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.  
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