- Historic Sites
Patriots Or Terrorists?
The Lost Story of Revolutionary War POW’s
Fall 2008 | Volume 58, Issue 5
Aboard the Good Intent, meanwhile, Hanford fell sick and was transferred again, this time to the military hospital in the Brick Presbyterian Church. The so-called hospital was no improvement, however. “Disease and death reigned there in all their terror,” he remembered. “I have had men die by the side of me in the night, and have seen fifteen dead bodies sewed up in their blankets and laid in the corner of the yard at one time, the product of one twenty-four hours.” And worse, horribly worse: “On one occasion, I was permitted to go with the guard to the place of interment, and never shall I forget the scene that I there beheld. They tumbled the bodies promiscuously into the ditch, sometimes even dumping them from the cart, then threw upon them a little dirt, and away they went. I could see a hand there, a foot there, and there again a part of a head, washed bare by the rain, and all swollen, blubbering, and falling to decay.”
At any point in this ordeal, Hanford might have won his freedom by enlisting in King George’s service. Yet he rebuffed every overture by recruiters, and when finally exchanged in May 1778—one of the relatively few who lasted as long as 13 months in captivity—he went home, rejoined his old unit, and resumed the fight. Instead of weakening his resolve, his stint as a prisoner of war had made him more determined than ever to send the redcoats packing.
To Scourge the Rebellion with Rods of Iron
According to one recent estimate, of the approximately 200,000 Americans who bore arms against the Crown between 1775 and 1783, at least 18,200 were taken; and this figure represents only men wearing the uniform of the Continental forces or serving in one of the state militias. It does not include the thousands of seamen captured from the privateers that preyed on British shipping up and down the coast. Nor does it reflect the untold numbers of civilians rounded up for joining revolutionary committees or speaking out against the Crown. Taken all together, between 24,800 and 32,000 patriots probably fell into British hands during the Revolutionary War. Like Hanford, the great majority of them were held in and around New York City, under conditions so atrocious that as many as 18,000 (almost 60 percent) perished—or two and a half times the 6,800 thought to have fallen in battle. More Americans gave their lives for independence in New York than anywhere else in the country.
No evidence exists that the British explicitly intended the deaths of so many of their captives. Still, they had often threatened to hang every American taken in arms against the Crown. After the debacle at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, followed by their Pyrrhic victory at Bunker Hill in June, His Majesty’s forces in America were out for blood—impatient, as a captain in the King’s Own Regiment put it, “to scourge the rebellion with rods of iron,” even if it meant “almost extirpating the present rebellious race.” The green light for a war of extirpation would come in August 1775, when the king issued a “Proclamation for Suppressing Rebellion and Sedition,” which enjoined his loyal subjects throughout the realm to put down “all traitorous Conspiracies and Attempts against Us, Our Crown and Dignity.” Parliament finished the job in March 1777 by adopting “North’s Act,” which suspended habeas corpus and authorized the prosecution of captured rebels for treason or piracy as circumstances required. Not surprisingly, the officials charged with the care and feeding of prisoners in New York—Joshua Loring, commissary of military prisoners, and David Sproat, commissary of naval prisoners—were at best indifferent to their charges’ fate. Why pamper traitors on their way to the gallows? Every time Gen. George Washington protested, moreover, his British counterparts, especially generals Sir William Howe and Sir Henry Clinton, denied any wrongdoing, even when presented with irrefutable evidence that their provost marshal, Capt. William Cunningham, beat and starved prisoners for his own sadistic amusement.
Parliament suspended habeas corpus and authorized the prosecution of captured rebels for treason or piracy
The British were under no formal obligation to take better care of captured Americans. The growth of nation states in early modern Europe had brought a degree of predictability to the conduct of war and given rise to certain precepts and customs bearing on the treatment of prisoners: disarmed adversaries should not be executed, humiliated, tortured, or mutilated; prosecuted as criminals, or enslaved; or withheld the appropriate food, clothing, and shelter. More than a century would pass before these principles would be codified in multinational treaties or conventions. As explicated by classicists and jurists, the “rules of war” or “law of arms” were largely theoretical and essentially unenforceable—not actually rules or laws at all, strictly speaking, but only high-sounding guidelines for mitigating the severity of armed conflict between purportedly civilized princes. Whether they even applied in cases of domestic insurrection or rebellion was (and still is) open to question.