Friday, January 7, 2011

11,644 Prisoners Dead

In his journal for May 8, 1783, American General William Heath wrote, "It was said that 11,644 American prisoners had died during the war, in the prisons and on board the prison ships at New York...." Heath thought it requisite for commander to ensure that provost personnel (those in charge of prisoners) are "considerate and humane" and that the commanders themselves "take care to know, and, if necessary, correct any abuses which may exist."

The source for Heath's figure was a newspapers article published in the April 17, 1783 issue of the Continental Journal (Boston, Massachusetts) and republished by several newspapers throughout the United States. Unlike Heath, however, the author of the article attributed these deaths exclusively to the most notorious British prison ship off occupied New York City, the Jersey:

To all Printers of Public News-Papers.
TELL it to the whole WORLD, and let it be published in every News-Paper throughout AMERICA, EUROPE, ASIA and AFRICA, to the everlasting disgrace and infamy of the British King's Commanders at New-York.
That during the late War, it is said ELEVEN THOUSAND SIX HUNDRED AND FORTY-FOUR American Prisoners, have suffered death by...inhuman, cruel, savage and barbarous usage on board the filthy and malignant British Prison Ship called the Jersey, lying at New-York. Britons tremble lest the vengance of Heaven fall on your Isle, for the blood of these unfortunate victims!

Historian Philip Ranlet observed that Heath was probably correct to assume that 11,644 represented all prisoner deaths in New York City during the British occupation (1776-1783). Ranlet offers corroborating evidence in support of the figure. (See Philip Ranlet, "Tory David Sproat of Pennsylvania and the Death of American Prisoners of War, Pennsylvania History, Volume 61, Number 2 (April 1994): 185-205, especially 198 to 200.

Ranlet is mistaken (page 197) in treating Heath's journal as the first source for the figure of 11,644 prisoner deaths. (See Edwin G. Burrows, Forgotten Prisoners: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War [New York: Basic Books, 2008], page 315, note 5, who observes Heath probably read the account as reprinted in the May 8 New York Packet.)
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