Prisoners of war in the American Revolutionary War
During the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783), management and treatment of prisoners of war (POWs) was very different from the standards of modern warfare. Modern standards, as outlined in the Geneva Conventions of later centuries, assume that captives will held and cared for by their captors. One primary difference in the 18th century was that care and supplies for captives were expected to be provided by their own combatants or private resources.
- 1 American prisoners
- 2 British, Hessian, and Loyalist prisoners
- 3 Convention Army
- 4 Freedom
- 5 Reaction and impact
- 6 Notable prisoners of war
- 7 References
- 8 Further reading
- 9 External links
King George III of Great Britain had declared American forces traitors in 1775, which denied them prisoner of war status. However, British strategy in the early conflict included pursuit of a negotiated settlement and so officials declined to try or hang them, the usual procedure for treason, to avoid unnecessarily risking any public sympathy the British might still enjoy. Great Britain's neglect resulted in starvation and disease. Despite the lack of formal executions, neglect achieved the same results as hanging.
American prisoners of war tended to be accumulated at large sites, which the British were able to occupy for extended periods of time. New York City, Philadelphia in 1777, and Charleston, South Carolina, were all major cities used to detain American prisoners of war. Facilities there were limited. The occupying army could sometimes be larger than the total civilian population. The surgeon in charge of the New York hospitals housing American prisoners, Francis Mercier, was accused of killing them by poisoning and by assault, and he was ultimately executed for an unrelated murder.
The loyalist stronghold of St. Augustine, Florida, was also used by the British to detain patriot prisoners. Notable prisoners included Brigadier General Griffith Rutherford of the Salisbury District Brigade.
The British solution to this problem was to use obsolete, captured, or damaged ships as prisons. Conditions were appalling, and many more Americans died of neglect in imprisonment than were killed in battle. While the Continental Army named a commissary to supply them, the task was almost impossible. Elias Boudinot, as one of the commissaries, was competing with other agents seeking to gather supplies for Washington's army at Valley Forge. Historian Edward G. Burrows writes that "by the end of 1776, disease and starvation had killed at least half of those taken on Long Island and perhaps two-thirds of those captured at Fort Washington – somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 men in the space of two months." 
During the war, at least 16 hulks, including the infamous HMS Jersey, were placed by British authorities in the waters of Wallabout Bay off the shores of Brooklyn, New York as a place of incarceration for many thousands of American soldiers and sailors from about 1776 to about 1783. The prisoners of war were harassed and abused by guards who, with little success, offered release to those who agreed to serve in the British Navy. Over 10,000 American prisoners of war died from neglect. Their corpses were often tossed overboard but sometimes were buried in shallow graves along the eroding shoreline.
Many of the remains became exposed or were washed up and recovered by local residents over the years and later interred nearby in the Prison Ship Martyrs' Monument at Fort Greene Park, once the scene of a portion of the Battle of Long Island. Survivors of the British Prison Ships include the poet Philip Freneau, Congressmen Robert Brown and George Mathews. The later was involved in extensive advocacy efforts to improve the prison conditions on the ships.
The American Revolution was an expensive war, and lack of money and resources that led to the horrible conditions of British prison ships. The climate of the South worsened the difficult conditions. The primary cause of death in prison ships was disease,s as opposed to starvation. The British lacked decent and plentiful medical supplies for their own soldiers and had even less reserved for prisoners. Offshore in the North, conditions on prison ships caused many prisoners to enlist in the British military to save their lives.[original research?] Most American POWs who survived incarceration were held until late 1779, when they were exchanged for British POWs. Prisoners who were extremely ill were often moved to hospital ships, but poor supplies prevented any difference between prison and hospital ships.
Prison laborers and other prisoners of the BritishEdit
American prisoners were housed in other parts of the British Empire. Over 100 prisoners were employed as slave laborers in coal mines in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia – they later chose to join the British Navy to secure their freedom. Other American prisoners were kept in England (Portsmouth, Plymouth, Liverpool, Deal, and Weymouth), Ireland, and Antigua. By late 1782 England and Ireland housed over 1,000 American prisoners, who, in 1783, were moved to France prior to their eventual release.
British, Hessian, and Loyalist prisonersEdit
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American laws of warEdit
During the American Revolution, George Washington and his Continental Army put the laws of war into practice regarding prisoners of war, unlike their British opponents. The Americans believed that all captives should be taken prisoner. On September 14, 1775, Washington, commander of the Northern Expeditionary Force, at camp in Cambridge, Massachusetts, wrote to Colonel Benedict Arnold: "Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any [prisoner]... I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require."
After winning the Battle of Trenton on the morning of December 26, 1776, Washington found himself left with hundreds of Hessian troops who had surrendered to the Americans. Washington ordered his troops to take the prisoners in and "treat them with humanity," which they did. "Let them have no reason to complain of our copying the brutal example of the British army in their treatment of our unfortunate brethren who have fallen into their hands," Washington said. The official stance in the capturing of enemy troops was one of mercy.
Edward G. Burrows remarks that although British and Hessian captives did "fare better on the whole than their American counterparts," there were nevertheless "instances of outrageous cruelty" against them, that "certain state governments had particularly bad records of prisoner abuse", and that there were "numerous... complaints over the years from enemy prisoners about bad food, squalor and physical abuse."  The treatment of prisoners of war varied from state to state. Provisions among the prisoners also varied but generally became ranged from mediocre to bad in the last years of the war.
British and German prisonersEdit
The British and the Germans shared similar and differing experiences as POWs. The Continental Congress' policies on the treatment of POWs remained the same for all enemy combatants and so the prisoner system was generally the same for the two nationalities. However, the British troops were valued more than the German mercenaries and so there are much more examples of British prisoner exchanges than German prisoner exchanges.
Americans grew to hate the British more than the Germans, who were much less ill-behaved than the British. The British were more likely to cause disturbances, get into fights, and oppose the guards and the militia since they had become more invested in the defeat of the Americans than the Germans were.
Loyalists were the most hated POWs. The Continental Congress took the stance that since prisoners of war were enemy combatants, not criminals, the treatment of POWs differed from criminals. However, depending on the state, Loyalists were often treated more like criminals than POWS. Debate waged throughout the colonies whether to treat Loyalists as enemy soldiers or treasonous citizens.
There were very few federal prisons as the Thirteen Colonies, and the Continental Congress were not in a position to create new ones to imprison British and German soldiers. Instead, Congress sent most British and Hessian prisoners to local American towns and ordered local officials to hold them under strict parole.
The Continental Congress had the sole authority to decide where the prisoners went, and the local towns had little forewarning and no say in the matter. Prison towns found themselves with the burden of providing for hundreds or thousands of prisoners at a time. In towns that could not afford to feed prisoners, the prisoners were put to work to feed themselves. British and German prisoners cultivated gardens and worked for farms, craftsmen, and other forms of unskilled labor. Local communities attempted to make prison towns as profitable as possible and often helped prisoners find jobs or sent them to other towns and states for work.
The more useful were the prisoners of war were, the less of an economic burden they were on the town. A town unable to erect barracks for the prisoners was forced to house them in community churches and even citizens' homes. The Continental Congress' forcing Americans to quarter prisoners was a major source of contention among the people.
Even when British and Hessian prisoners of war were not being held in individual houses, they were still in public view, which caused general fear, resentment, and anger. Prisoners were generally not confined to their quarters and could remain in public for the duration of the day. Security proved to be a problem for prison towns. With no official police force and the military being preoccupied with war, local militias and volunteers generally guarded of the prisoners of war. Protests in prison towns were common, and people who denied prisoners entry were punished for disobeying the Continental Congress in the form of fines, jail time, and even property expropriation.
The reception prisoners received varied from place to place. Overall, the prisoners staying in Boston were in relative peace. The prisoners remarked that the general population of Boston was civil and tolerant of the prisoners. In Virginia and other southern states, wealthy planters and plantation owners were happy to have prisoners in Albemarle County because they could count on an even greater abundance of free or cheap labor.
In contrast, the lower class lower in the South was generally much less tolerant to sharing residence with abundant prisoner populations. In Maryland, the state militia directly and aggressively challenged the Continental Army when it attempted to escort the prisoners of war into the state. The South had a collective fear of insurrection that emerged because of the slave population.
On October 17, 1777, nearly 6,000 British and Hessian soldiers of the Convention Army surrendered to the Americans. That put the Continental Congress in the position of holding a massive number of prisoners of war on American soil, something that not happened much until then. It was already having trouble providing for the Continental Army, and after Saratoga, it also had to provide for enemy combatants.
After British, German, and Canadian troops were defeated, General Burgoyne and General Gates were unable to agree in regard to the 5,900 prisoners. In the Convention of Saratoga, the terms were that the troops were going to be sent back to Europe and would never wage war with North America again. Congress saw that condition as an abysmal treaty for one of their greatest victories in the American Revolution and delayed its ratification repeatedlys. General Burgoyne grew frustrated with Congress and openly condemned its actions. Congress used Burgoyne's words as evidence that he was planning to renounce the convention and suspended it until Great Britain recognized American independence. The Americans ended up holding the Convention Army until the duration of the war.
"After spending the next year in camps near Cambridge and Rutland, Massachusetts, they were sent by Congress on an overland odyssey that, by the end of the war, took them down to Virginia, then up to Maryland, into Pennsylvania again, and finally back to Rutland. Almost every step of the way they contended with meagre rations, shortages of fuel, inadequate accommodations, and physical violence."
Over the course of the revolution, the Convention Army was marched across the colonies. First, it was marched to Massachusetts and remained there for a year, and in 1778, it was moved to Virginia, where it remained for two years. In 1780, it was moved north and gradually dispersed to different states, cities, and towns for the rest of the war. The marches themselves were brutal on the soldiers, but their lives generally improved once they got to their destinations. The main reasons for the marches across America was security and finance.
Once resources became scarce in Massachusetts, Congress ordered the army to be moved South. The war effort was very different in the North from the South. In 1780, it had become difficult to provide British and German prisoners of war and their guards with food in the South, where their presence had become a security risk. The British had started their official campaigns in the South, which brought the risk of insurrections. The Convention Army was thus ordered to march back North and was dispersed.
There were three ways for a prisoner of war to achieve freedom after being captured: desertion, exchange, or parole. Most of the time, a small militia-hired guard was tasked to supervise the imprisonment of captured British and German soldiers. The US ability to watch over their prisoners efficiently was constantly tested. The Convention Army initially took their POW status gracefully but only because they were under the assumption that they would be sent home within a year. When it became clear that the Americans had no intention of allowing the British to return to Great Britain until the war ended, tensions between the soldiers and the guard escalated and desertions rose rapidly. Propaganda was used by Americans and by high-ranking captured British officials to dissuade troops from deserting, but it largely failed. Many of the prisoners who escaped captivity took American women with them and reared families. A large number of Hessians remained in the US after the war was over because they married American women. Between the time of the Siege of Yorktown (1781) and the signing of the Treaty of Paris (1783), many of the convention troops, by then mostly Germans, escaped and took up permanent residence in the United States. The American government did not have the means to prevent this.
The two other official forms of reaching freedom (parole and exchange) was common among high-ranking officers. Parole specifically dealt with individual prisoners of war and so the process of being removed from imprisonment or house arrest and placed on parole was a very simple and speedy process. Most British and German prisoners of war thus sought after parole, but the breaking of parole was common, as many used it just to make desertion easier. Some British and Hessian prisoners of war were paroled to American farmers. Their labor made up for shortages caused by the number of men serving in the Continental Army. Exchange, however, was a very complex and slow process because it involved negotiation and diplomacy between a new and inexperienced nation and a state that absolutely refused to recognize American independence. A major hindrance to exchange was the reluctance of the British to concede non-rebel status to its adversaries. The British perception of the Americans being rebels prevented exchange. A degree of mutual acceptance between Congress and the States of the principle of exchange and procedure in its implementing must have been attained by the end of March 1777. Exchange was handled primarily by Congress, instead of state powers. While state and local government had considerable power over parole, the federal government had power of negotiating exchanges.
Reaction and impactEdit
The capture of thousands of British prisoners of war in the hands of the Americans had the effect of further dissuading British officials from hanging colonial prisoners, despite the abandoned hopes of a settlement by this stage, as they feared reprisals on prisoners being held by the Americans. After the Convention Army was captured, the rate of prisoner exchanges increased dramatically as a result.
During the first years of the revolution,the Continental Congress tried to give prisoners of war the same amount of provisions as the soldiers guarding them. However, after the capture of the Convention Army resources turned scarce and the federal government had to rely on state governments to provide for prisoners of war. From 1777 to 1778, General Clinton was providing food and subsidence on the Convention Army, but he eventually decided to end his assistance and to place the full economic burden of providing for the prisoners on the US government. In order to compensate for its lack of resources that Congress could give to the British and German prisoners, they were moved them from state to state. The marches were largely a result of diminishing provisions.
Aside from the official marching of the Convention Army, captured prisoners were paraded through cities after military victories as a form of celebration for the Americans and humiliation for their enemies. The parades were done to boost morale among Americans. The Revolutionary War had devastating effects on communities and to see clear examples of US progress and victory helped gain support for the war effort.
Notable prisoners of warEdit
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- Lewis, Charles H. (2009). Cut Off: Colonel Jedediah Huntington's 17th Continental (Conn.) Regiment at the Battle of Long Island August 27, 1776. Westminster, MD: Heritage Books. p. 206. ISBN 978-0-7884-4924-6.
- West, Charles E., "Horrors of the prison ships: Dr. West's description of the wallabout floating dungeons, how captive patriots fared." Eagle Book Printing Department, 1895.
- Andros, Thomas. "The old Jersey captive: Or, A narrative of the captivity of Thomas Andros...on board the old Jersey prison ship at New York, 1781. In a series of letters to a friend." W. Peirce. 1833.
- Lang, Patrick J.. "The horrors of the English prison ships, 1776 to 1783, and the barbarous treatment of the American patriots imprisoned on them." Society of the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick, 1939.
- Leffler CT, et al. (2017). "Ophthalmology in North America: Early Stories (1491-1801)". Ophthalmology and Eye Diseases. 9: 1–51. doi:10.1177/1179172117721902. PMC 5533269. PMID 28804247.
- Florida State Society and the Daughters of the American Revolution. "Prisoners of War in St. Augustine During the American Revolution". Historical Marker Database.
- Dring, Thomas and Greene, Albert. "Recollections of the Jersey Prison Ship" (American Experience Series, No 8). Applewood Books. November 1, 1986. ISBN 978-0-918222-92-3
- Banks, James Lenox. "Prison ships in the Revolution: New facts in regard to their management." 1903.
- Burrows, Edward G. (2008). Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War. Basic Books, New York. ISBN 978-0-465-00835-3. p. 64.
- Taylor, George. "Martyrs To The Revolution In The British Prison-Ships In The Wallabout Bay." (originally printed 1855) Kessinger Publishing, LLC. October 2, 2007. ISBN 978-0-548-59217-5.
- Hawkins, Christopher. "The life and adventures of Christopher Hawkins, a prisoner on board the 'Old Jersey' prison ship during the War of the Revolution." Holland Club. 1858.
- Stiles, Henry Reed (1865). Letters from the Prisons and Prison-ships of the Revolution. Thomson Gale (reprint). ISBN 978-1-4328-1222-5.
- Onderdonk. Henry. "Revolutionary Incidents of Suffolk and Kings Counties; With an Account of the Battle of Long Island and the British Prisons and Prison-Ships at New York." Associated Faculty Press, Inc. June, 1970. ISBN 978-0-8046-8075-2.
- Herndon, G. Melvin (1969). "George Mathews, Frontier Patriot". The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. 77 (3): 320–321. JSTOR 4247487.
- Ranlet, Philip.Ranlet, Philip (2000). "In the Hands of the British: The Treatment of American POWs during the War of Independence". The Historian. 62 (4): 731–757. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6563.2000.tb01457.x. JSTOR 24451269.
- Thomas, Evan. John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy. Simon and Schuster, pages 67,74
- Lindsay, William R. Treatment of American Prisoners During the Revolution. Emporia State Research Studies Kansas State Teachers College, Volume 23, Number 1
- Campbell, William W.: Annals of Tyron County; or, the Border Warfare of New-York during the Revolution, J. & J. Harper, New York (1831) pp. 110–11, 182, regarding prisoners (i.e., Lt. Col. William Stacy) held at Fort Niagara.
- McHenry, Chris: Rebel Prisoners at Quebec 1778-1783, Being a List of American Colonists were Held by the British during the Revolutionary War, Lawrenceburg, Indiana (1981).
- The torture report represents a heartbreaking decline in America's values
- George Washington and Jared Sparks (1847). The writings of George Washington: Being his correspondence, addresses, messages, and other papers, official and private. Benchmark Books. p. 90. ISBN 978-1286400098.
- Ron Fridell (September 2007). Prisoners of War. Harper & Bros. p. 19. ISBN 9780870139406.
- Burrows, Edward G. (2008). Forgotten Patriots, p. 190.
- Burrows, Edward G. (2008). Forgotten Patriots, p. 188.
- Burrows, Edward G. (2008). Forgotten Patriots, p. 187.
- Dabney, William M. (1954). After Saratoga: The Story of the Convention Army. The University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque. OCLC 3486843 p. 39-46.
- Metzger, Charles H. (1962). The Prisoner in the American Revolution. Loyola University Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-8294-0175-X. p. 31-63.
- Becker, Laura L (1982). "Prisoners of War in the American Revolution: A Community Perspective". Military Affairs. Military Affairs 46, no. 4. 46 (4): 169–173. doi:10.2307/1987609. JSTOR 1987609.
- Marsteller, P (1894). "Extracts from the Records of the Moravian Congregation at Hebron, Pennsylvania, 1775-1781". The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. The Pennsylvanian Magazine of History and Biography 18, no. 4. 18 (4): 449–462. JSTOR 20083617.
- Craig, Scott. "Prisoners of War". Mount Vernon's Ladies' Association. Retrieved November 1, 2016.
- Dabney, William M. (1954). After Saratoga, p. 7-26.
- Burrows, Edward G. (2008). Forgotten Patriots, p. 188.
- Dabney, William M. (1954). After Saratoga, p. 27-78.
- Dabney, William M. (1954). After Saratoga, p. 39-40.
- Daniel Krebs (1974). A Generous and Merciful Enemy: Life for German Prisoners of War during the American Revolution. University of Oklahoma Press: Norman . ISBN 9780806143569.
- Dabney, William M. (1954). After Saratoga, p.77.
- Metzger, Charles H. (1962). The Prisoner in the American Revolution, p. 191-232.
- West, Charles E. Horrors of the Prison Ships.
- Dabney, William M. (1954). After Saratoga, p. 27-78.
- Dabney, William M. (1954). After Saratoga, p. 29-30.
- Armbruster. Eugene L. The Wallabout Prison Ships: 1776-1783. New York, 1920.
- Boyle, Joseph Lee, ed. Their Distress is Almost Intolerable: The Elias Boudinot Letterbook, 1777-1778; 2002, Heritage Books (paperback), ISBN 0-7884-2210-3.
- Burrows, Edwin G. Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War (NY: Basic Books, 2008)
- Cray, Robert E., Jr. "Commemorating the Prison Ship Dead: Revolutionary Memory and the Politics of Sepulture in the Early Republic, 1776-1808," William and Mary Quarterly (1999) 56#3 pp. 565–590 in JSTOR
- Dabney, William M. After Saratoga: The Story of the Convention Army. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1954.
- Dandridge, Danske. American Prisoners of the Revolution. The Michie Company, Printers, Charlottsville, Va. 1911.
- Dandridge, Danske. American Prisoners of the Revolution. Baltimore. Genealogical Publishing Company. 1911.
- Krebs, Daniel. A Generous and Merciful Enemy: Life for German Prisoners of War during the American Revolution. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013.
- Lowenthal, Larry. Hell on the East River: British Prison Ships in the American Revolution. Fleischmanns, New York. Purple Mountain Press. 2009.
- Metzger, Charles H. The Prisoner in the American Revolution. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1971.
- Pope, Johnathan. "Law, Tradition, and Treason: Captured Americans During the American Revolution, 1775--1783" (M.A. Thesis, University of New Brunswick, 2003). online
- Ranlet, Philip. In the Hands of the British: The Treatment of American POWs during the War of Independence. The Historian 62, no. 4 (2000): pp. 731–57 in JSTOR.