Further Testimony Of Cruelties Endured By American Prisoners

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“Neither pen, ink, or paper allowed (to prevent their treatment being made public) the consequence of which indeed, the prisoners themselves dread, knowing the malignant disposition of their keeper.”

Mr. Fell’s notes on his imprisonment present the best picture we can find of the condition of the Provost Jail during the term of his captivity. We have already seen how Mr Elias Boudinot, American Commissary of Prisoners, came to that place of confinement, and what he found there. This was in February, 1778. Boudinot also describes the sufferings of the American prisoners in the early part of 1778 in Philadelphia, and Mr. Fell speaks of Cunningham’s return to New York. He had, it appears, been occupied in starving prisoners in Philadelphia during his absence from the Provost, to which General Howe sent him back, after he had murdered one of his victims in Philadelphia with the great key.

It appears that the prisoners in the Provost sent an account of their treatment to General Jones, by Mr. Pintard, in September, 1777, several months before the visit of Mr. Elias Boudinot. They complained that they were closely confined in the jail without distinction of rank or character, amongst felons, a number of whom were under sentence of death: that their friends were not allowed to speak to them, even through the grates: that they were put on the scanty allowance of two pounds hard biscuit, and two pounds of raw pork per week, without fuel to dress it. That they were frequently supplied with water from a pump where all kinds of filth was thrown, by which it was rendered obnoxious and unwholesome, the effects of which were to cause much sickness. That good water could have been as easily obtained. That they were denied the benefit of a hospital; not permitted to send for medicine, nor to have the services of a doctor, even when in the greatest distress. That married men and others who lay at the point of death were refused permission to have their wives or other relations admitted to see them. And that these poor women, for attempting to gain admittance, were often beaten from the prison door. That commissioned officers, and others, persons of character and reputation, were frequently, without a cause, thrown into a loathsome dungeon, insulted in a gross manner, and vilely abused by a Provost Marshal, who was allowed to be one of the basest characters in the British Army, and whose power was so unlimited, that he had caned an officer, on a trivial occasion; and frequently beaten the sick privates when unable to stand, “many of whom are daily obliged to enlist in the New Corps to prevent perishing for want of the necessaries of life.

“Neither pen, ink, or paper allowed (to prevent their treatment being made public) the consequence of which indeed, the prisoners themselves dread, knowing the malignant disposition of their keeper.”

The Board of War reported on the 21 of January, 1778, that there were 900 privates and 300 officers in New York, prisoners, and that “the privates have been crowded all summer in sugar houses, and the officers boarded on Long Island, except about thirty, who have been confined in the Provost-Guard, and in most loathsome jails, and that since Oct. 1st, all those prisoners, both officers and privates, have been confined in prisons, prison ships, or the Provost.” Lists of prisoners in the Provost; those taken by the Falcon, Dec. 1777, and those belonging to Connecticut who were in the Quaker and Brick Meeting House hospitals in Jan. 1778, may be found in the Trumbull Papers, VII, 62.

It seems that General Lee, while a prisoner in New York, in 1778, drew a prize of $500 in the New York Lottery, and immediately distributed it among the prisoners in that city. A New London, Connecticut, paper, dated Feb. 20, 1778, states that “it is said that the American prisoners, since we have had a Commissary in New York, are well served with good provisions, which are furnished at the expense of the States, and they are in general very healthy.”

We fear this was a rose-colored view of the matter, though there is no doubt that our commissaries did what they could to alleviate the miseries of captivity.

Onderdonk quotes from Gaine’s _Mercury_ an advertisement for nurses in the hospital, but it is undated. “Nurses wanted immediately to attend the prison hospitals in this city. Good recommendations required, signed by two respectable inhabitants. Lewis Pintard.”

From the New York _Gazette_, May 6, 1778, we take the following: “Colonel Miles, Irvin, and fifty more exchanged.”

“Conn. _Gazette_. July 10, ’78. About three weeks ago Robert Shefield, of Stonington, made his escape from New York after confinement in a prison ship. After he was taken he, with his crew of ten, were thrust into the fore-peak, and put in irons. On their arrival at New York they were carried on board a prison ship, and to the hatchways, on opening which, tell not of Pandora’s box, for that must be an alabaster box in comparison to the opening of these hatches. True there were gratings (to let in air) but they kept their boats upon them. The steam of the hold was enough to scald the skin, and take away the breath, the stench enough to poison the air all around.

“On his descending these dreary mansions of woe, and beholding the numerous spectacles of wretchedness and despair, his soul fainted within him. A little epitome of hell,–about 300 men confined between decks, half Frenchmen. He was informed there were three more of these vehicles of contagion, which contained a like number of miserable Frenchmen also, who were treated worse, if possible, than Americans.

“The heat was so intense that (the hot sun shining all day on deck) they were all naked, which also served the well to get rid of vermin, but the sick were eaten up alive. Their sickly countenances, and ghastly looks were truly horrible; some swearing and blaspheming; others crying, praying, and wringing their hands; and stalking about like ghosts; others delirious, raving and storming,–all panting for breath; some dead, and corrupting. The air was so foul that at times a lamp could not be kept burning, by reason of which the bodies were not missed until they had been dead ten days.

“One person alone was admitted on deck at a time, after sunset, which occasioned much filth to run into the hold, and mingle with the bilge water, which was not pumped out while he was aboard, notwithstanding the decks were leaky, and the prisoners begged permission to let in water and pump it out again.

“While Mr. Sheffield was on board, which was six days, five or six died daily, and three of his people. He was sent for on shore as evidence in a Court of Admiralty for condemning his own vessel, and happily escaped.

“He was informed in New York that the fresh meat sent in to our prisoners by our Commissary was taken by the men-of-war for their own use. This he can say: he did not see any aboard the ship he was in, but they were well supplied with soft bread from our Commissaries on shore. But the provision (be it what it will) is not the complaint. Fresh air and fresh water, God’s free gift, is all their cry.”

“New London, Conn. July 31. 78. Last week 500 or 600 prisoners were released from confinement at New York and sent out chiefly by way of New Jersey, being exchanged.”

“New London Conn. Sep. 26, 78. All American prisoners are nearly sent out of New York, but there are 615 French prisoners still there.”

“Oct 18, 78. The Ship, Good Hope, lies in the North River.”

“New London Dec. 18, 78. A Flag with 70 men from the horrible prison ships of New York arrived: 30 very sickly, 2 died since they arrived.”

“N. London. Dec. 25, 78. A cartel arived here from New York with 172 American prisoners. They were landed here and in Groton, the greater part are sickly and in most deplorable condition, owing chiefly to the ill usage in the prison ships, where numbers had their feet and legs frozen”




MLA Source Citation:

Dandridge, Danske American Prisoners of the Revolution, Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, 1911, 1967. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 1 April 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/america/further-testimony-of-cruelties-endured-by-american-prisoners.htm - Last updated on Jul 15th, 2011


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