A CONVERSATION WITH DONNA THORLAND
Q. So few writers these days set their work during the American Revolution. Why do you think that is?
A. Contemporary scholarship has added a great deal to our understanding of the period, but it has also added a layer of distance. We’ve forgotten that revolutions are led by daring men and women—not demographics or economic trends.
Q. What appeals to you about this period of American history, and why did you choose to focus on the British occupation of Philadelphia?
A. Howe’s officers attempted to re-create decadent Georgian London in conservative Quaker Philadelphia. It was a clash of cultures from the start.
In London, this was the era of the Hellfire Club (which Franklin attended) and public figures such as John Montagu, the First Lord of the Admiralty, who had as many as nine children with his opera-singer mistress. Sex and the Georgian theater went hand in hand. Wealthy men chose their mistresses from its stages, and those with less coin from the streets outside.
London had Drury Lane, Covent Garden, and the Haymarket. Philadelphia had only the Southwark Theater, built in 1766 and closed repeatedly by the city fathers for immorality. (As a side note, John Andre did indeed design a backdrop at the Southwark that remained in use well into the nineteenth century.)
The Mischianza, or little bit of everything, was the crowning event of that glittering winter, but it owed more to the baroque extravaganzas of Christopher Wren and Inigo Jones than to the Grand Medley tradition of the English stage. The event, with its river flotilla and grand processional, bore Captain Andre’s stamp from concept to execution. And Peggy Shippen’s father did, in fact, withdraw his consent for her participation at the last moment.
Q. Before reading The Turncoat, I knew nothing about John Andre, or even that the British had a spymaster. Can you tell us more about him?
A. A talented artist, a charming conversationalist, and very much a self-made man, Andre died in Tappan, New York, as much mourned by the Americans who hanged him as by the British he spied for.
His relationship with the Cope family was as set forth in the book: they sheltered him during his captivity in Lancaster. He discovered a talent for drawing in their son, Caleb. After Andre was released to New York, he wrote to the Copes, asking them to send Caleb to him as a drawing pupil, and went so far as to offer to pay all of his expenses. The Cope family refused, but young Caleb made at least one attempt to run away to join Andre. Speculation about Andre’s sexuality has arisen only in the last forty years.
Q. Your novel made me feel acutely the high stakes and grave consequences for the men and women who fought on the Rebel side, while for the British soldiers it was business as usual. How do you think that uneven commitment affected the war?
A. For officers like Howe and Tremayne, it was “business as usual”—and a distasteful one at that. The Rebels were more dedicated, often desperate. Franklin said it best: We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.
Q. You describe Britain’s General Howe as doing very little during the winter of 1777 to defeat Washington, whose army was stationed in various places just a short distance away from Howe’s men in Philadelphia. Howe’s refusal to act astonishes me. Was he really reluctant to incur high casualties, or did he secretly want the Rebels to win?
A. Howe was a Whig. Before the war he stood for Parliament, vowing never to take up arms against the Americans. It was George III—his cousin—who persuaded him to serve in the conflict. The casualties at Bunker (Breed’s) Hill appalled him, and he spent much of the winter of 1777–1778 writing to the king, begging to be recalled. He did not want to fight the Americans, and while I don’t believe he wanted the Rebels to win, I do think he earnestly desired peace and tried his best to minimize both bloodshed and abuses—a nearly impossible task given the circumstances of the occupation.
Q. Were there really female agents working for George Washington during the American Revolution? What do we know about them?
A. There were female agents recorded in the pay books of both Howe and Washington, although neither Lydia Darragh nor the Widow of Mount Holly appears in them. There is no evidence to suggest that Elizabeth Loring and her husband were anything but what they seemed—avaricious Loyalists—but the affair was widely believed to contribute to Howe’s failure to prosecute the war more efficiently that winter.
Eighteenth-century spies communicated in writing using ciphers, masks, and invisible inks. They concealed messages inside the heads of buttons, rolled in writing quills, and sewn into the linings of clothing. Andre was captured with the plans for West Point stuffed in his boot.
Q. Bayard Caide is an intriguing villain in the novel, and in some ways Kate is sincerely attracted to him. Is he based on a historical figure? What was your intention in creating Caide?
A. It’s difficult to craft a dashing cavalryman in the Revolution without shades of Banastre Tarleton, whose flamboyance and cruelty were legendary. Contemporary portraits and descriptions paint him as a handsome, Byronic figure. He squandered a fortune at nineteen, entered the cavalry at twenty-one, and became a lieutenant colonel by the age of twenty-three. Accounts differ, but he was widely believed to have ordered the massacre of surrendering American troops at the Battle of Waxhaws, and to have claimed that he’d bedded more women and killed more men than anyone in North America.
Caide’s character is a dark mirror for Kate. They’re both brilliant and talented and filled with self-loathing. Caide blames himself for his mother’s unhappiness and suicide, and Kate despises herself for the deceptions she practices.
Q. Kate’s father, Arthur Grey, the “Fighting Quaker,” is one of my favorite characters. Is he based on a historical figure?
A. There were several fighting Quakers in the war, though Nathanael Greene was probably the most famous. The Revolution posed a thorny question for the Society of Friends. The principles of Quakerism were closely aligned with those of the Revolution, but the rights the Quakers saw as intrinsic to man couldn’t be secured through pacifism.
Greene—like so many figures on both sides of the Revolution, including Washington, Franklin, Lafayette, Von Steuben, Arnold, and Cornwallis—was also a Mason. Brotherly love aside, their duties and consciences often forced such men into conflict. In the book, Kate’s father and Tremayne are both Masons. Andre reportedly was as well. In fact British regiments often had their own lodges. On at least two occasions when the Masonic furniture of British lodges was captured by the Americans, Washington ordered the items returned under a guard of honor.
Q. Did you always want to write fiction?
A. Yes. I’ve always loved stories. I can remember reading the entirety of Nancy Drew in a summer when I was in second grade. I love reading and writing about extraordinary women.
Q. You also write for television. How is writing a novel different from writing for TV?
A. I write feature films and television. Theatrical features are very different. Your audience is sitting in a dark room. You have their whole attention. Television is a lot more like a book. Your audience can turn the TV off or put the book down at any point. It’s much harder to create something immersive, to put your viewer or reader into the seamless dream of the story. But the best TV shows, and the best books, make you want to stay up all night to finish them.
Q. And you’ve studied filmmaking. How has that artistic perspective influenced your fiction writing?
A. There is no better way to learn scene writing than through film. On the page, a writer can disguise a poorly structured or paced scene with good prose, but on the screen, the emotion is naked in front of you. If it isn’t working, it isn’t working. I try to write fiction as I would a screenplay, with an awareness of how it will play on the page.
Q. Are there particular writers who have influenced or inspired your work?
A. George MacDonald Fraser and Dorothy Dunnett are my two favorite authors. I re-read Flashma and Lymond every couple of years. I love the plots and characters of Sabatini and Dumas. My husband introduced me to Jack Vance and Dunsany. We discovered Terry Pratchett together. And I have a soft spot for Lovecraft and Hawthorne from the years when I worked in Salem, Massachusetts.
Q. The Turncoat is the first of a planned trilogy and I, for one, can’t wait for more of your unique perspective on the American Revolution. Can you give us a hint of what we can expect?
A. Pirates! America had virtually no navy, but she had hundreds of miles of coast and some of the hardiest seamen in the world. Eight hundred American privateers took six hundred British prizes during the war, crippling enemy shipping and creating vast private fortunes. But the stakes were even higher on sea than on land. Because Britain refused to recognize American privateers as enemy combatants, privateers unlucky enough to be captured by British crews could be hanged as pirates.
A CONVERSATION WITH DONNA THORLAND
Q. This novel tells a side of the American Revolution that was completely unknown to me. Can you fill in some of the background? What new understanding do you hope that readers will take away?
A. During the French and Indian War, America had three working powder mills. By the eve of the American Revolution, she had none. All the matériel of war—the powder for muskets and cannon, the lead for bullets—had to be stolen from British arsenals—a risky business—or imported, which was a riskier business still. For up to a year before the fighting broke out at Concord and Lexington in April 1775, the colonists had been smuggling powder and weapons into North America, running their fast little schooners past the British Navy’s blockade of Boston Harbor. Gunrunning was rife with international intrigue, and the French and Spanish were only too happy to help, to spit in the eye of their old enemy. But most of the risk was born by the scrappy American mariners who made powder runs to Europe and to the tax-free Dutch ports of the Caribbean like Saint Eustatius.
Q. When the book opens, Sarah Ward’s fiancé, Micah Wild, has called off their union because her family has suffered a change of fortune. Was it common for men (or women) to break engagements when their finances took a turn for the worse?
A. Property was an important part of betrothal agreements for the middle and upper classes, and a material change in either family’s status was grounds for nullifying the contract. Both before and after the Revolution, vast New England fortunes were made—and lost—at sea. American ships were vulnerable to pirates, search and seizure by the British Navy, and bad weather. The mansions lining Salem’s common and Chestnut Street are testaments to the rewards of bold seamanship. But many of those houses were built and furnished, only to be occupied for a short time—a matter of months in some cases—before their owners were ruined by a single failed venture.
Q. Micah Wild burns Sarah Ward’s house down under the cover of a night of mob violence. How common was such rioting during the period?
A. The story of British Loyalists during the American Revolution hasn’t received the attention it deserves. Their plight reminds us that the War for Independence was as much a civil war as it was a revolution, with families, including those of some of the founding fathers such as Franklin, torn apart by conflicting loyalties. Riots, common throughout the 1770s, particularly in port cities like Boston and Salem, often focused the ire of the rebel mob on prominent Tories. Governor Hutchinson had his house torn down. In Salem, Judge Ropes, the inspiration for Judge Rideout, was dragged from his bed while he lay dying of smallpox. Several British officials and their families were forced to take refuge on naval vessels or in forts like Castle William. Many Loyalists were tarred and feathered. Those whose assets were primarily real property, farms, businesses, homes, lost everything. And the Continental Congress, on more than one occasion, seized property from Loyalists and awarded it to Patriots.
Q. How typical for the time is Sarah’s sexual knowledge and experience?
A. We tend to view eighteenth-century American sexuality through a Victorian lens, but cohabitation was common in the colonies. Between one-third and one-half of colonial American brides were pregnant at the time of their marriage. In port towns, sailors often cohabited with women who acted as temporary wives while their ship was in. Prostitution, particularly in the port towns, was common. Marriage was also less “permanent” than we often imagine: legal divorce was available to the wealthy, and many husbands and wives effectively divorced their partners simply by moving away or publishing the dissolution of their union in a newspaper.
Q. Was it common for pirates who plied the Caribbean to hail from New England, and to retire there after their adventures?
A. Many of the pirates who terrorized America were born in England. Only a few famous buccaneers are known to have hailed from the New World, most notably Ned Low and Thomas Tew. Most of the pirates who frequented New England ports met violent ends, like Blackbeard, William Kidd, and Thomas Veal, but legends of their buried treasure persist, especially on Cape Ann.
Q. Margaret Gage, wife of General Thomas Gage—who I assume is based on a historical figure—seems to have strong Rebel sympathies, which I find shocking in the wife of a British commander. Can you explain?
A. Margaret Kemble Gage was a noted beauty from a prominent New Jersey family. Her husband, Thomas Gage, like several of the British commanders who followed him (including General Howe, featured in my previous book The Turncoat), had strong American sympathies. Gage himself was seen as a timid commander, but he had been given an impossible task. Parliament refused to send him the men necessary to pacify America, and at the same time urged him to bring the brewing conflict to a head. The disastrous retreat from Concord and Lexington was the result. In Paul Revere’s Ride, historian David Hacket Fischer raised the possibility that Margaret Gage tipped the Rebels off on the eve of Concord and Lexington, allowing Hancock and Adams to escape arrest.
Q. What role did Boston play during the later years of the war? Did it remain under British control?
A. The siege of Boston ended, and the Americans regained control of the city in March 1776 when Washington placed cannons captured from Fort Ticonderoga on Dorchester Heights. Powder captured by American privateers in Boston Harbor enabled Washington to keep his army supplied through that tenuous winter. Boston was to remain in the hands of the Rebels for the rest of the war.
Q. Much is made in the novel of the British Navy’s policy of “pressing” men into service to man its ships. Was life as a lowly sailor so bad that the navy had to resort to physical force in order to ensure it had enough men?
A. Life at sea in the eighteenth century was hard, but civilian sailors were free to negotiate their terms, to change ships at the next port, to go home. Many American sailors were young men who signed on for a single voyage to get a start in life, to earn enough money to open a business or marry. When the British Navy pressed these sailors, sometimes off incoming ships or even from the docks of port towns like Salem and Marblehead, it abducted them into the service, and a New England man might find himself on the other side of the world with no way to communicate with or support his family. Understandably, many Americans were less than enthusiastic about being conscripted in this fashion!
Q. While writing this novel you moved to Salem, Massachusetts, which plays a significant role in the book. What drew you to Salem, and how do you like living there?
A. Salem played a crucial role in privateering during the Revolution. Of the 2,200 British ships captured by American cruisers, 458 were taken by Salem vessels. Naumkeag privateers accounted for more captured tonnage than privateers in any other American port.
Salem launched 158 privateers over the course of the war, and 85 of those were outfitted by Elias Hasket Derby, America’s first millionaire, who loosely inspired the character of Micah Wild. It was Derby’s Quero, under the command of his younger brother, John, that reached London first with the news of Lexington and Concord and ensured that the American version of events would be heard and would shape both the debate in Parliament and the public perception of that battle.
My first career was in public history, and I started out as an intern in the departments of Early American Architecture and Asian Export Art at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. I rose over the years to manage the institution’s interpretation department, and fell in love with early America in the process. After many years splitting my time between Boston and Los Angeles, where I wrote for film and television, I’m excited to be back in Salem as a resident, where history really does come alive, from the Puritan settlement at Naumkeag to the adventure of the Revolution and the China Trade.
Q. What have you most enjoyed about readers’ responses to The Turncoat?
A. I’m excited that readers are rediscovering the drama and danger of the American Revolution, and that they identify with the remarkable women of the period. The response to Kate and Angela Ferrers (who also appears in this book) in particular has been very gratifying.
Q. I, for one, can’t wait for the third book in the trilogy. Can you tell us a little about it?
A. Playwright and historian Mercy Otis Warren penned seditious dramas under a pseudonym. Her work placed her on a British hanging list. The heroine of my next book is loosely based on Mercy, and follows her adventures as she flees the British in the company of a Native American militia leader. The story will take us to Saratoga and pit Mercy’s alter ego against British author, general, and man-about-town, “Gentleman” Johnny Burgoyne, and brutal British cavalry officer, Banastre Tarleton. Some may recognize in the latter a bit of Bayard Caide, a principal character in The Turncoat who intrigued more than a few readers.
A CONVERSATION WITH DONNA THORLAND
Readers who haven’t finished the book might want to avoid the Readers Guide for the time being—spoilers ahead!
Q. Mistress Firebrand is the third book in the Renegades of the American Revolution series, yet it opens in December 1775, before the action in the first book, The Turncoat, and after the action in the second book, The Rebel Pirate. Why did you decide to write the series out of sequence?
A. Each book is meant to stand alone, so readers don’t have to worry about approaching the series in order. I write stories inspired by real women of the period, but because my books are fiction, I have the luxury of placing my heroines at the center of the action during turning points in the conflict. For Quaker spy Kate Gray, inspired by real life heroine Lydia Barrington Darragh, this meant occupied Philadelphia in 1777. For Sarah Ward, a composite of historical Salem women whose stories I encountered while working at the Peabody Essex Museum, that meant setting her tale during the struggle for the materiel of war played out in the waters off Cape Ann in 1775. For my latest heroine, Jennifer Leighton, inspired by Rebel playwright Mercy Otis Warren, and Jenny’s aunt, the Divine Fanny, inspired by early feminist and Georgian actress Mary Randall, that meant the New York stage in the mid 1770s.
Q. In your view of the American Revolution, power and loyalties are constantly shifting among your major characters, according to their unique situation and self-interest. It’s a very different picture from what most of us were taught in school, and makes our country’s origins, and the beliefs for which we fought, seem more like tarnished realities than shiny ideals. Why is it important to you to present this more realistic picture?
A. My favorite works of historical fiction, like George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman books and Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond series, blend action with complex political intrigue. Even walk-on characters have their own goals and agendas, which are never as straightforward or as simple as national allegiances. They’re the kind of books that make you want to look up all the historical characters and events and learn more about them. I really wanted to write something that would make readers feel the same way about the American Revolution.
Q. I had the impression from my vaguely recalled school lessons that New York remained under British control during most of the American Revolution. But in Mistress Firebrand control switches back and forth between the British and the Rebels, often with neither side sure of their position. How challenging it must have been to live in the city during this time! What was it like for ordinary citizens?
A. The British occupied New York for most of the war, but in the early days of the conflict, when it seemed possible that the trouble could be confined to Boston, it was difficult to say who really governed Manhattan—the Rebels who ruled the streets, or the Governor who had nominal control of the garrison but dared not set foot on the island.
Ordinary New Yorkers had to contend with food shortages and inflation, and depending on who was in charge at the moment, a shifting political landscape that could put them in jail if they were caught selling goods to the enemy—whoever that might be at any particular moment. The rich fled to their estates in the Hudson Highlands. The poor had fewer choices.
Q. I enjoyed your depiction of early American theater through Jenny Leighton and her aunt. What inspired your portrait of them?
A. Mercy Otis Warren was the inspiration for Jenny’s character. Warren corresponded and shared political ideas with Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Hancock, Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams and John Adams. Her satirical pamphlet plays, published anonymously, earned her a place on a British hanging list. After the war she wrote one of the earliest histories of the Revolution, but her portrait of prickly John Adams caused a falling out between them, and inspired him to opine that, “History is not the province of the ladies.”
Frances Leighton is loosely based on Mary Robinson, also known as Mary Randall, early feminist, novelist, poet, actress, royal mistress and longtime paramour of British cavalry officer Banastre Tarleton, who makes a discreet cameo while very young in Mistress Firebrand.
The Douglasses and the Hallams, America’s first families of the stage, built the John Street theater after the violence surrounding the Stamp Act destroyed their playhouse on Chapel Street in the 1766. The riot in Mistress Firebrand, and the formation of a shadow company in the absence of the regular troupe, was inspired by incidents that took place in the 1760s. The Douglass-Hallam company spent most of the war in the relative safety of the West Indies.
Q. Severin Devere’s background as the son of a Mohawk Indian and the wife of a British earl seems so unique. Is he also based on an historical figure?
A. Devere’s origins were inspired by the life of Mohawk leader Joseph Brant, who was educated at Wheelock’s Indian school where he formed a lifelong friendship with Sir William Johnson, the British Superintendant of Indian Affairs. Brant’s sister, Molly, became Johnson’s consort, and had eight children with him. The Brants were raised in an environment that mixed Mohawk and English culture, and were influential figures in both worlds before and after the war.
Q. I love the way you contrast the two men: General John Burgoyne and General George Washington. You suggest that each epitomized the character of the men produced under the British monarchy versus the Colonial republic, and you make clear that Washington is by far the superior man. Can you elaborate?
A. Both men came from privileged backgrounds, and both loved the theater, but Washington was cautious about money and devoted to Martha and her children. Burgoyne, though, tended to live beyond his means and between campaigns in North America he was seen in Bath with his future mistress, actress Susan Caulfield—while his life lay dying at home.
Burgoyne himself died insolvent in 1792, leaving Caulfield and their four illegitimate children penniless, remarking characteristically in his will: ”During a life too frequently blemished by the indulgence of one predominant passion, it has been a comfort to me to hope that my sensualities have never injured, nor interrupted the peace of, others.” One doubts Susan Caulfield, whom he never married and who lost custody of her children to Burgyone’s family, would have agreed.
Q. Aside from George Washington, Angela Ferrers is the only other character who appears in all three books in the series. By now, I’ve come to admire her, fear her, pity her, and scorn her. Most of all, I find her fascinating. Please say that she’ll appear once again in the next book, and that you’ll begin to reveal the secret of her origins.
A. I promise that Angela Ferrers will be back in the next book, and we’ll learn a little bit more about her in each installment.
Q. Can you tell us more about the Simsbury Copper Mine, where Severin is incarcerated? I grew up in Connecticut but had never heard of it, and was shocked to learn how inhumanely the Rebels treated their prisoners of war.
A. Simsbury was as bad as the infamous British prison hulk anchored in the Hudson, the Jersey, and predated it by three years. The first inmate at Simsbury was a burglar sentenced in 1773, but the mine quickly became a convenient place to incarcerate Tories during the war. It returned to use as a state prison after independence and remained in operation until 1827.
Q. Was the murder of Jane McCrea an actual historical event?
A. Yes. It occurred roughly as related in Mistress Firebrand. McCrea was engaged to Jones, a loyalist, and was traveling to meet him and be married when she was captured by a party of Burgoyne’s native allies. Exactly how she died—whether she was accidentally shot by her own people while being carried off, or was killed by Panther or another Wyandot in a dispute over who was to collect the bounty on her—has never been conclusively determined, but her death was a boon to Rebel propagandists, and the story has resounded through American art and literature ever since, most widely known from Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans.
I first heard Jane’s story in high school. She was a sidebar in an American history textbook, with John Vanderlyn’s dramatic painting, The Death of Jane McCrea, accompanying the text. It was the only image of a woman from the American Revolution that I can recall encountering before college.
Q. In addition to writing books and for TV shows, you’re also a big reader. Are there historical novels that you’ve especially enjoyed recently? Or books that readers of your series might enjoy?
A. I find that my readers enjoy a lot of the same authors I do, and I only wish I could come up with a term to describe the qualities that they all have in common. I love a book with a strong female protagonist, a hint of romance, and a historic setting with the occasional dash of the gothic or the supernatural. My favorite contemporary authors include Susannah Kearsley, Lauren Willig, Simone St. James, and Diana Gabaldon, and one of my favorite authors while growing up was Mary Stewart.
Q. Can you tell us a little about the next book in the Renegades of the American Revolution series?
The next book features a schoolteacher heroine and highwayman hero and takes us to the near-feudal manors of the Dutch patroons in the Hudson Highlands, who ruled their domains as effective lords of the manor during the 17th and 18th centuries.
A CONVERSATION WITH DONNA THORLAND
Q. I had no idea that feudal estates like the patroonships ever existed in America. How did these come into being?
A. The Dutch West India Company wanted more than trading posts in America, but colonization was an expensive business. To encourage settlement without incurring expense, they came up with the patroon system. Starting in 1629 the company began granting the title of patroon to invested members who met certain conditions. Patroons were required to build a manor house and recruit and transport settlers to the new world. In exchange they received land grants with extraordinary rights and privileges, including the ability to create and administer civil and criminal courts and appoint local officials. For every fifty settlers over the age of fifteen that a patroon brought to New Netherlands, he received a grant of land sixteen miles along one side of the Hudson or eight miles along both sides “and so far into the country as the situation of the occupiers will permit.”
Q. Why did farmers choose to live within the patroonships? Why didn’t they buy their own land?
A. Farmers took up leaseholds because they had no other choice. Most of the land in the Hudson River Valley was owned by the patroons. Scarcity drove up prices so that what little land was available was too expensive for smallholders to buy. Lease terms often seemed attractive at first, especially to new arrivals in America. In the middle of the eighteenth century a man might rent roughly two hundred unimproved acres from a patroon for about three pounds a year. He’d receive a discount for the first few years while he was clearing the land and building a house and barns. After that, though, he would pay his full rent and discover that conditions on the estate made it difficult to get ahead. He was obligated to use the patroon’s mills for his lumber and his grain, and he had few choices but to purchase his seed, equipment, and most finished goods from the patroon’s stores. Many leases ran for three life terms, meaning that his son and grandson were bound to the land by the same terms.
Unrest, given the spirit of the age, was almost inevitable, and Annatje’s father is loosely based on the revolutionary William Prendergast, who was jailed for leading revolts against the Hudson Valley landlords in 1765 and 1766. Riots followed his arrest. He was sentenced by the patroon-dominated New York courts to be hanged, drawn and quartered, beheaded, and burnt. Several attempts were made to break him out of jail. Prendergast was so popular that no willing executioner could be found. He was pardoned by King George III, most likely a move to diffuse tension in the valley. Ten years later, during the Revolution, the British would encourage tenants to revolt against landlords who chose the Rebel side.
Q. Highwaymen are fixtures of swashbuckling adventure fiction, but the novel suggests that real highwaymen were active in the Hudson River Valley during the Revolution. Can you describe the conditions in the region during this period?
A. By the end of 1776, Washington had been forced to evacuate New York and the British were firmly in control of Manhattan. That left Westchester County with the British Army camped on its doorstep. The political sympathies of the population were mixed, and no strong local Rebel government emerged in the area, leaving the country south of Dobbs Ferry prey to ceaseless raiding, mostly by irregular loyalist units, often referred to as Cowboys. Interestingly a mythology grew up in the nineteenth century, largely created by James Fenimore Cooper for his Revolutionary War novels, that the Cowboys were opposed by a similarly ruthless Rebel band called the Skinners—but the term appears in only one diary entry for the entire duration of the war. The Skinners make terrific drama but suspect history. What is certain, though, is that lawlessness prevailed in what became known as the Neutral Ground. When John André was captured with the plans for West Point stuffed in his boot, it was casual bandits with only a loose affiliation to the Continental Army who waylaid him.
Q. The silkwork picture that hangs in Anna’s academy sounds remarkable. Did schoolgirls really create art like this?
A. Yes. Anna’s silkwork landscape is modeled on a picture embroidered by Hannah Otis (1732–1801) called A View of Boston Common. It’s an extraordinarily accomplished work, made around 1750 out of wool, silk, metallic threads, and beads on a linen ground. Hannah’s older sister Mercy served as the inspiration for my previous book Mistress Firebrand. You can view the picture at the Museum of Fine Arts website. English and American schoolgirls, in addition to academic subjects, learned both practical and decorative skills—polite accomplishments—like dancing, singing, playing the harpsichord, painting, doing needlework, and drawing.