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Origins of TURN: The Birth of a Spy Network

On July 4th, 1776 the United Colonies of America declared their independence from England and King George’s tyrannical rule. Within three months, the fledgling Continental Army had been chased into the wilderness and was on the verge of annihilation. By the end of the year, its Commander-in-Chief, George Washington, had lost Boston, New York City and the morale of his soldiers, along with most of the populace. He needed a miracle.

A daring, top-secret mission across the Delaware River on Christmas night resulted in a much-needed victory and gave the Continentals a small shred of hope. It also showed Washington the value of new thinking, of bold approaches… and of secrets. In the ensuing months, he began to improve upon a certain branch of the military, one that had desperately fallen short up until now: Intelligence. Little did he know that at its center would be a group of childhood friends. Helping to turn the tide of the American Revolution, they would go down in history under a special name: The Culper Ring.

Abraham Woodhull, Benjamin Tallmadge, Caleb Brewster, Anna Strong: Four citizens who all hailed from a small Long Island town called Setauket. By the outbreak of the war, they’d found themselves scattered across the eastern seaboard. Caleb Brewster had become a whaleboatman in Nova Scotia, before the nation’s call to arms beckoned him back home and into the fight. Ben Tallmadge, a student of Yale, had been inspired to join the Continental Army by another friend named Nathan Hale. Anna Strong had become wife to a local Patriot leader. And Abe Woodhull had stayed home on his farm like most civilians, trying to steer clear of the violence, until fate came calling.

It was under General Washington himself that Ben Tallmadge formed his small band into a cohesive spy network. Through their bravery, the Setauket friends risked their lives and honor to obtain valuable intelligence and transmit it back to the General. Through trial and error, they constantly invented new ways to survive and win, and their methods wound up serving as a foundation to all modern espionage tradecraft.

Ultimately, it was not Washington’s military tactics that inspired citizens so much as it was the citizens who inspired him. Their war was won by individual sacrifice contributing to a patchwork of collective action, all under a blanket of anonymity and in the face of danger. They each undertook a vow of secrecy, to conceal their efforts. It is only now, over 200 years later, that their story can finally be told. TURN is that story.

TURN: Washington’s Spies premieres Sun., Apr. 6 at 9/8c on AMC.

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