Like other aspects of the War for Independence, neither side was prepared to feed, clothe and house large numbers of prisoners of war. As a result, surrendering did not insure that soldiers and sailors would be safely treated and they could survive the war. The British refusal to consider the captured Patriots as POW’s complicated their treatment and limited potential exchanges or paroles.
In the 19th century, many writers emphasized the one-sided brutality of the British treatment of the POW’s. Later, more balanced views were written which depicted both humane and barbaric treatment. Readers should take care to question sources and to fully understand the constraints of jailors and the British military commanders.
Anyone researching Patriot POW’s should visit Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, New York. Atop the park’s summit is a monument to those Patriots who lost their lives on the prison hulks in Wallabout Bay. The crypt is thought to contain the remains of up to eleven thousand prisoners. Brooklynders are raising funds to rehabilitate the crypt and better honor the Patriots who died on the prison hulks.
Boudinot, Elias, and Joseph Lee Boyle. “Their Distress Is Almost Intolerable”: The Elias Boudinot Letterbook, 1777-1778. Bowie, Md: Heritage Books, 2002.
The Continental Congress appointed Elias Boudinot, a New Jersey businessman as the first Commissioner of Prisoners. It was his responsibility to seek just treatment by the British jailers and to arrange supplies of food and living necessities be transported to the prisoners. Boudinot became extremely frustrated with this assignment and eventually resigned.
Dring, Thomas, and David Swain. Recollections of Life on the Prison Ship Jersey in 1782: A Revolutionary War-Era Manuscript. Yardley, Pa: Westholme, 2010.
An officers on a Patriot privateer, the British captured Dring and imprisoned him on the infamous Jersey prison hulk in the East River off the Brooklyn shore. Although near the end of the war when conditions improved, the Dring diary is one of the best accounts of prison life about the deadly hulks.
Stone, Thomas. “Experiences of a Prisoner in the American Revolution.” Edited by Hiram Stone. The Journal of the American History Two, no. Third (1908): 527–29.
Booth, Mary L. History of the City of New York. Vol. 2. New York: W. R. C. Clark, 1867.
Provides the 19th Century biased view of British brutality and criminal behavior towards the Patriot POW’s.
Borick, Carl P. Relieve Us of This Burthen: American Prisoners of War in the Revolutionary South, 1780-1782. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2012.
Especially if members of the militia, southern prisoners were likely to receive a parole with the stipulation that they either swear allegiance to the King or commit to not talking up arms for the Patriots. Only a few prisoners were sent north to New York City to the confined in the prison hulks.
Bowman, Larry G. Captive Americans: Prisoners During the American Revolution. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 976.
The Bowman volume is the best starting place for an authoritative overview of the POW experiences.
Ranlet, Philip. “In the Hands of the British: The Treatment of American POWs during the War of Independence.” The Historian 62, no. 4 (2000): 731–57.
Ranlet’s work is an example of more balanced view of prisoner treatment. At times, the British also ran short of food and supplies for their army and did not have the resources to adequately clothe, house and feed the large number of Patriot prisoners.
Watson, Robert P. The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn: An Untold Story of the Revolutionary War. Boston: Da Capo Press, 2017.
While well-written narrative, Watson’s sensationally focused book should be read with caution as it contains biases and content which is not supported by the historical record. For a review of The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn, click.