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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Prisoners of the Revolution

By David Ramsay (1749–1815)

[Born in Lancaster Co., Penn., 1749. Died at Charleston, S. C., 1815. From The History of the American Revolution. 1789.]

MANY circumstances concurred to make the American war particularly calamitous. It was originally a civil war in the estimation of both parties, and a rebellion to its termination, in the opinion of one of them. Unfortunately for mankind doubts have been entertained of the obligatory force of the law of nations in such cases. The refinement of modern ages has stripped war of half its horrors, but the systems of some illiberal men have tended to reproduce the barbarism of Gothic times, by withholding the benefits of that refinement from those who are effecting revolutions. An enlightened philanthropist embraces the whole human race, and inquires not whether an object of distress is or is not an unit of an acknowledged nation. It is sufficient that he is a child of the same common parent, and capable of happiness or misery. The prevalence of such a temper would have greatly lessened the calamities of the American war, but while from contracted policy, unfortunate captives were considered as not entitled to the treatment of prisoners, they were often doomed without being guilty, to suffer the punishment due to criminals.

The first American prisoners were taken on the 17th of June, 1775. These were thrown indiscriminately into the jail at Boston, without any consideration of their rank. Gen. Washington wrote to Gen. Gage on this subject, to which the latter answered by asserting that the prisoners had been treated with care and kindness, though indiscriminately “as he acknowledged no rank that was not derived from the King.” To which Gen. Washington replied: “You affect, sir, to despise all rank not derived from the same source with your own; I cannot conceive one more honorable than that which flows from the uncorrupted choice of a brave and free people, the purest source and original fountain of all power.”…

The capture of Gen. Lee proved calamitous to several individuals. Six Hessian field officers were offered in exchange for him, but this was refused. It was said by the British, that Lee was a deserter from their service, and as such could not expect the indulgences usually given to prisoners of war. The Americans replied, that as he had resigned his British commission previously to his accepting one from the Americans, he could not be considered as a deserter. He was nevertheless confined, watched, and guarded. Congress thereupon resolved, that Gen. Washington be directed to inform Gen. Howe, that should the proffered exchange of Gen. Lee for six field officers not be accepted, and the treatment of him as above mentioned be continued, the principles of retaliation should occasion five of the said Hessian field officers, together with Lt.-Col. Archibald Campbell to be detained, in order that the said treatment which Gen. Lee received should be exactly inflicted on their persons. The Campbell thus designated as the subject of retaliation was a humane man, and a meritorious officer, who had been captured by some of the Massachusetts privateers near Boston, to which, from the want of information, he was proceeding soon after the British had evacuated it. The above act of Congress was forwarded to Massachusetts, with a request that they would detain Lt.-Col. Campbell and keep him in safe custody till the further order of Congress. The council of Massachusetts exceeded this request, and sent him to Concord jail, where he was lodged in a gloomy dungeon of twelve or thirteen feet square. The attendance of a single servant on his person was denied him, and every visit from a friend refused.

The prisoners captured by Sir William Howe, in 1776, amounted to many hundreds. The officers were admitted to parole, and had some waste houses assigned to them as quarters; but the privates were shut up in the coldest season of the year in churches, sugar-houses, and such like large open buildings. The severity of the weather, and the rigor of their treatment, occasioned the death of many hundreds of these unfortunate men. The filth of the places of their confinement, in consequence of fluxes which prevailed among them, was both offensive and dangerous. Seven dead bodies have been seen in one building, at one time, and all lying in a situation shocking to humanity. The provisions served out to them were deficient in quantity, and of an unwholesome quality. These suffering prisoners were generally pressed to enter into the British service, but hundreds submitted to death rather than procure a melioration of their circumstances by enlisting with the enemies of their country. After Gen. Washington’s successes at Trenton and Princeton, the American prisoners fared somewhat better. Those who survived were ordered to be sent out for exchange, but some of them fell down dead in the streets, while attempting to walk to the vessels. Others were so emaciated that their appearance was horrible. A speedy death closed the scene with many.

The American board of war, after conferring with Mr. Boudinot, the commissary-general of prisoners, and examining evidences produced by him, reported among other things: “That there were 900 privates and 300 officers of the American army prisoners in the city of New York, and about 500 privates and 50 officers prisoners in Philadelphia; that since the beginning of October all these prisoners, both officers and privates, had been confined in prison-ships or the Provost; that from the best evidence the subject could admit of, the general allowance of prisoners, at most did not exceed four ounces of meat per day, and often so damaged as not to be eatable; that it had been a common practice with the British, on a prisoner’s being first captured, to keep him three, four or five days without a morsel of meat, and then to tempt him to enlist to save his life; that there were numerous instances of prisoners of war perishing in all the agonies of hunger.”

About this time there was a meeting of merchants in London, for the purpose of raising a sum of money to relieve the distresses of the American prisoners, then in England. The sum subscribed for that purpose amounted in two months to £4,647 15s. Thus while human nature was dishonored by the cruelties of some of the British in America, there was a laudable display of the benevolence of others of the same nation in Europe. The American sailors, when captured by the British, suffered more than even the soldiers which fell into their hands. The former were confined on board prison-ships. They were there crowded together in such numbers, and their accommodations were so wretched, that diseases broke out and swept them off in a manner that was sufficient to excite compassion in breasts of the least sensibility. It has been asserted, on as good evidence as the case will admit, that in the last six years of the war upward of eleven thousand persons died on board the Jersey, one of these prison-ships, which was stationed in East River, near New York. On many of these, the rites of sepulture were never, or but very imperfectly, conferred. For some time after the war was ended, their bones lay whitening in the sun, on the shores of Long Island.

The distresses of the American prisoners in the Southern States, prevailed particularly toward the close of the war. Colonel Campbell, who reduced Savannah, though he had personally suffered from the Americans, treated all who fell into his hands with humanity. Those who were taken at Savannah and at Ashe’s defeat, suffered very much from his successors in South Carolina. The American prisoners, with a few exceptions, had but little to complain of till after Gates’s defeat. Soon after that event, sundry of them, though entitled to the benefits of the capitulation of Charleston, were separated from their families and sent into exile; others, in violation of the same solemn agreement, were crowded into prison-ships, and deprived of the use of their property. When a general exchange of prisoners was effected, the wives and children of those inhabitants who adhered to the Americans were exiled from their homes to Virginia and Philadelphia. Upward of one thousand persons were thrown upon the charity of their fellow-citizens in the more Northern States. This severe treatment was the occasion of retaliating on the families of those who had taken part with the British. In the first months of the year 1781 the British were in force in the remotest settlements of South Carolina, but as their limits were contracted in the course of the year, the male inhabitants who joined them thought proper to retire with the royal army toward the capital. In retaliation for the expulsion of the wives and children of the Whig Americans from the State, Governor Rutledge ordered the brigadiers of militia to send within the British lines the families of such of the inhabitants as adhered to their interest. In consequence of this order, and more especially in consequence of the one which occasioned it, several hundreds of helpless women and children were reduced to great distress.