Naval Prisoners | Naval History


    About the author

    Gardner W. Allen
    Gardner W. Allen

    Gardner W. Allen (1856–1944) was an American naval historian known for his detailed studies of naval operations and ship histories. Allen’s most significant contribution is his work on American naval history, particularly during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. His notable publications include “Our Navy and the Barbary Corsairs,” “Our Naval War with France,” and “The Naval History of the American Revolution.”



      The lot of the prisoner of war has always been an unhappy one at best; in early times put to the sword, at a later day enslaved, and even in modern wars sometimes unavoidably subjected to most unfavorable conditions in the exigencies of a campaign. Civilized countries have at times permitted a treatment of prisoners unnecessarily harsh and even cruel. At the outset of a civil war the question arises whether or not the rebel shall be dealt with as a traitor and criminal, but fear of reprisals soon forces the virtual if not explicit recognition of belligerent rights. Lord George Germain, writing to General Howe, February 1, 1776, in regard to some American officers captured on a privateer by the British, says: “It is hoped that the possession of these prisoners will enable you to procure the release of such of his majesty’s officers and loyal subjects as are in the disgraceful situation of being prisoners to the rebels; for although it cannot be that you should enter into any treaty or agreement with rebels for a regular cartel for exchange of prisoners, yet I doubt not but your own discretion will suggest to you the means of effecting such exchange without the king’s dignity and honor being committed or His Majesty’s name used in any negotiation for that purpose.” (Hist. Mag., March, 1862.) Here may be noted an intimation of the bitterness commonly exhibited in civil strife, which is sometimes conveniently visited upon the helpless prisoner. This should impose upon governments and officers of rank an increased sense of responsibility for the acts of subordinates. The accounts of the treatment of prisoners in New York, unquestionably authentic though perhaps colored by privation, are difficult to reconcile with the undoubted humane character of some of the British officers in command. The situation of the British at that place and their resources could hardly have been such as to prevent the proper care of prisoners.

      At New York many buildings were converted into prisons and several prison-ships were moored in the harbor, especially in Wallabout Bay, where the Navy Yard at Brooklyn now is. Most of the prisoners taken at sea were confined in these hulks. There were probably prison-ships in most British harbors frequented by cruising vessels, and other ships were at times temporarily used for the purpose. The best known places in England where Americans were confined were Mill Prison at Plymonth and Forton Prison at Portsmouth.

      The treatment of American prisoners by the British gave rise to much discussion in Congress and to a voluminous correspondence between commanding officers and commissaries of prisoners. January 18, 1777, General Washington wrote to Admiral Howe “on the subject of the cruel treatment which our officers and men in the naval department, who are unhappy enough to fall into your hands, receive on board the prisonships in the harbour of New York.” To General Howe on the same day he wrote: “Those who have been lately sent out give the most shocking account of their barbarous usage, which their miserable, emaciated countenances confirm . . . Most of the prisoners who have returned home [by exchange] have informed me that they were offered better treatment provided they would enlist into your service. This I believe is unprecedented; and what, if true, makes it still more unnecessary for me to apologize for the freedom of expression which I have used throughout this letter.” (Washington, v, 166,169,170.) Washington threatened retaliation. Admiral Howe replied, January 17, that the reports of ill treatment were exaggerated, that some prisoners having escaped, less liberty was allowed than formerly and crowding made necessary, that the prisoners had the same ration and medical attendance as British sailors. May 28, Washington wrote to the President of Congress that many of the prisoners released by the British were unfit for exchange by reason of the severity of their treatment and that a deduction should be made on their account. This was before the Jersey, a dismantled sixty-four-gun ship, was brought to New York and moored in Wallabout Bay, and became the most notorious of all the prison- ships. In 1779, there was an improvement on board these ships at New York, acknowledged by Washington and confirmed by a letter from one of the prisoners. This was only temporary, however, and a year or two later conditions were at their worst, although an attempt at reform seems to have been made by Admiral Graves in 1781 (Jour. Cont. Congr., resolves: December 7, 1776, June 10, 1777, April 21, 1780, September 4, 18, 1781; committee reports: December 7, 1776, January 7, 9, 1777; Pap. Cont. Congr., 152, 3, 505, 4, 113 (Howe to Washington, January 23, April 21,1777), 5, 221 (Washington to Howe, November 23, 1777), 10, 233 (Affleck to Washington, August 30, 1781); Washington, v, 170, 394, 423, vi, 193, viii, 121, 338, ix, 119; Boston Gazette, September 17,1781.)

      In addition to the practice, alluded to by Washington, of tempting prisoners to enlist in the British service by promises of better treatment, they were sometimes impressed, and on board cruising ships also, at times, they were forced to bear arms against their countrymen. In 1776, William Barry, a prisoner on the Roebuck in Delaware Bay, and Elisha Cole, an American shipmaster on the frigate Milford, were compelled to do this, and both afterwards made depositions to the fact. In retaliation Congress authorized Captain Biddle to take British prisoners from jail to fill his complement. There are several accounts, however, of humane treatment on board British cruising ships and on prison-ships at Halifax and elsewhere. Captain Daniel Lunt of Newburyport was well treated on board the British cruiser Lively, which captured him off Cape Ann in 1776, although afterwards, when transferred to the Renown, he and other shipmasters were robbed of their money and put at hard labor. Joshua Barney was treated with marked kindness on three different cruising ships and with an equal degree of severity on two others. Nathaniel Fanning, who was several times a prisoner, was robbed and maltreated on two British vessels, but on other occasions fared very well. In 1777, Captain Stephen Hills was well treated on a prison-ship at Halifax, and in 1782 eighty-one Americans at the same place, and others in a hospital there, had the best of care. In 1781, Captain Tucker of the privateer Thorn escaped from the Island of St. John’s (Prince Edward Island) and reported that he had been very kindly treated there. The same year some prisoners who. arrived in Salem from Newfoundland acknowledged “the very humane and benevolent treatment which they received from Admiral Edwards.” The next year nearly three hundred Americans were brought home from there in a cartel (Am. Arch. IV, v, 759, vi, 809, V, ii, 538; Pap. Cont. Congr., 19, 3, 581 (December 7, 1776) ; Barney, 51, 66, 70, 86; Fanning, 14-18, 144-148, 229-238; A. Sherburne, 49-76; Tucker, 163; Boston Gazette, September 30, 1776, July 28, 1777; Mass. Spy, September 11, 1776; Independent Chronicle, February 5, 1778 ; Continental Journal, August 23, 1781; Salem Gazette, November 15, 1781, July 18, October 17, 1782.; Boston Post, July 20, 1782; Hunt’s Mag., February, 1857.

      Many years after the war Nathaniel Bowditch told the following Revolutionary anecdote, which had been related to him by his father: “Capt. Tuck of Manchester in a small privateer was taken by a British vessel of war, & his crew was carried on board & detained as prisoners. Cruising afterwards on the eastern shore, the vessel struck on a sunken ledge at some distance from a small island then in sight and soon bilged. Their situation soon became extremely dangerous, the greatest confusion prevailed on board, and the British seamen finding that none of the stores on board the ship could possibly be saved, procured from the store room considerable quantities of rum & drank so freely that they soon became incapable of doing their duty, and in getting out the boats bilged & lost them. Their situation now became desperate, they seemed to have no chance of saving their lives, as the crew were so disorderly and incompetent of doing their duty. Capt. Tuck then proposed to the British commander to make a raft out of the spars, yards, &c. of the ship and offered his services in doing it, provided he could have it under his own direction, with none to assist except the American prisoners, most of whom were free from intoxication. This offer was cheerfully accepted & he made out to get the crew safely ashore without losing a man, but before anything else could be got from the ship, she went to pieces. The British Commander on the Halifax Station liberated Capt. T. and his crew without parole or exchange, on account of his services.” (Pickering MSS., xxx, 415.)

      In June, 1778, Robert Sheffield, a shipmaster of Stonington, Connecticut, made his escape from one of the New York prison-ships after a confinement of only six days. There were three hundred and fifty men on board confined below, although it is to be presumed that they were allowed on deck in the daytime, as was the custom. Sheffield says the heat was “so intense that they were all naked . . . Their sickly countenances and ghastly looks were truly horrible, some swearing and blaspheming, some crying, praying and wringing their hands and stalking about like ghosts, others delirious, raving and storming; some groaning and dying, all panting for breath; some dead and corrupting, air so foul at times that a lamp could not be kept burning, by reason of which the boys were not missed till they had been dead ten days.” There were five or six deaths a day (Conn. Gazette, July 10, 1778, quoted in Onderdonk’s Revolutionary Incidents, 227, 228.) Captain John Chester wrote to General Webb, January 17, 1777: “The inhuman treatment our prisoners met with while in New York is beyond all description. Humanity cannot but drop a tear at sight of the poor, miserable, starved objects. They are mere skeletons, unable to creep or speak in many instances. One vessel lost 27 in her passage from New York to Milford [Connecticut], and 7 died the night they were put ashore; and they are dying all along the road.” (Correspondence of General Webb, i, 184.) According to a report from Boston, February 4, 1779, “a cartel lately brought 136 prisoners from prison-ships in N.Y. to N. London. Such was the condition in which these poor creatures were put aboard the cartel, that in this short run 16 died on board and 60, when they landed, were scarcely able to move, and the remainder greatly emaciated.” (Onderdonk, 229.) The most favorable account comes from Daniel Stanton, who writes from Stonington, August 28, 1779: “I was taken with a number of others on or about the 5th of June last in the ship Oliver Cromwell, carried into New York and put on the Prison Ship Jersey. There was nothing plundered from us, we were kindly used by the Captain and others that belonged to the ship. Our Sick were attended by Physicians who appeared very Officious to recover them to health. Our Allowance for Subsistance was wholesome and in reasonable Plenty, including the Allowance by the Continental Congress sent on Board. About three or four weeks past we were removed on board the Prison Ship Good Hope, where we found many sick; there is now a hospital ship provided, to which they are removed and good Attention paid, and doubt not the same Hospitality is used towards those of the Enemy, where the Fortune of War has cast into our hands. On the whole we were as humanely treated as our Condition and the Enemy’s Safety would admit.” (Conn. Gazette, September 1, 1779, quoted in Papers New London Hist. Soc., IV, i, 44.) Another good account is given by Captain Thomas Dring and others who escaped from the Good Hope (N. J. Gazette, October 12, 1779, quoted in Onderdonk, 230.) According to Joshua Barney, a prisoner in 1778, Admiral Byron during his short stay on the station took great pains to improve as far as possible the conditions on New York prison-ships (Barney, 74.) These conditions probably varied from time to time according to the characters of different officers and subordinates in charge, and according to the weather and other circumstances, especially the number of prisoners on board. The Continental Congress provided the means for supplying the prisoners at New York with extra food and appointed a merchant named Pintard as agent to look after them (Pap. Cont. Congr., 37, 322 (October 6, 1780).)

      Philip Freneau, the poet, was a passenger on the armed ship Aurora of Philadelphia, which was captured after an hour’s engagement by the British frigate Iris, May 26, 1780, and taken to New York. Freneau was sent on board the prison-ship Scorpion in the North River, where he was “almost suffocated with the heat and stench.” He relates that on the night of June 4 “about thirty-five of our people formed a design of making their escape, in which they were favored by a large schooner accidentally alongside of us . . . We were then suffered to continue upon deck, if we chose, till nine o’clock. We were all below by that time except the insurgents, who rushed upon the sentries and disarmed them in a moment,” and drove them into the cabin. “When the sentries were all silent they manned the ship’s boat and boarded the schooner, though the people on board attempted to keep them off with hand-spikes. The wind blowing fresh at south and the flood of tide being made, they hoisted sail and were out of sight in a few minutes . . . As soon as the sentries got possession of the vessel again, which they had no difficulty in doing, as there was no resistance made, they posted themselves at each hatchway and most basely and cowardly fired fore and aft among us, pistols and musquets, for a full quarter of an hour without intermission. By the mercy of God they touched but four, one mortally.” The next morning “all that were found wounded were put in irons and ordered to lie upon deck, exposed to the burning sun. About four o’clock P.M., one of the poor fellows who had been wounded the night before died. They then took him out of irons, sent him on shore, and buried him. After this no usage seemed to them severe enough for us. We had water given us to drink that a dog could scarcely relish; it was thick and clammy and had a dismal smell. They withdrew our allowance of rum and drove us down every night strictly at sunset, where we suffered inexpressibly till seven. o’clock in the morning, the gratings being rarely opened before that time. Thus did I live with my miserable companions till the 22d of June. When finding myself taken with a fever, I procured myself to be put on the sick list, and the same day was sent with a number of others to the Hunter hospital-ship, lying in the East River. Here was a new scene opened. The Hunter had been very newly put to the use of a hospital-ship. She was miserably dirty and cluttered. Her decks leaked to such a degree that the sick were deluged with every shower of rain. Between decks they lay along, struggling in the agonies of death, dying with putrid and bilious fevers, lamenting their hard fate to die at such a fatal distance from their friends; others totally insensible and yielding their last breath in all the horrors of light-headed frenzy.” (Freneau’s Capture of the Aurora, 15-41.)

      In the fall of 1780, Captain Silas Talbot was confined on the Jersey. There were then about eleven hundred prisoners on board, with no berths to lie in nor benches to sit on; many were almost without clothes. Dysentery and fever prevailed. The scantiness and bad quality of the provisions, the brutality of the guards, and the sick pining for comforts they could not obtain, altogether furnished one of the greatest scenes of human distress ever beheld. The weather was cool and dry, with frosty nights, so that the number of deaths was reduced to an average of ten a day, which was small compared with the mortality for three months before. The human bones and skulls still bleaching on the shore of Long Island as late as 1803, and daily exposed by the falling of the high bank on which the prisoners were buried, was a shocking sight (Historical Sketch of Silas Talbot, 106-109.) A few years after that these bones were collected and buried and a monument erected over them.

      Ebenezer Fox, describing the Jersey as she was in 1781, says: “Her external appearance was forbidding and gloomy. She was dismantled; her only spars were the bowsprit, a derrick that looked like a gallows, for hoisting supplies on board, and a flagstaff at the stern. The port-holes were closed and secured. Two tiers of holes were cut through her sides, about two feet square and about ten feet apart, strongly guarded by a grating of iron bars.” (Fox, 96.) Fox and his shipmates upon their arrival “were ordered to ascend to the upper deck of the prison ship. Here our names were registered . . . Each of us was permitted to retain whatever clothing and bedding we had brought, after having been examined” for weapons and money; “and then we were directed to pass through a strong door on the starboard side, down a ladder leading to the main hatchway. I now found myself in a loathsome prison, among a collection of the most wretched and disgusting looking objects that I ever beheld in human form. Here was a motley crew, covered with rags and filth, visages pallid with disease, emaciated with hunger and anxiety, and retaining hardly a trace of their original appearance.” (Fox, 99.) “The various messes of the prisoners [of six men each] were numbered, and nine in the morning was the hour when the steward would deliver from the window in his room, at the after part of the ship, the allowance granted . . . Each mess received daily what was equivalent in weight or measure, but not in quality, to the rations of four men at full allowance; that is, each prisoner received two thirds as much as was allowed to a seaman in the British navy. Our bill of fare was as follows: on Sunday, one pound of biscuit, one pound of pork and half a pint of peas; Monday, one pound of biscuit, one pint of oatmeal and two ounces of butter; Tuesday, one pound of biscuit and two pounds of salt beef; Wednesday, one and a half pounds of flour and two ounces of suet. Thursday was a repetition of Sunday’s fare, Friday of Monday’s and Saturday of Tuesday’s. If this food had been of a good quality and properly cooked, as we had no labor to perform, it would have kept us comfortable, at least from suffering. But this was not the case. All our food appeared to be damaged.” (Fox, 101-102.) “The cooking for the prisoners was done in a great copper vessel that contained between two and three hogsheads of water, set in brick work. The form of it was square and it was divided into two compartments by a partition. In one of these the peas and oatmeal were boiled; this was done in fresh water. In the other the meat was boiled in salt water taken up from alongside the ship. The Jersey, from her size and lying near the shore, was imbedded in the mud . . . All the filth that accumulated among upwards of a thousand men was daily thrown overboard and would remain there till carried away by the tide. The impurity of the water may be easily conceived; and in this water our meat was boiled.” (Fox, 105-106.)

      “In the morning the prisoners were permitted to ascend the upper deck, to spend the day till ordered below at sunset. A certain number, who were for the time called the ‘working party,’ performed in rotation the duty of bringing up hammocks and bedding for airing, likewise the sick and infirm and the bodies of those who had died during the night; of these there were generally a number every morning. After these services it was their duty to wash the decks. . . . About two hours before sunset, orders were given to the prisoners to carry all their things below, but we were permitted to remain above till we retired for the night. . . . At sunset our ears were saluted with the insulting and hateful sound from our keepers, of ‘Down, rebels, down,’ and we were hurried below, the hatchways fastened over us and we were left to pass the night amid the accumulated horrors of sighs and groans, of foul vapor, a nauseous and putrid atmosphere, in a stifled and almost suffocating heat. The tiers of holes through the sides of the ship were strongly grated, but not provided with glass, and it was considered a privilege to sleep near one of these apertures in hot weather … But little sleep, however, could be enjoyed even there, for the vermin were so horribly abundant that all the personal cleanliness we could practise would not protect us from their attacks.” When the dead, sewn in blankets, were taken ashore, some of the prisoners went with them, “under a guard, to perform the labor of interment . . . Here in a bank near the Wallabout a hole was excavated in the sand, in which the body was put and then slightly covered, the guard not giving time sufficient to perform this melancholy service in a faithful manner. Many bodies would, in a few days after this mockery of a burial, be exposed nearly bare by the action of the elements.” (Fox, 109-111.)

      Thomas Andros was also on the Jersey in 1781, and says: “When I first became an inmate of this abode of suffering, despair and death, there were about four hundred prisoners on board, but in a short time they amounted to twelve hundred. And in proportion to our numbers the mortality increased.” (Andros, Old Jersey Captive, 12.) Dysentery, smallpox, and yellow fever were prevalent. “Now and then an American physician was brought in as a captive, but if he could obtain his parole he left the ship, nor could we much blame him for this. For his own death was next to certain and his success in saving others by medicine in our situation was small. I remember only two American physicians who tarried on board a few days. No English physician or any one from the city ever to my knowledge came near us.” (Andros, 15.) “Our water was good, could we have had enough of it; our bread was bad in the superlative degree. I do not recollect seeing any which was not full of living vermin; but eat it, worms and all, we must or starve.” (Andros, 17.) Andros eventually escaped. Attempts to escape from the prison-ships were frequent and not uncommonly successful. The crew of the Jersey consisted of a captain, two mates, a steward, a cook, and about a dozen sailors, besides a guard of ten or twelve invalid marines and about thirty soldiers. By eluding the vigilance of these guards, or perhaps bribing a sentry, it was sometimes possible to get away from the ship in a boat or by swimming. Upon reaching shore, however, fugitives had many difficulties to encounter, especially the unfriendliness of the tory population of Long Island (lbid., 24 et seq.; Fox, ch. viii. For other experiences of prisoners, see Dring’s Recollections of Jersey Prison Ship; Taylor’s Martyrs in the Prison-Ships; A. Sherburne, ch. v; Hist. Mag., July, 1866 (Suppl.); Mag. Amer. Hist., March, 1878, Matthewman’s narrative.)

      The method of exchange for the relief of the prisoners’ sufferings was not as generally applicable as could have been wished, partly because the supply of British in the hands of the Americans was inadequate. British prisoners were released in large numbers by their American captors, especially privateersmen, because they had no means of supporting them, often, apparently, neglecting to take their paroles. Washington stated his views on the subject in a letter to the President of Congress, February 18, 1782, saying: “Mr. Sproat’s proposition of the exchange of British soldiers for American seamen, if acceded to, will immediately give the enemy a very considerable reinforcement and will be a constant draft hereafter upon the prisoners of war in our hands. It ought also to be considered that few or none of the naval prisoners in New York and elsewhere belong to the Continental service. I however feel for the situation of these unfortunate people and wish to see them released by any mode which will not materially affect the public good. In some former letters upon this subject I have mentioned a plan by which I am certain they might be liberated nearly as fast as captured. It is by obliging the captains of all armed vessels, both public and private, to throw their prisoners into common stock, under the direction of the commissary-general of prisoners. By these means they would be taken care of and regularly applied to the exchange of those in the hands of the enemy. Now the greater part are dissipated and the few that remain are applied partially.” (Washington, ix, 444. See negotiations for a general cartel for the exchange of prisoners, in Webb, ii, 19-85.) Washington corresponded with various British naval commanders during the last two years of the war and received replies from Admiral Arbuthnot, Captain Affleck, and Admiral Digby, expressing concern at the prisoners’ plight and a purpose to apply remedies. General Carleton also made plans in 1782 to correct abuses. The American and British commissaries of prisoners, Abraham Skinner and David Sproat, also corresponded freely on the subjects of treatment and exchange of prisoners. Whether or not as a result of these efforts, conditions seem to have improved in June, 1782, according to the report of six American shipmasters on parole, “that they had been on board the prison and hospital ships to inspect the state of the American naval prisoners and found them in as comfortable situation as it is possible for prisoners to be on board ships and much better than they had an idea of.” This report was published about two weeks after a letter from Washington to Digby on the subject (Almon, xiv, 262, 263; Onderdonk, 233-235, 240-244; Mar. Com. Letter Book, 261, 262; Mass. Spy, August 8, 1782.)

      The Americans captured in European waters and many also from this side of the ocean were sent to prisons in England. The American Commissioners in Paris began early to interest themselves in the welfare of these prisoners, and Franklin especially, until the end of the war, was untiring in his efforts to mitigate their hardships. February 23, 1777, began a correspondence of the commissioners with Stormont, the British ambassador, in regard to the exchange of prisoners, which defined the positions of the two nations on the subject at that time. They wrote: “Captain Wickes of the Reprisal frigate, belonging to the United States of America, has now in his hands near one hundred British seamen, prisoners. He desires to know whether an exchange may be made for an equal number of American seamen now prisoners in England? We take the liberty of proposing this matter to your Lordship and of requesting your opinion (if there be no impropriety in your giving it) whether such an exchange will probably be agreed to by your Court. If your people cannot be soon exchanged here, they will be sent to America.” (Sparks’s Franklin, ix, 166.)

      No reply was received to this and on April 2 they wrote again: “We did ourselves the Honour of writing some time since to your Lordship on the Subject of Exchanging Prisoners. You did not condescend to give us any Answer and therefore we expect none to this. We however take the Liberty of sending you Copies of certain Depositions, which we shall transmit to Congress, whereby it will be known to your Court that the United States are not unacquainted with the barbarous Treatment their People receive, when they have the Misfortune of being your Prisoners here in Europe. And that if your Conduct towards us is not altered, it is not unlikely that severe Reprisals may be thought justifiable, from the Necessity of putting some Check to such abominable Practices. For the sake of Humanity it is to be wish’d that Men would endeavour to alleviate as much as possible the unavoidable Misseries attending a State of War. It has been said that among the civilized Nations of Europe the ancient Horrors of that State are much diminished, but the Compelling Men by Chains, Stripes & Famine, to fight against their Friends and Relations, is a new Mode of Barbarity which your Nation alone has the Honour of inventing. And the sending American Prisoners of War to Africa and Asia, remote from all Probability of Exchange and where they can scarce hope ever to hear from their Families, even if the Unwholesomeness of the Climate does not put a speedy End to their Lives, is a manner of treating Captives that you can justify by no Precedent or Custom, except that of the black Savages of Guinea.” (Smyth’s Franklin, vii, 36.) The following message, unsigned and undated, was received in reply: “The King’s Ambassador receives no applications from rebels but when they come to implore His Majesty’s Mercy.” The commissioners then closed the correspondence: “In answer to a letter which concerns some of the most material interests of humanity and of the two nations, Great Britain and the United States of America, now at war, we received the inclosed indecent paper as coming from your Lordship, which we return for your Lordship’s, more mature consideration.” (Sparks, ix, 167.)

      Stormont sent copies of the letter of April 2 and his unsigned reply to Lord Weymouth and with them the following: “I send your Lordship a Copy of a very Extraordinary and Insolent Letter, that has just been left at my House by a Person who called himself an English Gentleman; I thought it by no means Proper to appear to have received and kept such a Letter, and therefore, My Lord, instantly sent it Back by a Savoyard, seemingly unopened, under Cover to Mr. Carmichel, who I discovered to be the Person that had brought the Letter.” (Stevens, 1507; Smyth, vii, 36.) Weymouth wrote to Stormont April 11: “I entirely approve of the note Your Excellency sent to Mr. Carmichael with the Letter you returned to him. The Style and Subject deserved no other treatment.” (Stevens, 1503, 1507, 1515; Almon, v, 371, 372, 511; Hale, i, 194-198.)

      The brig Dalton of Newburyport was taken in December, 1776, by the sixty-four-gun ship Raisonable. The crew were sent to Plymouth, England, where after a while they were transferred to the Burford of seventy guns, Captain George Bowyer. Here their fortunes, which had been hard, made a great change for the better. Each man was given an outfit of clothes and bedding, provided by the captain at his own expense. They were well fed and kindly treated. This was also the case in the hospital on shore, where the sick had the best care. After several weeks on the Burford they were transferred to another ship and early in June, 1777, to Mill Prison, near Plymouth, which had been prepared for them. They were committed on the charge of high treason, to await trial, and could only be released on receiving the King’s pardon. Two members of the Dalton’s crew, Charles Herbert and Samuel Cutler, kept journals in prison. Cutler says the ration “is 3/4 lb. beef, 1 lb. bread, 1 qt. very ordinary beer, and a few greens per man for 24 hours. The beef when boiled weighs about 6 oz. This is our allowance daily, except Saturday, when we have 6 oz. cheese instead of the beef. To sleep upon, we have a hammock, straw bed and one very thin rug . . . We are allowed every day to walk in the airing ground from 10 to 12, then locked in till 3 o’clock, then we are let out again till 7 o’clock, then in and locked up for the night.” (N. E. Hist. and Gen. Reg., April, 1878.)

      Herbert wrote, August 31: “Many are strongly tempted to pick up the grass in the yard and eat it and some pick up old bones in the yard that have been laying in the dirt a week or ten days and pound them to pieces and suck them. Some will pick up snails out of the holes in the wall and from among the grass and weeds in the yard, boil them and eat them and drink the broth . . . Our meat is very poor in general; we scarcely see a good piece once in a month. Many are driven to such necessity by want of provisions that they have sold most of the clothes off their backs for the sake of getting a little money to buy them some bread.” (Livesey’s Prisoners of 1776, 65, 66.) Some of the prisoners were able occasionally to earn a few shillings with which to buy extra food and other necessities. Andrew Sherburne, who was in Mill Prison in 1782, says there were between eight hundred and a thousand men confined there at that time (A. Sherburne, 85. For an English account, see Annual Register, xxi (1778), 78.)

      In September, 1777, an improvement began and continued for more than a year. This was due to outside causes and did not indicate any relaxation of severity on the part of the government or prison authorities. The sympathies of charitable people in London and elsewhere had been aroused and a fund was subscribed which furnished extra food and clothing (Livesey, 68, 70, 91, 92, 96.) Jonathan Archer wrote to his parents from Mill Prison, September 25, 1778: “The time seems long and teagous to me; I shall embrace every opportunity of writing. We have plenty of provisions; the gentlemen have raised a large sum of money for the relief of the Americans.” (Essex Inst. Coll., June, 1864.) Letters of Franklin to correspondents in England also did much to excite interest in the prisoners (Wharton, ii, 409, 410, 448, 492.) When the money that had been raised for their benefit had become exhausted, about the end of 1778, the old conditions returned. The prisoners hunted for rats, and if a dog strayed in, he was immediately killed and eaten. To be put upon half allowance, as many frequently were for punishment, was to be reduced nearly to the last extremity. Nevertheless, the health of the prisoners as a rule was good, and the death rate, at least for the first two years, compared with that of the New York prison-ships, was very low. Early in 1782, however, there was much sickness (Livesey, 109, 123, 166, 175, 186, 196, 201, 203, 207, 216, 218; A. Sherburne, 91.)

      After France, Spain, and Holland had become involved in the war, the prisoners from those countries were better treated than the Americans, whose allowance of bread was a third less than theirs. In the House of Lords, July 2, 1781, an effort was made to place the Americans on an equality in this respect with the French, Spanish, and Dutch, but the proposal was defeated by a vote of forty-seven to fourteen. In the course of the debate on the question it was argued “that the diet of prisoners, as persons in a state of inactivity, ought to be sparing, and that just enough to sustain life ought to be the measure of it; for that if more than enough was allowed, it would render the prisoners unhealthy by producing gross humours if they eat it, or if they sold what was superabundant, it was probable they would buy spirits with it and thereby render themselves unhealthy and unhappy.” (Almon, xii, 222, 223; Mag. Amer. Hist., June, 1882.) Very touching was this solicitude of the Lords for the health of the American prisoners. Their old enemies, the French and Spanish, might be encouraged to ruin their digestions by overeating, but in the case of their kinsmen from across the sea, it was not to be thought of.

      Captain Conyngham’s experiences in captivity have been alluded to. After his escape he wrote to Franklin from the Texel, December 1, 1779: “I shall acquaint you of the many favours I received since I became a captive. 1st, in New York, that Sir George Collier ordered irons on my legs, with a centry on board the ship. Mr. Collier going on an expedition ordered me to jaole, there put me into the condemned room. The first night a cold plank my bed a stone for a pillow. 2d night allowed a something to lay on; in this horrid room was kept for eight days without the least morsel of bread, or anything but water, from the keeper of the prison … After expostulating of the impropriety of such treatment, [the jailer] told me he had such orders, but would take it upon himself to release me on my giving him my strongest assurances I would not make my escape. I readily consented, it not being in the power of man to get out of the condemned room . . . In the prison of New York I continued till that tyrant Collier returned … Then I was told to get ready to go on board the prison-ship . . . Then a pair of criminal irons put on my legs, weight 50 pounds; at the door, put into the hangman’s cart, all in form as if bound to the gallows. I was then put into a boat and took alongside the Raisonable . . . to be sent to England in the packet. In those Irons I was brought to Pendennis Castle. Then not contented, they manacled my hands with a new fashioned pair of ruffels fitted very tite. In this condition I was kept there 15 or 16 days, then brought to Plymouth and lodged in the black hole for eight days, before they would do me the honour of committing me on suspicion of high treason on his majesties high seas; then put into Mill prison, where we committed treason through his earth and made our escape. This, Sir, is an account of their favors, insults excepted. I must acquaint your excellency that the poor unfortunate prisoners in Plymouth are in a most distressed situation.” (Hale, i, 349; Almon, viii, 340.)

      Attempts to escape from Mill Prison were numerous, sometimes by climbing over the walls, sometimes by burrowing under them, and sometimes by bribing sentries, the last generally by officers who had money. Among the officers confined at this place were Captains Manley, Talbot, Johnson, and O’Brien, and Lieutenants Dale and Barney. Of these the last four escaped, besides Conyngham; Manley and Talbot made several attempts. Most prisoners’ efforts in this direction failed, but in the aggregate a large number got off and made their way to Holland and France. At Paris they found a good friend in Franklin, who gave them money and assistance to the extent of his ability. Those who were caught after escaping were brought back, confined forty days in a dungeon called the “black hole,” and put upon half allowance of food (Livesey, 56-60, passim, 209-213; Barney, 87-102; O’Brien, 180-183; Port Folio, June, 1814; N. E. Hist. and Gen. Reg., October, 1878; Essex Inst. Coll., January, 1909; Lee MSS., February 28, 1778; Adams MSS., July 16, 1780, June 5, 1781.) Some escaped by entering the British service, yielding to inducements constantly held out to them. Those doing so were comparatively few in number, and most of them were foreigners who had served on American ships. In December, 1778, over a hundred men in Mill Prison signed an agreement to remain loyal to their country and under no circumstances to enter the British service (Livesey, 161, 163, 177, 183, 208, 221.) In June, 1778, rumors of exchange began to be heard, which for many months seemed only to hold out false hopes. In September, the American Commissioners in Paris wrote to their countrymen in English prisons that they had at last “obtained assurances from England that an exchange shall take place.” They added: “We have now obtained permission of this government to put all British prisoners – whether taken by continental frigates or by privateers – into the king’s prisons, and we are determined to treat such prisoners precisely as our countrymen are treated in England, to give them the same allowance of provisions and accommodations and no other. We therefore request you to inform us with exactness what your allowance is from the government, that we may govern ourselves accordingly.” (Wharton, ii, 729, 730.) It was not until March 15, 1779, that hopes of release were realized and ninety-seven of the inmates of Mill Prison embarked on a cartel bound for France (Livesey, 139, 141, 179, 182, 199, 200, 219, 223, 224, 233; Wharton, iii, 188. For another account of conditions on board a receiving-ship in Plymouth Harbor and in Mill Prison, see A. Sherburne, 76-100; see also journal of William Russell in Ships and Sailors of Old Salem, chs. vii, viii.)

      The brigantine Rising States sailed from Boston, January 26, 1777, and on April 15 was captured in the English Channel by the Terrible, 74, though only after a spirited resistance. Two weeks later the Terrible arrived at Spithead and the prisoners remained on board until June 14, harshly treated and on three quarters allowance. They were then removed to Forton Prison, near Portsmouth, being the first Americans to occupy it. Their experiences are told in the journal of Timothy Connor, one of the crew of the Rising States. The prison ration was three quarters of a pound of beef, a pound of bread, and a quart of small beer for twenty-four hours, and some cabbage every other day. Prisoners in the black hole, for trying to escape or other misdemeanor, had six ounces of beef, half a pound of bread, and a pint of beer. Five days after entrance the prisoners “made a large hole through the wall of the prison and eleven made their escape,” two of whom were caught and brought back. During the first six months more than sixty escaped, about half of whom were retaken. December 25, Connor says: “Now the people begin to use humanity throughout England . . . They begin to use us better. There are subscription books opened in many parts of England for our relief.” (N. E. Hist. and Gen. Reg., July, 1876.) The officers were given five shillings a week each and the men two shillings. The Reverend Thomas Wren of Portsmouth took a great interest in the prisoners and visited them daily. David Hartley, M.P., one of Franklin’s English correspondents and an old friend of his, also visited the prison. Besides the fund raised in England, Franklin sent over what money he could spare, to be used for the benefit of the prisoners. Much of this was entrusted to an American merchant in London named Digges, who a few years later turned out to be a British spy and a defaulter and who embezzled nearly all the money he had received for the use of the prisoners (Wharton, ii, 492, iii, 523, iv, 623, 645; Hale, i, ch. xi; Adams MSS., July 10, 1778.) May 12, 1778, Connor wrote in his journal: “Nothing to eat these two days but stinking beef. All the men in the prison, or at least best part of them, carried their beef back and threw it into the cook’s window, and left and went without any.” The next day the bad meat was served again, “but by the Agent’s orders it was sent back again and we got a little cheese in the room of it.” (N.E. Hist and Gen. Reg., July 1876) Captain Hinman of the Alfred and his officers were brought to Forton Prison in July, 1778, and in less than a week he and several other officers escaped. September 8, fifty-eight prisoners escaped. In March, 1779, there were two hundred and fifty-one Americans at Forton. July 2, one hundred and twenty of them were released by exchange (lbid., April, 1876, to July, 1878; Essex Inst. Coll., April, 1889; Mag. Amer. Hist., March, 1878, Matthewman’s narrative; Wharton, iii, 363. For another account of Forton Prison, see Fanning, 20-28.)

      John Howard, the English prison reformer, wrote of Forton: “At my visit, Nov. 6, 1782, I found there was no separation of the Americans from other prisoners of war, and they had the same allowance of bread, viz: one pound and a half each. There were 154 French, 83 Dutch and 133 Americans. Of these, 12 French, 25 Dutch and 9 Americans were in the hospital. The wards were not clean. No regulations hung up. I weighed several of the 6 lb. loaves and they all wanted some ounces in weight.” (Essex Inst. Coll., April, 1889, quoting from Howard’s History of Prisons.)

      In the West Indies the unhealthfulness of the climate doubtless added to the tribulations of prisoners and increased the death rate. In 1782, the privateer brig New Broom of New London was captured by a British sloop of war and taken into Antigua. One of the brig’s crew, in a narrative of the cruise, says: “We were all put on board of a prison-ship, which lay in a cove on one side of the harbor, where the heat was so severe as to be almost insupportable. We were allowed here but barely enough to sustain nature, and the water they gave us was taken out of a pond a little back of the town, in which the cattle and negroes commingled every sort of impurity, and which was rendered, on this account and from the effect of the heat upon it, so nauseous that it was impossible to drink it without holding the nostrils. I soon found that life was to be supported but for a short time here and set myself therefore about contriving some way to effect my escape from this floating place of misery and torment. The doctor came on board every morning to examine the sick, and three negro sextons every night, to bury the dead. Early one morning I swallowed tobacco juice and was so sick by the time the doctor came, that I obtained without difficulty a permit from him to go on shore to the hospital. I was soon ready to disembark, for I had been previously robbed of everything except what I had on. After arriving at the hospital, I was conducted into a long room where lay more than two hundred of the most miserable objects imaginable, covered with rags and vermin. I threw myself down on a bunk and after suffering extremely for some time from the effects of the tobacco, went to sleep, but was soon waked by a man-nurse, who told me that there was physic for me and immediately went off to another. I contrived unperceived to throw my dose out of the window and was not again disturbed, except during the following night, when I was waked several times by the carrying out of the dead. The sickness occasioned by the tobacco having now ceased, it was still necessary to keep up the deception, and accordingly the next morning I feigned lameness.” A few days later this prisoner escaped with two others; getting possession of a boat they found their way to Guadeloupe (Hist. Mag., November, 1860.) In 1779, the Marine Committee had called attention to the harsh treatment of prisoners at Antigua and urged efforts for their exchange (Mar. Com. Letter Book, 243 (October 26,1779).)

      There appears to be less available material for a study of the treatment of British prisoners by the Americans. Before France became involved in the war the disposal of prisoners taken by American cruisers in European waters was attended with difficulties, because the French government would not allow them to be brought into the ports of that country, regarding it as a violation of neutrality to receive them. It was, therefore, often necessary to release them. Franklin and Deane advised the commanders of American ships to take from their prisoners, before letting them go, a signed acknowledgment of the fact that they had been captured. They hoped to secure in return the release of an equal number of American prisoners, but the British government would not admit any obligation in such cases, and indeed refused to honor formal paroles, except under certain circumstances. After France had begun hostilities, American vessels could bring their prisoners into port, but there was no provision for their reception until, after long delay, they were admitted into French prisons. Meanwhile it was necessary to keep them on shipboard under conditions of great discomfort, if not of actual suffering. The prisoners brought into Brest by the Ranger in May, 1778, were confined many months on one of her prizes and made bitter complaints of their situation. Captain Jones exerted himself as far as possible for their welfare, but was very unwilling to release them without exchange. Franklin supplied as well as he could the wants of the British prisoners in France. In February, 1780, he wrote to one of his English correspondents, enclosing the account of his agent at L’Orient, “for clothing one hundred and thirteen English prisoners last April,” and adding: “Not that I expect anything from your government on that account towards clothing such of our people with you as may be in want of it. The refusal of compliance with the paroles of prisoners set at liberty have taught me to flatter myself no more with expectations that a thing may be done because it is humane or equitable, and reasonable that it should be done. I only desire it may be considered as a small but grateful acknowledgment, all hitherto in my power, for the kindness shown by your charitable subscriptions to our poor people. It may perhaps be some satisfaction to those subscribers to know that, while they thought only of relieving Americans, they were at the same time occasioning some relief to distressed Englishmen.” (Wharton, iii, 522.) When the exchange of prisoners had become an established procedure, the number of English in France must have been comparatively small and their stay short, for the British policy was to keep many American prisoners in England, bringing them from New York 9lbid., ii, 428, 581, 724, iii, 73, 488, 491, 535, 536, iv, 410; Hale, i, 351-362; Sands, 104, 105, 148; Mass. Spy, January 4, 1781.)

      The Continental vessels Reprisal, Lexington, and Dolphin made a cruise in the English Channel and Irish Sea in 1777 and took several prizes. According to a dispatch from Whitehaven, June 26, 1777, “the people in general speak in the warmest terms of the humane treatment they met with from the commanders of the Reprisal and Lexington, both of whom endeavored to make the situation of their prisoners as easy as their circumstances would admit.” (Boston Gazette, October 6, 1777.)

      Quite different from this was the treatment of Captain Richard Cassedy of the British ship Priscilla by a prize crew put on board his vessel from the American privateer General Mifflin, which captured the Priscilla off the Irish coast in July, 1777. All his men having been transferred to the Mifflin, he was left alone at the mercy of a brutal prize crew. “These sons of freedom seized all the captain’s clothes that were worth anything and £88 in cash.” He was “bound hand and foot and put into confinement. In this miserable situation he remained until the 19th of July, when his vessel was retook by the Union, letter of marque, of London . . . Captain Cassedy was in a very poor state of health … and not able to stand, through the cruel treatment he received. His remaining so long bound occasioned his flesh to swell to a shocking degree. All his prayers and intreaties were in vain; the inhuman tyrants had no compassion.” (Liverpool paper quoted in Williams, 210.)

      The treatment of British prisoners in America varied according to place and circumstances. There were prison-ships at Boston, New London, and doubtless other towns, and jails on shore were used (Boston Post, June 15, 1782; Mass. Court Rec., January 20, 1778; Mass. Rev. Rolls, viii, ix, xliv.) Captain Henry Barnes and his crew, captured with his vessel on the passage from Barbadoes to England by the American privateer Montgomery in 1776 and taken to Rhode Island, were “treated with the greatest kindness and civility.” (Almon, iv, 159,160.) A letter from Boston, in 1777, says: “Hard as my case may appear to be, I bear it with patience. From the 3d day of my captivity I have, with near ninety others, been confined a close prisoner in a jail at this place lately erected, called the New-prison. The Americans treat us very cavalierly. The provisions we are allowed is barely sufficient to subsist on. My effects, to the amount of upwards of £300. have been taken from me and the bed I lie on is a bundle of straw.” (London Chronicle, September 2, 1777.) A letter from New London, a few months later, says: “They behave very well to us.” (lbid., January 6, 1778.) A better reputation is given to Boston by an English shipmaster who had been exchanged. He writes: “The treatment of the English prisoners there is exceedingly humane and kind.” (lbid., January 8, 1778.)

      The situation of British marine prisoners at Philadelphia was possibly not always what it should have been, though as a rule not bad; their treatment was perhaps at times, but only in special instances, governed by a spirit of retaliation for the distress of Americans on the New York prison-ships. Admiral Arbuthnot wrote to John Jay, President of Congress, August 30, 1779, complaining that two British officers were “in close and cruel confinement at Philadelphia. I request that you will assign satisfactory reasons for this treatment, that no improper retaliation may take place here on our part.” (Pap. Cont. Congr., 78, 1, 313 (August 30, 1779) Congress investigated the case of these two officers and found the reports of their ill-treatment untrue. Just at this time, on account of the barbarous persecution of Conyngham in New York, the Marine Committee ordered against another British officer retaliatory measures which had recently been voted in Congress, after a vain appeal to Commodore Collier (Mar. Com. Letter Book, 230 (August 31, 1779); Almon, viii, 340, 341; Jour. Cont. Congr., July 17, 29, September 17, 1779.) Arbuthnot wrote to Washington, April 21, 1781, again complaining of the treatment of British naval prisoners, saying: “Permit me now, Sir, to request that you will take the proper steps to cause Mr. Bradford, your commissary, and the jailor at Philadelphia, to abate that inhumanity which they exercise indiscriminately upon all people, who are so unfortunate as to be carried into that place. I will not trouble you, Sir, with a catalogue of grievances further than to request that the unfortunate may feel as little of the severities of war as the circumstances of the time will permit; that in future they may not be fed in winter with salted clams and that they may be afforded a sufficiency of fuel.” (Washington, ix, 120, 121. No further information relating to the treatment of British prisoners has been discovered.)

      At last, in the spring of 1782, Franklin was able to inform Jay that the British Parliament had passed “an act for exchanging American prisoners. They have near eleven hundred in the jails of England and Ireland, all committed as charged with high treason. The act is to empower the king, notwithstanding such commitments, to consider them as prisoners of war, according to the law of nations, and exchange them as such. This seems to be giving up their pretensions of considering us as rebellious subjects and is a kind of acknowledgment of our independence. Transports are now taking up to carry back to their country the poor, brave fellows who have borne for years their cruel captivity, rather than serve our enemies, and an equal number of English are to be delivered up in return.” (Wharton, v, 326.) The British ministry now ordered the exchange of all American prisoners. A year later, April, 1783, came proclamations of the Continental Congress and the British commanders in New York, the latter a day or two in the lead, for the suspension of hostilities and the release of all prisoners of war 9lbid., 439, 512, 548, 556, vi, 369, 375, 377.)

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