Writing from Setauket, Long Island: I tried to get a photo of a Revolutionary War tri-cornered hat through the window of Dr. Samuel Thompson’s house, but as with any early 18th century glass, the embedded bubbles, blisters and waves led to an Impressionistic blur. But all was not lost, blurring is the subject of today’s blog.
Granddaughter in tow, I spent this past Sunday visiting local historical sites and watching reenactments of the Battle of Setauket fought August 22, 1777. Muskets at-hand, the open-carry Patriots and British Loyalists (dressed in hose, breeches, brass buttons, neck cloths and cocked hats) hunkered around campfires or stood ready to be called to muster.
The 1777 skirmish was short. Loyalists under the command of Richard Hewlett had built a six-foot high breastwork some 30 feet distant from and surrounding the Presbyterian Meeting House. Although the 500 rebels who crossed over in whale boats from Fairfield, Connecticut vastly outnumbered the 260-strong British militia, their small arms were no match for the British artillery.
Afraid that sounds of engagement would be heard by British ships stationed in the Sound, the Patriots retreated after only three hours. Nevertheless, the Patriots showed that although Long Island had long been held by the British, the rebels were not going quietly.
If you have been watching TURN, an AMC series on Netflix, you know of the Culper Spy Ring. Based in Setauket, the spies (under the leadership of Benjamin Tallmadge and Abraham Woodhull) passed intelligence to General George Washington on British troop movements gathered in New York City.
One of my key questions to the docents on Sunday was “How faithful is the television series to history?” And my question riled the docents who were prickly on the subject of authenticity. Bristling, the short hairs on her neck standing up, the docent at Dr. Thompson’s house said, “They shouldn’t have been using real names if they were making up a story!”
She went on to say that the TV series had the Culper Ring coming together in the autumn of 1776 when truthfully, it coalesced two years later. The real Woodhull was unmarried and childless, and his real father supported Patriot politics.Coming home, I Googled the series and read that Producer Barry Josephson said that the series required some minor liberties to support a better narrative arc “with some artistic allowances for the medium.” Well… yes. story telling does lead to blurring. How big was the rabid dog? On the first telling the dog was a puppy… a Cocker spaniel. On the second telling, the dog was a mangy Lab. On the third telling, the drooling dog was a three-legged Pit Bull. That’s what story tellers do.
To my mind, if a movie or TV series sucks anyone into history, despite the blurring, the end result is worthy.
Of particular interest to me where Doctor Thompson’s diaries. Thompson kept a journal from 1738 to 1811. What a wonderful record of the times… times that fiction and TV have blurred… times that, when read through a first person narrative, strip the times of all romantic notions.
Quoting from his “Comprehensive History of Long Island” published in 1838, Thompson wrote: When it is remembered that only two centuries have elapsed since this fair isle now so far advanced in population and wealth was the abode of a race of men scarcely elevated in the scale of intelligence above the wild beasts with which the country of that period abounded…
And we living in 2016 tend to think that nothing has changed! Change happens… just slowly. As a farmer, doctor and a member of the Long Island Militia during the War for Independence, Thompson was well regarded, and after the war was awarded 1,000 acres by the new American government.
Reading portions of Thompson’s journals, I am most thankful that I did not live during a time of vomiting, purging and bleeding to flush bad humors from the body.
What a guy!