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.    

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