During the American Revolution, many players were removed from the chess board of war as a result of capture. From individual soldiers and sailors to entire armies, captives fell into the hands of the enemy, the largest numbers usually after defeats. Negotiations to repatriate these men varied from fairly successful to complete failures. In fact, no general exchange cartel or comprehensive agreement was approved until Article 7 of the Treaty of Paris in 1783.
Howard Peckman, in his seminal book The Toll of Independence, offers that 15,542 Americans spent some time as prisoners of war. The more fortunate of these unfortunate soldiers and sailors were paroled or exchanged quickly, while many others languished in prisons for long periods. For some, death was the final release. Officers generally fared better than enlisted men, although their exchange could be a more confusing issue. Fourteen of these officers were, or became, Continental Army generals.
While captures often occurred at almost every battle and skirmish, there were major defeats or actions that resulted in large caches of prisoners. According to Peckham, patriots forfeited significant numbers of soldiers at the following places:
Fort Washington, 1776—2,858
The Philadelphia Campaign, 1777—934
Naval engagements yielded about 3,030 prisoners.
Significant British and German captures occurred at:
While the British initially held the upper hand in numbers, the scales eventually became more balanced, with the American victories at Saratoga and Yorktown. Also, many smaller skirmishes and operations yielded prisoners of all ranks, including generals. Patriot and Loyalist politicians also were taken captive.
Initial concerns on the part of the British centered on the principle that negotiating prisoner exchanges and cartels would tacitly be recognition of the Unites State as a legitimate belligerent, certainly contrary to their political position. The crown wished to avoid that implication.
While attempts to develop standard equivalency tables to guide exchange efforts were largely unsuccessful, the result was smaller and somewhat unofficial cartels to arrange exchanges. Those involving British and Continental general officers are described below.
During the eight year conflict, nine British and German generals fell into rebel hands, while eleven Continentals generals were taken. Although British and German brigadiers held that local rank in America only, they were considered and traded as generals, with their temporary rank superseding their regular rank.
American Major Generals John Sullivan, Charles Lee, and Benjamin Lincoln, and Brigadier Generals William Thompson, Charles Scott, James Hogun, William Woodford, Leland McIntosh, William Alexander (Lord Stirling), Louis Duportail, and William Moultrie all spent time in British custody. Three men who eventually became Continental generals were captured while holding a lower rank, Capt. Daniel Morgan, Maj. Otho H. Williams, and Col. William Irvine. Militia generals were another category, with about fifteen being taken.
British and German generals held by the enemy included Lieutenant Generals John Burgoyne and Charles Cornwallis, Major Generals William Phillips, Friedrich Riedesel, and Richard Prescott (twice), plus Brigadier Generals Charles O’Hara, W. R. von Galt, Johann Specht, and James Hamilton.
Most of these officers were granted parole on the honor system during their captivity, allowing them to and to move about quite freely or event return to their own lines, having given their word as gentlemen to remain neutral until exchanged. A few British officers actually were permitted to return to England. All of these leaders were eventually traded, with a few politicians added to the mix. Here is how they were captured and repatriated.
The first Continental general taken was Brig. Gen. William Thompson. Captured at Trois Rivieres, Canada, on June 8, 1776, and returned on parole to Philadelphia two months later, Thompson remained in captivity for four years. During that time, he engaged in acrimonious battles with Congress over his exchange and was ultimately censured by that body. An unsuccessful swap of Thompson for Royal Governor William Franklin of New Jersey was considered. Franklin eventually was exchanged for Delaware Governor John McKinley. Thompson was finally included as part of an exchange package for generals captured at Saratoga. This lengthy delay was likely due to both Congress and Washington’s unflattering view of Thompson’s value and ability.
American Maj. Gen. John Sullivan, captured at Brooklyn in August 1776, was exchanged for British Maj. Gen. Richard Prescott, taken at Montreal in September 1776. This rather easy trade occurred in September 1776.
Brig. Gen. William Alexander (Lord Stirling), also taken at Brooklyn, was exchanged for Montfort Browne, Royal Governor of New Providence Island in the West Indies. Originally, Gen. George Washington offered Loyalist Brig. Gen. Donald McDonald, taken at Moores Creek, North Carolina, for Stirling. Gen. William Howe refused, “as he has only rank of major by my commission.” The actual exchange took place on October 6, 1776.
The unlucky Englishman Richard Prescott was again captured, this time outside of Newport, Rhode Island, in July 1777. He was eventually exchanged in April 1778, for Maj. Gen. Charles Lee, the second in command of the Continental Army. Lee had been taken in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, on December 13, 1776, just prior to the battle of Trenton. Before Prescott was captured, an unsuccessful attempt was made to exchange Lee for five Hessian field officers taken at Trenton, plus Lt. Col Archibald Campbell, captured at sea in May 1776.
The largest cache of British generals fell into American hands as a result of the Saratoga victory in October 1777. Lt. Gen. John Burgoyne and Major Generals William Phillips and Johann F. Riedesel of Brunswick would remain guests of the Americans until 1780, after the fall of Charleston, South Carolina.
Three other losing generals also became prisoners. British Brig. Gen. James I. Hamilton had commanded a brigade, as did Brigadier Generals Johann von Specht of Brunswick and W. R. von Gall of Hesse-Hanau. Information is scarce on these men. Apparently the two Germans were exchanged in December 1780, but not for a specific Continental general.
While Saratoga represented the biggest “general” windfall for the Americans, the surrender of Charleston in May 1780, was the British counterpart. The Continental Army lost seven generals: Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln and Brigadier Generals Louis Duportail, James Hogun, Lachlan McIntosh, William Moultrie, Charles Scott, and William Woodford. The brigadiers lost represented twenty-four percent of the active Continentals holding that rank.
Both Woodford and Hogun would die of illness while British prisoners: Woodford on November 13, 1780, in New York City and Hogun on January 4, 1781, outside of Charleston. According to Boatner, Hogun refused parole to remain with his troops. The remaining five generals became pawns in exchange negotiations involving the Saratoga, Charleston, and Yorktown leaders.
On October 13, 1780, a package deal returned Major Generals Phillips and Riedesel to the British in exchange for Major General Lincoln and Brigadier Generals Duportail and Thompson, finally ending the latter man’s four year absence.
But it wasn’t until February 19, 1782, after most of the fighting had ended, that Lieutenant General Burgoyne, who had been permitted to return to England on parole, was exchanged for Brigadier General Moultrie, Col. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, 32 officers, and 433 rank and file.
In July 1782, Brigadier General Scott, the last captive general from Charleston, was traded for Lt. Col. Francis, Lord Rawdon, who though not a brigadier, had acted in that capacity. Scott had previously been included in an unacceptable package that included himself, seven colonels, and two lieutenant colonels in exchange for General Cornwallis.
Finally, we come to Yorktown, which surprisingly yielded only two British generals—Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis and Brig. Gen. Charles O’Hara, who represented Cornwallis at the surrender ceremony. O’Hara was held in Paris in the current French Senate building and eventually was exchanged for Brig. Gen. Lachlan McIntosh in February 1782.
Washington initially proposed an exchange of Cornwallis for three of the Charleston brigadiers and several colonels. But apparently there were objections from both sides to that deal. Cornwallis was traded in May 1782, for Henry Laurens of South Carolina, the former president of the Continental Congress, who had been taken at sea and housed in the Tower of London.
There were a number of other unsuccessful negotiations involving Burgoyne, Moultrie, Stirling, Thompson, and others before final arrangements were agreed upon. Hence, printed sources sometimes confuse these discussions with final agreements.
Capt. Daniel Morgan was captured at Quebec on December 31, 1775, and exchanged in September 1776. Col. William Irvine was captured on June 8, 1776, at Trois Rivieres, Canada, and quickly paroled in August, but had to wait two years before exchange on May 6, 1778. Maj. Otho H. Williams surrendered at Fort Washington on November 16, 1776, and was exchanged January 16, 1778. All three of these officers were fortunate enough to remain out of British hands when they eventually served as Continental generals.
One former Continental general, Christopher Gadsden, was arrested while lieutenant governor of South Carolina when Charleston surrendered in 1780, and was held in St. Augustine, Florida. Gadsden’s imprisonment story is one of the most interesting of the revolution, but does not involve an actual exchange of generals.
The capture and trading of British and American generals represents one small, yet fascinating, segment of the revolution’s prisoner of war story.
Howard H. Peckham, The Toll of Independence: Engagements & Battle Casualties of the American Revolution (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1974). All of the following statistics are compiled from Peckham.
Paul David Nelson, The Life of William Alexander, Lord Stirling (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1987), 90-91. Interestingly, Boatner claims that Loyalist Maj. Cortlandt Skinner was also part of the deal, although no other Stirling biographer mentions that. Boatner, Encyclopedia, 16.
Christian M. McBurney, Kidnapping the Enemy: The Special Operations to Capture Generals Charles Lee & Richard Prescott (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2014). This is the definitive account of these captures.