Patriots Or Terrorists?

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Officers were supposed to feel social constraints, because military rank remained intimately connected to inherited property and privilege everywhere in 18th-century Europe. Only someone entitled by birth to the deference of others was thought capable of leading men in war. Breeding, not expertise, constituted the foundation of an officer’s authority. (This was no theoretical abstraction. In Britain army officers purchased their commissions at prices so steep that the service essentially belonged to the few thousand rich families who ran the country.) Officers thus tended to believe they had more in common with their counterparts across the firing line than with the men they led. Out of that belief had emerged an unwritten code of honor that precisely regulated their behavior toward one another in war and required them to behave with genteel “complaisance” toward prisoners of all social ranks.

The trouble was that the American armies seemed—especially at the beginning of the war—like undisciplined rabbles led by men without the standing in civil society to make them genuine officers. Opinions changed as the war developed, but it remained a question for the British as to whether men who in civilian life had been merchants and tradesmen, even plain farmers, deserved the courtesies automatically due real gentlemen in uniform—and if captured, whether it was appropriate to exchange them, rank for rank, as if they were social equals. Said one Hessian after the Battle of Brooklyn: “Among the prisoners are many so-called colonels, lieutenant colonels, majors, and other officers, who, however, are nothing but mechanics, tailors, shoemakers, wigmakers, barbers, etc. Some of them were soundly beaten by our people, who would by no means let such persons pass for officers.” Another observed that “prisoners who knelt and sought to surrender were beaten . . . Most of their officers are no better dressed and until recently were ordinary manual laborers.”

The humiliation was as bad as the physical abuse

As bad as the physical abuse, though, was the humiliation. After the capitulation of Fort Washington in November 1776, for example, Capt. Alexander Graydon and other prisoners were herded into a Harlem barn where a British sergeant major was making a list of their names and ranks. Graydon never forgot what happened when the sergeant came to a “squat fellow” from Pennsylvania: “You are an officer, sir!” said the sergeant. “Yes,” was the answer. “Your rank sir!” with a significant smile. “I am a keppun,” replied the little man in a chuff, firm tone. Upon this, there was an immoderate roar of laughter among the officers about the door.” Decades later, Graydon could still remember the shame and embarrassment he felt at that moment. As with the trials of Hanford, however, they only stiffened his resolve.

The Death Ship Jersey

It was in the spring of 1780 that Americans woke to a new horror: the prison ship Jersey , easily the biggest and deadliest of its kind in the Revolutionary War, which claimed so many lives during her brief time in service as to serve for generations as the single most widely recognized symbol of British cruelty toward captured patriots.

Launched in 1736, the Jersey had seen decades of service in the Mediterranean as a fourth-rate frigate of 64 guns before the navy converted it to a hospital ship around 1771. (In the Royal Navy, such a rating implied a three-masted ship mounting 50 to 70 cannon on two decks below the main deck and carrying a crew of around 400.) It arrived in New York with the rest of the fleet in the summer of 1776 or shortly thereafter. As one of the largest vessels in port—41 feet at the beam, 144 stem to stern—its great black hull would have been a familiar sight to the city’s residents. For its conversion to prison duty, it was anchored permanently in Wallabout Bay and “hulked”—stripped of its masts, canvas, lines, ordnance, figurehead, rudder, and any other reusable equipment. The gun ports were then sealed and replaced by two rows of small, square air ports, barred with iron lattices, for the benefit of the prisoners confined on the lower decks. Aft, on the quarterdeck, a large awning or tent was erected to shelter the 30-odd marines assigned to guard the prisoners. Directly below lay the officers’ cabins and various storerooms. Between the quarterdeck and forecastle lay an area of the gundeck known as the spar deck, much of this now occupied by the pens in which officers kept pigs for their own consumption. The forward gundeck was reserved for the galley. Below the gundeck lay the middle deck, a cavernous, vile-smelling, vermin-infested space where the prisoners passed time, ate, and slept shoulder to shoulder. Still more prisoners dwelled like troglodytes on the dank lower deck, at or near the waterline. The only way to reach topside from the holds was up a narrow companionway and through a heavy grated hatch, always dogged tight at sundown.

Exactly when the Jersey began to receive prisoners is unclear. It may have been when it was still in service as a hospital ship—a report reached Philadelphia as early as June 1779 that 512 captives were languishing in its holds—but once it formally became a prison hulk, the numbers soared and conditions rapidly deteriorated.