Friday, October 18, 2013

October 28 1779

     On Monday, November 1, 1779, two Boston newspapers reported the arrival of 238 American prisoners of war from British-occupied New York City.  The Independent Ledger, and the American Advertiser and The Boston Gazette, And The Country Journal reported a British exchange ship arrived in Massachusetts on Thursday, October 28.  The prisoners' voyage from New York to Boston lasted seven days.
     The prisoners "have been in captivity several months, and have been used very inhumanly" by Tory and British captors.  American successes in Georgia and possible fear of reprisals, however, "contributed greatly to abate their inhumanity."
     Most of the prisoners were Americans from "the Westward," that is, not from the New England states of the American northeast.  Even though two ships from Massachusetts waited in New York to exchange prisoners, British personnel insisted on sending to Massachusetts men from distant states, "in order more effectually to harrass them."*

*The report, identical in both papers, misspelled "harass" as "harrass;" it is not a difficult error to make.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Conference with General Washington, October 23, 1775

On September 30, 1775, the Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, appointed three of its Delegates to a committee to meet General George Washington at the Headquarters of the Continental Army in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  The Committee of Conference consisted of Benjamin Harrison of Virginia, Thomas Lynch of South Carolina and Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania.

On October 23, 1775, the Committee of Conference met with Washington to consider twenty-five questions.  Point number five concerned the treatment of Prisoners of War: "In what Manner are Prisoners to be treated?  What Allowance made them & how are they to be cloathed?"

The Congressional committee and General Washington "Agreed that they be treated as Prisoners of War but with Humanity & the Allowance of Provisions to be the Rations of the Army...."

Captured enemy officers, still "being in Pay" from the British, should supply themselves with goods, with Continental authorities accepting the bills of credit issued by the gentlemen-officers.  This practice was consistent with the European and Transatlantic world's unwritten laws of war.  The committee and the General agreed the provisioning of captured soldiers should continue in the manner the Continental Congress already established.

The conference with General Washington shaped the Congressional resolution on Prisoners of War, passed on May 21, 1776.  Congress resolved, "That such as are taken, be treated as prisoners of war, but with humanity, and be allowed the same rations as the troops in the service of the United Colonies; but that such as are officers supply themselves, and be allowed to draw bills to pay for their subsistence and cloathing...."

The committee met with Washington again on October 24 to discuss other issues.  Paul H. Smith, editor, Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789: Volume 2: September-December 1775 (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1977), page 234; Worthington Chauncey Ford, editor, Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789: Volume 4: January 1-June 4, 1776 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1909), page 370.  For more on Benjamin Franklin's concern for the treatment of enemy Prisoners of War, please check the post here.

The Minutes of a Conference with the General by a Committee of Conference, October 23, 1775, are also available here, at the American Archives site of Northern Illinois University Libraries.  Peter Force, editor of American Archives, published a version of the Minutes with different spelling, punctuation and capitalization.  The Letters of Delegates and Journals of the Continental Congress are both available at the website, A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875, a site operated by the US Library of Congress.  

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Oct. 1776: Hessian POWs

Inclement weather obliged Scottish-born American General Hugh Mercer to cancel a July 1776 raid on British-occupied Staten Island.  Mercer's instructions to Major Thomas Knowlton specified, "Should you be successful enough to take any British troops prisoners...treat them with humanity."

Successfully conducting the raid on the night of October 15-16, 1776, Mercer informed President of the Congress, John Hancock on
October 17, "The Hessian prisoners I have ordered to be treated with particular civility, that, when exchanged, they may give the most favourable report of this country...."

George Washington and the Continental Congress hoped to encourage mass desertion by the German soldiers and officers hired by the British crown to fight against American Revolutionaries.  Historian David Hackett Fischer estimates that 23% of the Hessians who survived the war settled in the United States, while others returned to America with their families. 

Captured Hessians were surprised by American kindness toward prisoners.  After all, British officers told the Germans that Americans would not even take Hessian prisoners, but instead slaughter every Hessian who fell into American hands. 

Please check Lyman H. Butterfield, "
Psychological Warfare in 1776: The Jefferson-Franklin Plan to Cause Hessian Desertion," Studies of Historical Documents in the Library of the American Philosophical Society Volume 94 (June 20, 1950): 233-241; David Hackett Fischer, Washington's Crossing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 378-379; Carl Berger, Broadsides and Bayonets: The Propaganda War of the American Revolution (San Rafael, California: Presidio Press, 1976). 

Showing kindness to prisoners and disproving enemy propaganda became an important war aim for American Revolutionaries.  For the welcome dinner Congress sponsored for Hessian prisoners captured at Trenton, New Jersey on December 25-26, 1776, please visit the post "Parties for Prisoners."