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.
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