It’s Christmas in 1776. The British are celebrating in New York — drinking, hammering George Washington pinatas, diddling ladies of the theatre — while waiting for the inevitable news that the rebellion has been crushed. In Setauket, Long Island, the fury over the dismantled gravestones hasn’t passed, especially in the mind of Abraham, who hasn’t forgiven his Tory father for digging up his brother’s resting place to defend the British artillery. Perhaps hard feelings can’t be warmed over a glass of sherry, but it’s still the holidays for the relatively secure and well-off Woodhull family.
But what of the American slaves? Do they know it’s Christmas time at all? After an earlier episode of Turn, I expressed concern that the black characters might be shortchanged, especially since the inconvenient facts of American history reveal that their interests are served best by a British victory, which would, in most cases, secure their freedom. Last night, to the show’s credit, it veered right into that storm, with Judge Woodhull’s legal confiscation of imprisoned patriot Selah Strong’s property liberating his slaves on Christmas Eve. The slaves rejoiced, but Anna appealed the decision to the unsympathetic Major Hewlett, who is so paranoid of rebel attack that his horse is now quartered inside the former church. “It’s cruel, this business of freeing slaves of suspected patriots,” she said, and it was important, I think, to hear a colonial slaveholder express that widespread sentiment, because of all its ironic complexities and ramifications. Cruel to the slaveholders – boo-hoo! – but Anna seemed to also imply that it was cruel to the slaves as well. How will they possibly survive without their benevolent mistress?
Well, the British promise of freedom comes with some strings attached. They quickly transfer the free labor to New York, where they’ll support the war effort. Anna’s savvy house servant, Abigail, who is Anna’s intellectual peer, has been promised to John André, the charming British officer who has a taste for beautiful women. No doubt her responsibilities for him will be significantly different than what she was asked to do for the Strongs. But Abigail is no dummy. She knows about the Culper ring; she’s been watching Anna, Caleb, and Abe and knows the significance of the black petticoat. She’s willing not only to remain silent about their secret, but also to spy on Major André in New York — only if Anna will look after her son, Cicero. That’s a no-brainer, right, Anna?
Anna has literally lost everything. With her husband in prison and her property confiscated, she’s suddenly not as focused on the patriot cause. When Abe comes to her with the new intelligence he wants to forward to Ben, she refuses. She’s finished with the stealth operation and is considering leaving town. Later, she brings the Woodhulls her silverware, rather than hand it over to the British, per the law. She arrives just as Mary had stormed off with Thomas, who’s sick with the croup, and Abe is halfway through a bottle or two. Initially, Abe is hardly a sympathetic ear; he’s cruel even. But this might be their last encounter together… and the house is empty. And they’re sooo supposed to be together. “You know me, Anna,” Abe says, after they both say some things they wish they could take back. “You always have.” Their romantic encounter is rudely — or mercifully? — interrupted by Mr. Baker, the upstanding British solider who is assigned to Abe’s house, and the adulterous moment is gone — perhaps lost forever.
Abe doesn’t know if his intelligence about the Hessians in Trenton ever went up the chain of command — but we do, of course. Thus, Ben and Caleb have a front seat for history, crossing the Delaware on Christmas Day for what Caleb suspects is just another glorified scouting expedition. I always envisioned the crossing of the Delaware as a much quieter affair, but Ben and Caleb aren’t sneaking up on anyone with those loud voices — especially when Ben falls overboard near the New Jersey side of the river. The freezing waters put him out of commission, and when he awakes on Jan. 2 after nearly dying, they missed all the action. I wonder if Ben’s false move is based in fact — or if Turn‘s producers just needed an excuse not to film an expensive battle sequence. (In contrast to the mythology about American soldiers waking drunken Hessians out of their beds, the Battle of Trenton was quite savage, with forces fighting hand-to-hand and house-to-house.) A small consolation? Caleb cleaning his hands on Ben’s pretty officer’s coat after relieving himself, and playfully ridiculing a near-comatose Ben for “boxing the Jesuit,” a sea-faring euphemism for self-gratification. Yes, I looked it up.
In New York, Robert Rogers crashes City Hall headquarters after André rushes towards the action in Trenton. He suspected that André was hiding something — or someone — and he’s smart enough to know that that someone might be the key to his learning the name of that Connecticut dragoon who escaped his clutches. How nice, then, that he knows the man, General Charles Lee, the narcissistic American officer quite enjoying his captivity. Rogers intrudes upon Lee’s dinner with André’s lovely actress, and the two veterans reminisce about their fighting days in the Seven Years War, where Rogers earned the Indian nickname “White Devil.” They both fought alongside Washington then, and Lee still considers the General an abysmal military tactician who gets his own soldiers killed. “While we were sharpened by success, George was forged by failure,” admits Rogers. “But at least he isn’t a traitor… like you. You gave up your men for 30 pieces of silver.” What a tremendous scene by Angus Macfadyen, who plays Rogers. I really, really, really wouldn’t want to be Ben Tallmadge when the White Devil catches up with him.
Near Trenton, British General Lord Cornwallis’ caution allows Washington to escape again, looping around him under veil of night and striking at Princeton. It’s another shocking success. Even André has to smirk at Washington’s ruse. As tactical victories, Trenton and Princeton were minor. But as moral victories, the bold strikes were enormous. Washington suddenly went from scapegoat to wily hero, and his army, which was due to disintegrate as enlistments expired, revived and lived to fight another day. Talk in Congress that Washington needed to be relieved of command — by Lee, ha — was scuttled, and the patriotic fervor that had marked the summer but flagged in the fall was revitalized as the colonies entered the new year.
Perhaps the days of Washington being everyone’s whipping boy are over — so it was nice to finally meet the man. What would he sound like? Would he look like the man who’s on the dollar bill? As the American soldiers are celebrating in Morristown, which would serve as Washington’s headquarters in the winter of 1777, Ben — and the audience — received an audience with His Excellency. Tall and rugged, Washington strides through the room of admirers and enters the room where Ben awaits. He sits down and gets down to business: “Now just who is Abraham Woodhull?”
So… Ben and Caleb, who had refused to identify Abe as their source to their superior, gambled and included his name in the letter they surreptitiously sent to Washington’s headquarters. Or they never mentioned Abe’s name, but Washington is even more clever and resourceful than we thought, capable of connecting the dots with his own intelligence sources. I prefer to think it’s the latter.