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This article originally appeared in Mount Vernon magazine, published three times a year by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association.
One of the many questions George Washington faced as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army was how to handle thousands of prisoners of war.
By T. Cole Jones
Prisoners of war are universally problematic. At the most basic level, they present their captors with a series of logistical difficulties—they have to be housed, fed, clothed, and treated for any wounds or ailments. Once confined, they must be securely guarded to prevent escape and to protect the local civilian population. Predictably, it does not take long for POWs to become burdensome.
The problem of POWs doesn’t end with logistics. If allegations of mistreatment emerge, prisoners become pawns in a struggle for the moral high ground between the belligerent powers. In the ensuing propaganda war, unsettling questions often emerge. Where does the line between POW end and enemy detainee stand? What constitutes legitimate enhanced interrogation versus sadistic torture? Can there be negotiation for prisoner release without legitimizing the enemy’s cause? We are all too familiar with these questions in the 21st century, but they were equally pressing and thorny in the 18th.
When he took command of the Continental Army in June 1775, George Washington had a clear idea about how to treat British POWs. He had served with the British army during the French and Indian War and was well-read in military history. Thus, Washington knew the strict code of conduct, known as the laws of war, that had developed in Europe over the past century for the express purpose of limiting the violence of warfare and protecting prisoners. Once surrendered, an enemy combatant merited mercy and humane treatment according to his military rank and social station.
Officers, as gentlemen, could offer their parole of honor to not engage in hostile actions while prisoner, and thus return to their own homes to await an exchange for an officer of equal rank. Enlisted prisoners were not so fortunate, but even common soldiers could expect adequate food, housing, and the promise of a quick release through an exchange for prisoners in enemy custody.
Washington wrongly assumed that his British adversaries would follow these rules, but to the ministry in London, disloyal American colonists were nothing more than rebels, and traitors. Throughout the 18th century, Britain’s military had put down rebellions by force around the globe, and this uprising would be no different. The British would deny American captives prisoner-of-war status for the remainder of the war. Although the British declined to execute the men for treason, American POWs endured years of miserable captivity in disease-infested jails and prison ships on both sides of the Atlantic. Historians estimate that as many as 18,000 POWs may have perished in British hands: more than all of the American battlefield fatalities of the war combined.
Washington was determined not to follow the negative British example. He believed that Americans had to demonstrate to the world that they were a civilized people who were being oppressed by barbaric British tyranny. The mistreatment of American prisoners was just one more example of Britain’s descent into savagery. When he captured more than 900 Hessians at Trenton in 1776, Washington ordered that they not be harmed or even plundered by his troops. The men were shuttled off to a comfortable captivity in Pennsylvania, where they were allowed to work for local farmers for wages instead of idling away in jails.
Washington’s policy of humanitarianism, however, soon came under fire from his superiors in Congress and from the American populace at large. Infuriated by continual British abuses, angry Revolutionaries wanted to know why America’s limited resources were being spent to care for their captured oppressors? The Revolutionary press castigated the British as barbarians and demanded retribution. After all, even the European rules of war allowed for proportional retaliation in cases of blatant abuse. How long could Americans be expected to turn the other cheek?
"The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton, December 26, 1776," John Trumbull. (Yale University Art Gallery)
While Washington tried diligently to wage the war according to European customs, after 1777, Congress embraced a policy of retribution. If American soldiers and sailors were going to suffer on British prison ships, then British prisoners would endure the same fate. Five of the 13 states established floating prisons on which the conditions were every bit as bad as aboard British ships. Compounding the problem, Congress refused to exchange POWs, and after the victories at Saratoga and Yorktown, the Revolutionaries possessed thousands of prisoners who the British were eager to get back. Under intense pressure from furious constituents, Congress instead ordered the men to be confined in ramshackle barracks and fed bare subsistence rations. The mortality of British soldiers captured at Yorktown exceeded 30 percent—higher than that of Union POWs at the Civil War’s infamous Andersonville Prison.
Washington was deeply troubled by the war’s escalating violence, but his hands were tied; he served at the pleasure of Congress and the American people. When they ordered him to execute a randomly selected British officer in retaliation for the murder of an American POW, Washington reluctantly agreed. Only the pleas of the French ambassador persuaded Congress to stay the execution. Despite this act of mercy, Congress remained obstinate in its refusal to exchange prisoners and even further reduced the men’s already meager rations.
The prisoners’ ordeal finally came to an end in the spring of 1783, when Congress ratified the articles of peace with Great Britain, but there weren't many survivors to celebrate the news. This was not how Washington had wanted to win America’s independence. For the remainder of his life, he worked tirelessly to prevent another brutal war of vengeance. In the new nation’s first treaties with foreign powers, Washington’s representatives included provisions that outlawed the use of prison ships and guaranteed swift exchanges for all prisoners. He fervently hoped that never again would the United States of America abuse its POWs.
T. Cole Jones is an associate professor of Early American History at Purdue University. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University and his B.A. in history from Duke University. Jones was the 2014-15 Hench Post-Dissertation Fellow at the American Antiquarian Society and the Inaugural Amanda and Greg Gregory Family Fellow at the Washington Library. He is author of "Captives of Liberty: Prisoners of War and the Politics of Vengeance in the American Revolution" (Penn Press, 2020), winner of the 2021 Society of the Cincinnati Prize from the American Revolution Institute.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Mount Vernon magazine. Subscribe to the magazine by becoming a member today.Learn More