Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Practice of Humanity

On December 10, 1776, the Marine Committee of the Continental Congress commissioned Elisha Hinman to conduct a cruise of two weeks to six months, targeting supply ships bound for British-occupied New York City.

The Marine Committee added, "We are persuaded it is not necessary to recommend to you the practice of humanity to those whom the fortune of war may make your prisoners."  The Marine Committee often recommended kindness toward prisoners.  

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Gentleness, and Humanity

In December 1776, Congressman George Walton of Georgia wrote to Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, "Our soldiers...taken prisoners by the enemy, are closely imprisoned in New-York...plundered of the better part of a most scanty apparel; and suffered to remain in that condition at this most inclement season."

Walton added, "If we turn our eyes to those who have fallen into our hands, we shall find them free from almost the forms of restraint; fed on the fat of the land, in full possession of their all and quartered in our best barracks.  This is lenity, gentleness, and humanity: but our enemies call it timidity."

For frustration on perceived ingratitude, and how not every enemy prisoners was ungrateful, please read this post about 1779.  George Walton to Richard Henry Lee, Philadelphia, 30 December 1776, in Paul H. Smith, ed., Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789: Volume 5: August 16-December 31, 1776 (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1979), page 707.  For more on the British military occupation of New York, please visit the entry "2000 Corpses."  

Monday, November 26, 2012

December 1: Mordecai Sheftall

On December 1, 1780, on a motion from the Delegates from the State of Georgia, the Continental Congress resolved on to pay $20,000 to Mordecai Sheftall.  The Congressional committee that investigated Sheftall's claims determined "there is a considerable sum due him," but because he had "long been a prisoner," Sheftall "cannot...produce the necessary vouchers" to establish his claims.

Historian Michael Feldberg wrote that the British captured Mordecai Sheftall and his fifteen-year-old son Sheftall Sheftall in December 1778, as the father and son fought to defend Savannah from invading British forces.

Feldberg wrote, "The British interrogated the Sheftalls under great duress, depriving them of food for two days....  Refusing to provide information...father and son were transferred to a dank prison ship, the Nancy, where the British deliberately offered Mordecai no meat other than pork, which he rejected."  As an observant Jew, Mordecai abstained from eating pork.  

Gaillard Hunt, editor, Journals of the Continental Congress 1774-1789: Volume 18: September 7-December 29, 1780 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1910), pages 1112-1113; Michael Feldberg, Blessings of Freedom: Chapters in American Jewish History (Hoboken, New Jersey: Ktav Publishing House, Inc., for The American Jewish Historical Society, 2002), page 37.  For the Patriotic activism of many Jewish-Americans in Savannah, Georgia, please consult Eli Faber, A Time for Planting: The First Migration, 1654-1820, vol. 1 of The Jewish People in America, Henry L. Feingold, general editor (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), pages 102-103; and William Pencak, Jews & Gentile in Early America, 1654-1800 (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2008 [2005]), pages 162-169.

For the dangers of raw pork and an account of British captors giving raw pork to American military prisoners, causing the death of one prisoner, please check the post here.   For prison ships in Savannah as well as occupied New York City, please consult Philip Ranlet, "In the Hands of the British: The Treatment of American POWs during the War of Independence," Historian vol. 62 (Summer 2000): 731-757.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Britain as a Nation

On October 21, 1779, Boston newspaper The Independent Chronicle and the Universal Advertiser reported that a committee in London was continuing its work to collect donations for the relief of American prisoners in England.  The Independent Chronicle editorialized, "While Britain as a nation, has carried on the war in America with the greatest inhumanity, it ought to be acknowledged that many individuals have exhibited a compassion and liberality to our countrymen that does honour to human nature."

On November 2, 1778, The Independent Ledger, and the American Advertiser, also a Boston newspaper, opined, "There are, no doubt, many instances of humanity and generosity in those who belong to that country, and many Americans have been ready to acknowledge it with gratitude.  At the same time truth obliges us to declare, that we have found haughtiness and cruelty the general characteristics of our enemies."

Historian Francis D. Cogliano, of the University of Edinburgh, explained that the English public and English civilian authorities established humane and relatively safe conditions for prisoners in England.  The sentiments of the English public and the niceties of English law carried little weight with British military commanders and Tory personnel in occupied North America.  Please consult Francis D. Cogliano, American Maritime Prisoners in the Revolutionary War: The Captivity of William Russell (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2001), pages 153-161.  For more on the Committee for the Relief of American Prisoners, please visit the post here

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Number of American Prisoners, 1776

In his "Return of prisoners taken during the campaign, 1776," Tory Joshua Loring, serving the British as commissary general of prisoners, reported the British captured 304 American officers, 25 staff, and 4,101 privates.  British commander General Sir William Howe enclosed the return in a 3 December 1776 letter to Lord George Germain.

This return included men and officers captured in engagements like the Battle of Fort Washington (16 November 1776) on Staten Island and the Battle of Long Island (27 August 1776), which the British  called the Battle of Brooklyn.  This return did not include the officers, men and lads captured on privateers commissioned by the states or ships belonging to the Continental Navy.

The New-York Gazette; and the Weekly Mercury, a newspaper in British-occupied New York City, published Loring's return with an extract of Howe's letter to Germain on 17 March 1777.  Check the Early American Newspaper database at the Philadelphia Free Library web site.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

To Harass The Prisoners

The Boston-Gazette, and The Country Journal, 1 November 1779
“On Thursday [October 28, 1779] arrived here a cartel ship of the enemy’s from New-York, in seven days with 238 Americans, who have been in captivity several months, and have been used very inhumanly; though much better treatment have they experienced since our ally’s fleet arrived in these seas….”

Americans learned of temporary improvements in the treatment of prisoners after American victories, like the Battle of Princeton (3 January 1777).  In this report from Boston, the writer suggests that the French entry into the war in support of American independence improved conditions for American prisoners in British custody.  In theory, the prospect of more Britons becoming prisoners prompted the British to show more concern for Americans, at least temporarily.

According to the Boston-Gazette report, most of the 238 prisoners were not New Englanders.  Even though about two cartels of British prisoners awaiting exchange for New Englanders, the British in New York chose Americans from more distant regions to release in the New England port, "
in order the more effectually to harass them."  Most of the prisoners would have been closer to home if the British released them in New Jersey, instead of Massachusetts.

For reports that prisoner treatment apparently improved after the capitulation of the British Army under General John Burgoyne at Saratoga, New York, please consult Jesuit Historian Charles H. Metzger, The Prisoner in the American Revolution (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1971), page 152.  

Friday, November 2, 2012

November 3, 1777

Norwich, Connecticut, November 3, 1777
  Mr. Harry Clinton, chief Commander in the late Excursion up the North River, wantonly committed Depredations all along upon the Confines of the River as he went...
The Boston-Gazette, and The Country Journal, 17 November 1777