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.
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