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The Appalling Treatment of American POWS During the American Revolution

Conditions were a vastly under-publicized aspect of our War For Independence.

Fourth of July week is a time for reflecting upon the events of the Revolutionary era that gave rise to the birth of this country. Connecticut's new motto "Still Revolutionary" reminds us of the important role that our state played in the formation of America.

From the issuance of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, until the Treaty of Paris ended the war in 1783, it is estimated that between 4,400 and 4,600 Americans died in various battles with the British. Several hundred men from Connecticut, including three of the Rich brothers from East Hampton, died in the war; however, nearly three times that number perished in British prison ships anchored in New York Harbor — perhaps the most vastly under-appreciated fact of the war. Many of these prisoners were from Connecticut.

The Prison Ships Martyrs' Monument in Greene Park in Brooklyn, NY, was dedicated on Nov. 14, 1908. Made of granite, the monument's Doric column rises nearly 150 feet above the ground. Beneath its base are buried some of the remains of the more than 11,800 Americans prisoners of war who died on board prison ships in Wallabout Bay near Brooklyn — now the Brooklyn Navy Yard — during the American Revolution.

An additional 8,000 American POWS died at various other British prisons during the war, resulting in a grim total of over 20,000 POW deaths — an astonishing number that exceeds the number of Americans killed in battle in that war by a factor of five!

Laura Hillenbrand's recent book, Unbroken, the incredible tale of survival of Louie Zamperini during World War II, reminds us of the brutal treatment American POWS faced from the Japanese. The British treatment of American POWS during the American Revolution was just as brutal. Consider the words of Robert Sheffield of Stonington, CT, one of the few lucky ones to escape from the notorious British prison ship HMS Jersey during the war. Sheffield first told his story in the July 10, 1778, edition of the Connecticut Gazette. His account is heart rending:

"The heat was so intense that ... they were all naked, which also served well to get rid of vermin, but the sick were eaten up alive. Their sickly countenances  and ghastly looks were truly horrible; some swearing and blaspheming; others crying, praying, and wringing their hands and stalking about like ghosts; others delirious, raving, and storming — all panting for breath; some dead and corrupting. The air was so foul that at times a lamp could not be kept burning, by reason of which the bodies were not missed until they had been dead for ten days."

Eight to twelve dead bodies of American prisoners were carried out each day from the Jersey. According to an article in the August 1970 edition of the American Heritage, the British guards greeted the prisoners each morning with the cry, "Rebels, turn out your dead!"

Up to 1,100 prisoners were crammed each day below the deck in filthy, disgusting conditions. Men were constantly hungry and desperately thirsty and had to live in their own excrement and vomit. They were freezing in the winter and roasting in the summer.

Among the Connecticut prisoners on board the Jersey were the crew of the Samson, a warship built in Higganum, CT, during the war. At least eight members of the Samson's crew were likely poisoned to death on June 4, 1782: Captain David Brooks, Lt. Shubael Brainerd, William Aikens, Elihu Clark, Elijah Greene, Jonathan Brainerd, Jr., and the Stocking brothers — James and Nathaniel.

The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 marked the first attempt to arrive at a formal understanding concerning the humane treatment of prisoners of war. Conventions at both The Hague and at Geneva on multiple occasions have attempted to set up guidelines for the humane treatment of prisoners. The results have been mixed.

The freedom we enjoy today came about as a result of Revolutionary War following the issuance of the Declaration Of Independence 236 years ago this week. Before that freedom was realized, however, the British denied it to the colonists, especially in a shockingly barbarous manner to American prisoners of war, over 20,000 of whom died in British captivity — a vastly under-publicized and under-appreciated harsh reality of the American Revolution.

Cornelius (Neil) Lynch July 05, 2012 at 07:07 PM
I doubt whether prisoners of war taken by any nation in the 18th century were given the 5-star treatment. No reason why American prisoners of war should have been treated any differently.
Philip R. Devlin July 05, 2012 at 11:06 PM
The fact is that most British prisoners were soon dispersed to farms in the custody of locals to work the land in the absence of men off to war. Hendricks Roddemore, a Hessian captured during the Battle of Bennington, was in the custody of Windsor Locks farmer Samuel Denslow. He had his own cabin, toiled on the land, and found time to raise the first known Christmas tree in America while still a prisoner. Thousands of other British had a similar experience including Gen. Burgoyne. The scope and scale of the mistreatment of American POWS by the British far exceeded any mistreatment of Brits and Hessians by Americans. How many Americans onboard the Jersey had the opportunity to raise a Christmas tree or think about life after the war? They were simply brutalized in appalling conditions. Did 20,000 Brits and Hessians die while in captivity? Not even close; in fact an estimated 5,000 Hessians became American citizens after the war.

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