The Spirit Of ’76

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IN CONGRESS, JOHN ADAMS TOOK THE lead. To his wife he wrote, “I who am always made miserable by the Misery of every sensible being, am obliged to hear continual accounts of the barbarities, the cruel Murders in cold blood, even the most tormenting ways of starving and freezing committed by our Enemies. … these accounts harrow me beyond Description.” Adams resolved that the guiding principles of the American Republic would always be what he called the “policy of humanity.” He wrote: “I know of no policy, God is my witness, but this—Piety, Humanity and Honesty are the best Policy. Blasphemy, Cruelty and Villainy have prevailed and may again. But they won’t prevail against America, in this Contest, because I find the more of them are employed, the less they succeed.”

Not all American leaders agreed. Others in Adams’s generation, and many in our own time, believe that America should seek its own national self-interest by any means. But most men of the American Enlightenment shared John Adams’s way of thinking, and that winter both the Congress and the Continental Army adopted the policy of humanity. Their choice was only reinforced by every report of wounded soldiers refused quarter, of mistreatment in the New York prison hulks, and of plunder and rapine in New Jersey. John Adams gave words to this policy; George Washington put it to work.

British leaders and soldiers moved in a different direction. Imperial attitudes toward the people they called “our colonials” and “those rebels” hardened as the war went on. John Bowater, a captain of marines, wrote: “The Natives are such a Levelling, underbred, Artfull, Race of people that we Cannot Associate with them. … Their words come up so slow I frequently long to Shove a Soup ladle down their throat.”

Many officers and men in the British army shared Captain Bowater’s attitude and acted on it. Col. Charles Stuart wrote candidly to his eminent father, the Earl of Bute, in 1778: “Wherever our armies have marched, wherever they have been encamped during the last campaign, every species of barbarity has been executed. We planted an irrecoverable hatred wherever we went, which neither time nor measures will be able to eradicate.”

A case in point was the cultural history of quarter. According to the codes of European war, quarter was the privilege of being allowed to surrender and become a prisoner. By custom and tradition soldiers in Europe believed that they had a right to extend quarter or deny it as they pleased. If a city resisted a siege, then the attackers had the right to kill all its inhabitants. If a fort refused to surrender, then the defenders could be put to the sword. Quarter was granted to some people and denied to others, according to their conduct and situation and the will of the winner. Nobody had an inalienable right to be taken prisoner or to be allowed to live.

IN A DESPERATE struggle they reversed the momentum of the war; they improvised a new way of war that grew into an American tradition; and they chose a policy of humanity that aligned the conduct of the war with the values of the Revolution.

British troops often allowed Americans to surrender and treated them decently, but sometimes they denied quarter and killed captives, and on occasion they were ordered to do so. American attitudes were very different. With some exceptions, American leaders believed that quarter should be extended to all combatants as a matter of right. Sometimes in the heat of battle this was not done, but not in any known action by the American army during the New Jersey campaign. George Washington and his high lieutenants never threatened to deny quarter to an enemy.

Americans were outraged when quarter was denied to their soldiers, as often happened in New York and New Jersey. One of the most notorious incidents occurred during the forage war at the battle of Drake’s Farm outside Metuchen. Charles Scott’s Virginia Infantry was fighting a British force in an open field. At one stage the Americans were driven back and left seven wounded behind. The ranking American, Lt. William Kelly, severely injured in the thigh, attempted to surrender with his men. British troops “dashed out their brains with their muskets and ran them through with their bayonets, made them like sieves.” As the Americans lay dying, the British plundered them.

After the fight at Drake’s Farm, American Brig. Gen. Adam Stephen engaged in an angry correspondence with Sir William Erskine, theBritish commander, which received much attention in American newspapers. The British leaderdenied moral responsibility, which increased American anger. The words of the Britishcommander, more than the acts of his men, strengthened the American resolve to run their own war in a different spirit.

Another issue was the treatment of prisoners. After the battles in New York thousands of American prisoners of war were viciously treated and confined in the churches of New York City, which were desecrated by scenes of cruelty, suffering, and starvation, or sent to prison hulks in New York Harbor to die there miserably by the hundreds. Some escaped, and their reports had the same impact as those of American prisoners of the Japanese in the Second World War.