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Sufferings of American Prisoners

From Diary of the American Revolution, Vol I. Compiled by Frank Moore and published in 1859.

January 19. –General Howe has discharged all the privates, who were prisoners in New York; one-half he sent to the world of spirits for want of food–the other he hath sent to warn their countrymen of the danger of falling into his hands, and to convince them by ocular demonstration, that it is infinitely better to be slain in battle, than to be taken prisoners by British brutes, whose tender mercies are cruelties.1

The following account of the sufferings of these unfortunate men was obtained from the prisoners themselves: –As soon as they were taken they were robbed of all their baggage, of whatever money they had, though it were of paper, and could be of no advantage to the enemy, of their silver shoe-buckles, and knee-buckles, &c., and many were stripped almost naked of their clothes. Especially those who had good clothes, were stripped at once, being told that such clothes were too good for rebels. Thus deprived of their clothes and baggage they were unable to shift even their linen, and were obliged to wear the same shirts for even three or four months together, whereby they became extremely nasty; and this of itself was sufficient to bring on them many mortal diseases.

After they were taken, they were in the first place put on board the ships and thrust down into the hold, where not a breath of fresh air could be obtained and they were nearly suffocated for want of air. Particularly some who were taken at Fort Washington, were first in this manner thrust down into the holds of vessels in such numbers, that even in the cold season of November they could scarcely bear any clothes on them, being kept in a constant sweat. Yet these same persons, after lying in this situation awhile, till the pores of their bodies were as perfectly opened as possible, were of a sudden taken out and put into some of the churches in New York; without covering or a spark of fire, where they suffered as much by the cold as they did by the sweating stagnation of the air in the other situation; and the consequence was, that they took such colds as brought on the most fatal diseases, and swept them off almost beyond conception.

Besides these things, they suffered extremely for want of provisions. The commissary pretended to allow half a pound of bread and four ounces of pork per day; but of this pittance they were much cut short. What was given them for three days was not enough for one day; and in some instances, they went for three days without a single mouthful of food of any sort. They were pinched to that degree, that some on board the ships would pick up and eat the salt which happened to be scattered there; others gathered up the bran which the light horse wasted, and ate it, mixed with dirt and filth as it was. Nor was this all, both the bread and pork which they did allow them was extremely bad. For the bread, some of it was made out of the bran which they brought over to feed their light horse, and the rest of it was so muddy and the pork so damnified, being so soaked in bilge water in the transportation from Europe, that they were not fit to be eaten by human creatures; and when they were eaten, were very unwholesome. Such bread and pork as they would not pretend to give their own countrymen, they gave to our poor sick, dying prisoners.

Nor were they in this doleful condition allowed a sufficiency of water. One would have thought that water was so cheap and plentiful an element, that they would not have grudged them that. But there are, it seems, no bounds to their cruelty. The water allowed them was so brackish and withal nasty, that they could not drink it, till reduced to extremity. Nor did they let them have a sufficiency even of such water as this.

When winter came on, our people suffered extremely for want of fire and clothes to keep them warm. They were confined in churches where there were no fireplaces, that they could make fires even if they had wood. But wood was only allowed them for cooking their pittance of victuals; and for that purpose very sparingly. They had none to keep them warm even in the extremest of weather, although they were almost naked, and the few clothes that were left upon them were their summer clothes. Nor had they a single blanket or any bedding, not even straw, allowed them till a little before Christmas.

At the time those were taken on Long Island, a considerable part of them were sick of the dysentery, and with this distemper on them were first crowded on board the ships, afterwards in the churches in New York, three, four, or five hundred together, without any blankets, or any thing for even the sick to lie upon, but the bare floors or pavements. In this situation that contagious distemper soon communicated from the sick to the well, who would probably have remained so, had they not in this manner been thrust in together without regard to sick or well, or to the sultry, unwholesome season, it being then the heat of summer. Of this distemper numbers died daily, and many others, by their confinement and the sultry season, contracted fevers and died of them. During their sickness, with these and other diseases, they had no medicines, nothing soothing or comfortable for sick people, and were not so much as visited by the physician by the month together.

Nor ought we to omit the insults which the humane Britons offered to our people, nor the artifices which they used to enlist them in their service and fight against their country. It seems that one end of their starving our people was to bring them, by dint of necessity, to turn rebels to their own country, their own consciences, and their God. For while thus famishing they would come and say to them, “This is the just punishment of your rebellion. Nay, you are treated too well for rebels; you have not received half you deserve or half you shall receive. But if you will enlist into his Majesty’s service, you shall have victuals and clothes enough.”

As to insults, the British officers, besides continually cursing and swearing at them as rebels, often threatened to hang them all; and on a particular time, ordered a number, each man to choose his halter out of a parcel offered, wherewith to be hanged; and even went so far as to cause a gallows to be erected before the prison, as if they were immediately to be executed. They further threatened to send them all into the East Indies, and sell them there for slaves. In these, and numberless other ways, did the British officers seem to rack their inventions to insult, terrify, and vex the poor prisoners. The meanest upstart officers among them would insult and abuse our colonels and chief officers.

In this situation, without clothes, without victuals or drink, and even water, or with those which were base and unwholesome, without fire, a number of them sick, first with a contagious and nauseous distemper; these, with others, crowded by hundreds into close confinement, at the most unwholesome season of the year, and continued there for four months without blankets, bedding, or straw; without linen to shift, or clothes to cover their bodies. No wonder they all became sickly, and having at the same time no medicine, no help of physicians, nothing to refresh or support nature, died by scores in a night; and those who were so far gone as to be unable to help themselves, lay uncared for, till death, more kind than Britons, put an end to their misery.

By these means, and in this way, fifteen hundred brave Americans, who had nobly gone forth in defence of their injured, oppressed country, but whom the chance of war had cast into the hands of our enemies, died in New York, many of whom were very amiable, promising youths, of good families–the very flower of our land. And of those who lived to come out of prison, the greater part, as far as I can learn, are dead and dying. Their constitutions are broken, the stamina of nature worn out, they cannot recover–they die. Even the few that might have survived, are dying of the small-pox. For it seems that our enemies determined that even these, whom a good constitution and a kind Providence had carried through unexampled sufferings, should not at last escape death, just before their release from imprisonment infected them with that fatal distemper.

To these circumstances we subjoin the manner in which they buried those of our people who died. They dragged them out of their prisons by one leg or one arm, piled them up without doors, there let them lie till a sufficient number were dead to make a cart load; then loaded them up in a cart, drove the cart thus loaded out to the ditches made by our people when fortifying New York; there they would tip the cart, tumble the corpses together into the ditch, and afterwards slightly cover them with earth.

* * * * While our poor prisoners have been thus treated by our foes, the prisoners we have taken have enjoyed the liberty of walking and riding about within large limits, at their pleasure; have been fully supplied with every necessary, and have even lived on the fat of the land. None have been so well fed, so healthy, so plump, and so merry as they; and this generous treatment, it is said, they could not but remember. For when they were returned in the exchange of prisoners, and saw the miserable, famished, dying state of our prisoners, conscious of the treatment they had received, they could not refrain from tears.2

But it is not the prisoners alone who have felt the effects of British humanity. Every part of the country through which they have marched, has been plundered and ravaged. No discrimination has been made with respect to Whig or Tory; but all alike have been involved in one common fate. Their march through New Jersey has been marked with savage barbarity. But Westchester witnesseth more terrible things. The repositories of the dead have ever been held sacred by the most barbarous and savage nations. But here, not being able to accomplish their accursed purposes upon the living, they wreaked their vengeance on the dead. In many places, the graves in the church-yards were opened, and the bodies of the dead exposed upon the ground for several days. At Morrisania, the family vault was opened, the coffins broken, and the bones scattered abroad. At Delancey’s farm, the body of a beautiful young lady, which had been buried for two years, was taken out of the ground, and exposed for five days in a most indecent manner. Many more instances could be mentioned, but my heart sickens at the recollection of such inhumanity. Some persons try to believe that it is only the Hessians who perpetrate these things, but I have good authority to say that the British vie with, and even exceed the auxiliary troops in licentiousness. After such treatment, can it be possible for any persons seriously to wish for a reconciliation with Great Britain?3

To the melancholy picture already exhibited of the brutal behavior of the Britons, (who vainly boast being ever preeminent in mercy,) aided by Hessian and Waldeck mercenaries, in New York and New Jersey, it gives us pain to add that they have not only outraged the feelings of humanity, to many people who were so unhappy as to fall into their hands, particularly the fair sex, but have degraded themselves beyond the power of language to express, by wantonly destroying the curious water works at New York, an elegant public library at Trenton, and the grand orrery, made by the celebrated Rittenhouse, which was placed in the college at Princeton, a piece of mechanism which the most untutored savage, staying the hand of violence, would have beheld with wonder, reverence, and delight! Thus are our cruel enemies warring against liberty, virtue, and the arts and sciences. “How are the mighty fallen.”4


1 Freeman’s Journal, February 18.
2 Connecticut Journal, January 30.
3 Freeman’s Journal, February 18.
4 The same, January 28.

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