Friday, June 10, 2011

June 4, 1776: "Those Poor Devils" POWs in a Jail

Oliver Wolcott, a Connecticut Delegate to Congress, wrote to Roger Newberry, "The Prisoners have been treated by us with great Indulgence, I see by the papers what has been done with McKay and Skeene. You observe a Code of Laws published for the Regulation of Prisoners which if duly attended to, I hope will be effectual."

Although sometimes extended to enlisted men, "parole" was a courtesy usually extended by warring states to captured officers and gentlemen. If a prisoner promised not to escape, he could enjoy free movement within a certain area. In some cases, the enemy permitted a prisoner to return to his homeland, if he promised not to rejoin the war until notified of his official exchange.

On May 26, the town committee of Hartford, Connecticut sent a message to the Continental Congress about Philip Skene and Captain Samuel McKay. Captured in Skenesboro, New York by the Continental Army in June 1775, Skene accepted a parole that expired on May 23, 1776 grating him freedom of movement in Middletown, Conn. McKay became a Continental prisoner with the capture of St. Johns, Canada. McKay renewed his parole on May 10, 1776, but escaped on May 18 with Daniel McFarland, a British soldier of the Artillery and McKay's waiter.

On May 22, 1776, the Hartford Committee jailed McKay; McFarland and John Graves of Pittsfield, Connecticut, who helped McKay and McFarland escape. The Continental Congress read the Hartford Committee's report on June 1, 1776 and referred to the Committee on Prisoners.

Joseph Hewes, a North Carolina Delegate, wrote from Philadelphia to Samuel Johnston, "Your favour by Allen McDonald Esqr. I have received. He and all those what came with him as prisoners are confined in the Jail of this City."

Most of these prisoners sent from North Carolina to Pennsylvania were officers of a loyalist force captured at the Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge in February 1776. Please consult Paul Herbert Smith, ed., Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789: Vol. 4: May 16-August 14, 1776 (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1979), page 78, note 1.

Your favour: During the era of the American Revolution, people referred to a letter as a favor from the sender.

Hewes added, "I have not seen him or any of them, it is not in my power to do them any kind of service, Congress will not suffer them to go out on parole 'till they hear further from North Carolina or perhaps 'till the British Troops have left the Province."

On the news of escapes by British and Tory prisoners, Hewes wrote, "Many of our Prisoners have broke their parole and gone off which will make those poor devils you sent and all taken hereafter fare worse."

Sadly, Hewes could not bring himself to visit the prisoners when he was unable to address their complaints and their likely requests for enlargement [release] on parole. Hewes explained, "As I cannot serve them I do not visit them, to hear their complaints and have no power to relieve would be disagre[e]able."
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