare is also not lost on the writers of Turn. They remind us that one of the greatest heroes of the American colonial period, renowned for his daring feats of bravery and endurance, was also a feared British mercenary who stalked and captured the young rebel spy Captain Nathan Hale.9 To this day, Major Robert Rogers (of Rogers' Rangers fame) is revered in the United States military as a guerrilla fighter, although he actually fought against the young United States during the Revolution and remains more legend than fact.10 There is not even an authenticated likeness to associate with his exploits.11 His duplicity is accurately depicted in the series: Rogers is not only a villain to the Americans; he is equally despised by his British masters because of his brutal tactical methods and his use of "Negroes, Indians, Mulattos, and Rebel prisoners" to fill the ranks of his irregular troop called the Queen's Rangers.12 Rogers recruited men for their tracking and fighting abilities rather than for their social status and trained them in unconventional tactics to conduct raids and ambushes in support of British intelligence efforts against a sometimes equally unconventional enemy. His skills as a raider and a spy hunter, both in fact and as portrayed in Turn, were not all that different from today's special operations forces that attack networks of agents, couriers, financiers, bomb makers, and safe houses.

As I noted at the beginning of this review, Turn is entertaining television if one does not mind slow plot development and a few historical inaccuracies. More importantly, for those who analyze and study irregular conflicts, Turn can be a haunting reminder of the timeless nature of population-centric warfare. Although the places and players may change, the dynamics of this type of conflict often remain the same. The first two seasons are available through a variety of online vendors for your binge-watching enjoyment. Once you are hooked on the series and have caught up, you'll be happy to know that season three will premiere in the spring of 2016 on AMC.13

About the Author(s):

  1. For the US Army's official definition of irregular warfare, see Headquarters, Department of the Army, Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies, FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5 (Washington, D.C.: HQ, Dept. of the Army, 2014), 1-1: go back up
  2. Alexander Rose, Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring (New York: Bantam Dell, 2006). go back up
  3. Ibid., 80. go back up
  4. Ibid., 81. Historians typically estimate that 20 percent of the population in the American colonies were loyalists when the revolution broke out. Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763–1789 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 550. go back up
  5. Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause, 357–60.go back up
  6. Rose, Washington's Spies, 82–87. go back up
  7. Turn, "Who by Fire" episode 2, (originally aired 13 April 2014). Also see the episode script at "Turn (2014) Episode Scripts," Springfield! Springfield!, n.d.: go back up
  8. See Kalev I. Sepp, "Best Practices in Counterinsurgency," Military Review (May-June, 2005): 10; and HQ, Dept. of the Army, Insurgencies, 4-13. go back up
  9. Rose, Washington's Spies, 27–32. go back up
  10. See John R. Cuneo, Robert Rogers of the Rangers (New York: Richardson & Steirman, 1988).go back up
  11. Ibid., 281–83.go back up
  12. Ibid., 275. go back up
  13. Cynthia Littleton, "‘Turn: Washington's Spies' Renewed for Season 3 by AMC," Variety, 15 July 2015: back up
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