Prisons and Prison Ships

views updated

Prisons and Prison Ships

PRISONS AND PRISON SHIPS. The lot of the Revolutionary War prisoner was hard, not solely because of deliberate policy, but also as neither the British nor the Americans were prepared in 1775 to take care of those they caught. Normal jail facilities soon were filled with political prisoners, both Whigs and Loyalists. Then came the large hauls: some four thousand rebels taken around New York City in 1776; nearly one thousand Germans at Trenton in 1776 and 1777; approximately five thousand British, Germans, and Canadians marched off from Saratoga as the Convention Army in 1777; over five thousand Americans surrendered in May 1780 at Charleston; and perhaps eight thousand British taken captive at Yorktown in October 1781. Naval prisoners continued to be taken throughout this period—fishermen, privateers, officers and men of the regular navies, and such special diplomatic prizes as Henry Laurens.

While the written record abounds with stories of hardships, atrocities, and escapes, precise facts and accurate figures about prisoners during the Revolution are difficult to arrive at and have only recently been explored by historians. We do not know how many were taken, although there is some reason to believe that the numbers for each side were about even at around twenty thousand each. Except for the notorious Simsbury mines in Connecticut, the Americans lacked—even more than the British—the means of securing prisoners. Most prisoners of war held by the Patriots were interned in the interiors of states, especially Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland, where conditions were more healthful than that experienced by the prisoners of the British. Captured British and Germans tended to drift away from American camps after relatively short confinements; the Germans, in particular, were allowed and even encouraged to "escape" in the knowledge that they tended to end up as American farm-hands rather than return to their British masters.


At the start of the war the two sides had no idea how to treat their prisoners. The British especially were at a loss. Many agreed with Lord Germain who thought that since those captured were rebels, they should be hanged. Many more saw the wisdom of the generals in the field, who appreciated that if they started hanging American prisoners, the Americans would reciprocate. The issue became an international one with the capture of Ethan Allen at Montreal in September 1775. The British authorities in Canada hated Allen, not just for the humiliating capture of Fort Ticonderoga, but also because of his efforts to arouse the Caughnawagas and other people of Canada against British rule. General Richard Prescott wanted to shoot him on the spot. But instead he was thrown in chains and sent to England, until allies there filed a writ of habeas corpus demanding that he either have charges brought against him, be declared a prisoner of war, or be freed. Baffled, the government decided to send Allen and most other prisoners back to America. Efforts to effect Allen's exchange for an officer of an equal rank, the traditional European method of handling officers, brought Washington into a long correspondence with the Howe brothers. The latter refused to address the former as a general, and Washington would not talk with the brothers unless they recognized his rank. When Washington heard of Allen's harsh treatment, he threatened to treat British officers the same way. Problems in connection with the exchange of prisoners prolonged the misery of captives and ran up the death rate. Finally, each side decided simply to ignore the details and proceed in traditional manner, exchanging officers and using a system of parole under which those captured agreed not to fight until they were exchanged.


However, the private soldier was treated with gruesome brutality, as Allen described in his popular Narrative of 1779. Most American military prisoners were packed into improvised jails and prison ships to suffer and die in large numbers. Elias Boudinot was the American commissary general of prisoners during 1777 and 1778, when policies concerning the prisoners of war (POWs) were put into place; his British counterpart was the corrupt Joshua Loring, whose wife, Elizabeth Lloyd, was the famous mistress of General Howe. Other British commissaries of prisoners were men named David Sproat and James [?] Lennox.

Britain's New York prisons. Infamous British prisons in New York City were Van Cortlandt's Sugar House (northwest corner of Trinity churchyard), Rhinelander's (corner of William and Duane Streets), the Liberty Street Sugar House (Nos. 34 and 36 Liberty Street), and the Provost Jail. The latter had been constructed in the Fields in 1758 and was known as the New Jail. It was administered by the notorious William Cunningham. The Provost and Liberty jails, in that order, were the most dreaded by patriots. Other places in New York City were used as prisons: some of the Dissenter churches, the hospital, King's College (Columbia), and one or more other sugar houses.

British prison ships. The prison ships were probably more horrible than the land jails. Originally used for naval captives, they subsequently were filled with soldiers. The British started using them not only to solve their problems of space in New York City—particularly after the fire of September 1776—but because they promised to be more secure and more healthful than conventional jails. Both assumptions proved wrong: any prisoner who could swim could escape from a ship more easily than from a land jail; improper administration of the prison ships—overcrowding, poor sanitation, inadequate food—turned them into death traps. Though again figures are only rough estimates, some seven thousand to ten thousand Americans died on these ships during the Revolution, the latter figure supported by the discovery in 1803 of thousands of skeletons around the shores of Wallabout Bay.

Most notorious was the Jersey, a sixty-four-gun ship that had been dismantled in 1776 as unfit for service and that held one thousand or more prisoners. Other ships in Wallabout Bay were the Hunter and the Stromboli. The hospital ship Scorpion was moored off Paulus Hook; one of its guests was Philip Freneau, who wrote a dramatic poem about the horrors and hopelessness of life aboard a prison ship. At least thirteen different ships were used around New York City during the war. Others, of course, were used elsewhere. The Sandwich—although not a prison ship—was used to take political prisoners to St. Augustine from Charleston.

Other British prisoners. Other Americans were jailed at Halifax, and those taken on the high seas or in European waters saw the inside of such famous English prisons as Dartmoor, Old Mill Prison at Plymouth, Forton Prison at Portsmouth, and the Tower of London. Continental army prisoners taken at Charleston on 12 May 1780 were imprisoned for thirteen months at nearby Haddrel's Point, where they suffered great hardships. Some elected to join the British army or to serve in units formed to fight in the West Indies. But the majority turned down freedom at the cost of serving the British. "The integrity of these suffering prisoners is hardly credible," Allen wrote. "Many hundreds, I am confident, submitted to death, rather than enlist in British service." Allen used his tale of the British mistreatment of POWs to persuade the public that Americans had no kinship with their enemy. Allen and many others reported on the privation that drove men to eat rats and insects, wood and stone; in one notorious instance, a prisoner ate his own fingers. It is certainly the case that stories of the horrific prisons in which Americans were placed fed patriotic feelings.

Seamen, and even fishermen, taken by the British were given the choice of joining the Royal Navy or spending the war in British jails. At the end of the war there were more than one thousand seamen in captivity in Britain, primarily in Forton and Mill prisons. Their treatment, being more routine, did not descend to the appalling levels of the prison ships.


While the British were uncertain how to treat the American rebels, the latter also could not agree on their policy toward Loyalists. Some wanted to treat them as POWs and inter them with British and German prisoners; local Patriot leaders tended to take the view that they were criminals or traitors and should be dealt with accordingly. The Patriot government of New York imprisoned many Loyalists under the Kingston Court House, where the Provincial Congress held its sessions. The overcrowding and filth reached such a level that they disrupted the Congress's sessions. After many representatives complained, the Loyalists were moved to prison ships in the Hudson. In other states, some officials made arrangements with Loyalists taken in combat, confining them to their homes, while others hanged them on the spot. Americans, however, had very little experience incarcerating large numbers of people; most colonial towns did not have a jail. As a consequence, Loyalists often found it easy to escape, even from the brutal Simsbury mines. It seems that far fewer prisoners died in American hands than in British, but that may have as much to do with the lack of opportunity as with standards of humanity.

SEE ALSO Boudinot, Elias; Convention Army; Cunningham, William; Exchange of Prisoners; Laurens, Henry.


Bellesiles, Michael A. Revolutionary Outlaws: Ethan Allen and the Struggle for Independence on the Early American Frontier. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993.

Bowman, Larry G. Captive Americans: Prisoners during the American Revolution. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1976.

Cohen, Sheldon S. Yankee Sailors in British Gaols: Prisoners of War at Forton and Mill, 1777–1783. Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press, 1995.

Metzger, Charles H. The Prisoner in the American Revolution. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1971.

Sampson, Richard. Escape in America: The British Convention Prisoners, 1777–1783. Chippenham, U.K.: Picton, 1995.

                           revised by Michael Bellesiles

About this article

Prisons and Prison Ships

Updated About content Print Article