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.
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