Late in 1776, the British army released thousands of revolutionaries imprisoned in New York. Their condition – starving, diseased, near death – horrified the American colonies.
That was just the beginning. The British military command would continue to incarcerate and abuse some 30,000 revolutionaries in New York.
The patriot press spread the news of the prisoner abuse, hardening public opinion against the British. A typical news item from the Connecticut Gazette on Jan. 4, 1782, describes 130 prisoners landed from New York in deplorable condition. “It is enough to melt the most obdurate heart to see these miserable objects landed at our wharves sick and dying, and the few rags they have on covered with vermin and their own excrements,” reported the Gazette.
Somewhere between 60 and 70 percent of the revolutionary prisoners died. One historian estimates two to three times as many men died in New York prisons than in battle.
“The POW story was, in short, a public-relations disaster for the British,” wrote Edward G. Burrows in The Prisoners of New York in the Long Island History Journal. “It enflamed public opinion, squelched any hope of reconciliation, and turned resistance into a fight to the death.”
Revolutionaries as POWs
British troops landed in New York City on Sept. 15, 1776 and remained until November of 1783. George Washington and his men tried to dislodge them during the Battle of Long Island in August of 1776. Not only did he fail, but the British captured thousands of Continental Army prisoners. Two months later, the British captured Fort Washington and more revolutionaries.
In the end, they took more than 4,000 Continental Army soldiers (4,114 by one count) and 300 officers. And they held them in deplorable conditions in non-Anglican churches, sugar refineries, jails, almshouses and broken-down warships. Civilians, too, ended up in the horribly overcrowded lockups: 800 in one church, 20 per cell in the city jail and 1100 in the most notorious prison ship, the Jersey.
Then in December the POW revolutionaries began to die in heaps.
The British military commander, Lt. Gen. Sir William Howe, released nearly 2,300 soldiers on parole. He informed George Washington that only a few remained in New York.
But what happened to the other revolutionary prisoners – nearly 2,000 of them? One patriot said he sent “one half to the world of spirits for want of food.”
Howe loaded hundreds of starving prisoners onto transport ships. Some couldn’t make it that far. Ethan Allen, on parole himself, saw several prisoners fall dead in the streets as they tried to walk to the vessels in New York Harbor.
The Glasgow transported about 200 revolutionary prisoners to Milford, Conn. At least 20 died on the way. Nineteen more died on their first night in Connecticut. Thirty-two were too sick to move once they landed. And many of those who could walk home died en route. Most of those who made it home died soon thereafter.
That first mass prisoner release ended January 27, 1777.
In February of 1777, Brig. Gen. Samuel Holden Parsons reported about three-fourths of paroled revolutionaries imprisoned near Lyme, Conn., had died already.
Even as Howe was releasing the POWs, Washington captured hundreds of Hessian troops during the Battle of Trenton. He ordered his men to treat them humanely.
“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.
But the British continued to abuse their revolutionary prisoners, and the newspapers continued to print the stories.
In 1777, the Continental Congress investigated prisoner abuse, which deeply dismayed John Adams. “I who would not hurt the Hair of the Head of any Animal . . . am obliged to hear continual Accounts of . . . the most tormenting Ways of starving and freezing, committed by our Enemies.”
The British gave the prisoners only a tiny amount of food, often just moldy biscuit and raw pork. Slop buckets overflowed with excrement, while ticks and lice infested the prisoners’ clothing. Thousands died of typhus, dysentery, smallpox and scurvy. Some revolutionary prisoners ate their own shoes and clothes.
The prisoners in one notorious prison, the Provost, complained of their treatment:
…they were put on the scanty allowance of two pounds hard biscuit, and two pounds of raw pork per week, without fuel to dress it. That they were frequently supplied with water from a pump where all kinds of filth was thrown, by which it was rendered obnoxious and unwholesome, the effects of which were to cause much sickness. That good water could have been as easily obtained. That they were denied the benefit of a hospital; not permitted to send for medicine, nor to have the services of a doctor, even when in the greatest distress. That married men and others who lay at the point of death were refused permission to have their wives or other relations admitted to see them. And that these poor women, for attempting to gain admittance, were often beaten from the prison door.
Some prisoners sold their shoes and clothes to the guards in exchange for food. Others weren’t so lucky. The guards put poison powder in their food because they wanted their watches or silver buckles.
The British also tormented some revolutionary prisoners, making them sit on coffins with ropes around their necks and threatening to hang them.
In many cases, the British hoped to starve the prisoners into submission, hoping they’d enlist in the British army or navy. Some succumbed, but most resisted.
The sacrifice was enormous. Litchfield, Conn., for example, sent 36 men to the defense of Fort Washington. Only six returned. Four died in battle, but the British took 32 prisoner. Of those, 20 died in the New York prisons and six on the way home.
Danbury sent 100 men to defend Fort Washington. The British took 50 prisoner and held them in a sugar house. Two survived.
The historian Burrows reminds us to acknowledge their sacrifice. The United States wasn’t just made by “those gentlemen in powdered wigs and knee britches we have heard so much about in recent years,” he wrote. The country was also made by “thousands upon thousands of mostly ordinary people who believed in something they considered worth dying for.”
With thanks to the Journal of the American Revolution, 1776 – The Horror Show by Brian O’Malley and the Long Island History Journal, The Prisoners of New York by Edward G. Burrows. This story was updated in 2021.