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.  
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