Saturday, December 31, 2011

January 1, 1777: Hessians

On January 1, 1777, George Washington wrote to Congressmen Robert Morris, George Clymer and George Walton, "The future and proper disposition of the Hessian Prisoners, struck me in the same light in which you view it, for which Reason I advised the Council of Safety to seperate them from their Officers, and canton them in the German Counties."

Agreeing with the Congressmen's recommendations of December 28, 1776, Washington explained, "If proper pains are taken to convince them, how preferable the Situation of their Countrymen, the Inhabitants of those Counties is to theirs, I think they may be sent back in the Spring, so fraught with a love of Liberty and property too, that they may create a disgust to the Service among the remainder of the foreign Troops and widen that Breach which is already opened between them and the British."

On December 29, 1776, Washington expressed his wish to the Pennsylvania Council of Safety that the captured Hessian officers "may have such principles instilled into them during their Confinement, that when they return, they may open the Eyes of their Countrymen, who have not the most cordial Affection for their English fellow Soldiers."

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Hessian Prisoners

On December 28, 1776, a three-person Committee of Congress wrote to George Washington about the German mercenaries captured at Trenton on the night of Dec. 25-26. Robert Morris, George Clymer and George Walton wrote that the capture of the Hessians "affords a favourable opportunity of making them acquainted with the situation and circumstances" of German-Americans, "who came here without a farthing of property, and have, by care and industry, acquired plentiful fortunes...."

Friday, December 23, 2011

December 25: Trenton, New Jersey

On Christmas Night, 1776, Continental forces under General George Washington captured the Hessians garrisoned at Trenton, New Jersey. In his book Washington's Crossing, Brandeis Historian David Hackett Fischer disputes the legend that the Hessians under Col. Johann Gottlieb Rall were drunk.

Instead, Fischer explains, a popular uprising of militia in four New Jersey counties left Rall's regiment "in a continuous state of alarm." Fischer writes of the Hessians, "The men were ill and exhausted, deprived of sleep." David Hackett Fischer, Washington's Crossing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 201.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

December 24: Ravage and Calamity

On Dec. 24, 1776, the Assembly of Pennsylvania rallied citizens for the defense of Philadelphia by mentioning the suffering in occupied New Jersey:

FRIENDS AND COUNTRYMEN: It is much easier for you to conceive, than for us to describe, the evils consequent on the invasion of a country by a rapacious and plundering soldiery. Such is now the situation of the neighbouring State of New-Jersey....

Every species of ravage and calamity have already marked the footsteps of our enemy, and they are now within a few miles of your Metropolis, waiting to cross the Delaware, to glut their inordinate lust of rapine and desolation, in the plunder of that rich and populous city.

December 24: Prisoners in Baltimore

On Dec. 24, 1776, President of the Continental Congress John Hancock received information about prisoners held by Americans in Baltimore.

The Baltimore Committee reported, "Our Committee have been informed by Mr. Benjamin Griffith, that the room in the gaol for the reception of the prisoners is now repaired, and made comfortable; that he has procured provisions and fire-wood, but that blankets cannot be obtained, and therefore hope the honourable Congress will furnish them from the publick stores."

Baltimore authorities were trying to find accommodations for the prisoners: "The  The Committee are looking for proper houses to accommodate the prisoners, if they can be procured that are sufficient, which they much doubt."

Donald McCloud, Alexander McCloud and Kenneth McDonald petitioned the President of Congress to ask that American authorities distinguish them as military prisoners from Loyalists captured in North Carolina.  The petitioners opened their address with an acknowledgement of the Congressional resolution to investigate the condition of prisoners in Baltimore: "We are sensible of the obligation your Carolina prisoners are under, by your passing a late resolve in their favour, in consequence of which they are to be supplied with the necessaries of life and to be removed to a more comfortable habitation; and being of the number of said prisoners, we beg leave to offer you our hearty thanks for your good and humane intentions...."

Remarking they were "on a different footing with the other prisoners from North-Carolina," the three petitioners wrote they "are appointed officers in the King's Regular Army, consequently cannot come under any restrictions or engagements but such as are usual among people in that character. We, therefore, expect a parole on the same terms that has been granted by you to others of the King's officers, and a chance of exchanging for officers of the same rank, which we doubt not will be sent for us if applied for."

For an account of Loyalism to among Scottish Highlanders, despite the suppression of a Highland rebellion in 1745, please consult Duane Meyer, The Highland Scots of North Carolina, 1732-1776 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1987 [1987]).   For more on the role of local and provincial committees in the American Revolution, please consult T. H. Breen, American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People (New York: Hill and Wang, 2010) and Breen's article for The Daily Beast. For more on the custom of parole for captured enemy officers, please consult the second paragraph on the post about June 4, 1776.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

December 23: Shocking to Humanity

On Dec. 23, 1776, Congressman William Whipple of New Hampshire wrote to Josiah Bartlett that, with the fall of Fort Washington, "...the Success of the Enemy there gave them incouragemt to persue victory, so it struck our troops with a panic that spre[a]d through the Country.... However the People of Pensilvania are now turning out with spirit, great numbers have already join'd Genl Washington, the people of Maryland are also turning out."

Like many of his contemporaries and several historians since, Whipple believed the misconduct of the British soldiery turned Americans against the King's cause. Whipple wrote, "The Jersey Men are by this time fully convic'd of their errors, for the Ravages committed by the Enemy in their way through that state is really shocking to Humanity."

Letters of the Delegates to Congress: Volume 5: August 16, 1776-December 31, 1776 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1979), page 652.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Dec. 21: Prisoners in NC

On December 21, 1776, the Continental Congress "Resolved, That Mr. [William] Hooper be empowered to examine into the state of the North-Carolina Prisoners, and have such of them as are sick, removed to a private house, and kept under guard; and that he provide a Physician to attend them."

Representing North Carolina in Congress, Hooper was among the many delegates who signed the Declaration of Independence on August 2, 1776. In a December 12, 1777 message, the American Commissioners to France (Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane and Arthur Lee) informed Lord North, "The records of Congress, my lord, are filled with proofs of tender care and attention not only to the wants, but to the comforts and accommodation, of their prisoners." (Please consult Richard Henry Lee, Life of Arthur Lee... 2 vols. (Boston: Wells and Lilly, 1829), 1:102

Sunday, December 18, 2011

December 18, 1776

Although an American Loyalist who fled his native Massachusetts for England, Samuel Curwen confided to his journal, "It piques my pride, I confess, to hear us called 'our Colonies, our Plantations,' in such terms and with such airs as if our property and persons were absolutely theirs, like the 'villains' and their cottages in the old feudal system; so long since abolished, though the spirit or leaven is not totally gone, it seems."

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Slave Ship Mentor

The Columbia Herald (Charleston), 30 May 1785: "GAMBIA NEGROES. To be sold on Tuesday the 7th June, on board the ship Mentor...."

The Charleston Evening Gazette, 13 July 1785: "RUN AWAY...SIX New Negroes of the Mandingo Country, lately purchased out of the Ship Mentor...."

According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, the ship Mentor acquired 166 slaves in Gambia and arrived in Charleston, South Carolina with 152.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

December 14, 1799

Lucretia Wilhelmina Van Winter sent George Washington a poem she wrote in his honor.

In March 1784, Washington thanked Van Winter but deflected the praise.  "At best I have only been an instrument in the hands of Providence, to effect, with the aid of France and many virtuous fellow Citizens of America,...the emancipation of a country which may afford an the oppressed and needy of the Earth."

On December 14, 1799, George Washington died at his home, Mount Vernon.  Washington's will left instructions for the emancipation of all his slaves and established a fund for the elderly and orphaned among them.  

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Gen. Charles Lee Taken Prisoner

     On Dec. 13, 1776, a party of British cavalry under Banastre Tarleton captured British-born American General Charles Lee. 
     In the Battle of Wexhaws (19 May 1780) in South Carolina, Tarleton's cavalry notoriously slaughtered wounded Americans on the field. Days after a brave stand by Stockbridge Indians against Tarleton's cavalry (31 Aug. 1778), a Bronx resident recalled finding the mutilated bodies of Indians, three of whom were killed after Tarleton's cavalry promised them protection if they surrendered.
     Tarleton evinced a bloodthirsty disposition in his pursuit of Lee.  In his 2004 book, Washington's Crossing, Brandies historian David Hackett Fischer quoted Tarleton's letter to his mother boasting that the menace of "instant death" and "fear of the sabre extorted great intelligence" from two captured American sentries and a light horseman.
     David Hackett Fischer, Washington's Crossing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), page 149; Lincoln Diamant, Yankee Doodle Days: Exploring the American Revolution (Fleischmanns, NY: Purple Mountain Press, 1996), page 141; Thomas F. DeVoe, "The Massacre of the Stockbridge Indians," Magazine of American History vol. 5 (1880): pages 187-194.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Inevitable Death

On December 9, 1776, Timothy Parker, first lieutenant of the schooner Spy in the Connecticut state navy, wrote to Gov. Trumbull from a British prisoner ship off New York City.  Respectfully pleading the governor to negotiate an exchange with the British, Parker described the dismal conditions on the prison ship Hope.

Parker wrote, “That our present situation is most wretched, your Honour need not doubt, which I likewise hope you will soon be assured of from men of undoubted veracity.  There are more than two hundred and fifty prisoners of us on board this ship, (some of which are sick, and without the least assistance from physician, drug, or medicine,)….”

Parker concluded, “In short, sir, we have no prospect before our eyes but a kind of lingering inevitable death, unless we obtain a timely and seasonable release.” 

December 8, 1776: Prisoners in Plymouth

In 1776, James Warren of Plymouth appealed to Council of Massachusetts to relocated the enemy prisoners concentrated in the town. All the prisoners were Irishmen recruited by the British.

Explaining the logistical challenge, Warren wrote, "They grow very troublesome. The inhabitants are much alarmed, and I fear some disagreeable consequences will soon ensue, either from their insolence and numbers, united with the many Tories here, or from the necessity the people may think there is for attending to their own security."

Sunday, December 4, 2011


     In the winter of 1776-77, Connecticut Gov. Jonathan Trumbull, Sr. hoped George Washington and British commander William Howe could reach an agreement on a prisoner exchange.  Given the suffering of American prisoners from hunger and cold, Trumbull wrote, "if they cannot soon be relieved, they must yield to the offer made to them, and inlist themselves into the King's service.  Necessity will soon compel them.  About three hundred have already yielded to the temptation."
     British recruitment of American prisoners, subject to the duress of hunger and epidemic disease, remained an American complaint throughout the war.  The coercive enlistment of American military prisoners was consistent with the spirit of Parliamentary measures authorizing the enlistment of American maritime captives.
     The neglect of American captives, however, was not consistent with the sentiments of many Britons.  The British public repeatedly demonstrated goodwill for Americans detained in Britain.
     Trumbull's estimate that only three-hundred Americans enlisted despite near-starvation supports accounts by witnesses and survivors. In his 1779 narrative, Col. Ethan Allen remembered visiting American enlisted men detained in New York in 1776-77: "The integrity of these suffering prisoners is hardly credible. Many hundreds, I am confident, submitted to death, rather than to enlist in the British service, which, I am informed, they were generally pressed to do."
     Major Levi Wells, an American officer captured then paroled by Howe, estimated that between three and four thousand prisoners remained prisoners in New York City. Wells offered a sound estimate of the prisoner numbers. In the campaign of 1776, the British reported taking 4,101 American privates prisoner. The largest number (2,607 of the 4,101) of these became prisoners at the surrender of Fort Washington on Nov. 16, 1776.
      Please see page Jared Sparks, ed., The Writings of George Washington 12 vols. (Boston: American Stationers' Company, John B. Russell, Odiorne, 1834-1837), 4:547; Ethan Allen, A Narrative of Colonel Ethan Allen's Captivity... (Burlington, VT: H. Johnson & Co., 1838 [1779]), 98.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Our Polished Enemies

     In his Dec 19. , 1776 letter to George Washington, Connecticut Governor Jonathan Trumbull, Senior did not blame British commander Gen. Sir William Howe for the suffering of American prisoners in British-occupied New York City.  Howe, Trumbull wrote, "expressed himself with great humanity" when accounting for the prisoners' suffering.
     Relaying to Washington Howe's explanation, Trumbull wrote that the number of American prisoners in the city "is so great, and not having a country to dispose them in, as we have for our prisoners...he most heartily wishes for an exchange...."
     About a month later, Trumbull blamed British commanders personally for the suffering of American prisoners.  Dorothy Twohig, editor of Volume 8 of The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series, includes in the volume a January 23, 1777 letter from Trumbull to Washington.
     Trumbull wrote that the friends of Connecticut officers and soldiers detained by the British in New York were especially "impatient" for their release, "& with good Reason, as their sufferings there from Cold, Hunger, nakedness, Sickness...& accumulated Insult beggar all Description, many incapable to support this Load of Suffering, have fallen sacrifice to the rigour and Inhumanity of our polished Enemies...." 
     Jonathan Trumbull, Sr. to George Washington, Lebanon, Connecticut, 23 January 1777, in Dorothy Twohig, editor, The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series: Volume 8: January-March 1777 (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1998), 141.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

December 12, 1776: Prisoners in New York City

From travelers, exiles and former prisoners themselves, Americans heard horror stories about the suffering of American prisoners in British custody in New York City. In Dec. 1776, British commander Gen. Sir William Howe permitted a few American officers to return to their home states to solicit aid for the enlisted men.*  One of the officers was Major Levi Wells.

Connecticut Governor Jonathan Trumbull wrote to Gen. George Washington on Dec. 12, 1776, "Major Wells, of one of the battalions of this State, among the prisoners in New-York, is now suffered, on his parole, to come from thence into this State to solicit relief for the prisoners there."

The suffering of the captive enlisted men distressed Trumbull: "The representation made to us by Major Wells is, that we have in New-York between three and four thousand prisoners, the privates all close confined, upon about half allowance; great number of them almost naked; their confinement is so close and crowded that they have scarce room to move or lie down, the air stagnate and corrupt; numbers dying daily, arising principally from their close confinement."

*According to contemporary European custom, a nation at war provided for its own personnel taken prisoner or reimbursed those who did.  Consult, for example, Charles H. Metzger, S.J., The Prisoner in the American Revolution (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1971), 51, 129, 225.