The Case Of Jabez Fitch
“Their appearance in general Rather Resembled dead Corpses than living men. Indeed great numbers had already arrived at their long home, and ye Remainder appeared far advanced on ye same Journey: their accommodations were in all respects vastly Inferior to what a New England Farmer would have provided for his Cattle.” – Captain Fitch
In presenting our gleanings from the books, papers, letters, pamphlets, and other documents that have been written on the subject of our prisoners during the Revolution, we will endeavor to follow some chronological order, so that we may carry the story on month by month and year by year until that last day of the British possession of New York when Sergeant O’Keefe threw down upon the pavement of the Provost the keys of that prison, and made his escape on board a British man-of-war.
One of the prisoners taken on Long Island in the summer of 1776 was Captain Jabez Fitch, who was captured on the 27th of August, of that year. While a prisoner he contracted a scorbutic affection which rendered miserable thirty years of his life.
On the 29th of August he was taken to the transport Pacific. It was a very rainy day. The officers, of whom there were about twenty-five, were in one boat, and the men “being between three and four hundred in several other Boats, and had their hands tied behind them. In this Situation we were carried by several Ships, where there appeared great numbers of Women on Deck, who were very liberal of their Curses and Execrations: they were also not a little Noisy in their Insults, but clap’d their hands and used other peculiar gestures in so Extraordinary a Manner yet they were in some Danger of leaping overboard in this surprising Extacy.” On arriving at the Pacific, a very large transport ship, they were told that all officers and men together were to be shut down below deck. The master of the ship was a brute named Dunn. At sundown all were driven down the hatches, with curses and execrations. “Both ye lower Decks were very full of Durt,” and the rains had leaked in and made a dreadful sloppy mess of the floor, so that the mud was half over their shoes. At the same time they were so crowded that only half their number could lie down at a time.
“Some time in the Evening a number of the Infernal Savages came down with a lanthorn and loaded two small pieces or Cannon with Grape shot, which were pointed through two Ports in such a manner as to Rake ye deck where our people lay, telling us at ye same time with many Curses yt in Case of any Disturbance or the least noise in ye Night, they were to be Imediately fired on ye Damned Rebels.” When allowed to come on deck “we were insulted by those Blackguard Villians in the most vulgar manner….We were allowed no water that was fit for a Beast to Drink, although they had plenty of good Water on board, which was used plentifully by the Seamen, etc.
“Lieutenant Dowdswell, with a party of Marines sent on board for our Guard; this Mr. Dowdswell treated us with considerable humanity, and appeared to be a Gentleman, nor were the Marines in General so Insolent as the Ships Crew….On the 31st the Commissary of Prisoners came on Board and took down the names, etc, of the prisoners….he told us Colonel Clark and many other Officers were confined at Flatbush. On Sunday, September 1st, we were removed to the ship Lord Rochford, commanded by one Lambert. This ship was much crowded. Most of the Officers were lodged on the quarter deck. Some nights we were considerably wet with rain.”
The Lord Rochford lay off New Utrecht. On the third of September the officers that had been confined at Flatbush were brought on board the snow called the Mentor. “On the fifth,” says Fitch, in his written account, of which this is an abstract, “we were removed on board this Snow, which was our prison for a long time. * * * We were about 90 in number, and ye Field Officers had Liberty of ye Cabbin, etc. * * * This Snow was commanded by one Davis, a very worthless, low-lived fellow. * * * When we first met on board the Mentor we spent a considerable time in Relating to each other ye particular Circumstances of our first being Taken, and also ye various Treatment with which we met on yt occasion, nor was this a disagreeable Entertainment in our Melancholy Situation. * * * Many of the officers and men were almost Destitute of Clothes, several having neither Britches, Stockings or Shoes, many of them when first taken were stripped entirely naked. Corporal Raymond of the 17th Regiment after being taken and Stripped was shamefully insulted and Abused by Gen’l Dehightler, seized by ye Hair of his head, thrown on the ground, etc. Some present, who had some small degree of humanity in their Composition, were so good as to favor them (the prisoners) with some old durty worn Garments, just sufficient to cover their nakedness, and in this Situation (they) were made Objects of Ridicule for ye Diversion of those Foreign Butchers.
“One Sam Talman (an Indian fellow belonging to the 17th Regiment) was Stripped and set up as a mark for them to Shoot at for Diversion or Practice, by which he Received two severe wounds, in the neck and arm * * * afterwards they destroyed him with many hundreds others by starvation in the prisons of New York.
“On October first orders came to land the prisoners in New York. This was not done until the seventh. On Monday about four o’clock Mr. Loring conducted us to a very large house on the West side of Broadway in the corner south of Warren Street near Bridewell, where we were assigned a small yard back of the house, and a Stoop in ye Front for our Walk. We were also Indulged with Liberty to pass and Repass to an adjacent pump in Ye Street.”
Although paroled the officers were closely confined in this place for six weeks. Their provisions, he says: “were insufficient to preserve ye Connection between Soul and Body, yet ye Charitable People of this City were so good as to afford us very considerable Relief on this account, but it was ye poor and those who were in low circumstances only who were thoughtful of our Necessities, and provisions were now grown scarce and Excessive dear. * * * Their unparalleled generosity was undoubtedly ye happy means of saving many Lives, notwithstanding such great numbers perished with hunger.
“Here we found a number of Officers made prisoners since we were, Colonel Selden, Colonel Moulton, etc. They were first confined in Ye City Hall. Colonel Selden died the Fryday after we arrived. He was Buried in the New Brick Churchyard, and most of the Officers were allowed to attend his Funeral. Dr. Thatcher of the British army attended him, a man of great humanity.”
Captain Fitch declares that there were two thousand wounded British and Hessians in the hospitals in New York after the battle of Fort Washington, which is a much larger estimate than we have found in other accounts. He says that the day of the battle was Saturday, November 16th, and that the prisoners were not brought to New York until the Monday following. They were then confined in the Bridewell, as the City Jail was then called, and in several churches. Some of them were soon afterwards sent on board a prison ship, which was probably the Whitby. “A number of the officers were sent to our place of confinement; Colonel Rawlings, Colonel Hobby, Major (Otho) Williams, etc. Rawlings and Williams were wounded, others were also wounded, among them Lieutenant Hanson (a young Gent’n from Va.) who was Shot through ye Shoulder with a Musq’t Ball of which wound he Died ye end of Dec’r.
“Many of ye charitable Inhabitants were denied admittance when they came to Visit us.”
On the twentieth of November most of the officers were set at liberty on parole. “Ye first Objects of our attention were ye poor men who had been unhappily Captivated with us. They had been landed about ye same time yt we were, and confined in several Churches and other large Buildings and although we had often Received Intelligence from them with ye most Deplorable Representation of their Miserable Situation, yet when we came to visit them we found their sufferings vastly superior to what we had been able to conceive. Nor are words sufficient to convey an Adequate Idea of their Unparalled Calamity. Well might ye Prophet say, ‘They yt be slain with ye sword are better than they yt be slain with hunger, for these pine away, etc.’
“Their appearance in general Rather Resembled dead Corpses than living men. Indeed great numbers had already arrived at their long home, and ye Remainder appeared far advanced on ye same Journey: their accommodations were in all respects vastly Inferior to what a New England Farmer would have provided for his Cattle, and although ye Commissary pretended to furnish them with two thirds of ye allowance of ye King’s Troops, yet they were cheated out of one half of that. They were many times entirely neglected from Day to Day, and received no Provision at all; they were also frequently Imposed upon in Regard to ye Quality as well as Quantity of their provision. Especially in the Necessary article of Bread of which they often received such Rotten and mouldy stuff, as was entirely unfit for use.
“* * * A large number of ye most feeble were Removed down to ye Quaker Meeting House on Queen Street, where many hundreds of them perished in a much more miserable Situation than ye dumb Beasts, while those whose particular business it was to provide them relief, paid very little or no attention to their unparalleled sufferings. This house I understand was under ye Superintendence of one Dr. Dibuke * * * who had been at least once convicted of stealing (in Europe) and had fled to this country for protection: It was said he often made application of his Cane among ye Sick instead of other medicines. * * * I have often been in danger of being stabbed for attempting to speak to a prisoner in ye yard. * * *
“About the 24th December a large number of prisoners were embarked on a ship to be sent to New England. What privates of the 17th Regiment remained living were Included in this number, but about one half had already perished in Prison. I was afterwards informed that the Winds being unfavourable and their accommodations and provisions on board ye Ship being very similar to what they had been provided with before, a large proportion of them perished before they could reach New England, so that it is to be feared very few of them lived to see their native homes.
“Soon after there was large numbers of the prisoners sent off by land both to the Southward and Eastward so yt when ye Officers were Removed over into Long Island in the latter part of January there remained but very few of the privates in that City except those released by Death which number was supposed to be about 1800.
“General Robertson, so famous for Politeness and Humanity was commanding Officer at New York during the aforesaid treatment of the prisoners. Governor Scheene was said to have visited the prisoners at the Churches and manifested great dissatisfaction at their ill Usage, yet I was never able to learn that ye poor Sufferers Rec’d any Advantage thereby.”
Captain Jabez Fitch was a prisoner eighteen months. After the Revolution he lived in Vermont, where he died in 1812.