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American Prisoners Of The Revolution
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“The bread was mostly mouldy, and filled with worms. It required considerable rapping upon the deck, before these worms could be dislodged from their lurking places in a biscuit.” – Ebenezer Fox
The writer of this book has been interested for many years in the subject of the sufferings of the American prisoners of the Revolution. Finding the information she sought widely scattered, she has, for her own use, and for that of all students of the subject, gathered all the facts she could obtain within the covers of this volume. There is little that is original in the compilation. The reader will find that extensive use has been made of such narratives as that Captain Dring has left us. The accounts could have been given in the compiler’s own words, but they would only, thereby, have lost in strength. The original narratives are all out of print, very scarce and hard to obtain, and the writer feels justified in reprinting them in this collection, for the sake of the general reader interested in the subject, and not able to search for himself through the mass of original material, some of which she has only discovered after months of research. Her work has mainly consisted in abridging these records, collected from so many different sources.
The writer desires to express her thanks to the courteous librarians of the Library of Congress and of the War and Navy Departments; to Dr. Langworthy for permission to publish his able and interesting paper on the subject of the prisons in New York, and to many others who have helped her in her task.
It is with no desire to excite animosity against a people whose blood is in our veins that we publish this volume of facts about some of the Americans, seamen and soldiers, who were so unfortunate as to fall into the hands of the enemy during the period of the Revolution. We have concealed nothing of the truth, but we have set nothing down in malice, or with undue recrimination.
It is for the sake of the martyrs of the prisons themselves that this work has been executed. It is because we, as a people, ought to know what was endured; what wretchedness, what relentless torture, even unto death, was nobly borne by the men who perished by thousands in British prisons and prison ships of the Revolution; it is because we are in danger of forgetting the sacrifice they made of their fresh young lives in the service of their country; because the story has never been adequately told, that we, however unfit we may feel ourselves for the task, have made an effort to give the people of America some account of the manner in which these young heroes, the flower of the land, in the prime of their vigorous manhood, met their terrible fate.
Too long have they lain in the ditches where they were thrown, a cart-full at a time, like dead dogs, by their heartless murderers, unknown, unwept, unhonored, and unremembered. Who can tell us their names? What monument has been raised to their memories?
It is true that a beautiful shaft has lately been erected to the martyrs of the Jersey prison ship, about whom we will have very much to say. But it is improbable that even the place of interment of the hundreds of prisoners who perished in the churches, sugar houses, and other places used as prisons in New York in the early years of the Revolution, can now be discovered. We know that they were, for the most part, dumped into ditches dug on the outskirts of the little city, the New York of 1776. These ditches were dug by American soldiers, as part of the entrenchments, during Washington’s occupation of Manhattan in the spring of 1776. Little did these young men think that they were, in some cases, literally digging a grave for themselves.
More than a hundred and thirty years have passed since the victims of Cunningham’s cruelty and rapacity were starved to death in churches consecrated to the praise and worship of a God of love. It is a tardy recognition that we are giving them, and one that is most imperfect, yet it is all that we can now do. The ditches where they were interred have long ago been filled up, built over, and intersected by streets. Who of the multitude that daily pass to and fro over the ground that should be sacred ever give a thought to the remains of the brave men beneath their feet, who perished that they might enjoy the blessings of liberty?
Republics are ungrateful; they have short memories; but it is due to the martyrs of the Revolution that some attempt should be made to tell to the generations that succeed them who they were, what they did, and why they suffered so terribly and died so grimly, without weakening, and without betraying the cause of that country which was dearer to them than their lives.
We have, for the most part, limited ourselves to the prisons and prison ships in the city and on the waters of New York. This is because such information as we have been able to obtain concerning the treatment of American prisoners by the British relates, almost entirely, to that locality.
It is a terrible story that we are about to narrate, and we warn the lover of pleasant books to lay down our volume at the first page. We shall see Cunningham, that burly, red-faced ruffian, the Provost Marshal, wreaking his vengeance upon the defenceless prisoners in his keeping, for the assault made upon him at the outbreak of the war, when he and a companion who had made themselves obnoxious to the republicans were mobbed and beaten in the streets of New York. He was rescued by some friends of law and order, and locked up in one of the jails which was soon to be the theatre of his revenge. We shall narrate the sufferings of the American prisoners taken at the time of the battle of Long Island, and after the surrender of Fort Washington, which events occurred, the first in August, the second in November of the year 1776.
What we have been able to glean from many sources, none of which contradict each other in any important point, about the prisons and prison ships in New York, with a few narratives written by those who were imprisoned in other places, shall fill this volume. Perhaps others, far better fitted for the task, will make the necessary researches, in order to lay before the American people a statement of what took place in the British prisons at Halifax, Charleston, Philadelphia, the waters off the coast of Florida, and other places, during the eight years of the war. It is a solemn and affecting duty that we owe to the dead, and it is in no light spirit that we, for our part, begin our portion of the task.
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