New York City: If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. George Washington would’ve appreciated Frank Sinatra’s song, because throughout the American Revolution, the general was obsessed with retaking the strategic port after he had been spanked and humiliated by British troops in battle in 1776. Every move Washington made for the next five years was done with New York in mind. He couldn’t fathom winning the war without a major victory in New York to settle the score. But in 1781, the facts on the ground have changed.
Virginia has emerged as the crucial theater of combat. Even Benedict Arnold had left New York, sailing south with his American Legion and John Simcoe’s Queen’s Rangers for a campaign through Richmond that was intended to suppress the rebellion and inspire fence-sitting Americans to return to the Crown. “If Thomas Jefferson won’t surrender, he’ll be governor of nothing but char and ash,” Arnold crows, as he watches his troops rout the disorganized American militia standing in his path. Abraham Woodhull and John Champe are marching in Arnold’s Legion with ulterior motives — to kill Simcoe and kidnap Arnold, respectively — but in the fog of war, Abe is just trying not to die or kill. As he marches in formation with his unit, he fires over the heads of the overmatched Americans. Of course, the patriots don’t know that Abe is on their side, and they are shooting to kill. At one point, Abe is cornered, but stumbling Sturridge arrives in just the nick of time and blasts the American who had Abe dead to rights. The shot man chokes on his own blood, a horrific sight and sound of war that neither Abe nor Sturridge will likely ever forget.
Richmond is a huge victory for Arnold, and to see him in the field, in command, is to gain an appreciation for why he’d been so successful and revered by Washington before his betrayal. While novices like Abe and Sturridge might never get used to the chaos and gore of battle, Arnold thrives on it. He never flinches from the explosions around him and calmly observes the enemy to calculate his next strategic maneuver. If his primary objective was absolute victory and his British masters would actually listen to his suggestions, the Americans might be in real danger. But Arnold is there for Arnold, for plunder and profit. As soon as the battle is over, Arnold is already focusing on establishing a looting and black-market operation, with the help of Abe’s business connections.
That doesn’t sit well with Simcoe, who apparently restrained from hurling Abe off the transport ship between Manhattan and Tidewater and from throwing friendly fire Abe’s way during the Richmond fracas. All in a good time. Right now, Simcoe’s primary outrage is the munitions powder he sees redcoats dumping into the James River after the battle, presumably to make room for more lucrative goods for Arnold to transport. “Is this campaign meant to stamp out rebels or enrich your coffers?” Simcoe asks, challenging his boss. Arnold promises Simcoe his fair share from his scheme and whines, “Am I to be the only honest man in this war?” No chance.
Simcoe’s strict moral code is offended by Arnold’s corruption, but he’s only slightly alarmed by the spy in their midst—at least on the surface. Simcoe doesn’t put a dagger in Abe’s neck or cut out his tongue as soon as they shake hands. Instead, he taunts Abe with oozing insincerity: “I was sorry to hear about your father.”
Perhaps Simcoe doesn’t trust Arnold to do the right thing about the traitor since the former farmer is now essential to the general’s smuggling operation. (Or because he doesn’t trust Arnold, period, due to his own traitorous reputation.) Or maybe Simcoe is just biding his time, looking to settle the score with Abe in his own personal way. Whatever the reason, Simcoe gives Abe time to breathe — and plot.
Abe knows he doesn’t have a lot of time, and he immediately urges Champe to desert camp and cross back over to the American lines. Marching into battle against their own countrymen is madness. Either they’ll kill their friends or be shot by them. (And in Abe’s case, he might be shot in the back by Simcoe.) Champe is reluctant to give up his mission of kidnapping Arnold, but he concurs with Abe. As soon as they have a chance, they should escape. Fortunately, with General Cornwallis and his British troops joining forces with Arnold, the time is perfect to bolt. Unfortunately, they’ve been spotted. Sturridge has been shadowing their meetings, and even he can decipher what they intend to do. He crashes the spies’ next meeting and pleads with them to take him with them. “I don’t care what side you’re on. Please. I need to get out of here,” he says. “I’m certainly not a soldier. I never have been.” Champe wants to kill the coward, but Abe persuades his partner that Sturridge is not a threat. They agree to leave at sundown — all three of them.
Champe has been by-the-book from the moment we met him, so I rolled my eyes slightly when (a) he was so easily convinced that Sturridge is harmless, and (b) his first action moments after nearly killing Sturridge is to tell him when they are sneaking out of camp and then leaving Sturridge alone. If he had any suspicions at all, wouldn’t he insist on keeping Sturridge in his sights in case the stooge ratted them out to their superiors?
Fortunately, Sturridge is not looking to betray his friends, and Champe’s trust doesn’t come back to haunt them. Not really. At sundown, they sneak through camp, but before they can escape, Sturridge stumbles and accidentally shoots himself in the leg. The British patrols come running, Champe makes his break for the lines, and Abe tries to drag Sturridge to safety. But there’s only one way out of this — for Abe. “Catch me,” Sturridge bravely says. When the redcoats arrive, Abe has his pistol (Sturridge’s pistol, actually) pointed at Sturridge, and he’s praised by Arnold for catching a deserter. The punishment for desertion, sadly, is immediate death, and one of Simcoe’s Rangers executes Sturridge on the spot.
Back in New York, Robert Townsend visits Hercules Mulligan’s tailor shop. He doesn’t need a new suit; he’s been summoned. Mulligan’s British father-in-law, Admiral Sanders, has hired Rivington to print the Royal Navy’s new signal books. Swipe a copy, why don’t you, Mulligan says, and we can get it to our allies. Robert thinks he might be positioned to do even better than that: What if he printed multiple versions of the signal book, changing the type-set in each to create mass confusion? It’s brilliant. But suicidal. Eventually, the Brits would discover the ruse and come down hard on Townsend (and Rivington). But the risk is worth the reward: The British would not realize the trick until the damage was done.
After hours, Robert goes to work in the basement, printing signal books with conflicting instructions. The papers are drying when Rivington walks in. He’s shocked… and then crushed: His partner is a spy. And he’s smart enough to know what that means for him, even before Robert threatens him. “If you expose me, I will make public everything I’ve done here for years,” the Quaker says. “You’ll be a punchline, if the British don’t classify you as a co-conspirator first.”
Rivington goes along (because that’s what Rivington does best). But he extracts something for his silence; Robert signs over his interest in the tavern and promises to leave the city. As for the phony signal books? “Aren’t you going to finish?” Rivington asks. “We’ve already made 100 copies. I’ll be damned if I waste more paper.” (Recap continues on page 2)
In Washington’s camp, Mary Woodhull has been in a panic ever since Benjamin Tallmadge came back from New York without Abe. If her husband is in Virginia, someone needs to go rescue him immediately. Ben volunteers because he no longer trusts Caleb. Anna urges Ben to give his friend one more chance, and then they both turn to Mary and demand to know everything about Ann Bates and her spy operation. Mary has one more day to discern who on the British side Ann is working with before Ben will be forced to arrest her.
But Mary has a soft spot for Ann. They’re not too different, actually. Their only difference is which side in the revolution their husbands have chosen. That’s not to say that Mary is about to let Ann give the British intelligence that will win the war. She has a plan: Give Ann crucial, game-changing intel that the British cannot ignore — false intelligence. Ann has a direct link to General Clinton in New York, and planted misinformation is sometimes even more effective than inside information. Tell me what you want them to know, Mary suggests to Ben and Anna, and I’ll tell Ann. Well done, Mary. Best spy in the Woodhull household.
One option would be for Mary to tell Ann that Washington is planning an imminent attack on New York. No doubt the enemy would believe it. No doubt many in Washington’s inner circle would believe it. Because it’s what Washington wants more than anything. But there are cracks in his war counsel. His generals want him to turn south and support Nathanael Greene’s troops in the fight against Cornwallis, the French are on the record that the target should be Virginia, and Lafayette himself asks and receives Washington’s reluctant approval to lead a unit of troops against Arnold’s forces. Stubborn, Washington’s only change in strategy is to abandon his plan to kidnap Arnold and instead put a 5,000 guinea bounty on the traitor’s head — dead or alive.
Unused to being challenged so directly, Washington turns to Ben for some validation of his New York strategy. Not today — not when Ben’s Setauket buddy is in danger in Virginia. Ben defies His Excellency using terms the general is not accustomed to hearing. “Abandon this obsession,” Ben pleads. “You have been blinded by self-centered ambition, and it will be my friends who pay the price!” Ben also mixed in an insult comparing Washington’s vanity to Benedict Arnold’s, so yeah, he’s fired. Perhaps Mary’s counterintel operation will rescue Ben’s fortunes.
In the British war counsel, Arnold tries to warn Cornwallis that Clinton’s new orders to dig in near Yorktown are doomed. That peninsula of land is nearly indefensible against siege and naval assault and prohibits retreat. “I can read a map sir,” Arnold says, urging his boss to disobey orders. “I know weakness when I see it.” But Cornwallis is not the type who freelances. Right or wrong, he will obey Clinton’s command.
Later, Arnold vents to Abe about the stupidity of the British plan. He’s so incensed that he doesn’t even notice Abe pocket the map of Yorktown he sketched for Cornwallis. Let the out-of-touch British officers lose the war; Arnold has a fortune to build. And his next move is a march on Blandford, where only token American resistance is expected.
Caleb is part of the American “rabble” that Arnold and Abe confront the next day. Mary has given him a pep talk, and if Simcoe has truly broken him, at least he’s going to die trying to rescue his Setauket friend. The skirmish is an easy British victory, just as Arnold had promised. But this is the day that Simcoe had long desired: it’s time to dispatch “Culper.” Abe had tried to escape during the chaos of the battle, but as the dust settles, his exit is blocked by Simcoe. The tall Brit taunts Abe and corners him after Abe runs out of places to hide. “It will all be over soon,” Simcoe says. “No more hiding, no more lying.”
But Caleb has Simcoe in his crosshairs. He sees his torturer pursuing Abe and tries to line up one true shot. Recall, Caleb’s shooting has been called into question ever since he accidentally nicked Champe when all he had to do was miss him by 50 yards. But with Mary’s soothing recitation of Scripture blocking out the demons in his mind, Caleb fires, striking Simcoe in the hip. The blast gives Abe a chance to fight back and he hurls the wounded Brit over a railing and on to a pile of bricks. Abe climbs down to finish the job and retrieve Arnold’s map of Yorktown, but Simcoe is gone. Abe follows the trail of blood and aims his pistol at the bloodied man who ordered the murder of his father. But as redcoats arrive to assist Simcoe, Abe has to decide: kill Simcoe and be killed myself, or get the map to friendly forces so Washington and his allies can target Yorktown.
Champe had told Abe that there was a French warship in nearby waters, so he flees the battlefield and follows the river north. He finds it, but wearing a British uniform doesn’t help him make friends when he crosses a French picket. Lafayette interrogates him and is skeptical of Abe’s claim that he’s “Culper.” To the Frenchman, Abe’s Yorktown intel could be some British ruse to lure the Americans in to a trap. As tempers rise, cannon fire can be heard in the background. The ship is under attack. Lafayette exits and French troops drag Abe away as he yells, “I’m Samuel Culper!”