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.
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