Sunday, February 3, 2013

February 4: Prisoners at Reading, PA

     February 4, 1776, the Committee of Correspondence of Reading, Pennsylvania wrote to the Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia.  The Committee reported they received several English soldiers captured in Canada, “with their wives and children.”
     The prisoners arrived in Reading “without any previous notice” and “without any person attending them to supply them,” but the Committee understood “it was the pleasure of Congress the said soldiers should be quartered here” so they immediately appointed Henry Hollar, a member of the Committee, to provide for the prisoners.  The Committee noted that Hollar secured housing, firewood and provisions for the prisoners, “who must have otherwise suffered much at this severe season.” 
     The Committee sent an express rider to Congress for instructions on the quality of provisions allowed for the prisoners.  The Committee of Reading added, “As Mr. Hollar has been an active member of this Committee, and is a very suitable person, we beg leave to recommend him to be continued as Commissary for the soldiers stationed here.”  Mark Bird, Chairman of the Reading Committee of Correspondence, signed the message to the Congress. 
     For an excellent description of prisoners of war in Reading, Pennsylvania throughout the Revolutionary War, please consult Laura L. Becker, “Prisoners of War in the American Revolution: A Community Perspective,” Military Affairs volume 46 (December 1982): pages 169-173.  
     Major General Thomas Gage, commander of British military forces operating within and against the United Colonies, wrote in August 1775“...I understand they make war like savages, making captives of women and children.  Separating these soldiers from their families would have been inhumane, especially to the soldiers themselves.  Women proved invaluable supports for men and lads in both the American and British armies.  Writing for the Journal of the American Revolution, independent researcher Don, N. Hagist estimates about 20% of British soldiers were accompanied by their wives and children.  
     In her work, Women in the United States Military: An Annotated Bibliography, Judith Bellafaire writes this in the summary of Mayer's Belonging to the Army“It was not unusual or unwelcome for women to accompany their soldier husbands on military campaigns during the eighteenth century when armies had no [well-]organized food or medical services....  Soldiers on campaign appreciated the hot food and clean clothes women provided, and commanders realized that these were not trivial amenities but often influenced the overall health of the troops.  The American Army put women on the payroll as cooks, laundresses, seamstresses, and nurses.
     The American Army (that is, the Continental Army) was not slower to realize this.  David Hackett Fischer writes that the Continental Army suffered for having few women in their camps in 1775 and 1776.  According to Fischer, 
“Several observers attributed the filthy appearance of the army at Boston and New York and its miserable camp sanitation and very high rates of illness to the absence of women.
See David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), pages 383-385, who cites Walter Hart Blumenthal, Women Camp Followers of the American Revolution (Philadelphia: George S. MacManus Company, 1952) and Holly A. Mayer, Belonging to the Army: Camp Followers and Community During the American Revolution (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996).  For the quote from Bellafaire, please consult Judith Bellafaire, Women in the United States Military: An Annotated Bibliography (New York: Routledge, 2011), page 15.  For the Fischer quote, please consult Fischer, Washington's Crossing, page 384.  Please also visit Don N. Hagist, "Top 10 Facts About British Soldiers," Journal of the American Revolution (February 2013), [accessed 6 February 2013].
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