Captives of Liberty: Prisoners of War and the Politics of Vengeance in the American Revolution


December 16, 2020
by Kelly Mielke Also by this Author


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Captives of Liberty: Prisoners of War and the Politics of Vengeance in the American Revolution by T. Cole Jones (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020)

In Captives of Liberty: Prisoners of War and the Politics of Vengeance in the American Revolution, T. Cole Jones provides an innovative study of the treatment of prisoners of war during the Revolution. The book traces the evolution of prisoner treatment and studies the interplay between the political war and military action. Furthermore, Jones highlights how vengeful demands at the popular level—from people at all levels of society—influenced the actions of elite politicians. Not only does this systematic and in-depth study of prisoners fill a gap in the Revolution’s scholarship, it also presents a well-evidenced and convincing argument that the character of the war in fact hinged on the treatment of prisoners.

According to Jones, the treatment of prisoners proved to be the very catalyst that escalated the war to a conflict truly revolutionary in nature. While Americans intended to uphold the tenets of civilized European warfare, the experimental republican style of government meant the removal the war’s control from the elite and placement of it into the hands of everyday citizens. The increasing tendency of violent retaliation from individuals across the social spectrum forced politicians to reconsider the ways in which they handled prisoners. As Jones observes, the refusal of Parliament to accord American combatants legitimacy, combined with the civil war character of the war in America as well as the government’s failure to establish a monopoly on violence, spurred the war’s transformation from a conflict over colonial self-determination into a truly revolutionary conflict (page 4).

The book is divided into five chapters that follow the evolution in imprisonment tactics. The first chapter lays the groundwork for Jones’s argument by providing the context under which Anglo-Americans operated on the eve of conflict and the dual concepts of atrocity and restraint—and, by extension, savagery and civilized warfare—which ruled it (43). The next chapter builds upon this foundation and how revolutionary leadership struggled to maintain grips on the conduct of the war in ways that aligned with the European model. Jones points to allegations of British misconduct during the campaign for Canada and the Congressional Committee’s overturning of the prisoner exchange agreement in the wake of the Battle at the Cedars as an early moment in the war in which the prisoner issue became a pivotal one. The timing of this coincided with Congress’s vote for independence, and as Jones observes, the Declaration’s final five complaints as violations of rules of war would have brought this incident to the forefront of contemporaries’ minds. Jones contends that prisoners thus occupy a central place in the document (89).

The next three chapters continue to trace the evolution of prisoner treatment throughout several significant conflicts, including the British campaign against New York, Saratoga, and in the civil war conditions of the South following the fall of Charleston. As loyalty to the King became criminalized, the status of prisoners changed significantly as this no longer made them eligible for exchange. A stark example of the ramifications is the so-called Convention Army, made up of Gen. John Burgoyne’s troops and their followers following their defeat at the battle of Saratoga. Although the troops were supposed to be allowed to embark for England, Congress nullified this agreement, which Jones points out as a moment where Congress openly defied European conventions of war. As a result, the Convention Army marched over 1,100 miles during five and a half years, during which time 85 percent of their number were lost to “disease, desertion, starvation, and fatigue.” (140). In the final chapter, Jones builds upon the vengeance prisoners experienced throughout the war and argues that rather than unique, the violence of the Southern campaigns was rather an extension of the violence that had been escalating since the conflict’s early days.

In addition to filling in an important gap in the understanding of the prisoner system in the Revolution, the way in which political realities dictated prisoner treatment, and the way in which the practices surrounding prisoners changed the character of the war, Jones concludes the work with an important contribution to our understanding of historical memory and how it is formed. As Jones observes, early narratives of the Revolution swiftly wiped out the violent treatment of prisoners upon the war’s conclusion. France’s own Revolution that proceeded shortly after America’s and its comparatively more violent nature made it easy to portray America’s conflict as clean-cut and civilized by comparison. While recent scholarship has undone some of the omissions of the grand narrative by highlighting the violence of the period, Jones contends that a dichotomy still exists between a destructive war and an unfinished revolution of ideals. Jones’s analysis of prisoner treatment eliminates the separation between the two and demonstrates that the treatment of prisoners and the violence directed toward them directly impacted leadership’s actions and changed the character of the war.

Overall, Captives of Liberty is a very comprehensive yet relatively concise treatise on the largely overlooked area of prisoner treatment during the Revolution. It is highly readable and engaging and deserves a place on the shelf of any student of this period in history. Jones’s work provides a fresh take on the conflict’s character and the central role prisoners held in shaping it that shifts perceptions of both the conflict itself as well as our national historical memory of it.

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