Revolution: Prisoners and Spies

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Revolution: Prisoners and Spies

Prisoners in the Revolutionary War suffered unnecessarily from the bitter political debate over their legal status that the British and Americans carried on throughout the conflict and also from administrative mismanagement and neglect on both sides.

prisoners: numbers, facilities, and treatment

The records are incomplete, but the best scholarly estimations are that the British captured 15,427 American officers and soldiers and as many as 8,000 American sailors (both from the navy and from privateers). In addition, the British seized many American sailors and impressed them into naval service. The number of British, German, and Loyalist prisoners in American hands is even more uncertain. The available evidence suggests that the overall prisoner totals were roughly equal between the two sides.

Both the British and Americans made large hauls of prisoners for which they were not fully prepared to care. The British took about 1,200 in Canada during 1775–1776; 4,430 in the New York campaign of 1776; about 1,000 in the Philadelphia campaign of 1777; 453 at Savannah, Georgia, in December 1778; and about 4,700 in South Carolina during 1780. The Americans captured 918 at Trenton, New Jersey, in December 1776; about 5,800 at Saratoga, New York, in October 1777; and about 8,000 at Yorktown, Virginia, in October 1781.

The British established local prison facilities wherever their operations required, but New York City served as their main detention center in America from 1776 to 1783. Although a variety of buildings in the city were used, most American soldiers were confined in three multistoried stone sugar houses, while their officers usually were allowed to lodge at their own expense in private homes in the city and on nearby Long Island. American seamen were imprisoned in obsolete warships and transports stripped of their rudders, masts, and rigging, most of which were anchored in Wallabout Bay on the Brooklyn side of the East River. The highest number of army prisoners held at New York at any one time was 4,430 in December 1776, and for the prison ships it was about 4,200 in 1778. Sailors captured in European and African waters were sent to one of two prisons in Britain—Mill Prison near Plymouth and Forton Prison near Portsmouth—where the combined inmate population peaked at about 2,200 men in 1779.

Survivors of the British prisons accused their captors of imposing excessive and deliberate suffering, but the scholarly consensus is that while their sufferings were often severe, they were seldom the result of cruelty. The hardships endured by American prisoners, Larry G. Bowman says, were caused principally by British inattention and haphazard organization, a desire to minimize costs, and the limitations of eighteenth-century technology and medicine. Prisoners received only two-thirds of the barely adequate food ration issued to British soldiers and sailors, while bedding and winter clothing were not regularly supplied at all. The worst conditions existed on the twenty-two known New York prison ships, most notoriously the Jersey, where overcrowding, poor ventilation, and unsanitary handling of food and human wastes resulted in an extraordinarily high death rate from disease.

For want of adequate resources and organization, Americans did not treat prisoners significantly better. Most captured British and German soldiers were sent to interior parts of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia to be quartered in log barracks inside wooden stockades. The troops taken at Saratoga, however, were initially marched to Cambridge, Massachusetts, because the convention that British general John Burgoyne (1722–1792) and American general Horatio Gates (1728–1806) signed on 17 October 1777 allowed them to sail from nearby Boston to Great Britain with a promise not to serve again in North America. Realizing that sending them to Britain would free other troops there, in Ireland, and at Gibraltar to come to America, Congress avoided implementing the terms of the convention. In late 1778, therefore, the Convention Army, as it was called, was sent to a prison camp near Charlottesville, Virginia.

The prisoners' hardships were prolonged by the failure to negotiate a general exchange of all captives until the last months of the eight-and-a-half-year war. Although both sides agreed that trading prisoners made good sense for practical and humanitarian reasons, the seven meetings that they held on the subject between March 1777 and September 1782 ended in stalemate over the political issue of American independence. The Continental Congress insisted on negotiating a formal written exchange agreement—a cartel—while the British ministry refused to let the matter be discussed on grounds that cartels could be negotiated only by sovereign nations, not by rebelling colonies. While classifying captive Americans legally as rebels, the British nevertheless treated them as prisoners of war in practice. On the local level, British commanders reached informal agreements with their American counterparts to permit some humanitarian aid—food, clothing, and money—to be sent to prisoners, and they also arranged numerous partial exchanges. It was not until the eighth prisoner exchange meeting in May 1783, however, that the way was cleared for the release of all captives.

spies: three cases

Apprehended spies were not treated as prisoners of war; rather, they normally were hung without trial. The discovery in September 1775 that Dr. Benjamin Church (1734–1778), director of the Continental Army hospital, had tried to send a coded letter containing information about American forces to his brother-in-law in British-occupied Boston caused Americans much consternation because of Church's prominence and because the Continental Congress had not explicitly made spying a capital crime. Although Congress took that step in November 1775, Church could not be sentenced to death retroactively. After being confined in various jails, he was permitted in January 1778 to go into exile. His ship was lost at sea on the way to the West Indies.

The American martyr spy, Nathan Hale (1755–1776), was hung by the British without much ado at New York on 22 September 1776, but his bravery in the face of death earned him lasting fame. A captain in a Continental ranger regiment, Hale volunteered in response to a request from George Washington to go to Long Island to obtain information about British dispositions. He was caught in civilian clothing with drawings of fortifications and freely confessed his mission to British general William Howe (1729–1814), who ordered his execution. Hale's famous last words regretting that he had but one life to give for his country were based on either a passage in the popular play Cato (1713), by Joseph Addison (1672–1719), or a quotation from the English Leveler John Lilburne (1614?–1657).

British major John André (1750–1780), unlike Hale, had considerable experience in intelligence work but died a similar death. As adjutant general at New York, André managed all correspondence with British secret agents in America and with American General Benedict Arnold (1741–1801) about his proposed betrayal of the strategically important fortress at West Point, New York. After meeting with Arnold near Haverstraw, New York, on 22 September 1780, André became trapped behind American lines. Changing into civilian clothing and using an assumed name, he was captured by American militiamen the next day with incriminating papers in his boots. A court of inquiry determined that André was a spy, leaving General George Washington no choice but to deny the personable young officer's request to be shot a soldier and to order him executed in the usual way for spies by hanging. André was executed at Tappan, New York, on 2 October 1780, dying, like Hale, with remarkable composure.

See alsoCrime and Punishment .


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Philander D. Chase

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Revolution: Prisoners and Spies

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