Friday, November 6, 2009

November 9

On Nov. 9, 1776, Colonel Samuel Atlee wrote from British custody in New York City to General George Washington. Reports of a possible prisoner exchange between the British and the Americans prompted Atlee to write, "Persons in captivity, let whatever pains be taken to make that state agreeable, are still unhappy and anxious for a releasement. Such, sir, at present, is my state."

Col. Atlee, from Pennsylvania, was captured by the British at the Battle of Brooklyn (August 27, 1776). Atlee and a party of Americans fought until Hessians began to surround them. Rumors and reports of Hessian severity circulated throughout America before the German mercenaries arrived in America. Atlee and his comrades considered these rumors. Atlee recalled, "finding after all our struggles no prospect of escaping, we determined to throw ourselves into the mercy of a battalion of Highlanders.... This we did about five o'clock in the afternoon to the number of twenty-three, thereby escaping the pursuit of a party of Hessians, who came to the Highlanders immediately after our surrender."

Atlee and the 22 other prisoners remained about twenty minutes with Scottish Highlanders, "during which time the officers and men behaved very civil...." Soon, however, a "strong guard" escorted the prisoners to the Bedford headquarters of Gen. William Howe, commander-in-chief of British forces operating within the United States.

Like other prisoners taken that day, Atlee recalled that the civility of his initial captors dissipated. Atlee recalled " receiving, as we passed, the most scurrilous and abusive language, both from the officers, soldiers, and camp ladies, every one at that time turning hangman, and demanding of the guard why we were taken, why we were not put to the bayonet, and hanged, &c., &c., &c., &c."

The British put Atlee and sixteen other prisoners into a single tent, "in which we had not room to lie down, and nothing allowed us for covering." Atlee concluded, "To sum up the whole, we were consigned to the care of the most infamous of mankind, the Provost-Marshal, one Cunningham."

After the Battle of Bunker Hill (June 17, 1775, the British captured 27 wounded Americans and confined them in Boston Jail under the supervision of Provost Marshal, Captain William Cunningham. By Sept. 14, 1775, Americans learned that ten of the Bunker Hill prisoners were dead. A number of the prisoners died after the amputation of a limb, including Lieutenant Colonel Moses Parker of Chelmsford, Massachusetts, who died July 4, 1775 after the amputation of one leg.

As late as Dec. 12, 1777, the deaths in Cunningham's care in 1775 still featured in American complaints of British cruelty. In their Dec. 12, 1777 protest to Lord North, British minister for American affairs, Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane and Arthur Lee--the American commissioners to France--complained of Britain's mistreatment of prisoners: "It is a universal complained that the practices of those in authority under you have been conformable to the principles of those public acts [of the British Government]. Colonel Parker, a gentleman of rank, was thrown into a common jail, in Boston, covered over with wounds, where he perished unpitied for want of the common comforts which his situation and humanity required. Colonel Ethan Allen was dragged in chains from Canada to England...at a time when the officers taken from you in the same expedition were treated not only with lenity, but with every possible indulgence."

The British evacuated Boston on March 17 (St. Patrick's Day), 1776. Once British forces captured New York City later that year, they placed Cunningham in charge of the Provost Jail, the municipal jail where the British confined American officers and civilians suspected of supporting the Revolution. The British continued to confine various felons to the Provost as well. In Boston Jail, Cunningham flung civilian detainees with the general population, which included British soldiers and their female companions, arrested for theft.

Briefly, Cunningham supervised a Provost Jail in Philadelphia, another detention center for captured American officers. On the grounds of this Provost, accounts indicate that prisoners died of starvation on the yard, with clumps of grass in their mouths and hands.

Prisoners who survived remembered Cunningham for arbitrary harsh punishment, cruel beatings, crowding prisoners into confined spaces for days at a time, and demeaning mistreatment. Elias Boudinot, an American commissary of prisoners, suspected Cunningham of selling the prisoner's food and letting them starve to death.

As officers on parole, with the means of supporting themselves on money or credit, Atlee boarded with several other officers in a New York City home.

Please consult Edwin G. Burrows, Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War (New York: Basic Books, 2008) pages 2-6, 21-22, 25-26, 119-120, 259.
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