Monday, February 15, 2010

John Fabian Witt Gets it Wrong in Slate

In a book review for, John Fabian Witt observed, "Conditions in the British camps and ships in and around New York were what one would expect in the era before modern medicine and modern military logistics." A professor of legal history at Columbia University, Witt reviewed the book by Edwin G. Burrows, Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War (New York: Basic Books, 2008).

In February 1779, The New Hampshire Gazette (Exeter, NH) reported "greatly emaciated and infeebled" prisoners returning from the prison ships of New York City. The author wrote, "So the excuse made by the enemy, that the prisoners were emaciated, and died by a contagious sickness, which no one could prevent, is futile; it requires no great sagacity to know, that crowding people together without fresh air, and feeding, or rather starving them in such a manner...must unavoidably produce a contagion."

Witt's claim that murderous neglect of prisoners somehow met expectations for the era proves incorrect. Americans and Frenchmen of the Revolutionary Era rightly surmised that lethal conditions for prisoners resulted from a decision by British personnel, not from mere accident of circumstance.

John Fabian Witt, “Ye Olde Gitmo: When Americans were unlawful combatants,” Slate, 9 Dec. 2008, (accessed 15 Feb. 2010); The New Hampshire Gazette (Exeter, NH), 9 Feb. 1779
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