Sunday, December 29, 2019

Episode 129 Prisoners of War

Following the New York campaign the British found themselves with thousands of American prisoners of war.

The Geneva Convention guaranteeing certain rights to prisoners of war was still more than a century in the future.  In the 18th Century, European armies typically took good care of enemy officers.  Sometimes enemy soldiers fared well, but sometimes not.  It was up to the captors how they wanted to treat their prisoners.  It was not unheard of simply to execute enemy prisoners under their care.

In the case of the Revolution, the British often did not consider captives even to be enemy prisoners.  They were British rebels.  Rebels or traitors, deserved execution, and not even quick executions.  Traditionally, the government used drawing and quartering, or other brutal deaths.  Of course, Gen. Howe was not going to start drawing and quartering people, but their lives and well being also were not a terribly high concern for the British leadership.

Condition on Prison Ship Jersey (from 13th Floor)
The British had thousands of prisoners from the capture of Fort Washington and from other battles fought in and around New York.  The navy also captured many more on American privateers, most of whom ended up in New York City.  Men were dumped into prison ships in New York harbor or in warehouses along the docks where they lived, sometimes for years in filth and cramped conditions, causing disease to kill many of them some estimates put the death rate as high as 70%.

Joshua Loring was responsible for the care of the prisoners.  General Howe was sleeping with his wife  Part of the tacit agreement the two men seemed to have was that Loring would ignore the affair and Howe would ignore what Loring did with the prisoners.  Loring received money to feed the prisoners, but pocketed most of it.  The prisoners often received spoiled food which only made them sick.  In some cases, they received no food at all, causing them to die from starvation.

Records are far from complete, but over the course of the war, even the most conservative estimates show that far more than 10,000 prisoners died while in captivity in New York, more than all battlefield deaths combined.  Some estimate the number of deaths at two or three times that amount.  The British dumped most of the dead unceremoniously into New York harbor, where their bones washed ashore for decades to come.  Others were buried in mass graves, often along with garbage.


Most patriot officers were treated little better than enlisted men.  Armies tended to treat officers better because they were gentlemen.  Captors could rely on their word that they would not try to escape, and could grant them relative freedom of movement and better conditions.  The British, however, did not hold in regard many American officers, who they did not consider gentlemen.  They were often farmers, shopkeepers and other workers from the same background as the enlisted men.  Initially, many captured officers received the same treatment as soldiers, held in the same prisons.

Van Cortlandt's Sugar House
Prison (from Wikimedia)
Over time, as the British settled into New York, they began separating officers into better quarters.  Even so, American officers were often crowded into rooms well beyond capacity.  The British crammed captured officers into small private homes around the city, which already suffered from housing shortages.

Captain Jabez Fitch, captured at the battle of Long Island, reported being kept in a house with two small downstairs rooms and one upstairs room that housed two dozen officers. Worse than the crowded living conditions were food rations.  The British army called for prisoners to receive two-thirds of a standard soldier rations.  Some modern calculations have determined this would give the average prisoner less than 1700 calories per day, not enough to sustain body weight for most men.  That, of course, was if they got what they were supposed to get.  The result of food shortages and corrupt officials resulted in prisoners receiving even less food most of the time.  Prisoners began to weaken and became more prone to disease.  After a short time, many began to die.

Officers could sometimes get permission to leave the home where they were held to purchase extra food at a market.  But that, of course, necessitated having money to do so.  Many had to rely on the sympathetic charity of local New Yorkers, most of whom were loyalists who barely had enough to feed themselves.

By fall 1776, General Howe permitted captured officers to walk around town during daylight hours without special permission.  Most, however, reported abuse by civilian Tories, as well as British and Hessian soldiers.  Enemy officers regularly suffered beatings and robberies if seen on the streets.  By early 1777, some officers were permitted to take parole on Long Island, if they could afford to pay room and board.  By that time, many had already died from harsh conditions in the city and many more remained terribly ill for months.

American General Samuel Parsons tried to get approval in the spring of 1777 to launch an invasion of Long Island, in part to liberate American prisoners living there.  General Washington expressed reservations, fearing that it would mean future prisoners would not be granted the liberty to stay on Long Island and that they would be put back in more cramped quarters in New York City.  He put the plan on hold.

Later that summer, after much of the British force left for Philadelphia, Parsons once again sought approval for an attack on Long Island, not only to liberate prisoners but also to capture Tories and destroy supplies needed to feed the British in New York.  I will cover the details of this raid in a future episode, but for now I’ll just say the result was as Washington feared, The British moved captured officers living on Long Island back to a prison ship in New York Harbor.  After a few weeks, however, they once again considered Long Island secure and returned the prisoners to the farms and villages where they had been living.

Enlisted Men

If things were bad for the officers, they were so much worse for enlisted men.  In addition to the prison ships, the British crammed hundreds, sometimes more than a thousand prisoners into buildings along the wharf.  One of the most notorious was the Sugar-house prison.  There were actually at least three sugar-houses in New York that the British converted into prisons.  These were large stone buildings once used to make rum from imported sugar.

Sugar House and Dutch Church, both used as prisons
(from Wikimedia)
Many others were housed in various churches around town.  All churches except Anglican churches became prisons for captured rebels.

Prisoners had already been beaten, stripped of clothes, blankets, and anything else of value before reaching the prison.  Most had to sleep on the floor, avoiding puddles of feces and urine left by the prisoners.  What little food they received was usually rotten or infested with vermin.  Some soldiers reported trying to boil out the vermin if possible before choking down the food.  Prisoners quickly formed into gangs where the strong preyed on the weak for scraps of food and anything else.

On top of that, the guards showed little mercy.  They did not recognize those in the prisons as prisoners of war.  To the guards, they were rebels and traitors, worse than common criminals. The commonly held view was that these men should simply be hanged and stop wasting resources. There are stories of guards kicking bowls of soup that civilians had left for the prisoners.  One prisoner asked a guard whether he might get some paper and writing materials to get word to his family.  In response, the guard ran him through with his sword, killing him.  Guards gratuitously beat prisoners, sometimes to death.

Abuse, cold, hunger, and disease quickly took their toll.  Prisoners died in large numbers.  Many prisons reported more than a dozen deaths each morning.  Corpses were left in the street to be hauled away for burial in mass graves or simply tossed into the harbor with the garbage.  An estimated two thirds of the prisoners captured at Fort Washington met their end in this way.  Many more thousands would die in the coming years as conditions did not improve much.  Some got moved to prison ships in the harbor.

Prison Ship Jersey (from Wikimedia)
Many ships that had transported troops to New York were no longer seaworthy, but could still hold men in their cold dark windowless hulls.  Some prisoners survived in these conditions for years.  That same year, Parliament had approved use of decommissioned ships to hold convicted criminals in London.  Many Whigs complained about the inhuman conditions of being held aboard ships with no light or fresh air.  The use of prison ships, in both London and New York became common and remained in place for years.

Prisoners did have one option to get out of these nightmarish conditions.  They could swear an oath of allegiance to the King and join the royal navy.  Very few took advantage of this option.  The notion of betraying their cause was one reason.  But the fact that the life of a British sailor was only slightly better than prisoner may have had an impact on their decision as well.  Given the horrific conditions of prison though, many British officers were surprised at how few soldiers agreed to switch sides.  They were not used to enlisted men who fought for principle.

The two sides did not engage in large scale prisoner exchanges until after the capture of Burgoyne’s army in late 1777.  So, for the time being, most prisoners were stuck without hope of release.

Prisoner Negotiations

Over the winter, General Washington began to receive reports of the horrific treatment that the British inflicted on captured prisoners being held in New York.  For a time, Washington could not respond.  Remember that he spent most of December 1776 trying to keep his retreating army together as its dwindling numbers fled to Philadelphia.  Then he spent several weeks in active combat fighting the first and second battles of Trenton and the battle of Princeton.

John Witherspoon
(from Wikimedia)
By mid-January 1777, General Washington found the time to write a scathing letter to General Howe complaining of the treatment and including affidavits from former prisoners.  Washington indicated that continued cruel treatment might result in acts of retaliation on loyalist civilians or British and Hessian prisoners under American control.  Having taken nearly 1000 mostly Hessian prisoners over the previous few weeks, General Washington now had some bargaining chips.  Even so, Washington did not propose a prisoner exchange.  When Howe proposed one in May, Washington declined. He knew that captured British soldiers were much more difficult to replace than captured Americans.  He also knew that exchanges would simply incentivize the British to capture more patriot militia and civilians for use in trade.

Most of the captured Hessians, after spending some time in Philadelphia ended up being shipped further west, where they stayed with German speaking communities in western Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia.  This was far enough inland that they had little hope of escaping back to the front lines.  Many of them found jobs and helped to counter the labor shortage.  Many communities had sent their men off to war and needed help with farming and manufacturing.  In some cases, prisoners spent their nights in custody and then went out during the day to work at jobs.  In other cases, a prisoner might live with a family on a farm responsible for his custody and would work and live on that farm.

Over the course of the war, as many as 3000 captured Hessians and other German speaking soldiers declined to return home when offered the chance.  They found life in America was better than the places they had left and opted to become Americans.

In response to Washington’s letters, Howe simply denied any ill treatment.  He claimed the number of deaths were exaggerated, that foul conditions were the result of prisoners’ own “indolence” in keeping their cells clean, and that no prisoner had complained to him or his officers about mistreatment.

In January, Congress appointed a committee to investigate prisoner abuse by the British.  Samuel Chase of Maryland chaired the committee. John Witherspoon, a New Jersey delegate did most of the work of taking testimony from former prisoners and preparing the final report which Congress published in May.  Newspapers published portions of the report all over the continent, with the expected result of increased animosity toward Britain’s barbaric treatment of prisoners.

Elias Boudinot
(from Wikimedia)
Congress also appointed a Commissary General.  They could not find an officer interested in the job.  After all, a bureaucratic position like that offered little opportunity to heroics and advancement.  Washington finally convinced a civilian Elias Boudinot to take the job, although he didn’t really want the job either.  Boudinot, a prosperous New Jersey lawyer, may have been recommended by one of Washington’s junior aides, Alexander Hamilton.  Hamilton had boarded with Boudinot before the war when he was a college student.  Boudinot would be responsible for taking care of prisoners captured by the Continentals, as well as getting food, clothing, money, and other necessities to American prisoners in British hands.

Boudinot was also already acquainted with John Pintard, a New York merchant who agreed to serve as a resident agent to the prisoners in New York.  Both Boudinot and Pintard had married sisters of Richard Stockton, a New Jersey delegate to the Continental Congress.  Stockton, of course, was a prisoner himself at this time, as I discussed back in Episode 118.  Pintard had fled to New Jersey when the British invaded New York.  General Howe would not allow him to return in any official capacity since that would recognize the Continental Congress as a legitimate body.  However, Howe did give him permission to return to New York City in late April.  Pintard was able to work in an unofficial capacity to provide prisoners with supplies.

The next problem, of course, was that the Continental Congress had no supplies for the prisoners.  They gave Pintard some paper money they had printed, but no one in New York would accept what they regarded as worthless paper.  Most of the money he did raise went straight to Joshua Loring, to pay off debts for the food Loring had already provided to the prisoners.

Boudinet ended up spending a great deal of his personal money, as well as money borrowed from friends on his personal promise.  This allowed him to buy and distribute some items, but not nearly enough to be adequate.  I’ll leave discussion of other prisoner issues later in the war to future episodes.  But suffice it to say, American prisoners in British custody never had an easy time of it.

Prisoner Charles Lee

One prisoner who escaped such ill treatment was General Charles Lee.  As I mentioned back in Episode 118, The British capture of Lee was seen as the greatest British victory of the war up to that point. Lee’s first month or so was pretty harsh, held in chains and closely monitored as the leadership determined whether or not to treat him as a deserter.

After a few weeks of harsh treatment, General Howe changed the handling of this valuable prisoner.  He moved Lee from North Jersey into New York City.  There, he gave Lee comfortable quarters, and a generous food allowance.  Although he would not give Lee parole, he allowed him to have dinner guests of other British officers.

Charles Lee
(from Wikimedia)
As a former British officer, many officers treated him as a colleague when he arrived in mid-January 1777.  In London, Lord Germain instructed that Lee be returned to London for trial as a deserter.  Howe, though, refused to ship him across the Atlantic, after determining that Lee had resigned his commission before joining the Continental Army.

Lee’s treatment was not just Howe being nice.  Howe initially planned to ship Lee back to London in compliance with instructions.  He cancelled the plans after receiving notice from Washington, warning Howe that he was holding five Hessian officers and one British officer that he would treat in the same way Lee was treated.  If Lee went back to London for trial and execution, Washington would execute his prisoners.  This was the same thing Washington had done to protect Colonel Ethan Allen, who had been shipped back to London for trial and presumably execution as a traitor, but who was on his way back to America to join other prisoners in New York later that year.

The British kept Lee under constant guard.  He was too valuable a prisoner.  But he lived in relative comfort with a warm room and plenty of food.  He dined everyday with other British officers discussing the war, politics, and other matters.  The British even allowed the Americans to send over one of his dogs, as well as his personal servant.

Both General Howe and Admiral Howe dined with Lee on multiple occasions.  They were still looking for a peaceful settlement of the war, and hoped to use Lee to find a way to make that happen.  They allowed Lee to correspond with Congress and see if he could open up lines of discussion for negotiation.  Congress, however, did not bite, and refused to respond positively to any of Lee’s overtures.

Lee seemed happy to boast of his abilities and to criticize Washington’s leadership to British officers.  He even went so far as to draft a document recommending to General Howe a plan of attack against the Continental Army.  That plan, which bears some similarity to Howe’s actual plan of attack later that year, suggested Howe move his army by ship down to Maryland and cut off the southern states from the Continental Army.

It is unclear exactly what motivated Lee to provide the enemy with war plans.  Some have argued that it was an attempt to trick Howe into making this stupid move, which eventually resulted in him being removed from command.  I don’t think that is the case though.  I think this had more to do with Lee’s own ego.  He thought he was a brilliant strategist who could develop a plan of victory for either side.  This plan was simply proof of his brilliance.

In any event, Lee’s apparent cooperation with the enemy did not seem to land him in any trouble when he was exchanged more than a year later.  He would rejoin the Continental Army as one of its top generals in 1778.  Meanwhile thousands of other officers and men would linger in deplorable conditions for many years.  Many more soldiers and sailors would die in New York prisons than on all the battlefields of the war combined.

Next week: We head south again as Florida loyalists attack Georgia patriot forces at Fort McIntosh.

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Next Episode 130 Fort McIntosh

Previous Episode 128 Fort Independence

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Further Reading


Compeau, Timothy J. Prisoners of War:

The HMS Jersey

Getty, Katie Turner “Misadventures in the Countryside: Escape from a British Prison” Journal of the American Revolution, May 7, 2019

Getty, Katie Turner “Walking Skeletons: Starvation On Board The Jersey Prison Ship” Journal of the American Revolution, March 11, 2019:

Getty, Katie Turner “Death Had Almost Lost Its Sting: Disease On The Prison Ship Jersey” Journal of the American Revolution, January 10, 2019:

O'Malley, Brian P. “1776-The Horror Show” Journal of the American Revolution, Jan. 29, 2019:

Wroblewski, Joseph E. “Elias Boudinot IV: America’s First Commissary General Of Prisoners”  Journal of the American Revolution, April 23, 2018

Dacus, Jeff “Charles Lee: The Gift of Controversy” Journal of the Am. Rev. Dec. 2013:

Knight, Betsy “Prisoner Exchange and Parole in the American Revolution” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 2 (Apr., 1991), pp. 201-222: (free to read with registration).

PODCAST Katie Turner Getty discusses life aboard New York Prison ships:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

The Detail and Conduct of the American War, under Generals Gage, Howe, Burgoyne, and Vice Admiral Lord Howe, (original reports and letters) The Royal Exchange, 1780.

The claim of Trinity church to having furnished burial places for some of the American prisoners, who died in the old Sugar house prison, New York, Privately Published, 1863.

Dandridge, Danske American Prisoners of the Revolution, The Michie Company, 1911.

Dring, Thomas Recollections of the Jersey Prison-ship, New York: P.M. Davis, 1831.

Johnston, Henry The Campaign of 1776 Around New York and Brooklyn, 1878.

Langworthy, Edward (ed) The Life and Memoirs of the Late Major General Lee, New York: Richard Scott, 1813.

Onderdonk, Henry Revolutionary incidents of Suffolk and Kings Counties; with an account of the Battle of Long Island and the British prisons and prison-ships at New York, New York: Leavitt & Co. 1849.

Moore, George H. The Treason of Charles Lee, New York: Charles Scribner, 1860.

Stiles, Henry Reed, Letters from the prisons and prison-ships of the revolution. New York: Privately Published, 1865.

Taylor, George Martyrs to the revolution in the British prison-ships in the Wallabout Bay, New York W.H. Arthur & Co. 1855.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Burrows, Edwin G. Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War, New York: Basic Books, 2008 (Book recommendation of the week).

Jones, T. Cole Captives of Liberty: Prisoners of War and the Politics of Vengeance in the American Revolution, Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2019.

Lowenthal, Larry Hell on the East River: British Prison Ships in the American Revolution Perfect, Purple Mountain Press, 2009.

Mazzagetti, Dominick Charles Lee: Self Before Country, Rutgers Univ. Press, 2013.

Papas, Phillip Renegade Revolutionary: The Life of General Charles Lee, New York NYU Press, 2014.

Watson, Robert P. The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn: An Untold Story of the American Revolution, New York, De Capo Press, 2017.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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