Thursday, January 31, 2013

Gen. Richard Prescott

   On February 1, 1776, Philadelphia newspaper The Pennsylvania Evening Post reported, "Last Monday [January 29] Brigadier Gen. Prescot was removed from his apartments in the city tavern, to the new jail, by order of the Hon. Continental Congress.--It is said he was guilty of cruelly treating the prisoners taken from the Continental army in Canada, particularly Col. Allen, lately sent home to England, in irons."
   General Richard Prescott ordered Colonel Ethan Allen put in irons and sent to England to face trial for treason.  The February 1 Pennsylvania Evening Post also published Ethan Allen's letter to Prescott, written after Prescott ordered Allen clasped in irons and closely confined.  Allen chided Prescott, "On my part, I have to assure your Honor, that when I had the command, and took Capt. [William] Delaplace and Lieut. Felton [that is, Lt. Jocelyn Feltham], with the garrison of Ticonderoga, I treated them with every mark of friendship and generosity, the evidence of which is notorious even in Canada.  I have only to add, that I expect an honorable and humane treatment, as an officer of my rank and merit should have...."
   On February 1, 1776, the Continental Congress resolved "That General Prescot, who is confined a close prisoner in the gaol of Philadelphia, be allowed the attendance of his servant, and in case his health requires it, that he be allowed the attendance of a physician."  In his diary entry for February 1, Robert Smith wrote, "Gen. Prescott allowed a Servant and Physicians to see Him in Gaol, after a Proposition to allow Him the Liberty of the Hall & Yard and to see his Friends had been voted out by a small Majority."
   Robert Smith was a Pennsylvania delegate to the Continental Congress and a Scottish-trained architect.  Smith designed the "new jail," the Walnut Street Jail, mentioned by The Pennsylvania Evening Post.  During the 1777-1778 British occupation of Philadelphia, the jail was known as the Provost Jail.  The Provost Marshall, Captain William Cunningham, was already notorious for mistreating American prisoners in Boston and New York City but added to his reputation by neglecting and mistreating prisoners in Philadelphia.
   Congress informed England that Prescott might suffer whatever punishment befell Allen in England.  As mentioned in the post "Ethan Allen & Habeas Corpus," the possibility of American retaliation might have spared Ethan Allen from execution but generally did not deter British and Tory personnel from starving prisoners to death in occupied American cities.  Check the post "Duties of Humanity & Kindness" for George Washington's awareness of the possibility of reversals like the one experienced by Prescott.  For a description of Prescott's rudeness and severity to prisoners, read his angry exchange of words with Montreal merchant Thomas Walker at "Prisoner in Irons."
   Ethan Allen and Col. Benedict Arnold led the American forces that captured the British garrison at Fort Ticonderoga in 1775.  It was one of several actions for which future turncoat Benedict Arnold probably did not receive adequate recognition at the time.  
   For the quotes in paragraph three of this post, please consult Worthington Chauncey Ford, editor, Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, 34 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1904-1937), volume 4: page 107; Paul H. Smith, editor, Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789, 26 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1976-2000), volume 3: page 185.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Human Shields

Boston, January 30, 1777
     “By a Person late from Halifax, who was on board the British Pirate Renown, Capt. Banks, while she lay in this Harbour, informs, that he, with 13 New-England Men, was put on board the Boats which were ordered to attack the brave Capt. Mugford, and that the Pirates put those Sons of America in the Front of the Battle to cover themselves, whereby some of them were slain by their Friends!—Remember this Oh Americans, and let your Justice whet your Swords to revenge the innocent Blood of murdered Brethren
The Independent Chronicle and the Universal Advertiser (Boston), 30 January 1777
   James Mugford captained the schooner Franklin, part of the squadron off Boston commanded by Commodore John Manley.
Pirates derided by The Independent Chronicle were in fact the officers and men of the British Royal Navy.  Captain Francis Banks of the Royal Navy commanded the small, 50-gun ship HMS Renown.   
     Thomas Jefferson remarked that the “most afflicting” ordeal for American prisoners in British hands was coerced recruitment into British service.  Jefferson remarked that these prisoners in particular “were haunted by the horror of having, perhaps, themselves shot the ball by which a father or a brother fell.”  In the case of the Renown, however, this ordeal was forced upon the Americans firing upon British forces.   

Great Clemency

Chatham, New Jersey, January 29, 1783
   “Sir Guy Carleton has, in his great clemency, paroled near one hundred of our marine prisoners, upwards of sixty of whom came over to Elizabeth Town last Sunday [
January 26].”
The Freeman’s Journal: Or, The North-American Intelligencer (Philadelphia), 5 February 1783

   After Britain received news of the British Army’s October 19, 1781 surrender to George Washington at Yorktown, Virginia, a new ministry pursued a more conciliatory policy toward the United States.  In 1782, Parliament recognized American detainees as Prisoners of War and appointed Irish nobleman Sir Guy Carleton as commander-in-chief of British forces in North America. 
   Carleton became noted for his civility to prisoners late during the evacuation of the Continental Army from Canada in 1776, a clemency that continued after his 1782 appointment as command of British forces.  For American gratitude for French support at Yorktown and throughout the war, please consult Rev. John Witherspoon’s sermon of Thanksgiving, November 28, 1782.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Returning Prisoners "All Sick"

The ship under a flag of truce carried American prisoners from British-occupied New York City.  The prisoners brought sad news for New London, Connecticut.

New-London, January 30, 1781
In the Flag which arrived here last Thursday [that is, January 25] from New-York, came 30 American Prisoners, belonging to different parts of New-England, who are all sick, and in a distressed Situation: They left about 170 others in the Prison Ship, great Part of whom are also sick.  Another ship at New York has about 200 American Prisoners on Board.  Before these were brought from the ship 7 or 8 died every 24 Hours.  Mr. Daniel Hempsted and Mr. Ichabob Youngs, of this Town, lately died in one of these Ships.
The Connecticut Gazette (New London), 30 January 1781
For a 1781 letter reportedly from a prison ship moored off Brooklyn’s Wallabout Bay, please visit the post “The Prison Ship Jersey.”   

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

January 21, 1782: Halifax

Periodically throughout the American War of Independence, American newspapers reported on prisoner exchanges involving Americans detained by British forces in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  The January 21, 1782 issue of The Independent Ledger , and the American Advertiser (Boston) carried a report under the dateline of Salem, Massachusetts, January 17:  “Since our last [that is, since the issue of Monday, January 14] a Cartel arrived from Halifax, with upwards of 100 prisoners, many of them in a very emaciated, sickly condition.  Five of the number which came out, died on the passage.”

Monday, January 21, 2013

Worcester, January 22, 1778

   On January 22, 1778, Worcester, Massachusetts newspaper The Massachusetts Spy Or, American Oracle of Liberty reported, "The British prisoners stationed near Boston, have lately behaved more imperious and insulting than usual, taking great advantage of the lenity shewn them by our people.  Many of them have taken up the honourable employment of high way robbing, picking pockets, &c."
   The Massachusetts Spy editorialized that personnel from British General John Burgoyne's army, captured at Saratoga, appeared to have "taken large draughts of Lethe, for the commanders have taken to dancing, and the privates to robbing and deserting, the former forgetting their men, and the latter their officers; and the whole forgetting they are prisoners."
   The mistreatment of American prisoners in British custody in occupied New York City left Americans touchy about indulgences granted to British prisoners and any appearance of ingratitude from them.  For access to the database Early American Newspapers, Series I, apply for a membership with the Philadelphia Free Library.  

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


     In its January 8, 1777 issue, The Connecticut Journal of New Haven carried the following report about prisoners returning from British-occupied New York City:

   Last Wednesday [January 1, 1777], a Flag of Truce Vessel arrived at Milford, from New-York, after a tedious Passage of several days, having on board upwards of 200 American Prisoners, whose rueful Countenances too well discovered the ill Treatment they received while they were Prisoners in New-York; twenty of these unfortunate People died on the Passage, and twenty have died since they landed at Milford.


Friday, January 11, 2013

St. Lucia Prison Ship

     On January 31, 1782, Boston newspaper The Independent Chronicle and the Universal Advertiser reported, "Last week a cartel arrived at Chatham, from St. Lucia, with a number of prisoners, in a very emaciated condition."
     British forces employed the most notorious prison ships of the Revolutionary War during their 1776-1783 occupation of New York City, including the infamous prison ship Jersey.  The British also used prison ships elsewhere, like the Nancy in Savannah, Georgia and the Torbay and Pack-horse in Charleston, South Carolina.  In the West Indian island of St. Lucia, the British used the ship Peter as a prison for Americans captured by the British Navy.
     Historian Larry G. Bowman wrote, "Very little information about the Torbay, Pack-Horse, and Peter appears to have survived, but the fragments of evidence indicate they were similar in appearance and function to the more famous prison ships of New York."  Larry G. Bowman, Captive Americans: Prisoners During the American Revolution (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1976), page 42.
The Independent Chronicle's report of prisoners arriving "emaciated" from St. Lucia supports Bowman's comparison of the prison ship there to the prison ships of New York.  

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Clemency and Kindness

A report dated January 23, 1777 from Fishkill, New York relayed information about the Hessian soldiers captured by the Americans at Trenton, New Jersey and sent to Pennsylvania.

The Hessian prisoners were "greatly surprised to find themselves treated with clemency and kindness."  Most of the prisoners believed that if other German soldiers employed by Britain's King George III knew how well the prisoners were treated, the Hessians "would all desert."

The report appeared in the February 3, 1777 edition of Connecticut newspaper The Norwich Packet and the Connecticut, Massachusetts, New-Hampshire, and Rhode-Island Weekly Advertiser.     

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Concrete Propaganda

   Mao Zedong wrote, "When we capture enemy soldiers...we conduct propaganda among them, and then divide them into those who want to go and those who want to stay.  Those who want to leave are given money for their traveling expenses and set free."
   Mao explained, "This concrete propaganda immediately knocks the bottom out of the enemy propaganda that 'The Communist bandits kill everyone and anyone on sight.'"
   Brandies Historian David Hackett Fischer noted that many American Revolutionaries made a policy treating British and Hessian prisoners with kindness.  Fischer wrote, "Of 13,988 Hessian soldiers who survived the war, 3,194 (23 percent) chose to remain in America.  Others later emigrated to the New World with their families."
   Dear Syrian Rebels: There is a logic to treating prisoners with kindness.  Certainly it brings honor and credit to a cause to show magnanimity to a disarmed and vanquished foe.  On a practical side, if rebels are kind to prisoners then the enemy's job becomes more difficult; he must struggle to keep his men from joining you.
   Front Committee Chair Mao Zedong, "Report of the Jinggangshan Front Committee to the Central Committee," 25 November 1928, in Mao's Road to Power: Revolutionary Writings, 1912-1949: Volume 3: From the Jinggangshan to the Establishment of the Jiangxi Soviets, July 1927-December 1930, ed. and trans. Stuart R. Schram (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharp, 1995), page 101; David Hackett Fischer, Washington's Crossing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), page 379.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

January 8: Raid on Charlestown, Massachusetts

On the night of January 8, 1776, Major Thomas Knowlton of the 20th Connecticut Continental Infantry led a raid on Charlestown, Massachusetts.

The British burned most of Charlestown after the Battle of Bunker Hill (June 15, 1775). According to a report in the Connecticut newspaper The Norwich Packet (January 15, 1776), the American raid targeted those buildings which the British "suffered to remain unburnt in June last, for their own convenience."

In his Revolutionary War Almanac, John C. Fredriksen wrote, "In a unique twist, General William HOWE and his staff were watching a theatrical satire in Charlestown entitled The Siege of Boston, when a uniformed soldier suddenly burst in with news of the raid.  The startled audience, assuming it was part of the performance, howled in laughter until Howe ordered all his officers to their stations."

The Norwich Packet reported that Knowlton's raiders found in one house six soldiers and one woman, "all of whom except one refractory fellow, who was killed, were brought off."  The Packet included another harrowing detail from the raid:

In another of the houses, according to the information of the prisoners, lived seventeen of the enemy's carpenters.  As the woman says she went to this house, in order to borrow something, just before our men arrived; but seeing no light, and not being able to get into that part of the house where they kept she concluded they were all asleep;--and as it is very certain no one escaped from the house;--and as our men set the building on fire very suddenly, it is thought the whole seventeen perished in the flames.

Consult John C. Fredrikson, Revolutionary War Almanac (New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2006), page 463; Tony Jacques, Dictionary of Battles and Sieges: A Guide to 8,500 Battles from Antiquity through the Twenty-first Century: A-E (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2007), page 228.

The Packet account leaves the impression that Knowlton's men were unaware of the men sleeping in the building, apparently only learning of them from the prisoners after the quick action.  The Packet reported that the entire mission took less than an hour.  The chaos of the situation is suggested by the account that although the American soldiers suffered no casualties, they departed until heavy fire from British positions at Bunker Hill.