“There are now 5,000 prisoners in town, many of them half naked. Congress deserts the poor wretches” – Published in Gaines “Mercury” a Tory Paper, 25 Nov. 1776
What we have been able to glean from the periodicals of the day about the state of the prisons in New York during the years 1776 and 1777 we will condense into one short chapter.
We will also give an abstract taken from a note book written by General Jeremiah Johnson, who as a boy, lived near Wallabout Bay during the Revolution and who thus describes one of the first prison ships used by the British at New York. He says: “The subject of the naval prisoners, and of the British prisons-ships, stationed at the Wallabout during the Revolution, is one which cannot be passed by in silence. From printed journals, published in New York at the close of the war, it appeared that 11,500 American prisoners had died on board the prison ships. Although this number is very great, yet if the numbers who perished had been less, the Commissary of Naval Prisoners, David Sproat, Esq., and his Deputy, had it in their power, by an official Return, to give the true number taken, exchanged, escaped, and “dead”. Such a Return has never appeared in the United States.
“David Sproat returned to America after the war, and resided in Philadelphia, where he died.1 The Commissary could not have been ignorant of the statement published here on this interesting subject. We may, therefore, infer that about that number, 11,500, perished in the Prison ships.
“A large transport called the Whitby, was the first prison ship anchored in the Wallabout. She was moored near Remsen’s Mill about the 20th of October, 1776, and was then crowded with prisoners. Many landsmen were prisoners on board this vessel: she was said to be the most sickly of all the prison ships. Bad provisions, bad water, and scanted rations were dealt to the prisoners. No medical men attended the sick. Disease reigned unrelieved, and hundreds died from pestilence, or were starved on board this floating Prison. I saw the sand beach, between a ravine in the hill and Mr. Remsen’s dock, become filled with graves in the course of two months: and before the first of May, 1777, the ravine alluded to was itself occupied in the same way.
“In the month of May, 1777, two large ships were anchored in the Wallabout, when the prisoners were transferred from the Whitby to them. These vessels were also very sickly from the causes before stated. Although many prisoners were sent on board of them, and none exchanged, death made room for all.
“On a Sunday afternoon about the middle of October, 1777, one of these prison ships was burnt. The prisoners, except a few, who, it was said, were burnt in the vessel, were removed to the remaining ship. It was reported at the time, that the prisoners had fired their prison, which, if true, proves that they preferred death, even by fire, to the lingering sufferings of pestilence and starvation. In the month of February, 1778, the remaining prison ship was burnt, when the prisoners were removed from her to the ships then wintering in the Wallabout.”
One of the first notices we have in the newspapers of the day of American prisoners is to the following effect: “London, August 5th, 1775. As every rebel, who is taken prisoner, has incurred the pain of death by the law martial, it is said that Government will charter several transports, after their arrival at Boston to carry the culprits to the East Indies for the Company’s service. As it is the intention of Government only to punish the ringleaders and commanders “capitally”, and to suffer the inferior Rebels to redeem their lives by entering into the East India Company’s service. This translation will only render them more useful subjects than in their native country.”
This notice, copied from London papers, appeared in Holt’s “New York Journal”, for October 19th, 1775. It proved to be no idle threat. How many of our brave soldiers were sent to languish out their lives in the British possessions in India, and on the coast of Africa, we have no means of knowing. Few, indeed, ever saw their homes again, but we will give, in a future chapter, the narrative of one who escaped from captivity worse than death on the island of Sumatra.
An account of the mobbing of William Cunningham and John Hill is given in both the Tory and Whig papers of the day. It occurred in March, 1775. “William Cunningham and John Hill were mobbed by 200 men in New York, dragged through the green, Cunningham was robbed of his watch and the clothes torn off his back, etc., for being a Tory, and having made himself obnoxious to the Americans. He has often been heard blustering in behalf of the ministry, and his behavior has recommended him to the favor of several men of eminence, both in the military and civil departments. He has often been seen, on a footing of familiarity, at their houses, and parading the streets on a horse belonging to one of the gentlemen, etc., etc.”
The “Virginia Gazette” in its issue for the first of July, 1775, says: “On June 6th, 1775, the prisoners taken at Lexington were exchanged. The wounded privates were soon sent on board the Levity. * * * At about three a signal was made by the Levity that they were ready to deliver up our prisoners, upon which General Putnam and Major Moncrief went to the ferry, where they received nine prisoners. The regular officers expressed themselves as highly pleased, those who had been prisoners politely acknowledged the genteel kindness they had received from their captors; the privates, who were all wounded men, expressed in the strongest terms their grateful sense of the tenderness which had been shown them in their miserable situation; some of them could do it only by their tears. It would have been to the honor of the British arms if the prisoners taken from us could with justice have made the same acknowledgement. It cannot be supposed that any officers of rank or common humanity were knowing to the repeated cruel insults that were offered them; but it may not be amiss to hint to the upstarts concerned, two truths of which they appear to be wholly ignorant, viz: That compassion is as essential a part of the character of a truly brave man as daring, and that insult offered to the person completely in the power of the insulters smells as strong of cowardice as it does of cruelty.” [Footnote: The first American prisoners were taken on the 17th of June, 1775. These were thrown indiscriminately into the jail at Boston without any consideration of their rank. General Washington wrote to General Gage on this subject, to which the latter replied by asserting that the prisoners had been treated with care and kindness, though indiscriminately, as he acknowledged no rank that was not derived from the King. General Carleton during his command conducted towards the American prisoners with a degree of humanity that reflected the greatest honor on his character.”2
At the battle of the Great Bridge “the Virginia militia showed the greatest humanity and tenderness to the wounded prisoners. Several of them ran through a hot fire to lift up and bring in some that were bleeding, and whom they feared would die if not speedily assisted by the surgeon. The prisoners had been told by Lord Dunmore that the Americans would scalp them, and they cried out, ‘For God’s sake do not murder us!’ One of them who was unable to walk calling out in this manner to one of our men, was answered by him: ‘Put your arm about my neck and I’ll show you what I intend to do.’ Then taking him, with his arm over his neck, he walked slowly along, bearing him with great tenderness to the breastwork.” _Pennsylvania Evening Post_, January 6th, 1776.
The Great Bridge was built over the southern branch of the Elizabeth River, twelve miles above Norfolk. Colonel William Woodford commanded the Virginia militia on this occasion.
“The scene closed with as much humanity as it had been conducted with bravery. The work of death being over, every one’s attention was directed to the succor of the unhappy sufferers, and it is an undoubted fact that Captain Leslie was so affected with the tenderness of our troops towards those who were yet capable of assistance that he gave signs from the fort of his thankfulness for it.” “Pennsylvania Evening Post”, Jan. 6th, 1776.
The first mention we can find of a British prison ship is in the “New York Packet” for the 11th of April, 1776: “Captain Hammond * * * Ordered Captain Forrester, his prisoner, who was on board the Roebuck, up to the prison ship at Norfolk in a pilot boat.”
“The Constitutional Gazette” for the 19th of April, 1776, has this announcement, and though it does not bear directly on the subject of prisoners, it describes a set of men who were most active in taking them, and were considered by the Americans as more cruel and vindictive than even the British themselves.
“Government have sent over to Germany to engage 1,000 men called Jagers, people brought up to the use of the rifle barrel guns in boar-hunting. They are amazingly expert. Every petty prince who hath forests keeps a number of them, and they are allowed to take apprentices, by which means they are a numerous body of people. These men are intended to act in the next campaign in America, and our ministry plume themselves much in the thought of their being a complete match for the American riflemen.”
From Gaine’s “Mercury”, a notorious Tory paper published in New York during the British occupancy, we take the following: “November 25th, 1776. There are now 5,000 prisoners in town, many of them half naked. Congress deserts the poor wretches, – have sent them neither provisions nor clothing, nor paid attention to their distress nor that of their families. Their situation must have been doubly deplorable, but for the humanity of the King’s officers. Every possible attention has been given, considering their great numbers and necessary confinement, to alleviate their distress arising from guilt, sickness, and poverty.”
This needs no comment. It is too unspeakably false to be worth contradicting.
“New London, Conn., November 8th, 1776. Yesterday arrived E. Thomas, who was captured September 1st, carried to New York, and put on board the Chatham. He escaped Wednesday sennight.”
“New London, Nov. 20th, 1776. American officers, prisoners on parole, are walking about the streets of New York, but soldiers are closely confined, have but half allowance, are sickly, and die fast.”
“New London, Nov. 29th, 1776. A cartel arrived here for exchange of seamen only. Prisoners had miserable confinement on board of store ships and transports, where they suffered for want of the common necessaries of life.”
“Exact from a letter written on board the Whitby Prison Ship. New York, Dec. 9th, 1776. Our present situation is most wretched; more than 250 prisoners, some sick and without the least assistance from physician, drug, or medicine, and fed on two-thirds allowance of salt provisions, and crowded promiscuously together without regard, to color, person or office, in the small room of a ship’s between decks, allowed to walk the main deck only between sunrise and sunset. Only two at a time allowed to come on deck to do what nature requires, and sometimes denied even that, and use tubs and buckets between decks, to the great offence of every delicate, cleanly person, and prejudice of all our healths. Lord Howe has liberated all in the merchant service, but refuses to exchange those taken in arms but for like prisoners.” (This is an extract from the Trumbull Papers.)
From a Connecticut paper: “This may inform those who have friends in New York, prisoners of war, that Major Wells, a prisoner, has come thence to Connecticut on parole, to collect money for the much distressed officers and soldiers there, and desires the money may be left at Landlord Betts, Norwalk; Captain Benjamin’s, Stratford; Landlord Beers, New Haven; Hezekiah Wylly’s, Hartford; and at said Well’s, Colchester, with proper accounts from whom received, and to whom to be delivered. N. B. The letters must not be sealed, or contain anything of a political nature.” Conn. Papers, Dec. 6th, 1776.
“Conn. _Gazette_, Feb. 8th, 1777. William Gamble deposes that the prisoners were huddled together with negroes, had weak grog; no swab to clean the ship; bad oil; raw pork; seamen refused them water; called them d—-d rebels; the dead not buried, etc.”
“Lieut. Wm. Sterrett, taken August 27, 1776, deposes that his clothing was stolen, that he was abused by the soldiers; stinted in food; etc., those who had slight wounds were allowed to perish from neglect. The recruiting officers seduced the prisoners to enlist, etc.”
“March 7th, 1777. Forty-six prisoners from the Glasgow, transport ship, were landed in New Haven, where one of them, Captain Craigie, died and was buried.” (Their names are published in the Connecticut _Courant_.)
Connecticut _Gazette_ of April 30th, 1777, says: “The Connecticut Assembly sent to New York a sufficient supply of tow shirts and trousers for her prisoners, also £35 to Col. Ethan Allen, by his brother Levi.”
“Lt. Thos. Fanning, now on parole from Long Island at Norwich, a prisoner to General Howe, will be at Hartford on his return to New York about September 8th, whence he proposes to keep the public road to King’s Bridge. Letters and money left at the most noted public houses in the different towns, will be conveyed safe to the prisoners. Extraordinaries excepted.” Connecticut _Gazette_, Aug. 15th, 1777.
“Jan. 8th, ’77. A flag of truce vessel arrived at Milford after a tedious passage of eleven days, from New York, having above 200 prisoners, whose rueful countenances too well discovered the ill treatment they received in New York. Twenty died on the passage, and twenty since they landed.” New Haven, Conn.
This is, we believe, a mistake. Another account says he died at Kirkcudbright, Scotland, in 1792. ↩
Ramsay’s “History of the American Revolution” ↩