IN THE HANDS OF THE BRITISH: THE TREATMENT OF AMERICAN POWS DURING THE WAR OF INDEPENDENCE

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Author: PHILIP RANLET
Date: Summer 2000
From: The Historian(Vol. 62, Issue 4)
Publisher: Phi Alpha Theta, History Honor Society, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 9,425 words

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In the 1786 treaty with Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, American diplomats Thomas Jefferson and John Adams attempted to create a precedent for the treatment of prisoners of war. Article 24 stipulated that prisoners should not be dispatched far away to Africa or Asia, and that captives should not "be confined in dungeons, prisonships, nor prisons."(1) Such a provision was needed, Jefferson insisted, because of "the facts of cruelty" inflicted upon American captives by the British in the War of Independence.(2) As a war between Prussia and the United States was highly unlikely, the intent of the American diplomats is dear: By obtaining Frederick's approval of more humane treatment of prisoners of war, the Americans hoped to use, in Jefferson's words, "the respect paid to whatever the king of Prussia does" to improve prisoner treatment in future wars with other countries.(3) John Adams also was glad the Prussian monarch had accepted "some of our Articles, which are at least a good Lesson to Mankind."(4)

The treatment of American captives during the Revolution was indeed horrific. In 1779, for example, when Americans transported about 136 men redeemed in a prisoner exchange to New London, Connecticut, 16 of them were so weakened by their captivity that they died during the brief trip to New London from New York. According to the New Hampshire Gazette, "upwards of 60 when they were landed were scarcely able to move," and the rest, "greatly emaciated and enfeebled," were "never likely to recover their former health." The newspaper insisted: "These things ought never to be forgotten, tho' some would fain wink them out of sight."(5)

South Carolina rebel Christopher Gadsden complained on 25 August 1781 that British handling of American prisoners of war in the South violated "all laws human and divine."(6) As relations between the two countries improved in the nineteenth century, however, old American hostility to the British dissipated. Stories of sufferings of captive revolutionaries were dismissed as propaganda spread by an insecure minority to inflame the populace against their colonial overlords. Even the death toll of Americans in captivity was put at an impossibly low number.(7)

To the limited extent that today's historiography resuscitates those prisoner of war stories, it tends to focus on Americans held in the North and in England. Southern prisoners have all but disappeared.(8) A recent encyclopedia article, for example, has only a few minor references to the South.(9) This essay will attempt to rectify such omissions. American revolutionaries captured by the British in South Carolina, Georgia, and the West Indies suffered terribly in the crowded, filthy, and diseased prisons. Prisoners often faced a difficult choice: enlist with their captors or die.

It was British desperation in fighting a difficult and expensive war on a number of fronts that determined the harshness experienced by American captives in the Southern prisoner of war camps during the Revolution. The hot and humid Southern climate exacerbated already difficult conditions, allowing diseases that normally accompany dose, unsanitary confinement to spread all the more...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A64910237