A Pulitzer Prize–winning historian revisits the story of the brutal, degrading treatment of American prisoners of war during the Revolution.
According to Burrows (History/Brooklyn Coll.; co-author, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, 1999, etc.), 20th-century historians have underestimated the extent and severity of British mistreatment of American prisoners, wrongly dismissing letters, affidavits, legal documents and other contemporaneous accounts as exaggerated propaganda. The author maintains that of the 35,800 American war-related deaths, roughly half died in New York City, either in the prisons, sugar houses and churches converted for the purpose, or prison ships. Victims of rotten food, foul water, overcrowding and a lack of proper clothing, blankets and firewood, a small number of the captives turned coat, sterling “proof” of their virtue. Moreover, as the war progressed, the unspeakable deaths of so many established a kind of moral Rubicon, making reconciliation with the mother country impossible. Americans accused Britain of purposely erecting a system designed “to murder [the prisoners] by inches, to treat them ten times more cruelly than if they had hung them all the day they took them.” Although 18th-century rules of war were merely theoretical (even the informal code among officers and gentlemen broke down in this peculiar conflict), references to captured Americans as POWs appeared to concede the reality of American independence and legitimize Congress. With the legal status of the prisoners uncertain, British authorities allowed Gen. William Howe and his subordinates a free hand, with disastrous consequences for the prisoners and for British prestige. This horrific tale references such glittering personalities as Washington, Lafayette and Franklin, as well as Ethan Allen and Philip Freneau. Mostly, though, it’s the story of thousands of nameless Americans who gave their lives for liberty.
A moving tribute to the martyrs of the prison ships and a cautionary tale for a country, itself now wealthy and powerful, “at risk of becoming the kind of enemy they laid down their lives to defeat.”