Thursday, September 24, 2009

Forgotten Patriot Prisoners

Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story Of American Prisoners During The Revolutionary War by Edwin G. Burrows is a fascinating but horrifying account of the British treatment of Patriot prisoners during the American Revolution. If I ever learned of this it was only in passing and not given much notice.

As a result of the Battle of Brooklyn on 27 August 1776, the British Army held 31 officers and more than a thousand enlisted men as prisoners of war and needed somewhere to house them. Nearby Kings County was rural and Loyalist, and the British needed their physical and political support. Officers were at first housed under a gentleman’s agreement in private homes there. To house the enlisted men, the British began to take over public buildings in New York City. Liberty House, Livingston’s and Van Cortlandt’s Sugar Houses, the Old North Dutch Church, Old City Hall, King’s College, the alms house, all non-Anglican houses of worship were all employed as military prisons.

Four hundred men were the first prisoners to be put on board the Pacific, Lord Radford, Mentor, Whitby, Grosvenor, Argo and Jersey ships. Some were moored in Wallabout Bay, surrounded by salt meadows and mud flats.

According to Thomas Stone of Connecticut, during the winter of 1777-8, seven to ten men died a day in his prison. Levi Hanford from the same state wrote later about his stay in Livingston’s Sugar House:
I have had men die by the side of me in the night, and have seen fifteen dead bodies sewed up in their blankets and laid in the corner of the yard at one time, the product of one twenty-four hours.
Every morning at 8 o’clock the dead cart came, the bodies were put in, the men drew their rum, and the cart was driven off to the trenches…. Once I was permitted to go with the guard to the place of interment, and never shall I forget the scene that I there beheld; they tumbled them into the ditch just as it happened, threw a little dirt, and then away. I could see a hand, a foot, or part of a head, washed bare by the rains, swollen, blubbering, and falling to decay.
The author summed up the prison experience:
[Andrew] Sherburne’s account contains particularly vivid and believable descriptions of four water, disgusting food, absurd overcrowding, vermin, disease, and grievous suffering (such as the man whose feet were so badly frozen that when the dressing were changed, “I saw the toes and bottom of his feet cleave off from the bone, and hang down by the heel.”) [Reverend Thomas] Andres writes convincingly about the terror he felt at night as a prisoner, confined in utter darkness with hundreds of other sick and desperate men—men fighting over scraps of food, men driven mad by ship fever, over dying.
The British government refused for a long time to acknowledge the wretched condition of its Patriot prisoners or to consider the exchange of any because it didn’t want to give any validity to the Patriot cause. It was only when it needed more men that any negotiations were undertaken. The overcrowding conditions were never reduced. It was only through the selfless spending by Lewis Pintard of tens of thousands of pounds of his own money that prison conditions were alleviated. Pintard was never fully reimbursed by the Continental government.

Patriot military and sympathizers were held until the end of the revolution. Burrows estimated that 11,000 died on board ships in Wallabout Bay, and between 15,575 and 18,000 in New York City, making a total of 24,550 to 30,000 dead Patriot prisoners. There were only 813,000 white males of fighting age in the colonies.

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