J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

under cover with George Washington, Spymaster

Thomas B. Allen's kids' book George Washington, Spymaster looks like fun from front to back. Not only is it about spying (oooh!), but National Geographic Books has used all the tricks in a designer's bag. Messages are hidden on the front cover and many pages inside. The book offers a transcription of Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge's code book and examples of secret messages. The usual period (and not-so-period) engravings we see in children's books about the Revolution are supplemented with new art in woodblock style by Cheryl Harness. The typeface is artfully distressed Caslon. Even the small size of the book evokes the 18th century.

But how reliable is the book's information? Espionage is always a murky subject, and years after a war it gets even harder to separate truth from wishful claims. Stories of spying are a great way to burnish a family's or town's patriotic standing. They can explain an ancestor who didn't seem to do much. They can even explain an ancestor who acted like a Loyalist. "Grandpa John? Oh, he only said all those things to maintain his cover. He was in contact with General Washington all along." And if there's no documentation for those family claims—well, that shows how deep under cover Grandpa and Grandma had to be!

In that vein, I don't believe the legend of John Honeyman and the Battle of Trenton (pp. 46-9)—and neither does David H. Fischer. The stories of Alexander Bryan (75), "Old Mom" Rinker (101-2), and Lydia Darragh (102-8) seem to be equally free of contemporaneous documentation. They may be true, they may be fiction, they may be a mix of the two. Allen notes that family lore is the source for most of those tales but tells them anyway, alongside stories with strong contemporaneous documentation. I suspect this actually puts the period spy stories at a disadvantage since they're full of murk, false starts, and loose ends—like real life. The grandmothers' tales, on the other hand, were polished by years of telling and retelling before they were captured on paper. (See this posting for a link to my paper on grandmothers' tales.)

Since I concentrate my research on the start of the Revolution in New England, I know rather little about what went on down in New York, Philadelphia, and other tropical climes. I can't say whether Allen's portrayal of Tallmadge, Darragh, John Andre, Nathan Hale, Hercules Mulligan, and other figures is reasonably accurate. But it makes me nervous when I see the book is mistaken on some Boston details:

  • Gen. Thomas Gage didn't order troops to arrest John Hancock and Samuel Adams in Lexington on their way to Concord, as page 27 says. Patriots thought that was probably the British column's mission, and prepared accordingly, but our intelligence is a lot better now because we have Gage's papers (at the Clements Library in Ann Arbor). We have two drafts of the general's orders. We have his intelligence file, telling us what he was tracking. We also have lots of eyewitness testimony about what the British soldiers did in Lexington after it had sent the local militia fleeing. Nothing points to an attempt to capture Hancock and Adams.
  • Allen says James Lovell was among the Patriots who broke the cipher that Dr. Benjamin Church and printer John Fleeming used to communicate in late 1775 (37). Lovell was deep into codes later in the war, but at that time he was locked up tight in Boston jail.
  • George Robert Twelves Hewes did not become "a Patriot after seeing his shop 'pulled down and burned by British troops'" (168). The army converted his little shoemaking shop into firewood in the winter of 1775-76. By that time, Hewes had chased a British soldier for mugging a woman, witnessed the Boston Massacre, pushed his way into the Boston Tea Party, and argued with a Customs man, prompting a major riot on his behalf in January 1774. Hewes was a staunch Patriot well before the war started.
The first two of these points have a lot to do with espionage, so Allen should have found more accurate information in his research.

So my bottom line on George Washington, Spymaster: Kids, treat this book like a spymaster treats a new intelligence source. Enjoy the stories and the games, but don't believe every word.

1 comment:

J. L. Bell said...

John Nagy has found contemporaneous documentation supporting the story of Lydia Darragh. See his Spies in the Continental Capital.