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Prisoners of War

Few prisons existed in the colonies before the American Revolution, so the term "prisoner" belies the true status of soldiers captured as prisoners of war during the Revolution. As major battles yielded significant numbers of captives, decisions had to be made quickly regarding where prisoners would be interred and how they would be supported.

The Continental Congress ultimately accepted responsibility for the administration of prisoners of war, but gave broad authority on the matter to the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, General George Washington.

Washington took an active role in the prisoner situation and was a constant advocate for the fair treatment of prisoners. He was especially concerned with the British tendency to indiscriminately imprison soldiers as well as civilians, whom he regarded as outside the bounds of military law. Washington insisted that non-combatants be put through a civilian court system, and made sure that no states holding military prisoners should trade a British soldier for an American citizen. Washington believed that this would have legitimized the British capture of more citizens, most of whom were largely defenseless.

The treatment of prisoners was an important concern for both sides during the American Revolution, but particularly relevant to the colonials. As "rebels," the Americans were accused of treason and feared especially harsh reprisals. Washington's wartime correspondence with British generals included discussion of a number of suffering prisoners. Some of the most notorious prisons during the Revolutionary War were the prison ships in New York harbor, known as hulks. A number of reports surfaced regarding both the poor treatment of colonial inmates and the terrible conditions they endured.

The American General Lee Taken Prisoner by Lieutenant Colonel Harcourt of the English Army, in Morris County, New Jersey 1776. Engraved for Barnard's New Complete and Authentic History of England.

In January 1777, Washington wrote an appeal to Lord Admiral Richard Howe who controlled British forced in New York. Washington implored Howe to launch an investigation into the conditions for prisoners on the hulks. If conditions for these prisoners did not improve, Washington warned, retaliation against British prisoners of war was an option. By July 1779, the Continental Congress ordered that British naval prisoners were to be imprisoned on ships in the same manner as the Americans in New York. No compromise on the fair treatment of prisoners was ever reached.

With few facilities to accommodate large numbers of prisoners, both the Americans and the British participated in prisoner exchange. Though Washington was actively involved in these matters, he appointed commissaries to handle the day-to-day details. The exchange of prisoners during the American Revolution was a chaotic ordeal, mainly because there was never a consistent policy put in place by the Continental Congress. Subsequently, a cartel (a formal agreement on prisoner exchange) was never put in place between the British and the Americans.

Parole was another tool that both sides used as a means to alleviate the burden of imprisonment. The combination of prisoner exchange and parole ensured that few new prisons had to be built during the war. The maintenance of prisoners was a significant financial burden for Congress and by the defeat of the British at Yorktown in 1781, Washington himself was compelled to personally subsidize the cost of prisoner upkeep.

Scott Craig
Florida State University

Bibliography
Bowie, Lucy Leigh. "German Prisoners in the American Revolution." Maryland Historical Magazine 40, 1945: 185-200.

Doyle, Robert C. The Enemy in Our Hands: America's Treatment of Prisoners of War from the Revolution to the War on Terror. Lexington: The University of Kentucky Press, 2010.

Lindsey, William R. Treatment of American Prisoners of War During the Revolution. Emporia, K.S.: School of Graduate and Professional Studies of the Kansas State Teachers College, 1973.

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

Old Bailey Online, The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674–1913 – Central Criminal Court.