Prisoners of war in the American Revolutionary War

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Interior of the British prison ship Jersey

During the American Revolutionary War (1775–83) the management and treatment of prisoners of war (POWs) was very different from the standards of modern warfare. Modern standards, as outlined in the Geneva Conventions of later centuries, expect captives to be held and cared for by their captors. One primary difference in the 18th century was that care and supplies for captives were expected to be provided by their own [combatants] or private citizens.


Throughout the war, there were exchanges of prisoners. These were made in the field or at higher levels of organization. Usually high-ranking officer exchanges were negotiated for specifically named people. There were some exchanges based on numbers for random lower-ranking people, but these were limited.

Three other aspects were different from those normally seen in modern warfare. The first is that letters were permitted and sometimes even encouraged. Prisoners could buy or exchange for food and clothing, including any money sent by their families. The second was the use of 'Parole' by both sides. This would allow prisoners some freedom, in exchange for their promise not to resume the war. The last is that prisoners were encouraged to enlist in the army of the other side. [1]

American prisoners[edit]

King George III of Great Britain had declared American forces traitors in 1775, which denied them prisoner of war status. However, British strategy in the early conflict included pursuit of a negotiated settlement and therefore officials declined to try and/or hang them, the usual procedure for treason, to avoid unnecessarily risking any public sympathy the British might have enjoyed in the Americas. The Continental Army capture of a British army at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777 resulted in thousands of British prisoners of war in the hands of the Americans. This had the effect of further dissuading British officials from hanging Colonial prisoners, despite the abandoned hopes of a settlement by this stage, as they feared reprisals on prisoners being held by the Americans. Neither policy, however, prevented the British from treating common American military members being held prisoner far more harshly than the standards of the day for POWs allowed.[2] In actuality, a malicious British neglect resulted in starvation and disease slowly and torturously achieving the same results as hanging for many American prisoners of war, or disability and inhumane suffering for most others who were not officers or otherwise likely to be useful in prisoner exchanges.[3][4]

The Middle Dutch Church is where the enlisted men captured at the Battle of Long Island were imprisoned. The Sugar House also became a prison as the Redcoats captured more of Washington's soldiers during the retreat from New York. The site today is the location of the Chase Manhattan Bank. (Image from about 1830.)[5][6]

The British forces held relatively few places in strength for long periods. American prisoners of war tended to be accumulated at these sites. New York City was a major site of occupation, where sugar houses were used to detain prisoners of war.[7] Philadelphia in 1777 and later Charleston, South Carolina, were also important. Facilities at these places were limited. At times, the occupying army was actually larger than the total civilian population.

The British solution to this problem was to use obsolete, captured, or damaged ships as prisons.[8] Conditions were appalling, and many more Americans died of neglect while imprisoned than were killed in battle.[9] While the Continental Army named a commissary to supply them, the task was almost impossible. Elias Boudinot, as one of these commissaries, was competing with other agents seeking to gather supplies for George Washington's army at Valley Forge.

During the war, at least 16 hulks, including the infamous HMS Jersey, were placed by British authorities in the waters of Wallabout Bay off the shores of Brooklyn, New York as a place of incarceration for many thousands of American soldiers and sailors during about 1776–83. These prisoners of war were harassed and abused by guards who, with little success, offered release to those who agreed to serve in the British Navy.[10][11] Over 10,000 American prisoners of war died from neglect. Their corpses were often tossed overboard, though sometimes they were buried in shallow graves along the eroding shoreline.[12] Many of the remains became exposed or were washed up and recovered by local residents over the years and later interred nearby in the Prison Ship Martyrs' Monument at Fort Greene Park, once the scene of a portion of the Battle of Long Island.[13]

Survivors of the British Prison Ships include the poet Philip Freneau, and Congressman Robert Brown.

Continental Army prisoners of war from Cherry Valley were held by Loyalists at Fort Niagara near Niagara Falls, New York and at Fort Chambly near Montreal.[14][15]

British and German prisoners[edit]

See also: Convention Army

During the American Revolutionary War, George Washington and his Continental Army put the laws of war into practice regarding prisoners of war, unlike their opponents who did not. The British believed that Colonial American soldiers were traitors and not entitled to POW status and would treat them as unlawful combatants and subject them to execution on the battlefield if captured as what happened at the Battle at Drake's farm during the Forage War. The Americans took a different view, believing that all captives should be taken prisoner. On September 14, 1775, Washington, commander of the Northern Expeditionary Force, while at camp in Cambridge, Massachusetts, wrote to Colonel Benedict Arnold that:

Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any [prisoner]. . . I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require. Should it extend to death itself, it will not be disproportional to its guilt at such a time and in such a cause. . . for by such conduct they bring shame, disgrace and ruin to themselves and their country.[16][17]

After winning the Battle of Trenton on Christmas Day 1776, Washington found himself left with hundreds of Hessian troops who had surrendered to the Americans. Washington ordered his troops to take the prisoners in and "treat them with humanity," which they did. "Let them have no reason to complain of our copying the brutal example of the British army in their treatment of our unfortunate brethren who have fallen into their hands," Washington said.[18] Some British and Hessian prisoners of war were paroled to American farmers. Their labor made up for shortages caused by the number of men serving in the Continental Army.


  1. ^ Johnathan Pope, "Law, tradition, and treason: Captured Americans during the American Revolution, 1775--1783" (2003)
  2. ^ West, Charles E.. "Horrors of the prison ships: Dr. West's description of the wallabout floating dungeons, how captive patriots fared." Eagle Book Printing Department, 1895.
  3. ^ Andros, Thomas. "The old Jersey captive: Or, A narrative of the captivity of Thomas Andros...on board the old Jersey prison ship at New York, 1781. In a series of letters to a friend." W. Peirce. 1833.
  4. ^ Lang, Patrick J.. "The horrors of the English prison ships, 1776 to 1783, and the barbarous treatment of the American patriots imprisoned on them." Society of the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick, 1939.
  5. ^ Hanford, William H. (January 15, 1852). "Incidents of the Revolution: Recollections of the Old Sugar House Prison". The New York Times. Retrieved February 11, 2011. 
  6. ^ Lewis, Charles H. (2009). Cut Off: Colonel Jedediah Huntington's 17th Continental (Conn.) Regiment at the Battle of Long Island August 27, 1776. Westminster, MD: Heritage Books. p. 206. ISBN 978-0-7884-4924-6. 
  7. ^ Gillett, Jonathan (1911). "The Prisons Of New York". American Prisoners Of The Revolution. Access Genealogy. Retrieved February 11, 2011. 
  8. ^ Dring, Thomas and Greene, Albert. "Recollections of the Jersey Prison Ship" (American Experience Series, No 8). Applewood Books. November 1, 1986. ISBN 978-0-918222-92-3
  9. ^ Banks, James Lenox. "Prison ships in the Revolution: New facts in regard to their management." 1903.
  10. ^ Taylor, George. "Martyrs To The Revolution In The British Prison-Ships In The Wallabout Bay." (originally printed 1855) Kessinger Publishing, LLC. October 2, 2007. ISBN 978-0-548-59217-5.
  11. ^ Hawkins, Christopher. "The life and adventures of Christopher Hawkins, a prisoner on board the 'Old Jersey' prison ship during the War of the Revolution." Holland Club. 1858.
  12. ^ Stiles, Henry Reed. "Letters from the prisons and prison-ships of the revolution." Thomson Gale, December 31, 1969. ISBN 978-1-4328-1222-5
  13. ^ Onderdonk. Henry. "Revolutionary Incidents of Suffolk and Kings Counties; With an Account of the Battle of Long Island and the British Prisons and Prison-Ships at New York." Associated Faculty Press, Inc. June, 1970. ISBN 978-0-8046-8075-2.
  14. ^ Campbell, William W.: Annals of Tyron County; or, the Border Warfare of New-York during the Revolution, J. & J. Harper, New York (1831) pp. 110–11, 182, regarding prisoners (i.e., Lt. Col. William Stacy) held at Fort Niagara.
  15. ^ McHenry, Chris: Rebel Prisoners at Quebec 1778-1783, Being a List of American Colonists were Held by the British during the Revolutionary War, Lawrenceburg, Indiana (1981) regarding prisoners held at Fort Chambly.
  16. ^ The torture report represents a heartbreaking decline in America’s values
  17. ^ George Washington and Jared Sparks (1847). The writings of George Washington: Being his correspondence, addresses, messages, and other papers, official and private. Benchmark Books. p. 90. ISBN 978-1286400098. 
  18. ^ Ron Fridell (September 2007). Prisoners of War. Harper & Bros. p. 19. ISBN 9780870139406. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Armbruster. Eugene L. The Wallabout Prison Ships: 1776-1783. New York, 1920.
  • Boyle, Joseph Lee, ed. Their Distress is Almost Intolerable: The Elias Boudinot Letterbook, 1777-1778; 2002, Heritage Books (paperback), ISBN 0-7884-2210-3.
  • Burrows, Edwin G. Forgotten patriots: The untold story of American prisoners during the revolutionary war (NY: Basic Books, 2008)
  • Cray, Robert E., Jr. "Commemorating the Prison Ship Dead: Revolutionary Memory and the Politics of Sepulture in the Early Republic, 1776-1808," William and Mary Quarterly (1999) 56#3 pp. 565-590 in JSTOR
  • Dandridge, Danske. American Prisoners of the Revolution. The Michie Company, Printers, Charlottsville, Va. 1911.
  • Dandridge, Danske. American Prisoners of the Revolution. Baltimore. Genealogical Publishing Company. 1911. (reprinted 1967)
  • Lowenthal,Larry. Hell on the East River: British Prison Ships in the American Revolution. Fleischmanns, New York. Purple Mountain Press. 2009.
  • Pope, Johnathan. "Law, tradition, and treason: Captured Americans during the American Revolution, 1775--1783" (MA thesis, University of New Brunswick 2003). online

External links[edit]