Tuesday, December 25, 2012

December 26, 1776: Retaliation?

By December 1776, the British had over 4,000 American enlisted men as prisoners in occupied New York City.  In December and in January 1777, newspapers around America published an "Extract of a Letter from a Prisoner in New-York to a Gentleman in New-London, Connecticut, dated 26th December, 1776"

The distress of the prisoners cannot be communicated by words.  Twenty or thirty die every day.  They lie in heaps unburied.  What numbers of my countrymen have died by cold and hunger, perished for want of the common necessaries of life!  I have seen it.  This, sir, is the boasted British clemency!  I myself had well-nigh perished under it.  The New-England people can have no idea of such barbarous policy.  Nothing can stop such treatment but retaliation.  I ever despise private revenge, but that of the publick must be in this case just and necessary.  

The writer's faith in retaliation was ill-founded, especially in the case of Americans held by British Army and Navy personnel in occupied cities like New York.  Jesuit historian Charles H. Metzger wrote of the suffering on prison ships, "Protests and appeals, even reprisal, proved ineffectual.  Correspondence was of no avail.  And meanwhile, defenseless men, even the sick, the dying, and the dead, bore the full brunt of outrageous treatment."  Metzger, The Prisoner in the American Revolution (Chicago: Loyola University  Press, 1971), page 288.

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