Gerstner Tool Chest

Gerstner Tool Chest

Gerstner Tool Chest

My Dad found this in Summerville GA at a “Trade Day”. Trade day is essentially a lawn sale the size of a football field where everyone brings their whatnots and sells them.

This particular item is an old Gerstner Tool Chest and it is fantastic. Just enough ware and tare to fit nicely into my black powder 18th Century gun room. I’ve removed almost all of the tattered thin black leather shell to reveal the quality wood. Once I am done cleaning it up I’ll wipe it down with linseed oil and replace the ragged green felt that lines the bottom of the drawers. Quite a find!

 

TURN Episode 7: “Affairs of Honor”

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Ongoing observations on AMC’s TURN. Sunday nights. Check the listings. 

Screen Shot 2014-05-29 at 11.42.04 PMTURN takes a significant upward tick as we find Simcoe and Woodhull squaring off in a traditional 18th century dual. Woodhull is somewhat strong armed into the affair, but once committed, he is determined to see the whole mess through to the end. Unlike most duels which fall short of actual gunfire and bloodshed, we are witness to an exchange of fire from at least one side. The duel is by far the high point of the series to date.

Burr Fatally Wounds Hamilton In DuelThe writers of TURN seem to have done their homework on 18th century duels. One assumes that this is a historically accurate portrayal. Woodhull and Simcoe are to exchange fire until the duelists reach ‘satisfaction’. Who shoots first? Why that is a matter of a coin flip. I am left wondering when this affair of honor evolved into a simultaneous fire as was the case for a much more famous duel between Hamilton and Burr. 

Stephen Decatur

Stephen Decatur

Duels were much more common after the war (and into the war of 1812) and were a particular problem in the fledgling American Navy. One can only assume that men living in cramped quarters for months on end could get on each others nerves. Laws and orders were issued discouraging these duels, however the practice continued. The most famous duel outside of Hamilton, Burr and Jackson was between Stephen Decatur and James Barron. Like Hamilton, Decatur’s stellar career was cut short by a duelists bullet.  It was an American tragedy spawned by the timeless sins of pride and ego.

The 18th century duel is custom made for a historically based TV drama and AMC does it justice in episode 7. The duel holds a significant place in the American consciousness mostly due to the popularity of Westerns. The fascination with the duel lives on today, yet it is important to note that that some of Americas’ best and brightest fell victim to this affair of honor long before the rise of pulp fiction and the colt revolver.

Turn Episode 5

Continued observations from the AMC Series Turn on Sunday nights.
Charles Lee played by Brian  Finney

Charles Lee played by Brian Finney

We are introduced to our secret American traitor and he turns out to be somewhat infamous Charles Lee. Lee, while actually not a traitor historically speaking (as far as we know), nonetheless was a good choice for the writers of TURN. Lee’s actions during The Revolution were at best not helpful, and a worst, downright subversive.

A former British officer turned Revolutionary, Charles Lee was captured by the British (by Banastre Tarleton actually) and eventually returned in a prisoner exchange. From there his career takes a turn for the worse as he steps in at the last moment in the battle of Monmouth and pulls rank over Lafayette to take command of the American army. A disaster ensues, ending with a legendary confrontation with an irate Washington. This yet untold confrontation offers a delightful chance for TV drama, as it is claimed that Washington went on a cursing spree of epic proportions.

washingtoncrossingdelaware

“It would be a shame if someone fell into this icy river and missed the battle”

In another storyline, our protagonists Ben Tallmadge and Caleb Brewster cross the Delaware on the way to Trenton thanks to the intel they smuggled to Washington. As they cross however, Ben takes an unfortunate plunge into the frozen river of limited production budget and we miss the battle of Trenton while Ben recovers from hypothermia over the next three days.

We get a glimpse of a larger British force as it falls for an American campsite ruse, but we are also left with the sad conclusion that a sizable battle is simply beyond the scope and budget of this series. The technology is certainly here in 2014, but it may be a while before TV and Hollywood look past comic books and goblins to portray a substantial 18th century battle. I heard a while back that Spielberg is interested in doing a series on Napoleon. If so, then this could really be the epic portrayal that does the reality of war during this era justice.

This is not to say that TURN comes across as a low budget TV series. They do a fantastic job. It is authentic and aesthetically beautiful. The details around costuming and set lighting is fantastic, even though details such as reloading a musket have been left out.

Overall TURN gets more interesting as the characters get caught up in actual historcial happenings. Perhaps this is simply one armchair historians bias, but the plotlines surrounding forbidden romance and tombstone cannon barriers isn’t as compelling. The more we sink into the historically correcte history of the Revoltuion, the better the series holds water.

Next we will turn to episodes 6 and 7 and I come to the conclusion that the writers of TURN are reading my mind. Things get really good!

What’s in a Title?

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Dec 23, 1783, Washington Resigns

Dec 23, 1783, Washington Resigns

NPR in Atlanta recently ran a segment that discussed the legislative turmoil surrounding the question of what to call the first leader of the United States. The Senate wanted a title with the appropriate gravitas that would command respect on the world stage. The House on the other hand shunned grand titles. Grand titles went to men’s heads and many feared it would be only a matter of time before America traded a foreign tyrant for a local one. It wasn’t as much Washington that the House feared, but his predecessor. It was unrealistic to assume that future leaders of America would deal with power as effectively as Washington and a grand title may give a weak willed leader enough wiggle room to assume powers unintended by the Founders. Title or not, this debate continues to this day, but the title of President is an issue that time has seemingly settled.

HBO's John Adams

HBO’s John Adams

HBO’s series John Adams also addresses this debate in a segment that paints the second President of the United States in a somewhat undistinguished light. As the Vice President, Adams  fumbles through lofty titles that eventually earn him the title of “His Rotundity” by detractors who accuse him of being swayed by his years in Europe. HBO somewhat unfairly paints Adams as a solitary figure obsessing over a non issue, but in fact the issue was hotly debated at the time and apparently never officially settled.  The Senate agreed to temporarily allow the lowly title of “President” until clearer heads could prevail. At an undocumented future date, they would revisit the subject and agree on a more distinguished title.

The proverbial can was kicked down the road and left for history and perception to shape. Before they knew it, a term used in Cricket leagues and other gentlemen’s clubs began to evolve into something much more substantial. Today we find hundreds of countries with Presidents across the globe, as these countries adopt this title in an attempt to capture a little of the weight it carries with it.

One is left wondering how much language shapes reality and vice versa. Sociologists and scientists are still studying this issue today. How does language shape consciousness? What are the evolutionary benefits of language?  Or even more profoundly, what if Benjamin Franklin had his way and the Turkey became the national bird of America? Would this bird would take on some of the noble qualities Franklin attributed to it? One is left wondering. Or maybe just a little hungry perhaps…

 

 

TURN: Episode 2, “Who By Fire”

Many twists and turns during this episode (some admittedly hard to follow with all that whispering). I will focus on one particular storyline for this post however.

Simcoe

Simcoe

The British soldier Simcoe finds himself and American prisoner after a failed ambush tipped off by Woodhull. The American captors,  Brewster and Tallmadge, recognize that Simcoe’s low status on the British totem pole will gain them very little actionable intelligence. However Simcoe’s Imperialist taunts quickly set off the thin skinned Americans. In no time, we find ourselves witnessing an ‘enhanced interrogation’ session that almost ends in an execution if not for the timely entrance of  American higher command. Tallmadge is reprimanded for his treatment of a British prisoner and subsequently threatened with court martial.

Caleb Brewster and Ben Tallmadge

Caleb Brewster and Ben Tallmadge

Does Simcoe bring this fate upon himself? One is left unconvinced. Brewster and Tallmadge take a noticeable step down in the ranks of Patriot heroes. Lives are at stake as in any war, but there remains nothing to be gained from this scene other than perhaps a lightly veiled commentary on modern interrogation.  Perhaps there was more at stake in the encounter that the series was letting on. We may never know why sending Simcoe off to a prison camp apparently was not an option.

Gentlemanly codes of conduct frowned on torture and harsh treatment of officers during the 18th century. The real harsh treatment fell upon enlisted men and civilians who were shipped off to prison camps or prison barges to suffer starvation and disease.

 
Washington insisted on fair and honorable treatment of prisoners. Even the dreaded Hessians were treated humanely. This was a policy that served he and the American cause well. Washington’s status of a man of honor grew as people realized he would not discard the principles of the Revolution in order to win the war.

These principles seem to be the same ones that saved our villain Simcoe. One certainly suspects he will be around much longer to prove to us that killing him would of been the better option. This is a moral conundrum that has been touched upon in movies like Saving Private Ryan. These situations (scripted or not) seem to test our faith in our principles and basic human dignity during a time of war.

TURN

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turnThis will be the first in a series of observations and opinions on AMC’s spy thriller TURN. I will touch on some plot elements, but will avoid putting much effort into rehashing the plot of every episode. You will just need to watch it yourself!

AMC’s new Spy drama is based on the exploits of the Culper Ring, a spy organization built on the orders of George Washington during the Revolutionary War. The series revolves around Abraham Woodhull, an unassuming cabbage farmer who through hard luck and fate, ends up siding with the Americans to become America’s original James Bond.

On first impression, AMC did not cut corners with production design. The series premier had a very finished, authentic feel that looks to be on par with the standard bearer of Revolutionary War television, HBO’s John Adams. amc-turn

An early scene of downed American Dragoons being ‘mopped up’ by a Queen’s Ranger was both visually arresting and emotional. The Ranger bayoneting wounded men with his musket really gives one a sense of the deadliness of this 18th century tool of war. The deadliness was perhaps taken a bit too far when Robert Rogers hit a running Ben Tallmadge at what looked to be over a hundred yards (this nitpick from one who readily retorts naysayers that say muskets were woefully inaccurate. Perhaps Rogers was firing a rifle?)

TURN is crafted around the conflict between America and Britain, however the real tension in the series comes a layer deeper when one realizes there are really two wars going on here. One between a formal enemy and the other between one’s own countrymen. The dirty underbelly if the Revolution is where you will find the real danger, deceit and atrocity. No one is beyond suspicion at this point until the series can really be felt out.

britishIs there so delightful a villain as the British? This imperial foe is so full of arrogance and aristocracy that it must be tempting AMC’s writers to coast along with the stereotype. Yet the jury is still out on this (Patriot anyone?). The British are crafty, brutish, charming, and polite. Most of all, you get a sense of their power and influence. But If you are looking for a traditional ogre, Samuel Roukin’s ‘Simcoe’ is an especially well cast antagonist that looks to be fun to hate.

Jamie Bell as Abraham Woddhull

Jamie Bell as Abraham Woddhull

As with most spy dramas, it was difficult at times to interpret the hushed voices and follow a string of unfamiliar names. I worry that the storyline may be TOO subtle and difficult to pick up mid stream (as may be required for a cable series to build viewing momentum). Also, our antagonist Woodhull comes across as a bit flaky and mousy on first impression, but one assumes events will force him out of this phase.

Finally, I am curious as to how much the writers can pull in historically specific elements that really give us a sense of the drama behind the American Revolution. One thing to ask ourselves as the series progresses is will this be just another spy thriller fitted into the shell America’s war for independence, or will this be something unique that helps us shape our understanding of this critical period of American history?

http://www.amctv.com/shows/turn

Sundays at 9pm

Ode to the Infantryman

This past weekend I visited the National Infantry Museum in Columbus GA. The museum offered a number of well done exhibits covering the history of the American infantryman.

We began our tour by a chronological stroll through a series of life-sized dioramas depicting significant battles in the Infantry’s history called ‘The Last Hundred Yards’. The battles included Yorktown,Antietam, Soissons, Normandy, Corregidor, Soam-Ni, LZ X-Ray, and Iraq. Naturally, I spent a bit longer at the first diorama. This was a depiction of the storming of redoubt #10 by Alexander Hamilton his 400 light American infantry.

Redoubt Yorktown National Infantry Museum

Redoubt Yorktown National Infantry Museum

A nice detail here depicts an unnamed African American storming up the side of the redoubt. It is notoriously difficult for historians to pin a number on the about of African Americans in the Continental army (some volunteered, others were substitutes for their ‘owners’), but most agree that the American Revolution was the most integrated war in American history up until Vietnam. Blacks fought and died for both sides, and it is important to note their contributions and sufferings as both civilians and soldiers.

Storming of Redoubt #10

Storming of Redoubt #10

It was interesting to see the balance that the museum sought to strike between an honest depiction of the horror and senselessness of war while simultaneously recognizing the sacrifices and courage of the men and women who endured it. You could easily become appalled by the realities of war, but the museum strived to balance this ugly reality by highlighting the honor, courage and sense of duty that drove American men and women into the armed services.  After all, this wasn’t an Oliver Stone anti war statement, this was a Museum next to Fort Benning.

 

 

 

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