Ethan Allen’s Account Of The Prisoners

“Those who had the misfortune to fall into the enemy’s hands at Fort Washington were reserved from immediate death to famish and die with hunger: in fine the word rebel was thought by the enemy sufficient to sanctify whatever cruelties they were pleased to inflict, death itself not excepted.” – Ethan Allen

The doctor spoken of by Jabez Fitch as Dr. Dibuke is perhaps the notorious character described by Mr. Elias Boudinot in the Journal from which we have already quoted. On page 35 of this book he gives us the following:

“When the British Army took possession of New York they found a Frenchman in Goal, under Condemnation for Burglery and Robbery. He was liberated. He was a very loos, ignorant man. Had been a Servant. This fellow was set over our Prisoners in the Hospital, as a Surgeon, though he knew not the least principle of the Art. Dr. McHenry, a Physician of note in the American Army, and then a Prisoner, finding the extreme ignorance of this man, and that he was really murdering our people, remonstrated to the British Director of the Hospital, and refused visiting our sick Prisoners if this man was not dismissed. A British Officer, convinced that he had killed several of our People, lodged a complaint against him, when he was ordered to be tryed by a Court Martial, but the morning before the Court were to set, this Officer was ordered off to St Johns, and the Criminal was discharged for want of Evidence. During this man having the Charge of our Prisoners in the Hospital, two of our Men deserted from the Hospital and came into our Army when they were ordered to me for Examination. They Joined in this story. That they were sick in the Hospital under the care of the above Frenchman. That he came and examined them, and gave to each of them a dose of Physick to be taken immediately. A Young Woman, their Nurse, made them some private signs not to take the Physick immediately. After the Doctor was gone, she told them she suspected the Powder was poison. That she had several times heard this Frenchman say that he would have ten Rebels dead in such a Room and five dead in such a Room the next morning, and it always so happened. They asked her what they should do: She told them their only chance was to get off, sick as they were, that she would help them out and they must shift for themselves. They accordingly got off safe, and brought the Physick with them. This was given to a Surgeon’s Mate, who afterwards reported that he gave it to a Dog, and that he died in a very short time. I afterwards saw an account in a London Paper of this same Frenchman being taken up in England for some Crime and condemned to dye. At his Execution he acknowledged the fact of his having murdered a great number of Rebels in the Hospitals at New York by poyson. That on his reporting to General Howe the number of the Prisoners dead, he raised his pay. He further confessed that he poisoned the wells used by the American Flying Camp, which caused such an uncommon Mortality among them in the year 1776.”

Jabez Fitch seems to have been mistaken in thinking that General Robertson instead of Lord Howe was commanding in New York at this time.

We will now give the account written by a Tory gentleman, who lived in New York during a part of the Revolution, of Loring, the Commissary of Prisons, appointed by General Howe in 1776. Judge Thomas Jones was a noted loyalist of the day. Finding it inconvenient to remain in this country after the war, he removed to England, where he died in 1792, having first completed his “History of New York during the Revolution.” He gives a much larger number of prisoners in that city in the year 1776 than do any of the other authorities. We will, however, give his statements just as they were written.

“Upon the close of the campaign in 1776 there were not less than 10,000 prisoners (Sailors included) within the British lines in New York. A Commissary of Prisoners was therefore appointed, and one Joshua Loring, a Bostonian, was commissioned to the office with a guinea a day, and rations of all kinds for himself and family. In this appointment there was reciprocity. Loring had a handsome wife. The General, Sir William Howe, was fond of her. Joshua made no objections. He fingered the cash: the General enjoyed Madam. Everybody supposing the next campaign (should the rebels ever risk another) would put a final period to the rebellion. Loring was determined to make the most of his commission and by appropriating to his own use nearly two thirds of the rations allowed the prisoners, he actually starved to death about three hundred of the poor wretches before an exchange took place, and which was not until February, 1777, and hundreds that were alive at the time were so emaciated and enfeebled for the want of provisions, that numbers died on the road on their way home, and many lived but a few days after reaching their habitations. The war continuing, the Commissaryship of Prisoners grew so lucrative that in 1778 the Admiral thought proper to appoint one for naval prisoners. Upon the French War a Commissary was appointed for France. When Spain joined France another was appointed for Spain. When Great Britain made war upon Holland a Commissary was appointed for Dutch prisoners. Each had his guinea a day, and rations for himself and family. Besides, the prisoners were half starved, as the Commissaries filched their provisions, and disposed of them for their own use. It is a known fact, also, that whenever an exchange was to take place the preference was given to those who had, or could procure, the most money to present to the Commissaries who conducted the exchange, by which means large sums of money were unjustly extorted and demanded from the prisoners at every exchange, to the scandal and disgrace of Britons. We had five Commissaries of Prisoners, when one could have done all the business. Each Commissary had a Deputy, a Clerk, a Messenger in full pay, with rations of every kind.”

As Judge Jones was an ardent Tory we would scarcely imagine that he would exaggerate in describing the corruptions of the commissaries. He greatly deplored the cruelties with which he taxed General Howe and other officials, and declared that these enormities prevented all hopes of reconciliation with Great Britain.

We will next quote from the “Life of Ethan Allen,” written by himself, as he describes the condition of the prisoners in the churches in New York, more graphically than any of his contemporaries.

ETHAN ALLEN’S ACCOUNT OF THE AMERICAN PRISONERS

“Our number, about thirty-four, were all locked up in one common large room, without regard to rank, education, or any other accomplishment, where we continued from the setting to the rising sun, and as sundry of them were infected with the gaol and other distempers, the furniture of this spacious room consisted principally of excrement tubs. We petitioned for a removal of the sick into hospitals, but were denied. We remonstrated against the ungenerous usage of being confined with the privates, as being contrary to the laws and customs of nations, and particularly ungrateful in them, in consequence of the gentleman-like usage which the British imprisoned officers met with in America; and thus we wearied ourselves petitioning and remonstrating, but o no purpose at all; for General Massey, who commanded at Halifax, was as inflexible as the d—l himself. * * * Among the prisoners were five who had a legal claim to a parole, James Lovel, Esq; Captain Francis Proctor; a Mr. Rowland, Master of a Continental armed vessel; a Mr. Taylor, his mate, and myself. * * * The prisoners were ordered to go on board of a man-of-war, which was bound for New York, but two of them were not able to go on board and were left in Halifax: one died and the other recovered. This was about the 12th of October, 1776. * * * We arrived before New York and cast an anchor the latter part of October, where we remained several days, and where Captain Smith informed me that he had recommended me to Admiral Howe, and General Sir Wm. Howe, as a gentleman of honor and veracity, and desired that I might be treated as such. Captain Burk was then ordered on board a prison ship in the harbor. I took my leave of Captain Smith, and with the other prisoners was sent on board a transport ship. * * * Some of the last days of November the prisoners were landed at New York, and I was admitted to parole with the other officers, viz: Proctor, Rowland, and Taylor. The privates were put into the filthy churches in New York, with the distressed prisoners that were taken at Fort Washington, and the second night Sergeant Roger Moore, who was bold and enterprising, found means to make his escape, with every of the remaining prisoners that were taken with me, except three who were soon after exchanged: so that out of thirty-one prisoners who went with me the round exhibited in these sheets, two only died with the enemy, and three only were exchanged, one of whom died after he came within our lines. All the rest at different times made their escape from the enemy.

“I now found myself on parole, and restricted to the limits of the city of New York, where I soon projected means to live in some measure agreeable to my rank, though I was destitute of cash. My constitution was almost worn out by such a long and barbarous captivity. * * * In consequence of a regular diet and exercise my blood recruited, and my nerves in a great measure recovered their former tone * * * in the course of six months.

“* * * Those who had the misfortune to fall into the enemy’s hands at Fort Washington * * * were reserved from immediate death to famish and die with hunger:  in fine the word rebel’ was thought by the enemy sufficient to sanctify whatever cruelties they were pleased to inflict, death itself not excepted. * * *

“The prisoners who were brought to New York were crowded into churches, and environed with slavish Hessian guards, a people of a strange language * * * and at other times by merciless Britons, whose mode of communicating ideas being unintelligible in this country served only to tantalize and insult the helpless and perishing; but above all the hellish delight and triumph of the tories over them, as they were dying by hundreds. This was too much for me to bear as a spectator; for I saw the tories exulting over the dead bodies of their countrymen. I have gone into the churches and seen sundry of the prisoners in the agonies of death, in consequence of very hunger; and others speechless and near death, biting pieces of chips; others pleading, for God’s sake for something to eat, and at the same time shivering with the cold. Hollow groans saluted my ears, and despair seemed to be imprinted on every of their countenances. The filth in these churches, in consequence of the fluxes, was almost beyond description. I have carefully sought to direct my steps so as to avoid it, but could not. They would beg for God’s sake for one copper or morsel of bread. I have seen in one of the churches seven dead, at the same time, lying among the excrements of their bodies.

“It was a common practice with the enemy to convey the dead from these filthy places in carts, to be slightly buried, and I have seen whole gangs of tories making derision, and exulting over the dead, saying ‘There goes another load of d—-d rebels!’ I have observed the British soldiers to be full of their blackguard jokes and vaunting on those occasions, but they seemed to me to be less malignant than the Tories.

“The provision dealt out to the prisoners was by no means sufficient for the support of life. It was deficient in Quantity, and much more so in Quality. The prisoners often presented me with a sample of their bread, which I certify was damaged to such a degree that it was loathsome and unfit to be eaten, and I am bold to aver it as my opinion, that it had been condemned and was of the very worst sort. I have seen and been fed upon damaged bread, in the course of my captivity, and observed the quality of such bread as has been condemned by the enemy, among which was very little so effectually spoiled as what was dealt out to these prisoners. Their allowance of meat, as they told me, was quite trifling and of the basest sort. I never saw any of it, but was informed, bad as it was, it was swallowed almost as quick as they got hold of it. I saw some of them sucking bones after they were speechless; others who could yet speak and had the use of their reason, urged me in the strongest and most pathetic manner, to use my interest in their behalf: ‘For you plainly see,’ said they,’that we are devoted to death and destruction,’ and after I had examined more particularly into their truly deplorable condition and had become more fully apprized of the essential facts, I was persuaded that it was a premeditated and systematized plan of the British council to destroy the youths of our land, with a view thereby to deter the country and make it submit to their despotism: but as I could not do them any material service, and by any public attempt for that purpose I might endanger myself by frequenting places the most nauseous and contagious that could be conceived of, I refrained going into the churches, but frequently conversed with such of the prisoners as were admitted to come out into the yard, and found that the systematical usage still continued. The guard would often drive me away with their fixed bayonets. A Hessian one day followed me five or six rods, but by making use of my legs, I got rid of the lubber.

“Sometimes I could obtain a little conversation notwithstanding their severities.

“I was in one of the yards and it was rumoured among those in the church, and sundry of the prisoners came with their usual complaints to me, and among the rest a large-boned, tall young man, as he told me from Pennsylvania, who was reduced to a mere skeleton. He said he was glad to see me before he died, which he had expected to have done last night, but was a little revived. He further informed me that he and his brother had been urged to enlist into the British army, but had both resolved to die first; that his brother had died last night, in consequence of that resolve, and that he expected shortly to follow him; but I made the other prisoners stand a little off and told him with a low voice to enlist; he then asked whether it was right in the sight of God? I assured him that it was, and that duty to himself obliged him to deceive the British by enlisting and deserting the first opportunity; upon which he answered with transport that he would enlist. I charged him not to mention my name as his adviser, lest it should get air and I should be closely confined, in consequence of it.

“The integrity of these suffering prisoners is incredible. Many hundreds of them, I am confident, submitted to death rather than enlist in the British service, which, I am informed, they most generally were pressed to do. I was astonished at the resolution of the two brothers, particularly; it seems that they could not be stimulated to such exertions of heroism from ambition, as they were but obscure soldiers. Strong indeed must the internal principle of virtue be which supported them to brave death, and one of them went through the operation, as did many hundreds others * * * These things will have their proper effect upon the generous and brave.

“The officers on parole were most of them zealous, if possible, to afford the miserable soldiers relief, and often consulted with one another on the subject, but to no effect, being destitute of the means of subsistence which they needed, nor could they project any measure which they thought would alter their fate, or so much as be a mean of getting them out of those filthy places to the privilege of fresh air. Some projected that all the officers should go in procession to General Howe and plead the cause of the perishing soldiers, but this proposal was negatived for the following reasons: viz: because that General Howe must needs be well acquainted and have a thorough knowledge of the state and condition of the prisoners in every of their wretched apartments, and that much more particular and exact than any officer on parole could be supposed to have, as the General had a return of the circumstances of the prisoners by his own officers every morning, of the number who were alive, as also of the number who died every twenty-four hours: and consequently the bill of mortality, as collected from the daily returns, lay before him with all the material situations and circumstances of the prisoners, and provided the officers should go in procession to General Howe, according to the projection, it would give him the greatest affront, and that he would either retort upon them, that it was no part of their parole to instruct him in his conduct to prisoners; that they were mutinying against his authority, and, by affronting him, had forfeited their parole, or that, more probably, instead of saying one word to them, would order them all into as wretched a confinement as the soldiers whom they sought to relieve, for at that time the British, from the General to the private centinel, were in full confidence, nor did they so much as hesitate, but that they should conquer the country.

“Thus the consultation of the officers was confounded and broken to pieces, in consequence of the dread which at the time lay on their minds of offending General Howe; for they conceived so murderous a tryant would not be too good to destroy even the officers on the least pretence of an affront, as they were equally in his power with the soldiers; and as General Howe perfectly understood the condition of the private soldiers, it was argued that it was exactly such as he and his council had devised, and as he meant to destroy them it would be to no purpose for them to try to dissuade him from it, as they were helpless and liable to the same fate, on giving the least affront. Indeed anxious apprehensions disturbed them in their then circumstances.

“Meantime mortality raged to such an intolerable degree among the prisoners that the very school boys in the street knew the mental design of it in some measure; at least they knew that they were starved to death. Some poor women contributed to their necessity till their children were almost starved; and all persons of common understanding knew that they were devoted to the cruellest and worst of deaths.

“It was also proposed by some to make a written representation of the condition of the soldiery, and the officers to sign it, and that it should be couched in such terms, as though they were apprehensive that the General was imposed upon by his officers, in their daily returns to him of the state and condition of the prisoners, and that therefor the officers moved with compassion, were constrained to communicate to him the facts relative to them, nothing doubting but that they would meet with a speedy redress; but this proposal was most generally negatived also, and for much the same reason offered in the other case; for it was conjectured that General Howe’s indignation would be moved against such officers as should attempt to whip him over his officers’ backs; that he would discern that he himself was really struck at, and not the officers who made the daily returns; and therefor self preservation deterred the officers from either petitioning or remonstrating to General Howe, either verbally or in writing; as also they considered that no valuable purpose to the distressed would be obtained.

“I made several rough drafts on the subject, one of which I exhibited to the Colonels Magaw, Miles, and Atlee; and they said that they would consider the matter. Soon after I called on them, and some of the gentlemen informed me that they had written to the General on the subject, and I concluded that the gentlemen thought it best that they should write without me, as there was such spirited aversion subsisting between the British and me.”

Ethan Allen goes on to say: “Our little army was retreating in New Jersey and our young men murdered by hundreds in New York.” He then speaks of Washington’s success at Trenton in the following terms: “This success had a mighty effect on General Howe and his council, and roused them to a sense of their own weakness. * * * Their obduracy and death-designing malevolence in some measure abated or was suspended. The prisoners, who were condemned to the most wretched and cruellest of deaths, and who survived to this period, “though most of them died before,” were immediately ordered to be sent within General Washington’s lines, for an exchange, and in consequence of it were taken out of their filthy and poisonous places of confinement, and sent out of New York to their friends in haste. Several of them fell dead in the streets of New York, as they attempted to walk to the vessels in the harbor, for their intended embarkation. What number lived to reach the lines I cannot ascertain, but, from concurrent representations which I have since received from numbers of people who lived in and adjacent to such parts of the country, where they were received from the enemy, “I apprehend that most of them died in consequence of the vile usage of the enemy.” Some who were eye witnesses of the scene of mortality, more especially in that part which continued after the exchange took place, are of opinion that it was partly in consequence of a slow poison; but this I refer to the doctors who attended them, who are certainly the best judges.

“Upon the best calculation I have been able to make from personal knowledge, and the many evidences I have collected in support of the facts, I learn that, of the prisoners taken on Long Island and Fort Washington and some few others, at different times and places, about two thousand perished with hunger, cold, and sickness, occasioned by the filth of their prisons, at New York; and a number more on their passage to the continental lines; most of the residue who reached their friends having received their death wound, could not be restored by the assistance of their physicians and friends: but like their brother prisoners, fell a sacrifice to the relentless and scientific barbarity of the British. I took as much pains as the circumstances would admit of to inform myself not only of matters of fact, but likewise of the very design and aims of General Howe and his council, the latter of which I predicated on the former, and submit it to the candid public.”




MLA Source Citation:

Dandridge, Danske American Prisoners of the Revolution, Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, 1911, 1967. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 24 April 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/america/ethan-allens-account-of-the-prisoners.htm - Last updated on Jul 15th, 2011


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