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Patriots Or Terrorists?

June 2024
16min read

The Lost Story of Revolutionary War POW’s

Sometime that seismic spring of 1776, 16-year-old Levi Hanford of Norwalk, Connecticut, enrolled in his uncle’s militia company and went to war against the British. He expected to make short work of the enemy. Everybody knew how simple farm boys like himself had just sent the redcoats reeling from Lexington and Concord, then cut them down at Bunker Hill. But Hanford’s war got off to a slow start. Except for a brief stint building fortifications around New York City, his first year under arms consisted mostly of standing watch along the Connecticut coast of Long Island Sound and rounding up Tories. He missed the disastrous Battle of Brooklyn on August 27, 1776, in which Gen. William Howe’s redcoats captured a thousand American rebels. Neither was he present two weeks later, when the British swarmed across the East River onto Manhattan, seized the city, and rounded up several hundred more Americans. Hanford did not get his first real taste of action, in fact, until a cold, stormy night in March 1777, when he and a dozen other Connecticut men were surprised and taken prisoner by a Tory raiding party from Huntington, Long Island. What happened next would haunt him until the day he died, 77 years later.

Their captors marched Hanford and his comrades to occupied New York, now the nerve center of British operations in North America and the main holding point for rebel prisoners until the war ended in 1783. Several months before he arrived, more than 5,000 of his countrymen had been squeezed into several churches gutted for the purpose, plus a pair of sugar refineries, the municipal jail and almshouse, and even the King’s College building (now Columbia University).

By all accounts, conditions in these makeshift prisons were frightful. The men never had enough clothing, blankets, or firewood. Their rations—when they received them—consisted mostly of rotten pork or beef and scraps of moldy bread. Some inmates ate rats, shoes, and even the lice that covered their bodies. All lost weight, and virtually all exhibited the bleeding gums, open sores, tooth loss, and listlessness characteristic of scurvy. Survivors told of floors slick with human excrement and of air so fetid that candles would not stay lit. Not surprisingly, typhus, dysentery, and other infectious diseases ran rampant, and men died so quickly that burial details could barely keep up. By January or February 1777, it appears that six or seven of every 10 American prisoners had perished—a mortality rate roughly twice that of the infamous Confederate stockade in Andersonville, Georgia. (In World War I, only 3.6 percent of U.S. prisoners died in POW camps. In World War II the figure rose to 11.3 percent, and in Korea to 37.8 percent.)

Hanford’s destination was a five-story “sugar house” on Crown (now Liberty) Street, just east of Nassau, in what is today the lower Manhattan business district. It had been confiscated from the redoubtable Livingston family, who had built it in the early 1700s to manufacture loaf sugar and rum. The building’s massive stone walls and small, dungeonlike windows made it serviceable as a prison. Although a sizable majority of the 800-odd Americans confined therein over the winter of 1776–77 were long dead by the time Hanford arrived, British operations in New Jersey, Westchester, and Connecticut soon brought in hundreds to replace them. As spring turned to summer, he recalled, the stench became overpowering, and the air grew so oppressively thick it was hard to breathe. “Our allowance of provisions,” he added, “was a scanty supply of pork and sea-biscuit”— too scanty to keep a man going for long. The moldy biscuits, wet from seawater, teemed with weevils. “It was our common practice to put water in our camp kettle, then break up the biscuit into it, and after skimming off the worms, to put in the pork, and then, if we had fuel, to boil the whole together.”

In late October, after seven months in the sugar house, Hanford was transferred to the ill-named Good Intent, a transport recently converted into a prison ship, now riding at anchor in the Hudson. He was thrust among 200 more Americans crammed below decks, starving and dying like flies in the sepulchral gloom. “The air was exceedingly foul, close, and sickening,” he would recall. “No wonder that pestilence in all its fury began to sweep us down.” Within two months, half his prisonmates were dead.

Hanford’s transfer from the sugar house to the Good Intent was an index of how the multiplying captive population in occupied New York was compelling the authorities to begin moving the overflow onto an assortment of vessels anchored in the waters around New York. Already there were prisoners aboard the Prince of Wales, a decrepit warship anchored in Wallabout Bay on the Brooklyn side of the East River, near the hospital ship Kitty. At some point in the course of that year, the Judith and the Myrtle, two transports anchored in the Hudson opposite Trinity Church, began to receive prisoners, as did the Jersey and the Good Hope, a pair of hospital ships hitherto reserved for the use of His Majesty’s forces. American captives would also be confined in the brigs of at least nine other vessels not officially designated as prisons or hospitals: the Eagle, Felicity, Isis, Richmond, Otter, Dispatch, York, Vigilant, and Mercury.

Aboard the Good Intent, meanwhile, Hanford fell sick and was transferred again, this time to the military hospital in the Brick Presbyterian Church. The so-called hospital was no improvement, however. “Disease and death reigned there in all their terror,” he remembered. “I have had men die by the side of me in the night, and have seen fifteen dead bodies sewed up in their blankets and laid in the corner of the yard at one time, the product of one twenty-four hours.” And worse, horribly worse: “On one occasion, I was permitted to go with the guard to the place of interment, and never shall I forget the scene that I there beheld. They tumbled the bodies promiscuously into the ditch, sometimes even dumping them from the cart, then threw upon them a little dirt, and away they went. I could see a hand there, a foot there, and there again a part of a head, washed bare by the rain, and all swollen, blubbering, and falling to decay.”

At any point in this ordeal, Hanford might have won his freedom by enlisting in King George’s service. Yet he rebuffed every overture by recruiters, and when finally exchanged in May 1778—one of the relatively few who lasted as long as 13 months in captivity—he went home, rejoined his old unit, and resumed the fight. Instead of weakening his resolve, his stint as a prisoner of war had made him more determined than ever to send the redcoats packing.

To Scourge the Rebellion with Rods of Iron

According to one recent estimate, of the approximately 200,000 Americans who bore arms against the Crown between 1775 and 1783, at least 18,200 were taken; and this figure represents only men wearing the uniform of the Continental forces or serving in one of the state militias. It does not include the thousands of seamen captured from the privateers that preyed on British shipping up and down the coast. Nor does it reflect the untold numbers of civilians rounded up for joining revolutionary committees or speaking out against the Crown. Taken all together, between 24,800 and 32,000 patriots probably fell into British hands during the Revolutionary War. Like Hanford, the great majority of them were held in and around New York City, under conditions so atrocious that as many as 18,000 (almost 60 percent) perished—or two and a half times the 6,800 thought to have fallen in battle. More Americans gave their lives for independence in New York than anywhere else in the country.

No evidence exists that the British explicitly intended the deaths of so many of their captives. Still, they had often threatened to hang every American taken in arms against the Crown. After the debacle at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, followed by their Pyrrhic victory at Bunker Hill in June, His Majesty’s forces in America were out for blood—impatient, as a captain in the King’s Own Regiment put it, “to scourge the rebellion with rods of iron,” even if it meant “almost extirpating the present rebellious race.” The green light for a war of extirpation would come in August 1775, when the king issued a “Proclamation for Suppressing Rebellion and Sedition,” which enjoined his loyal subjects throughout the realm to put down “all traitorous Conspiracies and Attempts against Us, Our Crown and Dignity.” Parliament finished the job in March 1777 by adopting “North’s Act,” which suspended habeas corpus and authorized the prosecution of captured rebels for treason or piracy as circumstances required. Not surprisingly, the officials charged with the care and feeding of prisoners in New York—Joshua Loring, commissary of military prisoners, and David Sproat, commissary of naval prisoners—were at best indifferent to their charges’ fate. Why pamper traitors on their way to the gallows? Every time Gen. George Washington protested, moreover, his British counterparts, especially generals Sir William Howe and Sir Henry Clinton, denied any wrongdoing, even when presented with irrefutable evidence that their provost marshal, Capt. William Cunningham, beat and starved prisoners for his own sadistic amusement.

Parliament suspended habeas corpus and authorized the prosecution of captured rebels for treason or piracy

The British were under no formal obligation to take better care of captured Americans. The growth of nation states in early modern Europe had brought a degree of predictability to the conduct of war and given rise to certain precepts and customs bearing on the treatment of prisoners: disarmed adversaries should not be executed, humiliated, tortured, or mutilated; prosecuted as criminals, or enslaved; or withheld the appropriate food, clothing, and shelter. More than a century would pass before these principles would be codified in multinational treaties or conventions. As explicated by classicists and jurists, the “rules of war” or “law of arms” were largely theoretical and essentially unenforceable—not actually rules or laws at all, strictly speaking, but only high-sounding guidelines for mitigating the severity of armed conflict between purportedly civilized princes. Whether they even applied in cases of domestic insurrection or rebellion was (and still is) open to question.

Officers were supposed to feel social constraints, because military rank remained intimately connected to inherited property and privilege everywhere in 18th-century Europe. Only someone entitled by birth to the deference of others was thought capable of leading men in war. Breeding, not expertise, constituted the foundation of an officer’s authority. (This was no theoretical abstraction. In Britain army officers purchased their commissions at prices so steep that the service essentially belonged to the few thousand rich families who ran the country.) Officers thus tended to believe they had more in common with their counterparts across the firing line than with the men they led. Out of that belief had emerged an unwritten code of honor that precisely regulated their behavior toward one another in war and required them to behave with genteel “complaisance” toward prisoners of all social ranks.

The trouble was that the American armies seemed—especially at the beginning of the war—like undisciplined rabbles led by men without the standing in civil society to make them genuine officers. Opinions changed as the war developed, but it remained a question for the British as to whether men who in civilian life had been merchants and tradesmen, even plain farmers, deserved the courtesies automatically due real gentlemen in uniform—and if captured, whether it was appropriate to exchange them, rank for rank, as if they were social equals. Said one Hessian after the Battle of Brooklyn: “Among the prisoners are many so-called colonels, lieutenant colonels, majors, and other officers, who, however, are nothing but mechanics, tailors, shoemakers, wigmakers, barbers, etc. Some of them were soundly beaten by our people, who would by no means let such persons pass for officers.” Another observed that “prisoners who knelt and sought to surrender were beaten . . . Most of their officers are no better dressed and until recently were ordinary manual laborers.”

The humiliation was as bad as the physical abuse

As bad as the physical abuse, though, was the humiliation. After the capitulation of Fort Washington in November 1776, for example, Capt. Alexander Graydon and other prisoners were herded into a Harlem barn where a British sergeant major was making a list of their names and ranks. Graydon never forgot what happened when the sergeant came to a “squat fellow” from Pennsylvania: “You are an officer, sir!” said the sergeant. “Yes,” was the answer. “Your rank sir!” with a significant smile. “I am a keppun,” replied the little man in a chuff, firm tone. Upon this, there was an immoderate roar of laughter among the officers about the door.” Decades later, Graydon could still remember the shame and embarrassment he felt at that moment. As with the trials of Hanford, however, they only stiffened his resolve.

The Death Ship Jersey

It was in the spring of 1780 that Americans woke to a new horror: the prison ship Jersey , easily the biggest and deadliest of its kind in the Revolutionary War, which claimed so many lives during her brief time in service as to serve for generations as the single most widely recognized symbol of British cruelty toward captured patriots.

Launched in 1736, the Jersey had seen decades of service in the Mediterranean as a fourth-rate frigate of 64 guns before the navy converted it to a hospital ship around 1771. (In the Royal Navy, such a rating implied a three-masted ship mounting 50 to 70 cannon on two decks below the main deck and carrying a crew of around 400.) It arrived in New York with the rest of the fleet in the summer of 1776 or shortly thereafter. As one of the largest vessels in port—41 feet at the beam, 144 stem to stern—its great black hull would have been a familiar sight to the city’s residents. For its conversion to prison duty, it was anchored permanently in Wallabout Bay and “hulked”—stripped of its masts, canvas, lines, ordnance, figurehead, rudder, and any other reusable equipment. The gun ports were then sealed and replaced by two rows of small, square air ports, barred with iron lattices, for the benefit of the prisoners confined on the lower decks. Aft, on the quarterdeck, a large awning or tent was erected to shelter the 30-odd marines assigned to guard the prisoners. Directly below lay the officers’ cabins and various storerooms. Between the quarterdeck and forecastle lay an area of the gundeck known as the spar deck, much of this now occupied by the pens in which officers kept pigs for their own consumption. The forward gundeck was reserved for the galley. Below the gundeck lay the middle deck, a cavernous, vile-smelling, vermin-infested space where the prisoners passed time, ate, and slept shoulder to shoulder. Still more prisoners dwelled like troglodytes on the dank lower deck, at or near the waterline. The only way to reach topside from the holds was up a narrow companionway and through a heavy grated hatch, always dogged tight at sundown.

Exactly when the Jersey began to receive prisoners is unclear. It may have been when it was still in service as a hospital ship—a report reached Philadelphia as early as June 1779 that 512 captives were languishing in its holds—but once it formally became a prison hulk, the numbers soared and conditions rapidly deteriorated.

American newspapers frequently reprinted a deposition taken from George Batterman, who said that when he was sent aboard in the autumn of 1780, the Jersey held an astonishing 1,100 prisoners—almost three times its seagoing complement. To soften them up for Royal Navy recruiters, he added, their rations were reduced to a pint of water and eight ounces of “condemned bread” per day, plus only eight ounces of meat per week.

Numerous contemporary accounts confirm that prisoners on the Jersey were treated with unparalleled “severity and inhumanity,” that they received only a few ounces of bad meat per week, that they fought “like wild beasts to get near the small air ports, that they might breathe,” that “7 or 8 died every 24 hours,” that hundreds had already enlisted in the Royal Navy in a desperate bid to save themselves. Christopher Vail’s unpublished narrative, composed years later but based on a journal he kept during the war, corroborates the overcrowding, hunger, sickness, and hellish filth. “There was only one passage to go on deck in the night,” he recalled, and the guards would only allow two men up at a time. “Many of the Prisoners were troubled with the disentary and would come to the steps and could not be permitted to go on deck, and was obliged to ease themselves on the spot, and the next morning for 12 feet around the hatches was nothing but excrement.”Christopher Hawkins, Vail’s fellow prisoner, likewise wrote in his autobiography of the rampant dysentery that left him and others covered with “bloody and loathesome filth” by morning, of fisticuffs between demoralized prisoners, of savage whippings, of one man so hungry he ate the lice from his shirt. A third captive, Ebenezer Fox, a 17-year-old seaman, aptly described the Jersey in the late summer of 1781 as a “floating Pandemonium.”

This Was Hell!

Perhaps the best measure of the huge impact of these revelations on American opinion during the war was the acclaim showered on Philip Freneau’s epic poem “The British Prison Ship,” first printed in 1781, which tells the story of a patriot taken at sea and confined in two of the New York prison ships—neither one the Jersey, as it happened, but that was a mere detail. The poem’s celebration of unwavering allegiance to the new nation in the face of enemy brutality coincided perfectly with the outcry over the Jersey, and its sensational popularity laid the foundations of Freneau’s fame as “the poet of the Revolution.”

After graduating from Princeton in 1771, the scruffy, melancholic, poetically inclined youth drifted from one calling to another—teaching school, studying for the ministry, toying vaguely with the idea of careers in law or medicine—all the while jotting down innocuous poems imitating, by turns, Milton, Dryden, Pope, and Goldsmith. Though managing to produce a few patriotic verses, he did not become fully committed to the Revolution until the summer of 1778, when he returned from a Caribbean voyage to his home in Monmouth County, New Jersey, and seeing how the British had savaged the people and countryside at the recent Battle of Monmouth. He enlisted with a New Jersey militia company assigned to shore patrol between South Amboy and Long Branch. He also published “America Independent,” a poem that sang the praises of republican government, excoriated George III as a bloody despot, and lamented the many friends and neighbors consigned to the “sickly ships” and “dreary dungeons” of New York.

One man was so hungry he ate the lice from his shirt

In the autumn of 1780 Freneau started work on “The British Prison Ship,” which would appear as a pamphlet the following summer. Like the just published and arguably even more famous Narrative of Colonel Ethan Allen’s Captivity (1779), which he had obviously read with care, Freneau’s poem represented a sharp departure from the captivity stories familiar to his readers, most notably the ordeal of the Puritan housewife Mary Rowlandson, taken prisoner by the Narragansett in 1675. Before now, falling into the hands of one’s enemies was the shameful consequence of things gone wrong—a mark of failure, personal or collective or both, crying out for explanation and accountability. The captive’s story was ultimately a quest for redemption.

The four cantos of “The British Prison Ship” work differently. In Canto I, “The Capture,” Freneau’s patriot narrator sets out from Philadelphia aboard the bark Aurora, bound for St. Eustatius, and other soft Caribbean islands, only to be engaged in a fierce firefight by a British frigate. His ship hammered to splinters around him, its “deck bestain’d with heart-blood streaming round,” the captain of the Aurora surrenders. He and his brave crew, though guiltless, are now prisoners:

Convey’d to York the Britons lodg’d us there,

Safe in their dens of hunger and dispair,

Their ships are prisons, void of masts or sails,

In which describing, e’en description fails.

Canto II reveals that the narrator would spend seven weeks “in these d___’d hulks,” during which he comes to realize that the barbarous cruelty of the enemy, “the race I hate,” is premeditated: “This be my talk—ungenerous Britons you,/Conspire to murder those you can’t subdue.” Though the experience has nearly killed him, he is resolved nonetheless to describe what he saw because he is tormented by the memory of all those nameless young men who died for their country.

At the beginning of Canto III, then, the narrator introduces four prison ships anchored off Manhattan: Scorpion, Strombolo, Jersey, and the hospital ship Hunter—“piles for slaughter, floating on the floods.” He winds up on the Scorpion , “a dire abode” crowded with several hundred captives. The guards taunt and beat them for sport, make them drink putrid water, and keep them barely alive on “rotten pork, the lumpy damag’d flour, / Soaked in salt water, and with age grown sour.” Not surprisingly, the narrator succumbs to ship fever (typhus) and is transferred to the Hunter. As soon as he arrives at “this detested place,” the focus of the fourth and last canto, a “wasted phantom” accosts him like the ghost of Hamlet’s father and demands to know his purpose:

Why didst thou leave the scorpion’s dark retreat,

And hither come, a surer death to meet;

Why didst thou leave thy damp infected cell,

If that was purgatory, this was hell.

Each day, the narrator discovers, at least three corpses will be removed from the ship and given a perfunctory burial on shore:

By feeble hands the shallow tombs were made,

No stone memorial o’er the corpses laid,

In barren sands and far from home they ly;

No friend to shed a tear when passing by:

O’er the slight graves insulting Britons tread,

Spurn at the sand and curse the rebel dead.

Sooner or later, however, these murdering vermin will be driven back to their “fatal Islands.” When that day comes, Americans must somehow commemorate the thousands who perished “in ships, in prisons, and in dungeons dire”—not as victims but as unbowed victors:

These all in freedom’s sacred cause ally’d,

For freedom ventur’d and for freedom dy’d;

To base subjection they were never broke,

They could not bend beneath a tyrant’s yoke;

Had these surviv’d, perhaps in thralldom held,

To serve proud Britain they had been compell’d;

Ungenerous deed—can she the charge deny?—

In such a case to triumph was to die.

Often excerpted and anthologized after its debut in 1781, “The British Prison Ship” anchored Freneau’s reputation as a poet and remained a favorite of American readers well into the 19th century. The reasons are not hard to see. One, surely, is the poem’s stirring reversal of the traditional captivity narrative. Freneau’s prisoner triumphs precisely because he refuses to repent or knuckle under. Even if it means death, he never yields to his captors or abandons the cause: martyrdom is the ultimate expression of love of country (“to triumph was to die”). This was a new, irresistible twist on an old literary genre. But that was not all. As it happened, “The British Prison Ship” appeared just as Americans began to learn of the terrible suffering inflicted on their brethren confined aboard the Jersey. Although it wasn’t about the Jersey as such, the poem’s seething anger and bitterness—its resentment of a cruel enemy (“the race I hate”)—perfectly captured the country’s mood. Although scholars have wondered if Freneau was writing from personal experience as a British prisoner, it hardly matters one way or the other. The important thing is that he had given voice to what was in the hearts and minds of his compatriots, and long after the war officially ended in 1783, “The British Prison Ship” would serve as a reminder of how they had felt about the mistreatment and neglect of American prisoners in New York.

The Revolution and Human Rights

The story of New York’s Revolutionary War prisons and prison ships dropped out of sight in the 20th century, a victim of (among other things) improved Anglo-American relations. It deserves to be revived, however, because it enlarges our understanding of how the United States was made—not merely by bewigged founding fathers, of whom we have heard so much in recent years, but also by thousands upon thousands of mostly ordinary people who believed in something they considered worth dying for.

Their suffering, moreover, left an enduring mark on international law. Between 1782 and 1787, American diplomats negotiated treaties of amity and commerce with foreign powers that took unprecedented steps toward mitigating the evils of war. Agreements struck with the Netherlands, Sweden, and Morocco, for example, required negotiation before the use of force, curbed privateering, and regulated the exercise of search and seizure on the high seas. The 1785 treaty with Prussia negotiated by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin even included provisions designed specifically “to prevent the destruction of prisoners of war.” Among other things, the parties stipulated that in the event of armed conflict between them, captives taken by either:

shall not be confined in dungeons, prison-ships, nor prisons, nor be put into irons, nor bound, nor otherwise restrained in the use of their limbs; that the officers shall be enlarged on their paroles within convenient districts, & have comfortable quarters, & the common men be disposed in cantonments, open & extensive enough for air & exercise, and lodged in barracks as roomy & good as are provided by the party in whose power they are for their own troops; that the officers shall also be daily furnished by the party in whose power they are, with as many rations; & of the same articles & quality as are allowed by them, either in kind or by commutation, to officers of equal rank in their own army; & all others shall be daily furnished by them with such ration as they allow to a common soldier in their own service.

Even if the conduct of their own countrymen had sometimes fallen well short of acceptable, the three American negotiators understood that the new nation must pledge itself to treat future prisoners of war with the decency and humanity never accorded them by the British—that what set the United States apart from the former mother country and all the other tyrannies to come was only this commitment to basic human rights.

Adapted from Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War by Edwin G. Burrows. Published by Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group © 2008. This article appears here by permission of Perseus Books Group.


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