Co-authored with Don N. Hagist
An inevitable facet of warfare is prisoners. During the American Revolution, thousands of soldiers and sailors were captured by each side and the prisoners suffered in many ways. The impact of these captures extended far beyond immediate manpower concerns, compelling each side to confront unwanted, huge logistical considerations concerning their feeding, clothing, housing and guarding, as they also sought to exploit their use as human capital for bargaining purposes. For the lonely captured, they battled hunger, cold, illness and boredom, finding ways to mitigate their struggles by working, rioting and escaping.
There are as many stories as there were prisoners, but some common factors affected most of them. Some were typical of the era while others were specific to this war which had many distinctive attributes that made the handling and fate of prisoners different than what either side was accustomed to. Here’s a list of the overarching factors that the British and Americans had to grapple with in dealing with the men they captured, and those captured from them:
- Nations provided for their own men in captivity. Each government funded the clothing and feeding of its own men held in captivity by the enemy. Either by directly delivering it, providing funds to their captives to purchase it, or reimbursing the opposing government for it, food and clothing of prisoners remained the responsibility of their own government rather than the one that captured them. That was the theory, anyway, but putting it into practice presented many challenges. In their struggle to build and maintain a military infrastructure, neither the Continental Congress nor the individual state governments had established systems to provide for prisoners in British hands. British authorities did not relish the idea of sending money to their prisoners to buy food and other necessities, knowing that it would end up in the hands of their adversaries.
- Prisoners of war presented an unusual challenge for the British government. Treating rebelling subjects as bona fide prisoners of war would be an acknowledgement of American independence and its presence as a legitimate nation entitled to all attending international protocols. But, with an ultimate goal of reconciliation and keeping the American colonies within the British empire, prisoners could not reasonably be subjected to laws against treason that were punishable by death. This conundrum was never resolved until peace negotiations at the end of the war; instead, handling of prisoners was left largely to local military authorities in America.
- Prisoners of war presented an unusual challenge for the Continental Congress. With each state able to take and hold prisoners to the extent each was willing, there was initially no uniform way to set policy about captivity, parole, exchanges and other issues. While the Continental Congress prescribed general rules overseeing prisoners, it delegated much of the actual work to local committees of safety. Their authority allowed them to order the incarceration of prisoners, with further restrictions in solitary confinement, their limited freedom when allowed out on parole prescribing the distance they could travel from the local jail, the time of their departure and their curfew, and in accommodating their various personal needs, including access to money, food, clothing, medical care and religious services.
- Prisoners suffered from corrupt practices of their captors. The delivery of necessities to prisoners of war was subject to the whims of civilian sutlers selling their goods, and inn and tavern keepers providing lodging and food and drink to those on parole. Bribery was frequently required making life even more difficult for prisoners with little money. British prisoners held captive by Americans were often distributed among many towns in widely different conditions, and their hard money was highly sought after by cash-starved Americans. This subjected the prisoners to many corrupt practices by their captors. American prisoners held captive by the British were crammed into very limited spaces, and their food was often delivered by contractors who stood to profit by skimping. This also subjected the prisoners to corrupt practices by their captors.
- Prisoners of war could work to earn money. Large numbers of British and German prisoners supplemented the labor force in regions where they were held, which helped to offset manpower problems caused by men being away for the war. While some men could work within their places of captivity, most were granted paroles, either for the daylight hours or to live at their workplace. Farm laborers were in high demand in rural Connecticut, Pennsylvania and other places, and prisoners were hired out to live and work on farms. Tradesmen such as shoemakers provided valuable services, some even working in factories producing goods for the Continental Army. The relative freedom of working led to rampant desertion among British and German prisoners, some to settle in America and some to make their way to British-held regions. The labor market was different in the refugee-saturated places where American prisoners were held, but a few prisoners nonetheless managed to make and sell simple goods to earn a little precious cash.
- Prisoners of war could enlist into the opposing army. Prisoners could be released on whatever terms the captors chose. Both sides tried to tempt prisoners into gaining freedom by enlisting into their own armies. For the prisoners, it was not so much a question of loyalty but of improving their immediate living conditions. Some faithfully served their new army, but many used enlistment simply as an opportunity to escape. The Continental Congress forbid the practice of enlisting deserters and prisoners, but the prohibition was often ignored by recruiters desperate for soldiers. Some American prisoners enlisted into loyalist regiments for service in America, while others joined British regiments destined for service in the West Indies. Not only did thousands of individuals serve on both sides during the war, many switched sides more than once.
- The Americans had trouble housing prisoners. Without adequate space in jails and no other established facilities, they initially repurposed a large barracks building in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, far from the front lines. In other states, prisoners were dispersed in jails and other makeshift facilities. Later in the war, prison camps were established in Winchester, Virginia, York, Pennsylvania and other places. Supporting and guarding large numbers of prisoners was, regardless, a burden on every community.
The British had trouble housing prisoners. Far from home, the British found it difficult to house large numbers of prisoners; once war broke out, most territory firmly in British control consisted of environs close to port cities. There were no isolated, open locations to build incarceration facilities that were not dangerously close to front lines. They resorted to using abandoned buildings, most famously Livingston’s Sugar House in New York City, for army prisoners. Naval prisoners were held on board obsolete warships. There were exceptions, particularly in places like Rhode Island and Charleston, South Carolina, where captured soldiers were held on ships and captured sailors were kept on land.
- Officers were treated differently from soldiers and sailors. Common practice during this era was for captured military officers to be treated as gentlemen, not confined in jails or prisons but in houses or inns. They were afforded paroles that allowed them free movement within a few miles of the location where they were held. They had access to, and authority over, their locally-held personnel, visiting them, negotiating for their well-being, and maintaining a semblance of military discipline. They also, of course, surreptitiously abetted those plotting to escape. At the outset of the war, British authorities did not recognize American officers as being members of an established military, instead treating all captives as common enemies of government. Congress responded by threatening to treat captured British officers in the same manner, in some cases actually doing so. Throughout the war, no overarching agreement was ever reached on how officers were to be treated, leading to myriad negotiations and individual experiences.
- Some American prisoners were sent to Great Britain. Large numbers of Americans were captured at sea, primarily sailors on privateering vessels. Many of these prisoners were held not in America but in Great Britain; a few army prisoners, including the famous Ethan Allen, were sent to England as well. Prisoners were held in military prisons where they struggled with conditions similar to those faced by prisoners of both sides in America. They struggled to improve their lot by making and selling what they could, negotiating with guards and the local population, and plotting escapes. While in Europe, Benjamin Franklin worked arduously on the behalf of captive American seamen seeking humane treatment and their exchange for British captives. He instituted the practice of sea paroles allowing many hundreds of captured British sailors their freedom. The British refused to reciprocate in the release of Americans, not recognizing American privateers as being equivalent to British naval personnel.
There are many published memoirs and narratives of American, British and German prisoners of war, as well as some fine studies of the subject. For further reading, we recommend:
- Ken Miller, Dangerous Guests: Enemy Captives and Revolutionary Communities during the War for Independence (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014)
- Daniel Krebs, A Generous and Merciful Enemy: Life for German Prisoners of War during the American Revolution (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013)
- Sheldon S. Cohen, Yankee Sailors in British Gaols: Prisoners of War at Forton and Mill, 1777-1783 (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 1995)