Tuesday, August 27, 2013

237 Years Ago Today

At the Battle of Long Island (August 27, 1776), British and Hessian forces under Sir William Howe reported taking 85 American commissioned officers prisoner, along with 6 staff and 1,006 privates.  Nine of the officers were wounded in the battle, as were 56 of the enlisted men (privates). 

The British eventually permitted most officers to take parole and find private lodgings on Long Island and transferred the privates to make-shift prisons in such confiscated buildings as sugar houses and non-Anglican churches. 

In the battle and its aftermath, British personnel in North America became notorious for several breaches of eighteenth-century military decorum. 

1)  First there was the slaughter of disarmed, wounded or otherwise overpowered men who should have been taken captive.  This remained a complaint against British forces throughout the war

2)  Secondly, British provost personnel permitted captured American enlisted men to die of starvation and unchecked contagion.  This also remained a complaint throughout America's War of Independence.  

3)  Finally, American Revolutionaries accused British and Tory personnel of desecrating American dead

Throughout the war, British and Loyalist forces were, at best, careless with the interment of dead American prisoners.  Colonel
Ethan Allen, a paroled American officer on Long Island during the winter of 1776-77, later recalled British forces dumping dead prisoners by into ditches by the cartload, and leaving them only "slightly buried."  Allen remembered Tories on burial detail "making derision, and exulting over the dead, saying, there goes another load of damned rebels." 

American dead at the battlefield on Long Island were also neglected by their victorious foe.  In his 2008 book Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War, Historian Edwin G. Burrows wrote, "Apparently, the British were unable--or unwilling--to clear the battlefield of corpses...."  In his diary for June 5, 1777, Loyalist Nicholas Cresswell described a carriage ride on Long Island through "a little town called Jamaica...."  Cresswell complained, "Our noses were now and then regaled with the stink of dead Rebels, some of them have lain unburied since last August." 

Historian Robert E. Cray, Jr. documented American prisoners who, despite disease and starvation, struggled to live long enough to return to their hometowns to be buried near their ancestors. 

The return (report) of prisoners taken in the Campaign of 1776 reported by British Commissary General of Prisoners, Massachusetts-born Tory Joshua Loring, was printed in such American newspapers as The Connecticut Courant, And Hartford Weekly Intelligencer, 21 April 1777.  For Cresswell's journal entry, please consult The Journal of Nicholas Cresswell, 1774-1777, ed. Lincoln MacVeagh (Bedford, Mass.: Applewood Press, 2007 [1924]), page 231.  Consult also Edwin G. Burrows, Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War (New York: Basic Books, 2008), pages 8-9 (quote on page 9). 

For some sense of the depth of American outrage at British disrespect for American dead, please read Robert E. Cray, Jr., "Commemorating the Prison Ship Dead: Revolutionary Memory and the Politics of Sepulture in the Early Republic, 1776-1808," The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Series, Vo. 56 (July 1999): 565-590.

Often, the British entrusted the care of these prisoners to particularly embittered Tories, American Loyalists, who were often in fact recent immigrants to the former colonies from the British Isles  The notorious Provost Marshall in charge of one prison, Captain William Cunningham, came to the colonies from Ireland just before the outbreak of hostilities. 
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