- Historic Sites
Patriots Or Terrorists?
The Lost Story of Revolutionary War POW’s
Fall 2008 | Volume 58, Issue 5
Sometime that seismic spring of 1776, 16-year-old Levi Hanford of Norwalk, Connecticut, enrolled in his uncle’s militia company and went to war against the British. He expected to make short work of the enemy. Everybody knew how simple farm boys like himself had just sent the redcoats reeling from Lexington and Concord, then cut them down at Bunker Hill. But Hanford’s war got off to a slow start. Except for a brief stint building fortifications around New York City, his first year under arms consisted mostly of standing watch along the Connecticut coast of Long Island Sound and rounding up Tories. He missed the disastrous Battle of Brooklyn on August 27, 1776, in which Gen. William Howe’s redcoats captured a thousand American rebels. Neither was he present two weeks later, when the British swarmed across the East River onto Manhattan, seized the city, and rounded up several hundred more Americans. Hanford did not get his first real taste of action, in fact, until a cold, stormy night in March 1777, when he and a dozen other Connecticut men were surprised and taken prisoner by a Tory raiding party from Huntington, Long Island. What happened next would haunt him until the day he died, 77 years later.
Their captors marched Hanford and his comrades to occupied New York, now the nerve center of British operations in North America and the main holding point for rebel prisoners until the war ended in 1783. Several months before he arrived, more than 5,000 of his countrymen had been squeezed into several churches gutted for the purpose, plus a pair of sugar refineries, the municipal jail and almshouse, and even the King’s College building (now Columbia University).
By all accounts, conditions in these makeshift prisons were frightful. The men never had enough clothing, blankets, or firewood. Their rations—when they received them—consisted mostly of rotten pork or beef and scraps of moldy bread. Some inmates ate rats, shoes, and even the lice that covered their bodies. All lost weight, and virtually all exhibited the bleeding gums, open sores, tooth loss, and listlessness characteristic of scurvy. Survivors told of floors slick with human excrement and of air so fetid that candles would not stay lit. Not surprisingly, typhus, dysentery, and other infectious diseases ran rampant, and men died so quickly that burial details could barely keep up. By January or February 1777, it appears that six or seven of every 10 American prisoners had perished—a mortality rate roughly twice that of the infamous Confederate stockade in Andersonville, Georgia. (In World War I, only 3.6 percent of U.S. prisoners died in POW camps. In World War II the figure rose to 11.3 percent, and in Korea to 37.8 percent.)
Hanford’s destination was a five-story “sugar house” on Crown (now Liberty) Street, just east of Nassau, in what is today the lower Manhattan business district. It had been confiscated from the redoubtable Livingston family, who had built it in the early 1700s to manufacture loaf sugar and rum. The building’s massive stone walls and small, dungeonlike windows made it serviceable as a prison. Although a sizable majority of the 800-odd Americans confined therein over the winter of 1776–77 were long dead by the time Hanford arrived, British operations in New Jersey, Westchester, and Connecticut soon brought in hundreds to replace them. As spring turned to summer, he recalled, the stench became overpowering, and the air grew so oppressively thick it was hard to breathe. “Our allowance of provisions,” he added, “was a scanty supply of pork and sea-biscuit”— too scanty to keep a man going for long. The moldy biscuits, wet from seawater, teemed with weevils. “It was our common practice to put water in our camp kettle, then break up the biscuit into it, and after skimming off the worms, to put in the pork, and then, if we had fuel, to boil the whole together.”
In late October, after seven months in the sugar house, Hanford was transferred to the ill-named Good Intent, a transport recently converted into a prison ship, now riding at anchor in the Hudson. He was thrust among 200 more Americans crammed below decks, starving and dying like flies in the sepulchral gloom. “The air was exceedingly foul, close, and sickening,” he would recall. “No wonder that pestilence in all its fury began to sweep us down.” Within two months, half his prisonmates were dead.
Hanford’s transfer from the sugar house to the Good Intent was an index of how the multiplying captive population in occupied New York was compelling the authorities to begin moving the overflow onto an assortment of vessels anchored in the waters around New York. Already there were prisoners aboard the Prince of Wales, a decrepit warship anchored in Wallabout Bay on the Brooklyn side of the East River, near the hospital ship Kitty. At some point in the course of that year, the Judith and the Myrtle, two transports anchored in the Hudson opposite Trinity Church, began to receive prisoners, as did the Jersey and the Good Hope, a pair of hospital ships hitherto reserved for the use of His Majesty’s forces. American captives would also be confined in the brigs of at least nine other vessels not officially designated as prisons or hospitals: the Eagle, Felicity, Isis, Richmond, Otter, Dispatch, York, Vigilant, and Mercury.