Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Brave Are Always Humane

In his 1753-54 novel, The History of Sir Charles Grandison: In a Series of Letters Published from the Originals…, English novelist Samuel Richardson has a character write, “The brave are always humane.”
     The novel either influenced American humanity to prisoners, or informed how they defended kind treatment.  On February 8, 1777, Boston newspaper The Independent Chronicle and the Universal Advertiser printed an account of British Col. Richard Prescott repeatedly insulting and striking an American prisoner, despite the compliance of the prisoner and the objection of Lord Percy (Lt. Gen. Hugh Percy).  The Independent Chronicle editorialized, “We shall leave it to our readers, to make their own reflections on this treatment, and to determine from it, the character of Col. Prescot, and whether it does not indicate him to be a blustering coward; for, according to an established maxim, the brave are always generous, and treat with humanity those, whom the fortune of war has made their prisoners.”
     In his Memoirs of the American War, Major General William Heath recounted the fate of the American soldiers who became prisoners after the surrender of Fort Washington (November 16, 1776).  Heath wrote, “The prisoners were marched to New York; where, being crowded in prisons and sugar houses…they fell sick, and daily died in a most shocking manner.”
     Heath opined, “O ye officers of the provost! to whatever nation or people you belong, when the unfortunate of your fellow-men are thus committed to your charge, clothe yourselves with humanity, and soothe distress as far as in your power; for by this will you secure a better reward than your present wages.”
     Heath advised, “And you who have the honour to command armies, when your victories have filled provosts and prisons, think it not beneath you to visit the prison, that with your own eyes you may see the state of your prisoners: for such visits, the great CAPTAIN OF YOUR SALVATION hath said, shall be considered as made to Himself; while it also gives you a name among men closely allied to that of the conqueror.  The truly brave are always humane.”
   
     Heath was referencing the 25th chapter of the Gospel According to Matthew, wherein Jesus describes a Judgment Day when the messianic “King” will reject those who never visited him when he was a prisoner.  “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty…or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’” (Matthew 25:44-45, New International Version)

     In the early-twenty-first century, popular culture had a less praiseworthy effect in how Americans discussed the treatment of prisoners.  Gary Solis, who designed and taught the Law of War for Commanders curriculum for the US Military Academy at West Point lamented that his young students constantly referenced Jack Bauer, a fictional character from the Fox Network show 24.  Solis insisted, “Jack Bauer is a criminal.  In real life, he would be prosecuted.” 
     Interrogators for the FBI and the military and even many at the CIA insist that interrogation requires courteous, respectful treatment of prisoners.  Expert interrogator Col. Stuart Herrington also realized the negative influence of 24 after teaching “an auditorium of young Army interrogators” in 2006.  In a 2007 Op-Ed for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette complaining that “our young soldiers  take away lessons from today’s pop culture,” Herrington wrote, “Self-styled ‘experts’ on interrogation frequently city the ‘ticking bomb scenario’ (featured on shows like ‘24’) to justy the Jack Bauer-like tormenting of a prisoner.”  Herrington rejected the ticking time bomb scenario as “a Hollywood construct” that the colonel never encountered in three decades of military interrogation. 
     In November 2006, US Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, dean of West Point, brought three expert interrogators from the military and FBI, along with human rights groups, to visit Joel Surnow, the creator of 24.  The magazine New Yorker Finnegan told the producers that 24 was “hurting efforts to train recruits in effective interrogation techniques and is damaging the image of the U.S. around the world.”  

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Memorial Day

   Colonel Ethan Allen, a captured American officer granted parole in British-occupied New York City in the winter of 1776-77, visited the American privates detained in the city.  The British confiscated most of the cities houses of worship to serve as prisons that winter. 
   Allen met prisoners dying of starvation, reduced to mere skeletons.  By such deprivation, British officers hoped to coerce the enlistment of American prisoners.  In his 1779 Narrative, Allen recalled, “The integrity of these suffering prisoners is hardly credible.  Many hundreds, I am confident, submitted to death, rather to enlist in the British service, which, I am informed, they most generally were pressed to do.”
   For more information, consult sources listed here.  For the compassion shown by the British public, consult the posts here.  May the reflection occasion by Memorial Day in the United States include a thought for those who suffered and perished while prisoners or from deprivation and sickness endured in captivity.  

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Boston, May 29, 1780

     Britain had no military draft during the Revolutionary War, a war unpopular with many Britons.  Desperate for recruits for the Army and Navy, the British tried to coerce American Prisoners of War to enter the British service.  On May 29, 1780, Massachusetts newspaper The Boston Gazette, And The Country Journal reported news of coerced enlistment of prisoners in the British West Indies.  Readers in the United States should again remember that “goal” was a common term for jail, and still is in British usage:

Captain Joseph Atkins of Newbury-Port, bound from Martineco [Martinique] to Newbury, was taken the 24
th of December last, by the Sterling-Castle, of 64 guns, Robert Carket, Commander Capt Atkins informs, that there were about 100 American Prisoners taken out of Barbadoes Goal, and distributed on board the different Men of War—That on board the Sterling-Castle they were asked if they would enter, and they to a Man said they would they would not; they had Time given them to think of entering ‘till the next Morning, when being call’d on again, they still’d refus’d; the first who refus’d, as tied up, and receiv’d two dozen; the second, third and fourth the same, and then turn’d over to the boatswain to do duty: The fifth seeing it in vain to persist, comply’d as likewise did the rest, to the number of about ten.

    Presumably, the five American prisoners who “receiv’d two dozen” specifically received two dozen strokes of the lash.  In British seaports, the Royal Navy employed press gangs to force English civilian mariners into wartime service, sparking riots in England’s ports. 
     For more on British efforts to force American POWs to fight against their own independence, consult articles by Historian Philip Ranlet, including “In the Hands of the British: The Treatmentof American POWs during the War of Independence,” Historian, vol. 62 (summer 2000): 731-757.  For English resistance to the press gangs, please consult Malcolm Archibald, Sixpence for the Wind: A Knot of Nautical Folklore (Dunbeath, Scotland, UK: Whittles Publishing, 1999), page 75; and Frank Howley, Slavers, Traders and Privateers: Liverpool, the African Trade and Revolution, 1773-1808 (Birkenhead, UK: Countyvise, 2008), page 56.  

Monday, May 20, 2013

May 21, 1783

May 21 marked two major anniversaries for prisoners of war during the American War of Independence (1775-1783).  On May 21, 1776, the Continental Congress resolved that captives taken by land or sea should be “treated as prisoners of war, but with humanity….”

On May 21, 1783, after Great Britain and the United States reached a preliminary peace agreement, U.S. Secretary of War Benjamin Lincoln issued the following orders:

                         WAR-OFFICE, May 21, 1783.
     All officers holding commissions under the United States of America, who have been prisoners of war to Great-Britain, are hereby informed that they are absolved from their paroles.
                                        B. Lincoln.
     The printers in the several states are requested to insert this notification in their Gazettes.



The above notice appeared in, among other papers, The New Jersey Gazette (Trenton), 18 June 1783.  Starting in 1776, British commanders extended the right of parole to captive American officers.  The wartime custom of parole permitted captured officers to enjoy freedom of movement within an occupied territory if the officers gave their word not to abscond.  In many cases, captured officers could return to their own country, provided they promised to refrain from their country’s war effort until officially notified of their exchange. 

Officers on parole lived with some uncertainty.  Even if they returned to their homes and families, prisoners of war on parole remained answerable to recall by the enemy.  If the British requested that a paroled American officer return to British held territory, honor and the customs of war obliged such an officer to return.  With publication of this notice, Secretary Lincoln informed paroled American officers  they were released from the commitments of their parole agreements.    

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Infamous Murphy

     Privateers encountered risks even after a successful cruise.  After capturing an enemy ship, or several enemy ships, the captain of a privateer had to divide his crewmen among the captured prizes.  As the number of prisoners on a privateer increased, and the number of crewmen decreased, the commander could face a prisoner insurrection.  The Connecticut privateer sloop Eagle, captained by Edward Conkling, encountered such misfortune on Sunday, May 9, 1779. 
     Conkling and the Eagle were based in New London, Connecticut.  In the May 13, 1779 issue of the local paper, The Connecticut Gazette; And The General Advertiser, New London residents read this report with a dateline of New London, May 11,

Sunday last, the Privateer Sloop Eagle, Capt. Edward Conkling, then cruizing off Point-Judith, took six Sail of Vessels, chiefly small, except one of them, which was loaded with West-Indian Good.—The manning so many Vessels, reduced the Crew on Board the Privateer to 15, whilst the Number of Prisoners on Board was 16; who taking Advantage of this Circumstance in their Favour, fell upon, and murdered the whole of the Sloop’s Crew, except two Boys; many of them were mangled in a most savage Manner after they had surrendered.  

   After successfully commandeering the Eagle, the British prisoners retook one of the prize ships as well.  The privateers Hancock and Beaver regained the prize, however, and sent it and the five other prize ships to Stonington, Connecticut.  American crewmen assigned to the prize probably heard accounts of the prisoner mutiny from the British seafarers who briefly retook the prize ship. 
     The editors of The Connecticut Gazette noted, “Capt. Conkling’s Death is much regretted by all that knew him.  He was a humane and worthy Man, and a brave Officer.” 
     On May 14, two mariners arrived in Providence, Rhode Island with a slightly different account of the Eagle.  On May 15, The Providence Gazette; And Country Journal reported, “Yesterday arrived here two Men, belonging to a Vessel from Guadaloupe bound to Boston, which had been captured by the Enemy, and retaken by the Eagle Privateer, of New-London, late commanded by Capt. Conkling.”  The two men returning from Guadeloupe communicated a slightly different account the Eagle’s last few days. 
     The Providence Gazette reported of the two returnees, “They inform, that the Eagle had taken and manned seven Prizes, all which are safe arrived in Port, and that her Crew having been reduced to 13 Men and Boys, with 17 Prisoners on board, the latter rose and took Possession of the Vessel on Sunday Evening last, murdered Capt. Conkling and all his Crew, except the Doctor and 3 Boys, and carried the Privateer into New-York.” 
     Both the returnees in New London and the two who arrived in Providence probably acquired their information from British personnel who briefly retook a British ship captured by the Eagle.  The Eagle and at least some of her prizes probably traveled in a tight convoy, facilitating the brief recapture of one ship by the prisoners-turned-mutineers.  Although the number of prizes is different, and the number of crewmen left on the Eagle and the number of crew spared by the mutineers, both accounts agree that seventeen British prisoners were on the Eagle at the time of the mutiny.
     Both accounts also agree the mutineers committed wanton slaughter.  The Connecticut Gazette reported that the mutineers “mangled” the victims “after they had surrendered.”  Based on information from two returnees, The Providence Gazette reported the mutineers “murdered” their victims, implying the deaths were not the result of military engagement. 
      In its June 3 issue, The Connecticut Gazette named the man who purportedly murdered Capt. Conkling.  The Connecticut Gazette reported, “We have certain Advice by several Persons from New-York, That the Sloop Eagle, late commanded by the brave but unfortunate Capt. Conkling, was lately blown up at New York by Means of a Boy’s snapping a Pistol among some Powder, which communicated to the Magazine.  It is said, that a Number of Persons were in the Vessel at the Time, who lost their Lives, among them the infamous Murphy who murdered Capt. Conkling.”
     For more on the Connecticut Privateer Sloop Eagle, please visit the online database American War of Independence—at Sea.  
Whether the captured Eagle crewmen spared by their captors were sent to New York City or Newport, the ordeal of a prison ship probably awaited them.  In New York, British Navy commanders operated prison ships like the notorious Jersey.  Occupying Newport from December 1776 to October 1779, British forces operated the prison ship Lord Sandwich in that harbor.  For mention of the prison ship Sandwich, please check Ralph E. Carpenter, The Arts and Crafts of Newport, Rhode Island, 1640-1820 (Newport, 1954), page 17.
     For the series of reversals experienced by the American brigantine Andrea Doria, please consult the posts "Reversals" and "James Josiah."  The Andrea Doria captured a transport ship carrying Scottish Highland troops in the British service.  The Highlanders overtook the Andrea Doria, but two American ships captained by the brothers James Barron and Richard Barron recaptured the Scots.  The Convention of Virginia resolved that the Scottish Highland prisoners should be "well used" and thereby "reconciled to the country."  For the Highlanders' changing fortunes at sea, please check the post here.  For Virginia's resolution to treat the prisoners of war humanely, please consult the post here.   

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Denial: It Never Happened, But It Was Your Fault

  The 16 May 1778 issue of The Pennsylvania Ledger: Or the Philadelphia Market-Day Advertiser carried an essay by a man who identified himself only as “A British Officer.”  The British Army occupied Philadelphia, Pennsylvania until June 18, 1778. 
  The British officer at once denied and admitted horrendous atrocities.  Addressing the people of America, the British officer wrote, “We know that your scribblers have been lavish of their scurrilous abuse, in loading us with every imputation in humanity and cruelty, imputations equally false and scandalous….  Calamity and horror are inseparable and unavoidable companions of a civil war.  We wish it were possible to prevent them.” 
  The officer added, “Your leaders charge the war with all its calamities to our account, because they wish to inflame you…with such sentiments as may prompt you to persevere in sacrificing your peace and safety to support their usurpation.” 
  In other words, the horrors Americans suffer never really happened, but they are entirely your own fault. 
  Like many Britons opposed to what they considered “rebellion” by the Americans, the officer considered the conflict a civil war within the British realm, not a contest between two equal nations.  As a result, such Britons thought of the Americans as rebels, illegal combatants without any rights.
  
For more on Americans as illegal combatants, please check the post here.  For a modern historian who claims that American prisoners did not suffer so terribly, but their terrible suffering was totally unavoidable, please consult the book Captives: Britain, Empire, and the World, 1600-1850, by Linda Colley.  
 

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Tarnished with Cruelty

   In May 1777, British-born preacher William Gordon informed Massachusetts newspapers of letters he received from a friend in The Netherlands.  Gordon request the publication of the message as a reliable method of letting his European friend know that Gordon received the letter.  The letter appeared in the May 8, 1777 issue of the Boston newspaper, The Independent Chronicle and the Universal Advertiser.     
     The Dutchman was getting the English papers with their accounts of American affairs.  The publication of a Scottish officer’s account of the Battle of Long Island (August 27, 1776) caused shock and outrage in England and in Holland.  In a letter intercepted and published by the Americans, the Scot described Highland Scottish troops and mercenary German soldiers killing American soldiers after they were outnumbered and overpowered. 
     Rev. Gordon’s Dutch friend wrote, “I am sorry to find that the British arms are tarnished with acts of horrid cruelty, on account of the number of provincials said to have been killed in cool blood, after the action.  The charge is boldly and repeatedly advanced in the English papers, by the American partisans, and, instead of being denied by their opponents, is acknowledged and placed to the score of the Scotch and Hessians, from a report they had heard, that the Americans, if successful, had determined to give no quarters to them—a poor come off, indeed.
     British supporters of the American cause condemned the alleged cruelty of the Hessians and Scottish Highlanders at the Battle of Long Island.  In the London Craftsman Or Say Weekly Journal, a Briton condemned “the barbarity” of “Hessians and German troops, abetted by the Scots.”  Writing as “An Unbiased Briton,” the pro-American partisan described American soldiers, “Who, after they had laid down their arms, and submitted to be taken prisoners…were shewn no quarters, and near two thousand were most unnaturally and inhumanly put to death by avaricious foreign mercenaries….” The Briton's estimate of deaths was rather high, but not inconsistent with contemporary estimates.  Historian 
Edwin G. Burrows suggested that between 200 and 300 Americans died at the Battle of Long Island, but contemporary observers both British and American estimated that between 1000 ad 3000 Americans died, most of them after the actual fighting.   

     For the “Unbiased Briton,” the “victory” at Long Island raised serious moral questions: “What glory can there be in such a conquest?  Can a man say he has acquired honour by slaying a helpless, defenceless man?”  On March 6, 1777,The Independent Chronicle and the Universal Advertiser reprinted the pro-American column from the Craftsman
     For more information on British supporters of American independence, please consult Sheldon S. Cohen, British Supporters of the American Revolution, 1775-1783: The Role of the “Middling Level” Activists (Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press, 2004).  For the importance of British sympathy for American prisoners detained in Britain, please consult the post “Britain as a Nation,” as well as the book by University of Edinburgh lecturer Francis D. Cogliano, American Maritime Prisoners in the Revolutionary War: The Captivity of William Russell (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2001), pages 153-161. 
     For the conflicting estimates of Long Island casualties, check both 
Edwin G. Burrows, “Kings County,” in The Other New York: The American Revolution beyond New York City, 1763-1787, ed. Eugene R. Fingerhut and Joseph S. Tiedemann (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005), pages 29 and 39note25; and Edwin G. Burrows, Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War (New York: Basic Books, 2008), pages 8-9.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Entertaining POWs


WAR-OFFICE, May 1, 1777.  Whereas several prisoners of war and deserters from the enemy are employed and entertained by sundry inhabitants of this city, contrary to the repeated orders; every person now employing or entertaining prisoners of war or deserters, are required to give immediate notice thereof to the Board of War, or the Town Major.  Any person hereafter entertaining a prisoner of deserter from the enemy, without first obtaining leave from the Board of War, shall be considered as concealing the enemies of the states.             RICHARD PETERS, Secretary 
The Pennsylvania Evening Post (Philadelphia), 1 May 1777


Five delegates to the Continental Congress comprised the Board of War, with Richard Peters serving as their secretary.  In this pronouncement, the Board of War addressed the issue of British and Hessian deserters behind American lines without the knowledge of the Board of War or the Continental Congress, as well as Prisoners of War taking employment without American authorities knowing of the prisoners’ whereabouts. 

Work on American farms, typically with the knowledge of local and Continental authorities, often brought POWs into intimate contact with American civilians.  Although the exact number is not certain, probably a good number of Hessian and British Prisoners of War married American women and remained in the United States after Britain recognized American independence in 1783.

For more on the employment of Hessian and British POWs in American shops and farms, please consult Robert Leckie, George Washington’s War: The Saga of the American Revolution (New York: HarperCollins, 1992); Laura L. Becker, “Prisoners of War in the American Revolution: A Community Perspective,” Military Affairs vol. 46 (December 1982): 169-173; Richard Sampson, Escape in America: The British Convention Prisoners, 1777-1783 (Chippenham, Wiltshire, UK: Picton Pub., 1995).

For an account of Thomas Jefferson's dinner parties with a Hessian officer and his family, please consult Willard Sterne Randall, Thomas Jefferson: A Life (New York: H. Holt, 1993), 307-308.  Randall wrote that Jefferson and his family welcomed the "cultivated company" of Hessian officers.  Check Randall, Thomas Jefferson: A Life, page 308.