Thursday, June 27, 2013

June 27, 1778

     After Congressman Robert Morris received a June 19, 1778 letter on the treatment of American prisoners in the hands of the British Army and Navy, the Continental Congress resolved on June 27, “That the Board of War and Marine Committee be…respectively directed to cause the land and sea prisoners in the power of these states to be forthwith treated, in all respects, as near as may be, in such manner as the American land and sea prisoners in the power of the enemy are, or shall, from time to time, be treated; provided, that nothing contained in this resolution shall be construed to extend so far as to prevent an exchange of prisoners upon fair and equitable principles.”
     Retaliation was part of the customary laws of war in the eighteenth century.  American Revolutionaries believed threats of retaliation were effecting to coercing British military personnel to respect the rights of American prisoners.  These threats included proposals to restrict the rations of British prisoners to match what Americans received on the prison ships and in the prisons of British-occupied New York City. 
     Despite the American belief, the Continental Congress appointed compassionate commissaries to attend the needs of enemy prisoners, commissaries who were often as squeamish about retaliation as the members of Congress.  Historian Edwin G. Burrows wrote that the Continental Congress occasionally ordered commissary personnel to implement retaliation, “But it also let the commissaries decide when to relent, which they usually did rather quickly.”  
     The American confidence in retaliation was misplaced.  Considering the suffering of Americans confined to prison ships, Jesuit Historian Charles Henry Metzger wrote, “Protests and appeals, even reprisal, proved ineffective.  Correspondence was of no avail.  And meanwhile, defenseless men, even the sick, the dying, and the dead, bore the full brunt of outrageous treatment.” 
     Please consult Edwin G. Burrows, Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War (New York: Basic Books, 2008), page 193; Charles H. Metzger, The Prisoner in the American Revolution (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1971), page 288; Worthington Chauncey Ford, editor, Journals of the Continental Congress 1774-1789: Volume 11: May 2-September 1, 1778 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1908), page 723.  As noted in the post here, the threat of retaliation deterred the British from executing a famous office like Ethan Allen, but the possibility of American retaliation did not prevent British and Tory personnel from letting thousands of captive American enlisted men die of starvation and unchecked disease in occupied cities like New York. 
     In 1776, the Marine Committee issued repeated orders for the humane treatment of American prisoners.  Consider, for instance, the Marine Committee’s July 11 message to the Eastern Navy Board; their August 22 instructions to Commodore Ezek Hopkins; their August 23 orders to Lieutenant John Baldwin; and their December 10 message to Captain Elisha Hinman.  

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Thank You, Nova Scotia!

     On June 19, 1777, Boston, Massachusetts newspaper The Independent Chronicle and the Universal Advertiser reported news from Nova Scotia.  The editor did capitalize as many words as a modern editor might. 
     The Independent Chronicle reported, “On Sunday last [that is, on June 15, 1777], a person arrived in this town from Halifax, who left it the 29th of May, from whom we have collected the following authentic Advices….That the American prisoners, to the number of 200, confined on board the lord stanley prison-ship, in that harbor, are treated in the most barbarous and inhuman manner possible; and was it not for the kind interpositions of some of the inhabitants of Halifax, the last winter, in supplying them with necessaries, numbers of them must inevitably have perished, they having but 4 british soldiers allowance for 6 of them (poor allowance indeed) and that thrown to them, as if to dogs….”
     Commanders in the British Navy apparently made no distinction between American civilians captured at sea and American sailors captured in service.  The Independent Chronicle reported that “our navy-men and merchantmen are considered on an equality of footing, and are treated more like savages than christians, when they fall into the hands of perjured George’s emissaries.” 
     The suffering of Americans in prison ships off Nova Scotia was not the fault of the Canadian people.  The blame must fall heavily on Mariot Arbuthnot, the British naval commissioner and the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia.  Historian Edwin G. Burrows wrote, “During his…posting at Halifax, Arbuthnot tolerated conditions on the prison ships Bellona and Lord Stanley that allegedly dismayed even British observers….”  Consult Edwin G. Burrows, Forgotten Patriots: The UntoldStory of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War (New York: Basic Books, 2008), page 304note22.
     For another 1777 report on American prisoners in Halifax, please consult the post here.  Please also consider reports of prisoners in Halifax from 1778 and 1782.  Learn more about Arbuthnot at the post here.  

Saturday, June 1, 2013

June 1779: Barbarous Treatment

   On Thursday or Friday in the second week of June 1779, about 200 American prisoners arrived in Elizabeth, New Jersey after their release from British Naval custody in occupied New York City.  Under the dateline of Philadelphia, June 19, 1779, Philadelphia newspaper The Pennsylvania Packet or General Advertiser reported, “On Friday the 10th inst. about 200 marine prisoners, exchanged, were landed at Elizabeth-Town from the prison ships in the harbour of New-York; several of them have since come to town.” 
     Pennsylvania Packet editor John Dunlap had the date wrong.  June 10, 1779 was a Thursday.  Friday was the 11th not the 10th “instant.” 
     The prisoners were reportedly in the same condition as most other prisoners released by British forces in New York.  The editors of The Pennsylvania Packet  informed the public that the prisoners “are generally reduced and emaciated, by barbarous treatment.”
     From the prisoners, the editors and their readers learned of the miserable conditions on prison ships:  “Many, who came out of captivity at the same time, are so sickly and weak, as to be unable to travel.  These sufferers say, that the ship to which they were confined, was greatly crouded, sick and healthy together, insomuch, that at night when they were shut under deck, they were almost suffocated.  In this horrid situation, no wonder, six or seven died daily.  Between 3 and 400 prisoners remained, of which about one half are French.”
     Crowding the well along with those sick with contagious diseases like smallpox and dysentery was a frequent complaint from prisoners confined in British occupied American cities like Charleston and New York.  British authorities ensured better conditions for prisoners in England.  Please check Philip Ranlet, “In the Hands of the British: The Treatment of American POWs During the war of Independence, The Historian Volume 62 (June 2000): 731-758; Jesse Lemisch, “Listening to the ‘Inarticulate:’ William Widger’s Dream and the Loyalties of American Revolutionary Seamen in British Prisons,” 9-13; Francis D. Cogliano, American Maritime Prisoners in the Revolutionary War: The Captivity of William Russell (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2001), 151-158; and Sheldon S. Coehn, Yankee Sailors in British Gaols: Prisoners of War at Forton and Mill, 1777-1783 (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1995).
      From accounts of French prisoners suffering in British custody in New York, please check here and here.  For accounts of captive Americans reduced by starvation to mere skeletons, please consult the reference in the last paragraph at this post.