Benjamin Franklin And Others On The Subject Of American Prisoners
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“The King’s Ambassador recognizes no letters from Rebels, except when they come to ask mercy.” – Lord Stormont
When Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane were in Paris they wrote the following letter to Lord Stormont, the English Ambassador to France.
Paris, April 2nd, 1777.
We did ourselves the honor of writing some time since to your Lordship on the subject of exchanging prisoners: you did not condescend to give us any answer, and therefore we expect none to this. We, however, take the liberty of sending you copies of certain depositions which we shall transmit to Congress, whereby it will be known to your Court, that the United States are not unacquainted with the barbarous treatment their people receive when they have the misfortune to be your prisoners here in Europe, and that if your conduct towards us is not altered, it is not unlikely that severe reprisals may be thought justifiable from a necessity of putting some check to such abominable practices. For the sake of humanity it is to be wished that men would endeavor to alleviate the unavoidable miseries attending a state of war. It has been said that among the civilized nations of Europe the ancient horrors of that state are much diminished; but the compelling men by chains, stripes, and famine to fight against their friends and relatives, is a new mode of barbarity, which your nation alone has the honor of inventing, and the sending American prisoners of war to Africa and Asia, remote from all probability of exchange, and where they can scarce hope ever to hear from their families, even if the unwholesomeness of the climate does not put a speedy end to their lives, is a manner of treating captives that you can justify by no other precedent or custom except that of the black savages of Guinea. We are your Lordship’s most obedient, humble servants, Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane.
The reply to this letter was laconic.
“The King’s Ambassador recognizes no letters from Rebels, except when they come to ask mercy.”
Inclosed in the letter from our representatives were the following depositions.
THE DEPOSITION OF ELIPHALET DOWNER
Eliphalet Downer, Surgeon, taken in the Yankee privateer, testifies that after he was made prisoner by Captains Ross and Hodge, who took advantage of the generous conduct of Captain Johnson of the Yankee to them his prisoners, and of the confidence he placed in them in consequence of that conduct and their assurances; he and his countrymen were closely confined, yet assured that on their arrival in port they should be set at liberty, and these assurances were repeated in the most solemn manner, instead of which they were, on their approach to land, in the hot weather of August, shut up in a small cabin; the windows of which were spiked down and no air admitted, insomuch that they were all in danger of suffocation from the excessive heat.
Three or four days after their arrival in the river Thames they were relieved from this situation in the middle of the night, hurried on board a tender and sent down to Sheerness, where the deponent was put into the Ardent, and there falling sick of a violent fever in consequence of such treatment, and languishing in that situation for some time, he was removed, still sick, to the Mars, and notwithstanding repeated petitions to be suffered to be sent to prison on shore, he was detained until having the appearance of a mortification in his legs, he was sent to Haslar hospital, from whence after recovering his health, he had the good fortune to make his escape.
While on board those ships and in the hospital he was informed and believes that many of his countrymen, after experiencing even worse treatment than he, were sent to the East Indies, and many of those taken at Quebec were sent to the coast of Africa, as soldiers.
THE DEPOSITION OF CAPTAIN SETH CLARK OF NEWBURY PORT IN THE STATE OF MASSACHUSETTS BAY IN AMERICA
“This deponent saith that on his return from Cape Nichola Mole to Newbury Port, he was taken on the 17th of September last by an armed schooner in his British Majesty’s service, —- Coats, Esquire, Commander, and carried down to Jamaica, on his arrival at which place he was sent on board the Squirrel, another armed vessel, —- Douglas, Esquire, Commander, where, although master and half owner of the vessel in which he was taken, he was returned as a common sailor before the mast, and in that situation sailed for England in the month of November, on the twenty-fifth of which month they took a schooner from Port a Pie to Charlestown, S. C., to which place she belonged, when the owner, Mr. Burt, and the master, Mr. Bean, were brought on board. On the latter’s denying he had any ship papers Captain Douglas ordered him to be stripped and tied up and then whipped with a wire cat of nine tails that drew blood every stroke and then on his saying that he had thrown his papers overboard he was untied and ordered to his duty as a common sailor, with no place for himself or his people to lay on but the decks. On their arrival at Spithead, the deponent was removed to the Monarch, and there ordered to do duty as a fore-mast-man, and on his refusing on account of inability to do it, he was threatened by the Lieutenant, a Mr. Stoney, that if he spoke one word to the contrary he should be brought to the gangway, and there severely flogged.
“After this he was again removed and put on board the Bar-fleur, where he remained until the tenth of February. On board this ship the deponent saw several American prisoners, who were closely confined and ironed, with only four men’s allowance to six. These prisoners and others informed this deponent that a number of American prisoners had been taken out of the ship and sent to the East Indies and the coast of Africa, which he has told would have been his fate, had he arrived sooner.
“This deponent further saith, That in Haslar hospital, to which place on account of sickness he was removed from the Barfleur, he saw a Captain Chase of Providence, New England, who told him he had been taken in a sloop of which he was half owner and master, on his passage from Providence to South Carolina, by an English transport, and turned over to a ship of war, where he was confined in irons thirteen weeks, insulted, beat, and abused by the petty officers and common sailors, and on being released from irons was ordered to do duty as a foremost man until his arrival in England, when being dangerously ill he was sent to said hospital.”
Paris March 30th. 1777.
Benjamin Franklin, in a letter written in 1780, to a Mr. Hartley, an English gentleman who was opposed to the war, said that Congress had investigated the cruelties perpetrated by the English upon their defenseless prisoners, and had instructed him to prepare a “school book” for the use of American children, to be illustrated by thirty-five good engravings, each to picture some scene of horror, some enormity of suffering, such as should indelibly impress upon the minds of the school children a dread of British rule, and a hatred of British malice and wickedness!
The old philosopher did not accomplish this task: had he done so it is improbable that we would have so long remained in ignorance of some of the facts which we are now endeavoring to collect. It will be pleasant to glance, for a moment, on the other side the subject. It is well known that there was a large party in England, who, like Benjamin Franklin’s correspondent, were opposed to the war; men of humanity, fair-minded enough to sympathize with the struggles of an oppressed people, of the same blood as themselves.
“The Prisoners of 1776, A Relic of the Revolution,” is a little book edited by the Rev. R. Livesey, and published in Boston, in 1854. The facts in this volume were complied from the journal of Charles Herbert of Newburyport, Mass. This young man was taken prisoner in December, 1776. He was a sailor on board the brigantine Dolton. He and his companions were confined in the Old Mill Prison in Plymouth, England.
Herbert, who was in his nineteenth year, was a prisoner more than two years. He managed to keep a journal during his captivity, and has left us an account of his treatment by the English which is a pleasant relief in its contrast to the dark pictures that we have drawn of the wretchedness of American prisoners elsewhere. A collection of upwards of $30,000 was taken up in England for the relief of our prisoners confined in English jails.
Herbert secreted his journal in a chest which had a false bottom. It is too long to give in its entirety, but we have made a few extracts which will describe the treatment the men received in England, where all that was done was open to public inspection, and where no such inhuman monsters as Cunningham were suffered to work their evil will upon their victims.
“Dec. 24th, 1776. We were taken by the Reasonable, man-of-war of 64 guns. I put on two shirts, pair of drawers and breeches, and trousers over them, two or three jackets, and a pair of new shoes, and then filled my bosom and pockets as full as I could carry. Nothing but a few old rags and twelve old blankets were sent to us. Ordered down to the cable tier. Almost suffocated. Nothing but the bare cable to lie on, and that very uneven.
“Jan. 15, 1777. We hear that the British forces have taken Fort Washington with a loss of 800.”
After several changes Herbert was put on board the Tarbay, a ship of 74 guns, and confined between decks, with not room for all to lie down at once.
“Very cold. Have to lie on a wet deck without blankets. Some obliged to sit up all night.”
On the 18th of February they received flock beds and pillows, rugs, and blankets. “Ours are a great comfort to us after laying fifty-five nights without any, all the time since we were taken. * * *
“We are told that the Captain of this ship, whose name is Royer, gave us these clothes and beds out of his own pocket.”
On the twelfth of April he was carried on shore to the hospital, where his daily allowance was a pound of beef, a pound of potatoes, and three pints of beer.
On the 7th of May he writes: “I now have a pound of bread, half a pound of mutton and a quart of beer daily. The doctor is very kind. Three of our company have died.”
On the fifth of June he was committed to the Old Mill Prison at Plymouth. Many entries in his journal record the escapes of his companions. “Captain Brown made his escape.” “William Woodward of the charming Sallie escaped, etc., etc.”
June 6th he records: “Our allowance here in prison is a pound of beef, a pound of greens, and a quart of beer, and a little pot liquor that the greens and beef were boiled in, without any thickening.” Still he declares that he has “a continued gnawing in his stomach.” The people of the neighborhood came to see them daily when they were exercising in the prison yard, and sometimes gave them money and provisions through the pickets of the high fence that surrounded the prison grounds. Herbert had a mechanical turn, and made boxes which he sold to these visitors, procuring himself many comforts in this manner.
About ten prisoners were brought in daily. They were constantly digging their way out and were sometimes recaptured, but a great number made their escape. On the twentieth of July he records that they begin to make a breach in the prison wall. “Their intention is to dig eighteen feet underground to get into a field on the other side of the wall.
“We put all the dirt in our chests.”
August third he says: “There are 173 prisoners in the wards. On the fifth thirty-two escaped, but three were brought back. These were confined in the Black Hole forty days on half allowance, and obliged to lie on the bare floor.
“September 12th. We had a paper wherein was a melancholy account of the barbarous treatment of American prisoners, taken at Ticonderoga.
“Sept. 16th. Today about twenty old countrymen petitioned the Board for permission to go on board His Majesty’s ships.
“Jan. 7th. 1778. 289 prisoners here in Plymouth. In Portsmouth there are 140 prisoners. Today the prison was smoked with charcoal and brim-stone.”
He records the gift of clothes, blankets, and all sorts of provisions. They were allowed to wash at the pump in relays of six. Tobacco and everything necessary was freely given them.
“Jan. 27th. The officers in a separate prison are allowed to burn candles in the evening until gun-fire, which is eight o’clock.
“28th. Today some new washing troughs were brought up for us to wash our clothes in; and now we have plenty of clothes, soap, water, and tubs to wash in. In general we are tolerably clean.
“Feb. 1st. Sunday. Last evening between 7 and 9 o’clock five of the officers in a separate prison, who had agreed with the sentry to let them go, made their escape and took two sentries with them. The five officers were Captain Henry Johnston, Captain Eleazar Johnston, Offin Boardman, Samuel Treadwell, and one Mr. Deal.
“Feb. 8th. Sunday. We have the paper wherein is an account of a letter from Dr. Franklin, Dean, and Lee, to Lord North, and to the ministry, putting them in mind of the abuse which the prisoners have had from time to time, and giving them to know that it is in the power of the Americans to make ample retaliation. * * * We learn that their answer was that in America there was an exchange.”
On the 9th of March he writes: “We are all strong, fat and hearty.
“March 12th. Today our two fathers came to see us as they generally do once or twice a week. They are Mr. Heath, and Mr. Sorry, the former a Presbyterian minister, in Dock, the latter a merchant in Plymouth. They are the two agents appointed by the Committee in London to supply us with necessaries. A smile from them seems like a smile from a father. They tell us that everything goes well on our side.
“April 7th. Today the latter (Mr. Sorry) came to see us, and we desired him, for the future, to send us a four penny white loaf instead of a six-penny one to each mess, per day, for we have more provision than many of us want to eat, and any person can easily conjecture that prisoners, in our situation, who have suffered so much for the want of provisions would abhor such an act as to waste what we have suffered so much for the want of.”
Herbert was liberated at the end of two years. Enough has been quoted to prove the humanity with which the prisoners at Plymouth were treated. He gives a valuable list of crews in Old Mill Prison, Plymouth, during the time of his incarceration, with the names of captains, number that escaped, those who died, and those who joined the English.
Joined NAMES OF SHIPS AND CAPTAINS No. of British Men Escaped Died Ships Brig Dolton, Capt. Johnston 120 21 8 7 Sloop Charming Sally, Capt. Brown. 52 6 7 16 Brig Fancy, Capt. Lee 56 11 2 0 Brig Lexington, Capt. Johnston 51 6 1 26 Schooner Warren, Capt. Ravel 40 2 0 6
PARTS OF CREWS TAKEN INTO PLYMOUTH
Brig Freedom, Capt. Euston 11 3 1 0 Ship Reprisal, Capt. Weeks 10 2 0 3 Sloop Hawk 6 0 0 0 Schooner Hawk, Capt. Hibbert 6 0 0 0 Schooner Black Snake, Capt. Lucran 3 1 0 0 Ship Oliver Cromwell 7 1 0 4 Letter of Marque Janey, Capt. Rollo 2 1 0 0 Brig Cabot 3 0 0 0 True Blue, Capt. Furlong 1 0 0 0 Ranger 1 0 0 0 Sloop Lucretia 2 0 0 0 Musquito Tender 1 0 0 1 Schooner, Capt. Burnell 2 1 0 1 Sturdy Beggar 3 0 0 0 Revenge, Capt Cunningham 3 0 0 0
Total 380 55 19 62 Remained in Prison until exchanged, 244
Before we leave the subject of Plymouth we must record the fact that some time in the year 1779 a prize was brought into the harbor captured from the French with 80 French prisoners. The English crew put in charge of the prize procured liquor, and, in company of some of the loose women of the town, went below to make a night of it. In the dead of night the Frenchmen seized the ship, secured the hatches, cut the cable, took her out of port, homeward bound, and escaped.
A writer in the London _Gazette_ in a letter to the Lord Mayor, dated August 6th, 1776, says: “I was last week on board the American privateer called the Yankee, commanded by Captain Johnson, and lately brought into this port by Captain Ross, who commanded one of the West India sugar ships, taken by the privateer in July last: and as an Englishman I earnestly wish your Lordship, who is so happily placed at the head of this great city (justly famed for its great humanity even to its enemies), would be pleased to go likewise, or send proper persons, to see the truly shocking and I may say barbarous and miserable condition of the unfortunate American prisoners, who, however criminal they may be thought to have been, are deserving of pity, and entitled to common humanity.
“They are twenty-five in number, and all inhumanly shut close down, like wild beasts, in a small stinking apartment, in the hold of a sloop, about seventy tons burden, without a breath of air, in this sultry season, but what they receive from a small grating overhead, the openings in which are not more than two inches square in any part, and through which the sun beats intensely hot all day, only two or three being permitted to come on deck at a time; and then they are exposed in the open sun, which is reflected from the decks like a burning glass.
“I do not at all exaggerate, my lord, I speak the truth, and the resemblance that this barbarity bears to the memorable Black Hole at Calcutta, as a gentleman present on Saturday observed, strikes every eye at the sight. All England ought to know that the same game is now acting upon the Thames on board this privateer, that all the world cried out against, and shuddered at the mention of in India, some years ago, as practised on Captain Hollowell and other of the King’s good subjects. The putrid steams issuing from the hold are so hot and offensive that one cannot, without the utmost danger, breathe over it, and I should not be at all surprised if it should cause a plague to spread.
“The miserable wretches below look like persons in a hot bath, panting, sweating, and fainting, for want of air; and the surgeon declares that they must all soon perish in this situation, especially as they are almost all in a sickly state from bilious disorders.
“The captain and surgeon, it is true, have the liberty of the cabin (if it deserves the name of a cabin), and make no complaints on their own account. They are both sensible and well behaved young men, and can give a very good account of themselves, having no signs of fear, and being supported by a consciousness of the justice of their cause.
“They are men of character, of good families in New England, and highly respected in their different occupations; but being stripped of their all by the burning of towns, and other destructive measures of the present unnatural war, were forced to take the disagreeable method of making reprisals to maintain themselves and their children rather than starve. * * * English prisoners taken by the Americans have been treated with the most remarkable tenderness and generosity, as numbers who are safely returned to England most freely confess, to the honor of our brethern in the colonies, and it is a fact, which can be well attested in London, that this very surgeon on board the privateer, after the battle of Lexington, April 19th, 1775, for many days voluntarily and generously without fee or reward employed himself in dressing the King’s wounded soldiers, who but an hour before would have shot him if they could have come at him, and in making a collection for their refreshment, of wine, linen, money, etc., in the town where he lived. * * * The capture of the privateer was, solely owing to the ill-judged lenity and brotherly kindness of Captain Johnson, who not considering his English prisoners in the same light that he would French or Spanish, put them under no sort of confinement, but permitted them to walk the decks as freely as his own people at all times. Taking advantage of this indulgence the prisoners one day watched their opportunity when most of the privateer’s people were below, and asleep, shut down the hatches, and making all fast, had immediate possession of the vessel without using any force.”
What the effect of this generous letter was we have no means of discovering. It displays the sentiments of a large party in England, who bitterly condemned the “unnatural war against the Colonies.”