Prisoners of War in the American Revolution
Prisoners of War in the American Revolution
- Susan Brynne LongSusan Brynne LongUniversity of Delaware
When battles end, the challenges continue for both prisoners and their captors. During the American Revolution, British and American forces took thousands of enemies captive. Officers and rank-and-file soldiers experienced captivity differently. While officers could expect parole allowances, private accommodations, and even social opportunities, enlisted men often lived in crowded barracks and jails, experienced food shortages, and ran a higher risk of dying in captivity from diseases and neglect. Both the British and the Americans balanced diplomatic imperatives against moralistic considerations in their approaches to prisoner management. The many responsibilities associated with caring for prisoners led the Continental Congress to create an office of Commissary General of Prisoners. For the British, prisoner management was an exercise in long-distance military support operations. At the end of the war, historians enshrined the horrific experiences of American prisoners in historical memory, but British prisoners also suffered while in captivity.
- Colonial History
- Revolutionary History
Prisoners of war are an intrinsic element of warfare. Whether they are killed on the battlefield (like French prisoners on the order of Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415) or taken to prison camps to starve and die (like Union prisoners at Andersonville during the American Civil War), the management of prisoners of war requires wrestling with moral and political implications. What allies and enemies will a belligerent power gain if it treats prisoners of war well? If it tortures them? How can military leaders use prisoners in strategically advantageous ways? Should custody of prisoners fall to civil or military authorities? Do the benefits of exchanging an enemy prisoner, or a group of prisoners, for one’s own troops exceed the drawbacks? World leaders today face moral and diplomatic constraints similar to those that crowded the minds of British and American leaders in the 18th century.
During the American Revolution, military prisoners taxed resources made precious by the demands of war. Beyond this challenge, prisoners also had to be secured and prevented from offering aid to their own military forces. The British and the Americans approached the problem of feeding and housing prisoners of war differently. While both opted for a lean approach that provided captive soldiers and their families with the minimum of necessities, political considerations complicated prisoner management. The Americans, hoping to gain international support for their rebellion, sought to demonstrate their compliance with European standards of warfare in their approach to prisoner management. The British conceived of American soldiers as traitors and treated them according to that perception as a warning to other would-be rebels in their empire. In America, the pressing needs of prisoners revealed the many gaps in its nascent national military system, obliging civil authorities to intervene. The British management of American prisoners was an exercise in long-distance military support operations.
American prisoners of war have captured hearts and minds since before the Revolutionary War ended. Prisoners in the hulls of British ships repurposed to house prisoners, called “hulks,” wrote of their plight in letters that contemporary newspaper editors published with macabre relish. These pro-independence editors understood that the circumstances of a suffering soldier could influence a reader’s political sentiments, potentially gaining support for the American cause. In May 1777 the New York Council of Safety acknowledged the political utility of prisoners, noting that “the cruelties of the enemy towards their prisoners will be productive of very good effects if properly published and distributed . . . among the inhabitants.”1 In addition to their usefulness for domestic propaganda, American military prisoners served diplomatic purposes. Their suffering highlighted the failures of the British to uphold international standards of warfare, elevating America’s Atlantic reputation in comparison. American prisoners continued to serve political ends long after the war ended, acting as fodder in histories that promote a narrative of America’s just grievances against the evil British Empire at the time of the nation’s founding.
Standards and Precedent
The American Revolution occurred on the heels of major changes in the treatment standards for prisoners in European warfare. The destruction and violence of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) had caused thinkers to begin proposing such treatment standards for military prisoners and noncombatants for the first time.2 Scholar Hugo Grotius contended that victors had obligations to protect prisoners of war. In 1625 Grotius argued that “prisoners of war cannot be made slaves . . . as it would be inconsistent with every precept of the law of charity.”3 In subsequent decades, other thinkers refined this position. In 1758 Emer de Vattel wrote in his Law of Nations that prisoners of war “are not to be treated harshly, unless personally guilty of some crime against him who has them in his power.”4 Vattel proposed paroling prisoners as an alternative to putting them to death when commanders could not feed great numbers of them. At the time of Vattel’s writing, powers exchanged prisoners as part of cartel, or agreements to exchange prisoners, which Vattel affirmed as a “humane and salutary” practice.5 Both the Patriots and the British had to contend with these new standards for the treatment of prisoners of war during the Revolutionary War.
Americans managed both European and Native American prisoners in the colonial period. Ian K. Steele has demonstrated that “race was a more fundamental category than gender in colonial views of prisoners.”6 Accordingly, French and Spanish prisoners were more likely to be exchanged in keeping with European standards, whereas colonists viewed Native Americans as “outside the bounds of civilized military conventions.”7 Indigenous prisoners of war could usually expect enslavement, ransom, or death rather than a period of captivity followed by exchange, as had become the custom for European prisoners during the Modern Era. Prior to the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), governors and legislators tried to profit from the obligation to care for European prisoners of war. In The Society of Prisoners: Anglo-French Wars and Incarceration in the Eighteenth Century, Renaud Morieux argues that the British Crown relegated the cost of maintaining prisoners to the colonies.8 Colonies attempted to avoid the burden by transporting prisoners of war to neighboring colonies, using privateers to convey them. To offset the costs of maintaining prisoners, privateers began using captives to enable trade, otherwise prohibited by parliamentary regulations, with French, Spanish, and Dutch Caribbean islands. The “flags of truce” system cast prisoners as “living, breathing passports” whose presence onboard privateers lent an appearance of legitimate prisoner transportation to otherwise illegal trade voyages.9
The Seven Years’ War established precedents for managing prisoners of war that revolutionary authorities would later adopt and adapt. European standards of warfare maintained that belligerents should provide for the maintenance of their own prisoners. In line with this expectation, the French government initially provided a “Royal Bounty” allowance for prisoners of war in British captivity. This payment stopped when the state neared bankruptcy, making the British government financially responsible for French prisoners. The British provisioned French prisoners on the same terms as British soldiers and prohibited the recruitment of prisoners of war into the royal ranks. Since Britain held more enemy prisoners than the French, exchanges occurred infrequently.10 French prisoners were dispersed throughout Great Britain, with many going to England and Ireland under the stewardship of the Sick and Hurt Board.11 The Board stationed prisoners in various towns and cities, including Portsmouth, Liverpool, and Deal. Enlisted men faced more restrictions on their mobility than officers, who could go out on parole so long as they remained within a few miles of their place of confinement.12 The presence of prisoners and their guards angered local populations, who chafed under the occasional financial burdens of prisoner management. When the war ended, the British billed the French over one million pounds for costs associated with prisoner care.
The British and their American colonists entered into the American Revolution with a common knowledge of European standards for warfare but dissimilar experiences of managing prisoners. The Revolutionary War forced Americans to create management systems to accommodate military prisoners. Imperial wars gave the British more precedent from which to build a management system to accommodate the prisoners of the Revolutionary War. During the Seven Years’ War, the British had dispersed French military captives throughout their country for housing and provisioning. They implemented a similar strategy of dispersal during the Revolutionary War, but the nature of the conflict—a rebellion—called into question whether American captives were prisoners of war or traitors. The answer would have dramatic implications for their treatment.
Exchange and the Convention Army
Standard conventions in 18th-century European warfare held that belligerents should prioritize the immediate exchange of prisoners, rank for rank. The prioritization of exchange increased troop strength, lessened the financial burden of caring for enemy prisoners, and helped to ensure the good treatment of prisoners, who gained their freedom before enduring the hardships of extended captivity. Partial exchanges between commanders and prisoner commissaries freed British and American prisoners throughout the Revolutionary War, but King George III would not accept a general cartel, since to do so would be to grant legitimacy to the Patriot cause.13 American military considerations also hampered the regularity of exchanges.14 Exchanges bolstered one’s own forces, but also those of the enemy. Though Washington sought exchanges despite the boon that they offered to the British, Congress hesitated to oblige the general. At the Battle of Fort Washington in November 1776, the British captured 2,837 American prisoners of war.15 Commander-in-Chief of the British land forces General William Howe, already stretched thin in terms of the resources available for the maintenance of prisoners, showed a willingness to engage in a speedy exchange of the Fort Washington troops. The delays of Congress, despite Washington’s attempts to consolidate the British prisoners dispersed throughout the colonies, delayed the cartel. In December, when rampant disease began killing American prisoners in New York, British Commissary of Prisoners Joshua Loring released American prisoners in a shrewd ploy to regain captive British troops while giving Washington men too ill to stand, let alone fight.16
The most famous failed exchange of the Revolution came in the wake of the Battles of Saratoga, which produced a group of captives known to historians as the Convention Army (Figure 1). British General John Burgoyne surrendered his entire army, including over five thousand British and German soldiers, under the terms of a convention, an agreement between himself and Major General Horatio Gates.17 The convention stipulated that the whole force could return to Europe, “on the condition of not serving again in North America during the present contest.”18 The terms, generous to the British, did not meet with approval from Congress or General Washington. Washington warned General William Heath that expediting the return of the Convention troops to Europe would “be attended with most obvious & capital disadvantages to us.”19 Congressional delegates, including President Henry Laurens, shared Washington’s hesitation about the Convention, and when Burgoyne became evasive about producing a list of the officers among the captured men, Congress suspended the embarkation of the prisoners indefinitely.20 The Convention Army spent the remainder of the Revolutionary War in captivity. Historian T. Cole Jones estimates that after enduring captivity in “overcrowded and rotting barracks, jails, and prison ships in eight different states,” the Convention troops had lost 85 percent of their total number to death and desertion.21
American Prisoners of War
The British considered the American Revolution to be a treasonous rebellion. Parliament and the king did not want to legitimize the revolution by treating American prisoners as prisoners of war deserving of the same treatment afforded to the captive troops of legitimate European opponents.22 Instead of enemy soldiers, the British considered American soldiers to be rebels, traitors to the British Empire. During the Jacobite rising of 1745, the British had used violence to suppress rebellious Scots on the charge of treason and executed the leaders of the rising, thus sending a clear message to the rest of the empire that traitors would face death.23 This message echoed during the American Revolution, and American prisoners of war learned the seriousness of the threat firsthand.
Appointed British administrators oversaw the dispersal, provisioning, and exchange of American prisoners. In March 1776, General Howe appointed Joshua Loring to serve as Commissary of Prisoners. Loring corresponded with George Washington and other American officials in order to exchange prisoners and arrange for the provisioning of prisoners in British captivity. Food shortages caused by the exigencies of war, combined with British reluctance to provide provisions, caused some American prisoners to starve. American Colonel Ethan Allen, captured during a failed attempt on Montreal in 1775, wrote in his postwar account of his captivity of prisoners who had “starved to death.”24 Though many prisoners suffered under such conditions, the treatment of prisoners often varied depending on the disposition of the officer in charge of a given camp or prison ship.25
The majority of American prisoners stayed in North America during their captivity, but the British sent some prisoners of war to Great Britain and the West Indies. Most prisoners sent to Great Britain had been captured in naval engagements and endured their captivity in localities that already possessed the infrastructure for holding prisoners. In Liverpool, American prisoners of war lived alongside British debtors and gamblers in the Old Tower Prison. Two other common destinations for American prisoners of war were Old Mill Prison in Plymouth and Forten Prison in Hampshire. Prisoners of war achieved high rates of escape from these and other British prisons. In 1780, several prisoners escaped from Forten Prison, owing to its poor design and upkeep. Lieutenant Luke Matthewman from New York recorded the escape, which was achieved by digging through the soft dirt of the prison floor. Matthewman reported that after digging a tunnel of approximately forty-two feet, “we broke up in the cellar kitchen of an old woman, who, being frightened, fell backwards, but recovering, called ‘the guard! The guard!’, however, we soon gagged her, and about sixty got out of the hole.”26
The experiences of American enlisted men and officers in British captivity differed greatly. Officers could expect to receive parole, the freedom to travel within a set distance of one’s place of confinement, along with other allowances.27 High-ranking officers including Colonel Allen, General Charles Lee, and General John Sullivan all had varying experiences of captivity among the British. Allen both enjoyed parole and suffered solitary confinement for breaking the same during his captivity.28 He spent the majority of his captivity onboard various prison ships off the coasts of North America and Great Britain, and he described being kept in irons and suffering “wretched circumstances.” In May 1778, Commissary General of Prisoners for the Continental Army Elias Boudinot arranged Allen’s exchange for captive British officer Colonel Archibald Campbell. General Lee enjoyed a far more comfortable captivity following his 1776 capture, enjoying fine food and the company of both a manservant and one of his dogs in New York’s British-controlled City Hall.29 During his own captivity, General Sullivan suffered the loss of his personal possessions to his captors but also enjoyed a fine, if politically motivated, dinner with General Howe.30 Officers could experience anything from poor to excellent treatment during their captivity depending on their political usefulness, whether their captors sought to uphold the standards of European warfare, and their places of confinement. In cities, officers dined and socialized with military and political leaders, whereas rural locations offered fewer such social opportunities. The treatment of captive enlisted men varied from place to place as well, but the rank-and-file generally found worse conditions than those of their superior officers.
While the British offered parole to captured militiamen, the unluckiest of captive American soldiers in the Continental Army endured their captivity in prison ships or “hulks” docked in British-held harbors, including New York and Boston. The British army intended these prison ships to intimidate the Americans, but more often the horrors that occurred within them heightened revolutionary fervor.31 The ships in New York’s Wallabout Bay included the warship Centurion as well as troop transports including the Whitby, the Good Hope, and the Grosvenor.32 Tales from inside the hulls of prison ships recount prisoners starving, living in their own filth, and being forced to endure illness and injury without medical attention. Writing in 1776 from the Grosvenor, American prisoner William Slade of Connecticut wrote that “we now see nothing but the mercy of God to intercede for us. Sorrowful times, all faces look pale, discouraged, discouraged.”33 Most infamous among the New York hulks was HMS Jersey, in which the greatest number of American prisoners perished during the Revolution. The ship began receiving prisoners in 1779 and continued to hold prisoners until 1783 (Figure 2). One prisoner reported in a newspaper that the ship once held 1,100 American prisoners at one time, three times her normal capacity.34 Editors printed such prisoner accounts from the Jersey for the consumption of an increasingly incensed reading public.
Following France’s entry into the war, the war itself and the locations of prison camps shifted southward. At the Siege of Charleston in 1780, the British captured nearly six thousand American and allied prisoners, the largest number captured at one time during the war. The mounting burden caused by these and other prisoners captured in southern battles compelled the British to enlist men from among the captive ranks. Though Lord Charles Cornwallis, commander of the British forces in the South, forbade the enlistment of American prisoners in the British Army, recruiters in South Carolina defied the order.35 Many Americans seized this opportunity to avoid imprisonment on board disease-laden prison ships in Charleston harbor and in overcrowded barracks and other prisons on land. Some American prisoners captured in the southern campaigns were recruited to fight the Spanish in the Caribbean, where high death rates among British soldiers necessitated new recruits.36 Other prisoners refused enlistment but reported still being “compelled to serve against [their] countrymen.”37 The British permitted some prisoners to labor for their subsistence, constructing forts and other buildings for the British forces.
Americans could not ignore the plight of captive Americans in British captivity. Along with the reading public, who were exposed to printed accounts of Americans languishing in the hulls of prison hulks, Americans who lived near the hulks and prison camps also could not avoid evidence of British cruelties. Historian Erica Charters argues that, during the Revolutionary War, “the welfare of prisoners played a significant role in the shaping of public disapproval of British imperial authority.”38 Contemporary readers did not scrutinize the veracity of well-publicized accounts of prisoners in British captivity, which served as fodder for the Patriot cause. Outrage from the public led Congress to appoint committees to investigate British treatment of American prisoners. One such committee, which included congressional delegates Samuel Chase and the Reverend John Witherspoon, reported that the British treated prisoners “with the greatest barbarity” and forced them to suffer “utmost distress from cold, nakedness and close confinement.”39 In response to such findings and the outcry of the American public, General Washington and other commanders promised to exact vengeance upon British prisoners in American captivity.40 Such promises went unfulfilled, since Congress’s desire to demonstrate compliance with European standards of warfare tempered the persistent calls for retribution.
But the lack of a continental policy of revenge did not prevent vengeance entirely .41 Among the more violent episodes of the Revolutionary War were retaliatory actions taken by Americans and Britons against enemy prisoners of war. The Huddy-Asgill Affair exemplifies the role of vengeance in fomenting violence during the Revolutionary War. In 1782, the British Associated Loyalists regiment executed Captain Joshua Huddy of the New Jersey militia as revenge for the death of Philip White, a Loyalist captured and killed by that same militia. Huddy was executed with a note pinned to his chest that read, in part, “we the refugees having long with grief beheld the cruel murders of our brethren . . . therefore determine not to suffer without taking vengeance.”42 The execution provoked outrage from British and American military leaders alike, as well as from noncombatants. Washington answered the event by declaring that a British prisoner, Captain Charles Asgill, would be executed in retaliation. Intervention by the French monarchy spared Asgill’s life, but the affair reflected the “eye for an eye” violence for which many Americans and Britons called during the Revolutionary War.
British Prisoners of War
The lack of congressional oversight of prisoners of war during the early years of the Revolution led to ad hoc systems of prisoner management. When colonies began receiving prisoners captured by their militias and the Continental Army, their legislatures asked Congress for its guidance. Legislators either requested that their colonies’ governors and representatives inquire about Congress’s position on prisoners, or else they inquired directly. In response to these inquiries, Congress released the October 1775 directive that captives should be treated “with humanity” and later that same year appointed congressional committees to find suitable places to confine prisoners captured in the 1775 Canadian campaign. Over the next several months, Congress passed resolutions outlining guidelines for the treatment of rank-and-file prisoners, who were allowed to “exercise their trades, and to labour, in order to support themselves and families,” and of officers, whom Congress authorized to draw two dollars per week on the congressional purse, to be repaid upon their eventual exchange. Congress also resolved to place prisoners of war in the care of “the supreme executive power in each Colony to which they are brought,” including the “Assemblies, Conventions, and Committees or Councils of Safety” scattered throughout the colonies.43
In 1775–1776, states created systems and rules for prisoner management. In 1775, Massachusetts experienced the Battles of Lexington and Concord and the Siege of Boston before Congress passed any guidance on the management of military prisoners. The colonial legislature and Council of Safety arranged for the provision and exchange of Massachusetts men in British captivity as well as for the management of British prisoners taken by the colonial militia.44 In May, the Provincial Congress took the depositions of enemy prisoners in the state, assuming the task of intelligence procurement that the Continental Army would later prioritize within its own prisoner management system.45 The New York Provincial Congress began electing commissaries to manage military prisoners in 1776, and the legislatures in New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Connecticut also appointed officials to act as commissaries of prisoners of war within their colonies.46 The men appointed often brought experience serving in their local and colonial governments with them into their new positions. Elisha Boudinot, who acted as Commissary for Prisoners in New Jersey, had served previously as the secretary of the state’s Council of Safety.47 Connecticut commissaries Epaphras Bull and Ezekiel Williams had experience managing prisoners captured at Ticonderoga and Crown Point, and Williams was the sheriff of Hartford when the General Assembly appointed him to replace Bull in 1777.48
Appointed officials, local and colonial governments, militiamen, and civilians all provisioned, transported, and housed prisoners of war. In Connecticut, Governor Jonathan Trumbull and his advisory council facilitated prisoner exchanges during the recesses of the state’s General Assembly and corresponded with British authorities to secure financial support for prisoners in the state. When the number of military prisoners began to grow, the Assembly empowered a committee to manage the prisoners, secure provisions, and “take all such measures from time to time with regard to said prisoners as they in their discretion may find requisite.”49 Civilians performed the daily tasks of prisoner management by doctoring, housing, and selling goods to prisoners of war. In December 1776, the New York Provincial Congress approved an account submitted by the state commissaries of prisoners to pay Doctor Benjamin Miller for medicines and his attendance to a sick prisoner. Colonial legislatures empowered local sheriffs and jail keepers to care for prisoners of war, which included the responsibility of recapturing the prisoners if they escaped. In 1777 Sheriff Michael Farley of Ipswich, Massachusetts, posted an advertisement for the recapture of three prisoners of war: “highland volunteer” Donnel McBean, Ewen Davis “of slim stature,” and Lile, another Highlander with a “dark complexion.”50 Colonial governments also assigned militiamen to transport and guard prisoners.
After these early years characterized by state management of prisoners, Congress passed resolutions to establish a centralized system under the authority of the Continental Army. In April, George Washington chose Elias Boudinot to serve as Commissary General of Prisoners for the Continental Army. Having spent years asking that Congress standardize prisoner of war management, Washington expected Boudinot to begin immediately to “receive and distribute the Prisoners to places assign’d for their confinement” and to appoint deputies to assist him in the various localities.51 Boudinot began at once to gain an idea of the total number of prisoners in American captivity, writing to colonial governments to ask for lists of their military prisoners. Congress passed a resolution in December 1777 mandating a plan for the repayment of the debts incurred by the various states in caring for military prisoners since the start of the war. Congress also resolved in January 1778 that the states holding prisoners of war should “give every assistance in their power to the commissary general of prisoners or his deputies” as they worked to standardize the treatment of British-allied prisoners in America.52 Boudinot and his deputies worked with Continental Army officials and state governors, and took the lead in managing military prisoners for the remainder of the conflict.
The majority of British prisoners endured their captivity in New England and the Mid-Atlantic. Detention centers included Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Rutland, Massachusetts; and Fort Frederick, Maryland. While in these various locations, enlisted prisoners could generally expect to be housed in barracks; officers were allowed to pay for more private accommodations in homes and taverns. Local governments and military commissaries provided provisions for prisoners, but the exigencies of war meant that prisoners were the first to be neglected during periods of food shortage. When authorities allowed prisoners to roam free on parole or as part of employment contracts, prisoners and locals clashed. Enlisted men and officers alike insulted local inhabitants and their own guards, occasionally leading to bloody brawls. In Massachusetts, a guard reported prisoners “fighting in the evening [and] insulting the inhabitants” and received “complaints da[i]ly from the inhabitant[s]” about enemy prisoners.53 According to a 1776 congressional resolution, prisoners could work for additional subsistence, but military and civil officials prevented prisoners from leaving their barracks in response to successful escapes. Despite such measures, prisoners continued to escape. Meanwhile, George Washington and Congress tried to prevent the enlistment of prisoners in the Continental Army, but some prisoners still sought and gained their freedom by taking up arms for the Patriot cause.
The Americans captured their first German prisoners of war at the Battles of Trenton and Princeton in the winter of 1776–1777. In January 1777, 839 prisoners, along with seven women and four children arrived in Lancaster.54 Americans saw German soldiers as more likely to waver in their loyalties, owing to their auxiliary status. Seeking to subvert their loyalty to the British, Congress allowed German prisoners greater mobility in American communities in the hope that they would come to sympathize with the American cause. Americans took advantage of the Germans’ additional freedom by employing the prisoners to work in return for pay and food. Many German prisoners were skilled weavers, smiths, and shoemakers, making their labor highly valuable to overtaxed wartime economies. Many German prisoners endured their captivity in Pennsylvania, including in the Moravian towns of Bethlehem, Lebanon, and Hebron, where prisoners integrated into the local communities. A diarist in Hebron reported that German prisoners attended religious services and often sang and danced in the evenings.55 Outside of Pennsylvania, German prisoners also stayed in Winchester and Charlottesville, Virginia, and Frederick, Maryland.
Women experienced captivity as the wives of British-allied prisoners and as civilians offering supportive services. In December 1775, Congress appointed Loyalist David Franks of Philadelphia to supply prisoners of war in Pennsylvania at the expense of the crown. In Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Franks refused to provide food for the families of the prisoners. The prisoners’ wives petitioned the local Committee of Safety, writing that “they must inevitably perish, unless relieved from their present distress.”56 Officers could expect to receive more generous allowances for themselves and their families. Congress and colonial governments often granted the requests of captive officers to live with their wives or families during captivity. American civilian women often provided supportive services to prisoners, including nursing prisoners stationed in their towns when they fell ill.57 In May 1777, Timothy Bishop of Guildford, Connecticut, petitioned the state General Assembly for the costs associated with nursing his wife back to health after she tended “two of the prisoners from New York sick with the small-pox.”58 Civilian women also housed and fed captive officers in their homes and taverns. In March 1776, Congress paid Rachel Stille for “boarding several officers, prisoners, to the 8th of March instant, the sum of 84 pounds 6 5 =224.7 dollars.”59
Famous Captives: John André and Charles Lee
Among the thousands of British and American prisoners captured during the war, several stand out for their contemporary and enduring fame. Charles Lee and John André, officers in the American and British armies respectively, experienced captivity quite differently from enlisted men. They each commanded significant authority by virtue of their respective ranks, John André a major and Charles Lee a major general. Their treatment by enemy authorities while in captivity held even greater implications for British-American wartime diplomacy than did the treatment of the rank and file.
Born in 1751, John Andrè headed British intelligence operations starting in May 1779 (Figure 3).60 In that year, André became Adjutant General of the British Army, gaining the rank of major. In this position, André began a correspondence with Continental Army Major gGeneral Benedict Arnold, commanding West Point. André encouraged Arnold’s treason, which resulted in the turncoat’s dramatic escape from New York in September 1780. Three American militiamen captured André with incriminating evidence on his person before he could return to the safety of the British lines. Since he had removed his military coat to disguise himself behind American lines, André did not, according to Washington, “stand upon the footing of a common prisoner of War and therefore he is not intitled [sic] to the usual indulgences they receive.” A jury of American generals, including Nathanael Greene and the Marquis de Lafayette, found the young officer guilty of being a spy and sentenced him to death. André suffered execution by hanging in October, just days after Arnold’s treachery came to light.
Major General Charles Lee experienced a comparatively long captivity (Figure 4). Early on December 13, 1776, British dragoons took the American commander captive at a tavern outside Basking Ridge, New Jersey. Lore maintains that Lee met his captors in his undergarments, but the general only neglected to don his hat and cloak before surrendering himself as a prisoner of war on that cold morning. Determination of Lee’s fate fell toBritish General Howe. Howe signaled his inclination to treat Lee as a traitor rather than a prisoner of war by referring to the general as a lieutenant colonel, his former rank while still serving in the British Army. With a status somewhere between prisoner of war and traitor to the British Empire, Lee had a better experience of captivity than enlisted men, but still felt cheated of his gentleman status. The American general endured his captivity on board HMS Centurion, the crew of which delighted in verbally tormenting him for his treason. Lee’s self-importance, which manifested itself in declarations of the superiority of the American cause and forces, did little to lessen the taunting. Despite these professions, however, Lee still attempted, from within his prison without bars, to facilitate peace talks between the Americans and the British. Though the negotiations never materialized, the attempt harmed Lee’s image within the Continental Army. When the American Commissary General of Prisoners Elias Boudinot secured his exchange in April 1778, Lee returned to an army suspicious of his loyalties.
Postwar Integrations and Publications
On September 3, 1783, British and American representatives signed the Treaty of Paris, ending the Revolutionary War. In April, Congress resolved for “all the naval prisoners to be set at liberty” and that the “Secretary at War, in conjunction with the Commander in Chief, take proper arrangements for setting at liberty all land prisoners.”61 Stephan Popp, a German soldier captured at Yorktown and held in captivity in Virginia, wrote that he, upon learning of the peace, “could not at first believe the news told us by some of our men, until it was confirmed by people of the town.”62 Some German prisoners of war chose to stay in North America, marrying American women or finding long-term employment in their former places of confinement. American prisoners of war returned to their homes, where some reckoned with their experiences by publishing captivity narratives in newspapers and as books and pamphlets. Ethan Allen’s A Narrative of Colonel Ethan Allen’s Captivity (1779) entertained the reading public in serial form before being reprinted eight times as a book before the end of the war. John Blatchford’s Narrative of Remarkable Occurrences (1788) similarly captivated readers through an artful mix of fact and fiction. In the early decades of the 19th century, prisoner narratives became more popular and more creative, spurred by nationalistic sentiment following the War of 1812 and an 1818 congressional pension act requiring proof of service if a pension was to be received.
British and American prisoners of war had faced a range of possible fates when they found themselves captured by the enemy. For some British-allied prisoners, captivity would mean employment, integration into a local community, and eventual exchange. American prisoners generally suffered worse fates, with the unluckiest meeting painful deaths in the hulls of British prison ships. The political motivations of British and American leaders influenced the treatment of prisoners, with many prisoners ending up in the space between rules and their enforcement. The experiences of prisoners of war during the American Revolution—including delayed exchanges, violence, and food shortages—highlight the logistical and human challenges that remain after the dust of battle settles.
Discussion of the Literature
Only in recent decades has the study of prisoners of war during the American Revolution been broadened to include British-allied captives. Daniel Krebs’s A Generous and Merciful Enemy: Life for German Prisoners of War during the American Revolution explores the experience of the war for conscripted German soldiers.63 In Dangerous Guests: Enemy Captives and Revolutionary Communities during the War for Independence, Ken Miller argues that community-wide opposition to German prisoners of war created a common American identity in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.64 The most recent work on British-allied prisoners in the American Revolution is Captives of Liberty: Prisoners of War and the Politics of Vengeance in the American Revolution. In the book, T. Cole Jones uses the captivity experiences of military prisoners to argue that, over the course of the conflict, Congress gradually lost its grip on the goal of fighting a restrained war.65
Alongside the emergent focus on British-allied prisoners, historians have continued to uncover new details about the experience of captivity for American prisoners of war. In “‘We All Hoisted the American Flag’: National Identity among American Prisoners in Britain during the American Revolution,” Francis D. Cogliano investigates how Americans navigated their identity as Patriots in captivity.66 In “Prisoners of War and American Self-Image during the American Revolution,” David Dzurec reverses Cogliano’s focus to consider how the letters and diaries of American prisoners inspired Patriot sentiments back home.67 Carl P. Borick uses Pension and Bounty Land Warrant Application files to illuminate the experiences of American captives in Relieve Us of This Burthen: American Prisoners of War in the Revolutionary South, 1780–1782.68
In addition to scholarly interest, American prisoners of war continue to capture popular attention. Edwin G. Burrows’s popular book Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners during the Revolutionary War documents life in the “hell-holes” of British prisons.69 Linda Colley puts American prisoners in a broader, comparative perspective in Captives: Britain, Empire, and the World, 1600–1850.70
Military historians seeking to contextualize the modern treatment of military prisoners have explored the 18th-century experiences of British-allied prisoners. Paul J. Springer’s America’s Captives: Treatment of POWs from the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror and Robert C. Doyle’s The Enemy in Our Hands: America’s Treatment of Prisoners of War from the Revolution to the War on Terror trace the development of America’s prisoner of war policies from their earliest roots.71
Future work on prisoners of war might include a focus on the women and children who often accompanied British and American soldiers onto the battlefields and into captivity. These “camp followers” fared worse than captive men in some cases, owing to the inconsistency with which authorities provided provisions to prisoner populations. Distinctions in the treatment of white, indigenous, and Black prisoners of war by British and American authorities also merits further investigation. In The Negro in the American Revolution, Benjamin Quarles discusses several instances of African American prisoners in American and British captivity: in at least one instance, a captured enslaved person named David Mitchell was given his freedom by the Massachusetts Council after he was captured by Patriot forces on a British sloop.72 Investigating how civil and military authorities shared authority over prisoners could also yield insights into the development of America’s early federal system.
The interested student should start any investigation of military prisoners in the American Revolution with captivity narratives. These were the primary texts through which contemporary readers gleaned information about the treatment of their fellow countrymen in captivity, and they provide an excellent window into the experience of captivity. A Narrative of Colonel Ethan Allen’s Captivity, The Narrative of the Life and Captivity of John Blatchford, and A Narrative of the Capture and Treatment of John Dodge provide readers with the perspectives of American officers and enlisted men in captivity.73 Though such narratives are less common for British prisoners in American captivity, exceptions comes from Hessian soldier Stephan Popp, A Journal by Thomas Hughes: For His Amusement, and Designed Only for His Perusal by the Time He Attains the Age of 50 If He Lives So Long (1778–1789), and the diary of British soldier Roger Lamb74
Contemporary newspapers also provide snapshots of life among captives and their captors during the American Revolution. From runaway prisoner advertisements, to announcements from Congress and state governments regarding prisoner treatment and allowances, to published letters, newspapers can help students discover many details about prisoners of war and their lives in captivity. Paying attention to publication dates and authors will also help students identify when and where individuals were held captive. Newspapers also provide important context about the progress of the war, which may have informed a prisoner’s experience at any given time.
Depending on what questions they hope to answer, students should consult private correspondence or state papers related to prisoners of war. If a student knows the name of a prisoner and seeks to know more about their experiences, they should check to see whether the individual’s family left a family papers collection at a museum or archive in a location connected with their heritage. Such collections often contain private correspondence that span generations, sometimes including 18th-century letters and accounts. For perspectives on prisoner management, the minutes and proceedings of state and local Councils of Safety, General Assemblies, and Governors’ Councils are invaluable.
- Becker, Laura L. “Prisoners of War in the American Revolution: A Community Perspective.” Military Affairs 46, no. 4 (December 1982): 169–173.
- Borick, Carl P. Relieve Us of This Burthen: American Prisoners of War in the Revolutionary South, 1780–1782. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2012.
- Bowman, Larry G. Captive Americans: Prisoners during the American Revolution. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1976.
- Burrows, Edwin G. Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners during the Revolutionary War. New York: Basic Books, 2008.
- Cogliano, Francis D. American Maritime Prisoners in the Revolutionary War: The Captivity of William Russell. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2001.
- Cohen, Sheldon Samuel. Yankee Sailors in British Gaols: Prisoners of War at Forton and Mill, 1777–1783. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1995.
- Dabney, William M. After Saratoga: The Story of the Convention Army. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1954.
- Dixon, Martha W. “Divided Authority: The American Management of Prisoners in the Revolutionary War, 1775–1783.” PhD diss., University of Utah, 1977.
- Hughes, Thomas. A Journal by Thos: Hughes for His Amusement, & Designed Only for His Perusal by the Time He Attains the Age of 50 if He Lives So Long. Edited by Ernest Alfred Benians. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1947.
- Jones, T. Cole. Captives of Liberty: Prisoners of War and the Politics of Vengeance in the American Revolution. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020.
- Krebs, Daniel. A Generous and Merciful Enemy: Life for German Prisoners of War during the American Revolution. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013.
- Lamb, Roger. Roger Lamb’s American Revolution: A British Soldier’s Story. Edited by Don Hagist. Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2022.
- Miller, Ken. Dangerous Guests: Enemy Captives and Revolutionary Communities during the War for Independence. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014.
- Morieux, Renaud. The Society of Prisoners: Anglo-French Wars and Incarceration in the Eighteenth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.
- Popp, Stephan. A Hessian Soldier in the American Revolution. Edited by Reinhart J. Pope. New Zealand: Papamoa Press, 2018.
1. “Resolution of the Council of Safety,” Journals of the Provincial Congress, Provincial Convention, Committee of Safety and Council of Safety of the State of New-York: 1775–1776–1777 (Albany, NY: Thurlow Weed, Printer to the State, 1842), 1:947.
2. T. Cole Jones, Captives of Liberty: Prisoners of War and the Politics of Vengeance in the American Revolution (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020), 20–23.
3. Hugo Grotius, The Rights of War and Peace, trans. A.C. Campbell (Washington: M. Walter Dunne, 1901), 346.
4. Emer de Vattel, Law of Nations; or Principles of the Law of Nature, Applied to the Conduct and Affairs of Nations and Sovereigns (Philadelphia: P. H. Nicklin & T. Johnson, 1835), 354.
5. Vattel, Law of Nations, 357.
6. Steele, “Surrendering Rites: Prisoners in Colonial North American Frontiers,” in Hanoverian Britain and Empire Essays in Memory of Philip Lawson, ed. Steven Taylor, Richard Connors, Clyve Jones (Martlesham: Boydell Press, 1998), 146.
7. Steele, “Surrendering Rites,” 146. Army officers justified excluding Native Americans from the treatment standards of European warfare by condemning their methods of war as “savage.” But this classification did not line up with many prisoners’ experiences of captivity among indigenous captors, and the treatment of prisoners by the French could be harsh as well. For more on this, see Timothy Shannon, “French and Indian Cruelty? The Fate of the Oswego Prisoners of War, 1756–1758,” New York History 95, no. 3 (Summer 2014): 381–407.
9. Morieux, Society of Prisoners, 135–136, 145–147.
10. Shannon, “French and Indian Cruelty?,” 390; Erica Charters, “The Administration of War and French Prisoners of War in Britain, 1756–1763,” in Civilians and War in Europe, 1618–1815, ed. Erica Charters, Eve Rosenhaft, and Hannah Smith (Liverpool University Press, 2012), 92; and Reginald Savory, “The Convention of Écluse, 1759–1762: The Treatment of the Sick and Wounded; Prisoners of War; and Deserters; of the British and French Armies during the Seven Years War,” Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research 42, no. 170 (June 1964): 77. Though Savory argues that the terms of the Convention of Écluse required prisoners to be exchanged after no more than fifteen days, Charters disagrees: see Erica Charters, “Military Medicine and the Ethics of War: British Colonial Warfare during the Seven Years War (1756–63),” Canadian Bulletin of Medical History 27, no. 2 (Winter 2010): 286.
11. Charters, “Administration of War,” 91–92; and Erica Charters, Disease, War, and the Imperial State: The Welfare of the British Armed Forces during the Seven Years’ War (University of Chicago Press, 2014), 172, 175.
12. Clive Lloyd, A History of Napoleonic and American Prisoners of War, 1756–1816: Hulk, Depot and Parole (Suffolk, UK: American Collectors Club, 2007), 21.
13. Betsy Knight, “Prisoner Exchange and Parole in the American Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly 48, no. 2 (April 1991): 202.
16. Edwin G. Burrows, Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners during the Revolutionary War (New York: Basic Books, 2008), 62–63; and Jones, Captives of Liberty, 95–105.
17. I am adopting the number used by Jones, Captives of Liberty, 140n4.
18. “Articles of Convention between Lieutenant-General Burgoyne and Major General Gates,” Avalon Project, New Haven (CT): Yale Law School, Lillian Goldman Law Library.
19. National Archives, “From George Washington to Major General William Heath, 13 November 1777,” Founders Online.
20. Worthington C. Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1904–1937), 10:16–17.
21. Jones, Captives of Liberty, 140.
22. Burrows, Forgotten Patriots, 37.
23. Burrows, Forgotten Patriots, 23–24.
24. Ethan Allen, A Narrative of Colonel Ethan Allen’s Captivity, from the Time of His Being Taken by the British, Near Montreal, on the 25th Day of September, in the Year 1775, to the Time of His Exchange, on the 6th Day of May, 1778: Containing Voyages and Travels . . . Interspersed with Some Political Observations (Philadelphia: Robert Bell, 1779), 86.
25. Katie Turner Getty, “Death Had Almost Lost Its Sting: Disease on the Prison Ship Jersey,” Journal of the American Revolution (January 10, 2019).
26. Quoted in Thomas C. Parramore, “The Great Escape from Forten Gaol: An Incident of the Revolution,” North Carolina Office of Archives and History 45, no. 4 (October 1968): 355.
27. Burrows, Forgotten Patriots, 48.
28. Burrows, Forgotten Patriots, 95.
29. Burrows, Forgotten Patriots, 71.
30. Burrows, Forgotten Patriots, 30–31.
31. Philip Ranlet, “In the Hands of the British: The Treatment of American POWs during the War of Independence,” Historian 62, no. 4 (Summer 2000): 751; Sylvia R. Frey, Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), 106, 326.
32. Robert P. Watson, The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn: An Untold Story of the American Revolution (Boston: Da Capo Press, 2017), 76–78, 81.
33. Burrows, Forgotten Patriots, 57.
34. Burrows, Forgotten Patriots, 167; “The Deposition of Charles Batterman,” Pennsylvania Packet, January 16, 1781.
35. Ranlet, “In the Hands of the British,” 740.
36. Ranlet, “In the Hands of the British,” 745–746.
38. Charters, Disease, War, and the Imperial State, 189.
39. Ford et al., Journals of the Continental Congress, 7:276–279; and Watson, Ghost Ship of Brooklyn, 39–41.
40. Jones, Captives of Liberty, 46, 74–78.
41. T. Cole Jones details several instances of violence by Americans against British prisoners in Captives of Liberty.
42. Paul Smith, A New Age Now Begins: A People’s History of the American Revolution, 2 vols. (New York: McGraw Hill, 1976), 2:1750.
43. Ford et al., Journals of the Continental Congress, 4:370–373.
44. The Massachusetts Provincial Congress dedicated much energy to liberating American prisoners taken from the state by General Gage. On May 3, 1775, the Provincial Congress resolved to send an application to General Gage from the friends and families of his prisoners asking “that he would discharge their friends from their said imprisonment”: see William Lincoln, ed., Journals of Each Provincial Congress of Massachusetts in 1774 and 1775, and of the Committee of Safety, with an Appendix (Boston: Dutton and Wentworth, Printers to the State, 1838), 189, 184.
45. In May 1775, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress appointed a committee “to transcribe the depositions of the late proceedings of the king’s troops” captured at the Battles of Lexington and Concord. General Washington would later make intelligence gathering a priority of the Continental Army’s own prisoner management system. He wrote to Commissary General of Prisoners for the Continental Army Elias Boudinot: “The Gentleman Ingaged in the Department of Commissary of Prisoners Will Have as Much Leizure, and Better Opportunities, Than Most Other Officers in the Army, to Obtain Knowledge of the Enemys Situation—Motions—And (As Far As May Be) Designs.” Lincoln, Journals of each Provincial Congress of Massachusetts in 1774 and 1775, 212; National Archives, “George Washington to Elias Boudinot, 1 April 1777,” Founders Online.
46. The Massachusetts Provincial Congress appointed Robert Pierpont to serve as the state’s commissary of prisoners: see Acts and Resolves, Public and Private, of the Province of the Massachusetts Bay (Boston: Wright & Potter, 1918), 19:884.
47. The Council of Safety appointed Elisha Boudinot to the office of secretary on April 8, 1777: see Minutes of the Council of Safety of the State of New Jersey (Jersey City, NJ: John H. Lyon, 1872), 1:21.
48. The Connecticut General Assembly appointed Williams and Bull to a committee to care for prisoners in 1775: “Whereas . . . several inhabitants of the northern Colonies . . . have taken into their custody a number of officers and soldiers who were keeping and holding said posts [at Ticonderoga and Crown Point] . . . the dictates of humanity require that said officers and soldiers with their families should be provided for and supported while they continue in this colony”: see Charles J. Hoadly, ed., The Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut, from May, 1775, to June, 1776, Inclusive, with the Journal of the Council of Safety from June 7, 1775, to October 2, 1776, and an Appendix (Hartford, CT: Case, Lockwood & Brainard, 1890), 15:32–33.
49. Charles J. Hoadly, ed., The Public Records of the State of Connecticut, from October, 1776, to February, 1778, inclusive, with the Journal of the Council of Safety from October 11, 1776, to May 6, 1778, Inclusive, and an Appendix (Hartford, CT: Case, Lockwood & Brainard, 1894), 1:78.
50. “Departed from the Town of Ipswich,” Boston Gazette (published as The Boston-Gazette, and Country Journal), May 19, 1777.
52. Ford et al., Journals of the Continental Congress, 10:81.
53. John Davis to William Heath, June 16, 1778, William Heath Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, reel 10, microfilm 256.
54. Quoted in Krebs, Generous and Merciful Enemy, 146.
55. Quoted in Krebs, Generous and Merciful Enemy, 162.
57. For examples of nursing, doctoring, provisioning, and boarding of prisoners by civilians, see Henry P. Johnston, ed., Record of Connecticut Men in the Military and Naval Service during the War of the Revolution 1775–1783 (Hartford, Connecticut: 1889), 32; and H. R. McIlwaine, ed., Journals of the Council of State of Virginia (Richmond, VA: Division of Purchase and Printing, 1931), 1:265.
58. Charles J. Hoadly, The Public Records of the State of Connecticut, 1:289.
59. Ford et al., Journals of the Continental Congress, 4:205, 351.
60. Roger Kaplan, “The Hidden War: British Intelligence Operations during the American Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly 47, no. 1 (January 1990): 123–125.
61. Ford et al., Journals of the Continental Congress, 24:242–243.
62. Stephan Popp, “A Hessian Soldier in the American Revolution: The Diary of Stephan Popp,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 26, no. 2 (1902): 252.
63. Krebs, Generous and Merciful Enemy.
64. Miller, Dangerous Guests.
65. Jones, Captives of Liberty.
66. Francis D. Cogliano, “‘We All Hoisted the American Flag’: National Identity among American Prisoners in Britain during the American Revolution,” Journal of American Studies 32, no. 1 (April 1998).
67. David Dzurec, “Prisoners of War and American Self-Image during the American Revolution,” War in History 20, no. 4 (November 2013).
68. Borick, Relieve Us of This Burthen.
69. Burrows, Forgotten Patriots.
70. Linda Colley, Captives: Britain, Empire, and the World, 1600–1850 (New York: Pantheon Books, 2002).
71. Paul J. Springer, America’s Captives: Treatment of POWs from the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010); and Robert C. Doyle, The Enemy in Our Hands: America’s Treatment of Prisoners of War from the Revolution to the War on Terror (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2010).
72. Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961), 85. For other examples of captive African Americans, see pages 27, 59, 143, 155–156.
73. Ethan Allen, A Narrative of Colonel Ethan Allen’s Captivity (Philadelphia, PA: Creative Media Partners, LLC, 1779); John Blatchford, Narrative of the Life and Captivity of John Blatchford (New London: T. Green, 1788);The Narrative of the Life and Captivity of John BlatchfordA Narrative of the Capture and Treatment of John Dodge John Dodge, A Narrative of The Capture and Treatment of John Dodge, By the English at Detroit (Philadelphia, 1779).
74. Stephan Popp, A Hessian Soldier in the American Revolution, ed. Reinhart J. Pope (New Zealand: Papamoa Press, 2018); Thomas Hughes, A Journal by Thos: Hughes for His Amusement, & Designed Only for His Perusal by the Time He Attains the Age of 50 if He Lives So Long, ed. Ernest Alfred Benians (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1947); and Roger Lamb, Roger Lamb’s American Revolution: A British Soldier’s Story, ed. Don Hagist (Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2022).