Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Prisoner's Gratitude

Americans suspected British soldiers attributed kind treatment to the fears Americans had for their own treatment once their rebellion failed.

In an April 27, 1777 letter to his wife, Abigail Adams, John Adams wrote, "It is remarkable, that the Officers and Soldiers of our Enemies, are so totally depraved, so 
compleatly destitute of the Sentiments of Philanthropy in their own Hearts, that they cannot believe that such delicate Feelings can exist in any other, and therefore have constantly ascribed that Milk and Honey with which We have treated them to Fear, Cowardice, and conscious Weakness. -- But in this they are mistaken, and will discover their Mistake too late to answer any good Purpose for them."

Some British prisoners, however, were grateful.  During the British attack on Fairfield, Connecticut in July 1779, three British officers broke into the home of Lucretia Radfield and tried to rape her.  In her sworn statement recalling the assault, Mrs. Radfield said the "three men...seized me and dragged me to the bed and attempted violence, but thanks to God there appeared that instant to come two persons who rescued me from their violence, one of whom told me he had been a prisoner in this town, and that he had received great civility from the inhabitants, and that he had an opinion of their being a worthy kind people, and those two persons protected me thro' the remainder of the night."

Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 27 April 1777 [electronic edition]. 
Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society. J. Hoadley, editor, The Public Records of the State of Connecticut, From May, 1778, to April, 1780, inclusive, with the Journals of the Council of Safety From May 18, 1778, to April 23, 1780, and an Appendix (Hartford: The Case, Lockwood & Brainard Company, 1895), page 559.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

April 26, 1782: News of Minorca

BOSTON, April 26.
   Last Saturday the Ship Commerce, Capt. West arrived safe in post, in 39 days from Cadiz, by whom we learn, That fort St. Philip, on the island of Minorca, had surrendered to the Spaniards.  'Tis said the garrison are prisoners of war.  The whole of Minorca is now in possession of the Spaniards.

Connecticut Courant (Hartford), 30 April 1782

Monday, April 23, 2012

Provision for Prisoners

In 1777, Benjamin Franklin, Arthur Lee and Silas Deane rebuked Frederick Lord North for the mistreatment of prisoners in British custody, remarking, “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.” 

The records of state and local authorities show a similar concern.  On April 25, 1776, the North Carolina Provincial Congress appointed Eaton Haynes, Esq. as an Agent for the province in Philadelphia.  The Provincial Congress authorized Haynes “to take such measures and give such orders” as he thought necessary to conduct prisoners sent by North Carolina “with the greatest safety and expedition possible….”

The Provincial Congress also expected Haynes “supply the Prisoners and Guard with provisions, and other articles which may be necessary for them upon their route, and be empowered, in behalf of this Province, to draw upon the Continental Treasury for such sums as he shall necessarily expend for the above purposes….”  The North Carolina Provincial Congress instructed Haynes inform Joseph Hewes, Esq. of such draughts on the Continental Treasury.  Hewes was one of the North Carolina Delegates in the Continental Congress. 
Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane and Arthur Lee to Lord North, 12 Dec. 1777, in Francis Wharton, editor, The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, 6 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1889), 2:449.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Prisoner in Irons

On April 24, 1776, Thomas Walker, a merchant of Montreal, Quebec, gave a sworn statement before Samuel Mifflin in Philadelphia, describing Walker's treatment by British Brigadier General Richard Prescott.

British soldiers attacked Walker's Canadian residence at "about two or three o'clock in the morning," breaking into the house with axes, looting the property and setting the home on fire.  Until obliged to surrender, Walker shot repeatedly into the crowd of attackers.

The soldiers conveyed Thomas Walker to Prescott.  Encounter reconstructed from Walker's deposition, courtesy the American Archives web site of Northern Illinois University Libraries:  

PRESCOTT: "You are a traitor and a betray your country; but the laws of your country have overtaken you at last...."
WALKER: "I perceive that you know very little of my real character; but pray, who are you, sir, that treats me thus unworthily, for I have not the honour to know you?"
PRESCOTT: "What do you think of last nights work, and of that brave man in the boat, which you have so desperately wounded?"
WALKER: "I think, sir, that it was a very poor exploit, to send fifty men on purpose to murder one, and burn his house, whilst he and his family were asleep in their beds."
[Prescott directs Provost Marshal William Jones to put Walker in irons.]
PRESCOTT: "Your crime is high treason and rebellion; and [to Provost Marshal Jones], give that poor unhappy man a stray bed and blanket in Number four, in the barracks, and keep sentries over him, that nobody speaks to him but the Town-Major, (Mr. [JamesHughes,) unless before the Sergeant of the Guard."

Walker testified that he lay in the barracks, "confined and alone, in iron, for thirty-three days and nights, without fire or candle for a long while, or the consolation of a friend, at any time, Mrs. Walker being absolutely forbid to see him, and, for many days, made a prisoners in her own house, with six sentries round about it, and the persons who came and went to and from the barracks, with victuals, where search for letters, &c."

Prescott's treatment of American "rebels" and their supporters expressed the hatred that many Britons felt for the supposed illegal combatant.  For instance, Prescott told Ethan Allen he would grace a hangman's noose "at Tyburn, God damn you."  

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Fort Watson, 23 April 1781

A LIST of PRISONERS taken at Scott's Lake,
                    April 23, 1781.
             Commanding Officers.
Lieutenant [James] Mackay, commandant of the fort.
Surgeon [Thomas B.] Campbell, king's American regiment.
Ensign [Robert] Robinson, loyal American regiment.
Lieutenant Lewis, South-Carolina rangers.
Ensign and quarter-masters M'Kallam, ditto.
73 British privates.

36 Tories.
Total, 5 Commissioned officers, and 109 privates.

Pennsylvania Packet (Philadelphia), 26 May 1781

On the capture of Fort Watson at Scott's Lake, South Carolina, Patrick O'Kelley described the terms of surrender as "very generous."  O'Kelley wrote, "The officers were granted paroles, kept their swords, and were able to take their baggage with them to Charlestown, where they were to await a general exchange."  Patrick O'Kelley, Unwaried Patience and Fortitude: Francis Marion's Orderly Book (West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania: Infinity Publishing, 2006), page 527. For the names of several officers, please consult [Great Britain] Historical Manuscript Commission, Report on American Manuscripts in the Royal Institution of Great Britain 4 vols. (Dublin: John Falconer, 1904-1906), 2:271.

April 22, 1778: Illegal Combatants

Appointed to a committee of the Continental Congress, Gouverneur Morris wrote a report critical of a reconciliation plan circulated by British Prime Minister Frederick Lord North. 
Among other criticisms, the committee observed, “That said bill, by holding forth a tender of pardon, implies a criminality in our justifiable resistance….”  Therefore, the committee concluded, if the United States negotiated under such terms would constitute “an implied acknowledgment that the inhabitants of these states were what Britain hath declared them to be, rebels.”  
Worthing Chauncey Ford, editor, Journalsof the Continental Congress, 1774-1789: Volume 10: January 1-May 1, 1778 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1908), page 377; Paul H. Smith, ed., Letters of Delegates toCongress: Volume 10: June 1, 1778-September 30, 1778 (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1983), page 162, note 3.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Most Airy Buildings

In an April 21, 1777 letter to General George Washington, British commander Sir William Howe denied that American prisoners suffered inordinately in his custody.  Howe wrote, “All the prisoners were confined in the most airy buildings, and on board the largest transports in the fleet, which were the very healthiest places of reception that could possibly be provided.”

In his June 10 response, Washington observed, “That airy Buildings were chosen to confine our a fact I shall not dispute.  But whether this was an Advantage or not in the Winter Season, I leave you to decide.  I am inclined to think it was not; especially, as there was a general Complaint, that they were destitute of fire the greater part of the time, and were only prevented from feeling the inclemency of the Weather, in its extremest rigor, by their crowded situation.

British newspapers published these letters between the contending generals.  For instance, in July 1777 The Westminster Magazine (London) published George Washington's April 2, 1777 letter on the 
emaciated and languishing state of prisoners released by Howe.  Howe's April 21 letter to Washington appeared in The Westminster Magazine of August and Washington's June 10 response appeared in the September issue.  Consult also The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Let the World Know

On April 20, 1776, The Pennsylvania Ledger (Philadelphia) carried an essay by the pseudonymous writer, "A Watchman."  The Watchman warned that as "rebels," American prisoners might suffer the same cruelty suffered by Scottish rebels after the 1745 rebellion.

Americans had not yet witnessed the horrific condition of the many prisoners taken by the British in the last few months of 1776.  By April 1776, however, Americans knew of many cases of mistreatment involving smaller numbers of American prisoners.  The mistreatment of Ethan Allen, for instance, was notorious.   

Watchman wrote, "Let the world know that altho we have thus suffered, yet we have not learnt to partake of their cruelty, those whom chance of war hath put into our hands, and whose lives are entirely at our mercy, are not otherwise confined than by parole: And such who refuse to give their parole, instead of being confined in dark dungeons...inhabit the chambers of the best inn this city affords; to whom also their friends and acquaintances have free access."

A Watchman was glad his countrymen showed mercy to enemy prisoners: "Such acts are recorded in Heaven...."

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

April 19, 1776

On April 19, 1776, the New York Committee of Safety Resolved and Ordered, That the Committee of Kingston, in Ulster County, be requested to furnish Frederick Kleyn, a prisoner now confined in the Jail at Kingston by order of the Committee of Rhinebeck Precinct, in Dutchess County, such Provisions as he may necessarily stand in need of for his subsistence during his confinement….”

The Committee of Safety also resolved that the Committee of Kingston be requested to “provide, in the same manner” for the prisoners Timothy Doughty and Mordecai Lester, “provided it shall appear to the satisfaction of the said Committee that they have not estates or means sufficient to enable them to provide for themselves.”  The Rhinebeck Committee already pledged some support for the three accused Tories the Committee sent to Kingston.  

In the eighteenth century, gentlemen (especially gentlemen-officers in enemy custody) were expected to pay for their own necessities and comfort items from their estates or notes of credit.  For the Continental Congress’s May 21, 1776 resolution on captive officers based on the same principle, please consult the post here.  For the full text of the New York Committee of Safety's resolves, please consult the American Archives web site of the Northern Illinois University Libraries.

Allegations Against Timothy Doughty:  In 1775, as Peter De Witt understood the case, Timothy Doughty allegedly appeared with Adam Burgh and Christian Burgh, Jr., publicly brandishing pistols.  The young trio interrupted the choice of militia officers, 
“threatened them, d—d the Congress; spoke ill of the new commissions the officers are to receive, and called them d—d rebels” and even enlisted four men (“probably more”) in the “Ministerial service,” as the revolutionaries characterized British forces serving the King and his ministers.  Nevertheless, Doughty was apparently a very young lad.  

Monday, April 16, 2012

April 18, 1776

In a letter of April 18, 1776, John Adams of Massachusetts wrote to John Penn of North Carolina, “You tell me that all Fondness for the King and Nation is gone.  This is the Effect of the late Act of Parliament every where.” 

Passed by the British Parliament on December 22, 1775, the Prohibitory Act, in the words of John Hancock, made American property 
legal Plunder.”  Crafted in response to demands by King George III, the Prohibitory Act made English trade with the 13 colonies illegal and declared American ships and cargo the property of the British government. Adams remarked to Penn, In a Letter from my own Colony I am told, that ‘the Jurors refuse to Serve, because the Writs are in the Kings Name,’ and in another, from the Speaker of the House in these Words ‘We are at present engaged in forming a Bill for disusing the Kings Name in all Acts, Commissions, and Law Proscesses.’” 

Terry M. Mays wrote that although the Prohibitory Act included amnesty for colonies or areas declaring their loyalty to the Crown, “The act had the opposite effect and tended to drive the colonies closer to independence….”  Terry M. Mays, Historical Dictionary of Revolutionary America (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2005), page 13.

Like the King's cold response to an anti-war petition from the Lord Mayor and several Aldermen of London, the Prohibitory Act was a measure meant to gain compliance but only encouraged resistance.  As Rev. John Witherspoon remarked in a May 1776 sermon
they have uniformly called those acts Lenity, which filled this whole continent with resentment and horror.” 
On April 3, 1776, the Continental CongressResolved, That Blank commissions for private ships of war and letters of marquee and reprisal, signed by the president [of Congress], be sent to the general assemblies, conventions, and councils or committies of safety of the United Colonies, to be by them filled up and delivered to the persons intending to fit out such private ships of war, for making captures of British vessels and cargoes, who shall…execute the bonds which shall be sent with the said commissions, which bonds shall be returned to the Congress.”  In an April 12 letter to the Convention of Virginia and the assemblies of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Connecticut, President of Congress John Hancock explained that Congress acted on “Principles of Self Preservation, and Retaliation” in making British shipping the object of American privateers.

For the biography of Patriot and Privateer captian David McCullough,
please watch an interview with Jazz musician Harry Connick, Jr. conducted by Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. for the PBS miniseries,
Finding Your Roots

Watch The Rattlesnake on PBS. See more from Finding Your Roots.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

April 17, 1783

On April 17, 1783, Elias Boudinot wrote to Lewis Pintard, "I sent you by an Express our Proclamation for the Cessation of Hostilities, which is proclaimed in Form this Day."  Elected to Congress in 1781, Boudinot was elected by his Congressional colleagues to the largely ceremonial office of President of Congress.  Boudinot explained to Pintard, "Altho' Peace is really taken Place yet it cannot be proclaimed till we receive the definitive Treaty, which we expect every Day."

Boudinot served as commissary general of prisoners from May 1777 into July 1778.  Boudinot's duties included assigning accommodation for enemy prisoners and supplying American prisoners in British custody.  Pintard served as Boudinot's agent in British-occupied New York City.

Both descendants of French Huguenots, Boudinot and Pintard were also brothers-in-law.  Pintard married Susannah Sotckton and Boudinot married Hannah Stockton.  Richard Stockton, a Signer of the Declaration of Independence, was a brother of both Susannah and Hannah.

Capture by Tories in late-1776, Richard Stockton spent about six weeks in the Provost Jail in British-occupied New York City.  Released by the middle of January 1777, Stockton apparently gave his parole to remain aloof of the conflict until notified of his official exchange.  Historian Edwin G. Burrows doubts the suspicions that Stockton recanted his support of Independence to obtain release.  If, as rumored, Stockton recanted his revolutionary commitment the British and Tory press never celebrated such a notable defection.

If Stockton made any concession, Burrows blames either coercion by Tory militiamen or harsh treatment in the custody of Provost Marshal William Cunningham.  Either possibility, Burrows writes, explains why British General Sir William Howe never claimed any such trophy defection.  Howe could hardly brag of a "rebel" defection obtained by "physical or psychological abuse, particularly at the hands of paramilitary thugs...."  Burrows adds, "Nor would Stockton have been the first American to be crippled in body and spirit by a stay in the Provost--'that engine for breaking hearts,' in Alexander Graydon's apt phrase."  Stockton died in 1781.

Edwin G. Burrows, Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War (New York: Basic Books, 2008), pages 84-85, 113-116 (quotes on page 116).  For Boudinot's Huguenot heritage, consult George Adams Boyd, Elias Boudinot: Patriot and Statesman, 1740-1821 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1969 [1952]), page 3, as well as Burrows, Forgotten Patriots, page 85.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

April 16, 1783

On April 16, 1783, Congressman Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut wrote to his wife, Abigail (Wolcott) Ellsworth, “The enclosed newspapers shows that they are much less satisfied with the Peace in Great Britain than we are & they have much less reason to be—after you have read it I wish you to send it with my compliments to Mr. Hinsdale to whom I know it will be highly amusing.” Congressman Ellsworth observed, “All our prisoners in the hands of the British are set at liberty—& an order yesterday passed in Congress to release all the British prisoners in our hands.”

Paul H. Smith, ed., Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789: Volume 20: March 12, 1783-September 30, 1783 (Washington, D. C.:  Government Printing Office, 1993), 190.

On November 30, 1782, British negotiator Richard Oswald and Americans John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Jay and Henry Laurens signed the article of a preliminary peace.  The Treaty of Paris, signed September 3, 1783, officially ended the war.  The Pennsylvania Packet (Philadelphia) published the provisional agreement on April 10, 1783.

Treaty of Paris: Primary Documents of American History (Virtual Programs & Services, Library of Congress)

April 15

The Pennsylvania Packet (Philadelphia) of April 15, 1783 featured a summation of remarks in the House of Lords, the upper house of the British Parliament, upon the preliminary peace between Britain and the United States of America.  Of Thomas de Grey (Lord Walsingham), the Packet reported, Lord Walsingham questioned the right of the crown to dismember the empire without the consent of parliament....   Frederick Howard, the Fifth Earl of Carlisle, worried about the vulnerability of Loyalists to  “cruel and inveterate malice” of their revolutionary neighbors.

On April 15, 1783, Congressman from Virginia James Madison wrote to Edmund Randolph, “The paper inclosed will amuse you with the bickerings in the British Parliament on that subject [i.e., the provisional articles of a peace between Britain and the United States].”

Madison remarked, “Genl. Carlton is very importunate for an immediate execution of the provisional articles on the part of Congress in the two points of liberating the prisoners, and recommending restitution to the Loyalists.  On his part he has set the example in the first point, but says nothing of executing the other important conditions which are in our favor.”

Paul H. Smith, ed., Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789: Volume 20: March 12, 1783-September 30, 1783 (Washington, D. C.:  Government Printing Office, 1993), 187.

Friday, April 13, 2012

April 14

From his Headquarters in New York, George Washington issued General Orders for April 14, 1776.  Washington wanted soldiers to respect the general public, just as he wanted them to respect prisoners

The General flatters himself, that he shall hear no Complaints from the Citizens, of abuse, or ill-treatment, in any respect whatsoever; but that every Officer and Soldier, of every Rank and Denomination, will pride themselves (as Men contending in the glorious Cause of Liberty ought to do) in an orderly, decent and regular deportment.

The George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799

Many of the men stationed in New York City and receiving these orders became prisoners of British and Tory personnel, suffering "all the insult possible" from anti-revolutionary hardliners crowded into the British-held city.  John H. Rhodehamel, editor, The American Revolution: Writings from the War of Independence (New York: Library of America, 2001), page 293.  On a few well-placed but malevolent "Tories," please consider the footnote here.  

Thursday, April 12, 2012

April 13: What Must Be His Feelings

On April 13, 1777, John Adams sent his wife, Abigail (Smith) Adams, the correspondence between George Washington and British personnel regarding complications in a possible prisoner exchange.  John Adams probably forwarded the Pennsylvania Evening Post of the previous date that contained Washington's letter.

"Washington is in the Right," Adams wrote, "and has maintained his Argument with Delicacy, and a Dignity, which do him much Honour."

Adams explained that Washington "hinted" at the "flagitious Conduct of the two Howes, towards their Prisoners, in so plain and clear a manner, that he cannot be misunderstood," yet  "a decency and a Delicacy is preserved which is the more to be applauded, because the natural Resentment of such Atrocious Cruelties renders it very difficult to avoid a more pointed Language, in describing them.  They might indeed, without much Impropriety, have been painted in crimson Colours of a deeper Die."

The Howe Brothers commanded British forces operating against America's Continental forces, with Admiral Richard Lord Howe commanding naval forces and General Sir William Howe commanding military forces.

Of Sir William, John Adams asked, "If Mr. Howes Heart is not callous, what must be his Feelings, when he recollects the Starvings, the Freezings, the pestilential Diseases, with which he coolly and deliberate[ly] destroyed the Lives of so many, unhappy Men.  If his Conscience is not seared, how will he bear its Lashes when he remembers his Breach of Honour, his Breach of Faith, his offence against Humanity, and Divinity, his Neighbour and his impairing Health that he ought to have cherished, and in putting and End to Lives that he ought to have preserved, and in choosing the most slow, lingering and torturing Death, that he could have devised?"

Adams "charitably" supposed that Howe "would have chosen the shortest Course and...put every Man, to the Sword or Bayonett, and thereby have put an End to their Sufferings, at once, if he could have done it without Detection.  But this would have been easily proved upon him....  Whereas, by Hunger, Frost and Disease, he might commit the Murders, with equal Certainty, and yet be able to deny that he had done it.  He might lay it to Hurry, to Confusion, to the fault of Commissaries and other Officers.  Nay might deny, that they were starved, frozen and infected."  Adams speculated that Howe "was determined to put them out of the Way, yet to deny it, to get rid of his Enemies, and yet save his Reputation.  But his Reputation is ruined forever."

Paul H. Smith, ed., Letters of Delegates to Congress: Volume 6: January 1, 1777-April 30, 1777 (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress,1980), pages 572-73.

An image and transcript of the letter to Abigail Adams from her husband, John Adams, might also be found here: 
Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 13 April 1777 [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society.

For more information on some of the commissary and provost personnel serving the British, please consult posts from this blog on Provost Marshal Captain William Cunningham and commissary David Sproat.  Some of the most notorious figures were Tories, like Massachusetts-born commissary general of prisoners Joshua Loring, Jr., or prewar immigrants considered Tories by virtue of their long-term American residence, like Irish-born Cunningham and Scottish-born Sproat.   

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

April 12: Their Death Almost Certain and Inevitable

On April 11, 1777, the Continental Congress resolved that George Washington's April 9 letter about the "emaciated and languishing" condition of American prisoners released by Sir William Howe in December 1776 and January 1777.  Congress wanted other papers pertaining to a prisoner exchange published as well.

In Philadelphia, The Pennsylvania Evening Post published the correspondence on April 12, 1777 and the Pennsylvania Packet published it on April 15.  Americans around the country read George Washington's letter in newspapers like The New England Chronicle (Boston) of May 2; the Connecticut Courant (Hartford) of May 5; and the Freeman's Journal (Portsmouth, New Hampshire) of May 31. A supplement to the May 2 issue of Alexander Purdie's Virginia Gazette (Williamsburg) paraphrased and quoted much of Washington's letter, including his assertion that Howe released prisoners in so debilitated a condition "as to render their death almost certain and inevitable...."

For the importance of American newspapers from the early days of the revolutionary Cause, please consult T. H. Breen, American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People (New York: Hill and Wang, 2010), pages 99-104. Breen is the William Smith Mason Professor of American History at Northwestern University.  

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

April 11, 1777: Happy Had It Been

On Friday, 11 April 1777, the Continental Congress resolved that George Washington’s April 9 letter to British military commander Gen. Sir William Howe be published, along with British officer Lt. Col. William Walcott's April 2 letter demanding an exchange of prisoners between the British and Americans.  WorthingtonChauncey Ford, editor, Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789: Vol. 7: January 1-May 21, 1777 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1907), 253. 

In his letter to Howe, Washington remarked that the dying prisoners Howe released 
could not at that time be deemed proper for an exchange due to their wretched situation.  Nevertheless, Washington remarked, “our humanity required that they should be permitted to return among us.”    

Howe had released over 2,000 American privates, but only when most of them were nearly dead from smallpox and starvation.

By releasing American prisoners just before they died, Howe retained a slight pretense for demanding an equal number of British prisoners from American custody.  Washington wrote, “Happy had it been, if the expedient had been thought of before these ill-fated men were reduced to such extremity.”

Monday, April 9, 2012

April 10, 1783

NEW-YORK, April 10
   Yesterday all the prisoners of war in this city and on board the prison ships were released.

Pennsylvania Evening Post (Philadelphia), 17 April 1783

Sunday, April 8, 2012

2000 Corpses

     In his April 2, 1777 letter, British Lt. Col. William Walcott demanded an official exchange for British (or Hessian) forces still in American custody.  After all, Walcott observed, British General Sir William Howe already released many American officers and over 2,200 American enlisted men. 
     Walcott’s letter omitted one detail: 
     Most of the 2,200 prisoners Howe released in December 1776 and January 1777 died before the end of February.  Howe was demanding 2,000 British soldiers, ready to rejoin the war, in exchange for 2,000 American corpses. 
     Forwarding Walcott’s letter to British General Sir William Howe on April 9, 1777, George Washington explained, “…I do not hold myself bound either by the spirit of the agreement, or the by the principles of justice, to account for those prisoners, who, from the rigor and severity of their treatment, were in so emaciated and languishing a state at the time they came out, as to render their death almost certain and inevitable….”
     Washington remarked that many of the returning prisoners died “while they were returning to their homes” and others shortly after their arrival.  

      Washington wrote, “It may perhaps be fairly doubted, whether an apprehension of their death, or that of a great part of them, did not contribute somewhat to their being sent out when they were.  Such an event [that is, mass prisoner deaths], whilst they remained with you…would have destroyed every shadow of claims for the return of the prisoners in our hands….” *
     Before the end of the war, many Americans entertained the suspicion Washington hinted at in his letter.  Describing his 1781 captivity on the prison ship Jersey, American Thomas Andros speculated that “it was evidently the policy of the English to return for sound and healthy men, sent from our prisons, such Americans as had but just the breath of life in them, and were sure to die before they reached home.  The guard were wont to tell a man, while in health, ‘You have not been here long enough, you are too well to be exchanged.’”

Thomas Andros, The Old Jersey Captive.... (Boston: William Peirce, 1833), page 23.

*Walcott hinted that the Americans released by Howe remained prisoners of the British until Washington exchanged an equal number of British officers and men.  Walcott was threatening that Howe could demand the recall of the prisoners to captivity in occupied New York City.  This legal point was also important to Washington: Even though Howe released the men just before they died of starvation and smallpox, they were still Howe’s prisoners when they died.  Officially, the prisoners still died in Howe’s custody.

Most accounts of the prisoners released by Howe described men (and lads) debilitated by harsh treatment.  
Recruiting in Pennsylvania, Colonel Thomas Hartley wrote to George Washington on February 12, 1777 that "very few [of the returning prisoners] are to be found but in Hospitals or Sick Beds...."  Hartley learned that, in fact, most of the returning prisoners "Die in a few Days after they have joined their Families...."  Dorothy Twohig, editor, The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series: Vol. 8: January-March 1777 (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1998), pages 317-318.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

April 8: Prisoners from The Bahamas

     On April 8, 1776, Commodore Esek Hopkins arrived in New London, Connecticut after a raid on the island of New Providence [The Bahamas].  Hopkins arrived with several prisoners, including New Providence governor Thomas Erwin. 
     Hopkins wrote to Connecticut Governor Jonathan Trumbull, “I have…the Governour, a Counsellor, (who is a half-pay officer,) and the Surveyor-General of the Customs for North-America, on board.  I shall be glad of your directions how to dispose of them, as they are gentlemen that I think ought to be well treated as prisoners.  Hopkins added, “I have likewise seventy odd prisoners…which shall be glad to know of your directions respecting them.” 
     Hopkins had orders (dated January 5,1776) from the Naval Committee of the Continental Congress to “carefully attend to such prisoners as may fall into your hands—see that they be well and humanely treated.”  Hopkins wanted special attention paid to the treatment expected of captive “gentlemen.”  For the standards gentlemen-officers expected from each other, even their enemies, see Edwin G. Burrows, Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War (New York: Basic Books, 2008), 26-31.  
For the prisoners from the New Providence expedition, consult Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed., The Writings of George Washington: Vol. 4: 1776 (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1889), page 15, note 2.

April 7, 1777: News from New Jersey

Extract of a letter from Morris-Town dated April 7
“The day before yesterday three Walderckers came in, and yesterday 16 British prisoners were brought up from Bonum Town.  It seems a party of ours surrounded a picket of the enemy, kill’d 7...and bro’t off the above 16.”

The Boston Gazette
, 5 May 1777

     Of 34,218 German mercenaries hired by the British during the American War of Independence, the largest group (18,970) came from Hesse-Cassel.  Another 2,422 came from Hesse-Hanau.  Although the German mercenaries became generically known as “Hessians,” five other German states provided mercenaries for the British.  Hannover provided 2,373, who served in Gibraltar and the Mediterranean isle of Minorca.  Brandies Historian David Hackett Fischer wrote that 1,225 came from Waldeck.  Of these, 720 (or 58.8%) returned to Waldeck.  David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 53.
     Of 1,225 Waldeckers sent to serve the British in America, 720 (or 58.8%) returned.  Sadly, a number probably fell casualty to conflict, hunger or disease.  Like many other German mercenaries, however, some of the Waldeckers probably settled in America.  American Revolutionaries tried to maintain decent treat of prisoners generally, but made a special effort to win Germans by kind treatment.  
Lyman H. Butterfield, “Psychological Warfare in 1776: The Jefferson-Franklin Plan to Cause Hessian Desertions,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 94 (June 1950): 233-241; Carl Berger, Broadsides & Bayonets: The Propaganda War of the American Revolution Revised Edition (San Rafael, California: Presidio Press, 1976 [1961]), 119-138.
American Tench Tilghman met twelve captured Waldeckers in Oct. 1776 who were “amazed at the kind treatment they received.”  Tilghman informed William Duer, “They say if their fellow-soldiers knew how kindly they would be treated…they would lay down their arms and come among us.”  This, of course, is one of the arguments for treating prisoners with consideration.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

April 6, 1782: As Predicted

The Pennsylvania Evening Post (Philadelphia) of 16 April 1782 reprinted a report with dateline of Richmond, Virginia, April 6, 1782.  According to the report, American forces retook most of South Carolina from the British: “By accounts from the southward…we are informed our army is still in possession of every part of that country, except Charlestown.”  In 1783, Charlestown, South Carolina officially changed its name to Charleston

William Churchill Houston, a New Jersey Congressman born in South Carolina, predicted that the misconduct of British soldiers would cost them the province they conquered.  Houston based his forecast for South Carolina on New Jersey's experience in 1776-77. 

In a July 11, 1780 letter to John Adams of Massachusetts, Houston acknowledged that British forces overran much of South Carolina but “as their Cruelties and Oppressions will probably soon work up the Spirits of the People to Fury and Desperation, they will be expelled from the Country.”

Houston observed, “It seems to be the Ordination of Providence, and, though the Sufferings are severe, it seems to be the Interest of the Union, that each State, in it’s Turn should be vexed with their Depredations and Barbarities.  It operates an amazing Change in the Temper and Sentiments of the People….

According to Houston, “Every Person who has attended to the Course of our Revolution knows the Meaning of what in Words is a Paradox, that our misfortunes are our Safety.”

Houston wrote, “The Capture of Charlestown is much to be regretted when we reflect that our Soldiers will be starved and scourged into the Enemy’s Service; that the Citizens must suffer Pillagings, Conflagrations and Brutality, but it is obvious to every one that it will promote, under the Favour of Heaven, the general Cause.  It has awaked a Spirit superior to any Thing I have seen since the year 1775 and 6….”

In a 1782 sermon in Princeton, New Jersey, Rev. John Witherspoon remarked that “this impolitic oppression was the true and proper cause of the general concourse of the inhabitants of this State to the American standard, in the beginning of the year 1777, and their vigorous exertions ever since against the incursions of the enemy from New York.” 

Paul H. Smith, editor, Letters of Delegates to Congress: Vol. 15: April 1, 1780-August 31, 1780 (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1988), pages 429-430.
John Rodgers, ed., The Works of the Rev. John Witherspoon… 3 vols. (Philadelphia: William W. Woodward, 1800), 2:467.
For more on the loss of South Carolina, please consult this brief post.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

April 5

     On April 5, 1776, Captain Arthur Hill Brice, of the 7th Regiment of Foot, the Royal Fusiliers, a British prisoner in American custody, wrote from New Brunswick, New Jersey to the Continental Congress. 
      Considering his continued ill healthy, Brice requested Congress’s permission to relocate to Philadelphia to consult with a physician.  Herman Zedtwitz, a European-born American officer, recommended Brice consult Philadelphia physician Dr. Adam Khun.
     Brice assured Congress that “it is from no other motive whatever my requesting your leave to go to Philadelphia, but entirely from the advice of an able physician, as my complaints still remain with me.  Having had so great an account from Colonel Zedtwitz, of Doctor Kuhn’s knowledge, I humbly beg leave to solicit your permission in letting me go to Philadelphia.  If I am so happy as to obtain it, after getting the Doctor’s advice and instruction, and you think it necessary to move me, I shall cheerfully submit.”
On April 9, Congress “Resolved, That said Captain Brice be permitted to come to Philadelphia, for the purpose of consulting with a physician, and there await the orders of Congress.”  Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed., Journals of the Continental Congress 1774-1789: Vol. 4: January 1-June 4, 1776

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

April 4: William McDermott, Hibernian

     On April 4, 1776, William McDermott wrote to the New York Committee of Safety, “I have been a prisoner under close confinement near five weeks—for what, I am an utter stranger; therefore, shall esteem it a favour if you will be kind enough to order me before you, as I am fully conscious of my innocence of any charge against me, if any is laid before you.”
     A Committee document dated March 1776 summarized “The examination of Mr. William McDermott, who saith: He was born in Ireland; has been in America about five years; has been a Lieutenant in the Forty-Seventh Regiment; had sold his commission about eighteen month ago, and that he was bound to Rhode-Island or Boston, to get a passage home.”     On July 6, 1776, McDermott gave his parole.  News of the Declaration of Independence had not yet reached McDermott and the Committee, as McDermott acknowledged himself “made a prisoner of war by the Army of the Thirteen United Colonies in North America….”
     The July examination of McDermott included this description of the Irishman:

William McDermott, an Hibernian, aged twenty-two, about five feel six inches high, fair complexion, light eyes, and brown hair, being examined, says, that on his passage from New York (he having been for some time on board the Asia) he was cast away on board the ship Sally, on the south side of Long Island, taken and sent prisoner to New York, where he remained a prisoner till yesterday, when he was sent to this place.

     For the complete phrasing of McDermott’s parole, please visit the American Archives web site 
 of the North Illinois University Libraries.
     McDermott, “on my word and honour, and on the faith of a gentleman,” promised to go to Bedford, in Westchester County, New York and remain there “or within six miles thereof…”  The commitment was to last “during the present war with Great Britain and the said United Colonies, or until the Congress of the said United Colonies, or the Assembly, Convention, or Committee, or Council of Safety of the said Colony [New York], shall order otherwise….”   McDermott also pledged not to aid the enemies of the United Colonies, where “directly or indirectly,” until the end of “the present troubles” or until his exchange or release.
By October 1776, Major Ebenezer Lockwood reported to the New York Committee of Safety that five British prisoners of war escaped from Westchester County, “in violation of their paroles….”   Among those violating their parole was Joseph Woolcomb, Chief Mate of the ship BlueMountain Valley.  Despite of the escape of several officers who pledged their parole, the Committee learned that three prisoners remained in Westchester, including William McDermott.     
     For the committees and councils that gave thousands of Americans experience in self-government, please consult the excellent book by T. H. Breen, AmericanInsurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People (New York: Hill and Wang, 2010) and the article by Breen for The Daily Beast.  Check also the extremely helpful remarks from Matthew H. Spring, With Zeal and With Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775-1783 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010 [2010]), pages 4-5.

Monday, April 2, 2012

April 3, 1777

On April 3, 1777, British Lieutenant General Charles Corwallis forwarded to Gen. Washington British Lt. Col. William Walcott's April 2 demand for an exchange.

[New] Brunswick, New Jersey, April 3 ,1777
I inclose to you a paper which Lieutenant Colonel Walcott delivered yesterday to Lieut. Col. [Robert Hanson] Harrison, and which Lieutenant Col. Harrison did not then think proper to receive.  I am, Sir, with due respect, your most obedient humble servant,

Walcott accused Washington of a breach of faith for balking at a prisoner exchange.  After all, Walcott observed, British General Sir William Howe released about 2,200 captive American enlisted men.  Washington addressed that insinuation in an April 9, 1777 letter to Howe.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

April 2, 1777: Prisoner Exchange

On April 2, 1777, British officer Lieutenant Colonel William Walcott wrote, “I do again require and demand to be exchanged, according to the express terms of the agreement, ‘soldier for soldier,’”an agreement reached by British General Sir William Howe and American General George Washington.

Walcott remarked that Howe, “relying upon the honour and good faith of General Washington…hath, at several times, sent and delivered over to General Washington…a number of officers on their parole, and upwards of two thousand two hundred privates of the enemy [that is, American servicemen], his prisoners….” 

Walcott remarked that until Washington released an equal number of privates and officers, the released Americans were still technically prisoners of the British, a point Washington raised in his April 9 letter to Gen. Howe.   Washington characterized Walcott's letter as an 
illiberal performance 
that misstated American complaints

Norwich Packet (Norwich, Connecticut), 5 May 1777

April 1: British "Rebels"

On April 1, 1776, the Connecticut Courant (Hartford) published an essay by the pseudonymous writer “R.,”criticizing British policy.  Characterizing the British military as rebels, R. remarked upon “the precipitate evacuation of Boston by the British rebels on the 17th of March, A.D. 1776. a day ever to be remembered.”  

March 31: Invasion of RI Imminent

On March 31, 1776, Governor Nicholas Cooke of Rhode Island wrote frantic letters to both Gen. Washington and to the commander of four Continental regiments, upon news of British war ships off Newport.   

March 30: Religion in Philadelphia

On March 30, 1776, Congressman Samuel Huntington of Connecticut described Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in a letter to James Cogswell:

"On Sunday morning the 17th Inst [the 17th Instant, i.e., the 17th of this Month] my attention from my Chamber window was Suddenly called to behold a mighty Cavalcade of Plebeians marching thro' the Street with drums beating and at every Small distance they halted & gave three Huzzas.  I was apprehensive Some outrage was about to be Committed, but Soon perceived my mistaken apprehentions & that it was a Religious exercise of the Sons of Saint Patrick, it being the anniversary of that Saint the morning Exercise was ushered in with the ceremony above described."

Apparently finding this somewhat undignified and lacking solemnity, Huntington added, "However Sir Should I leave you to Judge of the Religious of this City from the above Story only; it would not be Just, there are devout pious people in this City, a number of pious & Excellent preachers, & he who does not lead a virtuous & religious life here must accuse himself.  Every man has Liberty to persue the dictates of his own Conscience."

Paul H. Smith, et al., editors, Letters of Delegates to Congress: Volume 3: January 1, 1776-May 15, 1776 (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1978), pages 464-465.

March 29: Conditional Good Wishes

On March 29, 1776, the legislature of Massachusetts appointed a Committee to greet Gen. George Washington.  On March 28, the two houses of the legislature composed an acknowledgement of Washington's public service and the evacuation of British forces from Boston on St. Patrick's Day (March 17, 1776).

The Massachusetts legislators wrote, "The Supreme Ruler of the Universe having smiled on our arms, and crowned your labours with remarkable success, we are now, without the effusion of blood we so much wished to avoid, again in the quiet possession of our capital."  The lawmakers added, "The wisdom and prudence of those movements which have obliged the enemy to abandon our Metropolis will ever be remembered by the inhabitants of this Colony."

In response, Washington wrote, "May that Being, who is powerful to save, and in whose hands is the fate of nations, look down with an eye of tender pity and compassion upon the whole of the United Colonies; may He continue to smile upon their councils and arms, and crown them with success whilst employed in the cause of virtue and of mankind...."

As he would throughout his public service, Washington offered good wishes with moral conditions.  Washington hoped that American plans and military efforts might have success only while "employed in the cause of virtue and mankind...."