Edwin G. Burrows' history of American prisoners of war during the Revolutionary War, "Forgotten Patriots," is an unflinching look at the horrific treatment American POWs endured at the hands of the British, who regarded their captives as rebels unworthy of humane treatment.
“Forgotten Patriots: the Untold Story of American Prisoners During
the Revolutionary War”
by Edwin G. Burrows
Basic Books, 384 pp., $27.50
Most Read Entertainment Stories
- LeVar Burton: 'Jeopardy!' host gig began 'scary,' ended fun
- Float away from your front porch or armchair with these 6 brand-new paperbacks
- 4 movies open July 23 in Seattle-area theaters. Here's what to see and what to skip
- LeVar Burton's 'Jeopardy!' hosting gig starts July 26
- For 30 years, Magnolia’s Bookstore has stayed steadfast in one of Seattle’s most isolated neighborhoods
It’s hard to imagine life as a prisoner of war as anything but awful in the best of circumstances.
Even so, in “Forgotten Patriots” Edwin Burrows distinguishes the suffering of Americans captured by the British during the Revolutionary War as particularly horrific owing to their status as “rebels” — men who had forsworn the Crown in favor of a rogue nation, and therefore men unworthy of humane treatment.
Such contempt translated into the highest prisoner-of-war mortality rate — 50 to 70 percent — in American history, with the lion’s share succumbing in prisons in what is now lower Manhattan, and aboard prison ships in what is now the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Many of those who survived were scarred for life as a result of the abuses they experienced and witnessed during their captivity, Burrows writes.
Their suffering was prolonged, he notes, because the Americans and the British could not come to terms regarding an exchange of prisoners. The Americans insisted on a written agreement, and Great Britain was unwilling to “accept anything that could be interpreted as de facto recognition of the United States.”
Burrows, co-author of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898” and a history professor at Brooklyn College, draws on a vast array of historical documents, including personal diaries, government records and old newspaper stories.
Heavily footnoted, the book at times goes overboard in listing events to prove a point, making us wonder if Burrows is trying to convince an academic audience. But he offers riveting accounts of what prison life was like in New York.
At one of the city’s so-called “sugar house” prisons, so named because the massive, foreboding structures formerly were sugar refineries, “Their only food for over a week was bread so infested with bugs that when a piece fell on the floor, one prisoner said, ‘it Took legs and Ran in all Directions — so full if Life.’ ” And that was a meal fed to officers!
On one of the prison ships, a New Jersey seaman named John Ingersoll was told to expect a half pound of mutton per day. “What the prisoners there got, he recalled, were only the severed heads of sheep. They survived by crushing the heads in water and stirring in a bit of oatmeal, producing a thick ‘broth’ nutritious enough to keep body and soul together.”
More than 11,000 Americans reportedly perished aboard the prison ships, where contagion ran wild and fisticuffs broke out among demoralized prisoners. There were savage whippings, and at least one hungry man “ate the lice from his shirt.”
By Burrows’ reckoning, the British interned between roughly 25,000 and 32,000 Americans in and around Manhattan, of whom roughly 16,000 to 18,000 died, a mortality rate of 50 to 70 percent. Put another way, about half of the nearly 36,000 Americans who died during the war lost their lives while held captive in New York City.
British and Hessian prisoners fared far better on the whole, Burrows concludes, because they were not confined for long periods in a few central locations. Instead, they were “scattered all over the map, in literally scores of camps and small communities” and thousands of all ranks and nationalities took advantage of lax or nonexistent supervision to rejoin their old units.
In addition to providing chilling accounts of the abuses American prisoners endured, Burrows addresses how and why this ghastly chapter of history was nearly stamped out.
Before the Revolutionary War there was tension between colonialists and Anglophiles, evidenced by the many so-called Tories or Loyalists who sided with the British against the Patriots. As memories faded, a growing assumption took root that the world’s English-speaking peoples must rally around their “common values and institutions,” Burrows writes.
By the early 20th century, textbooks started to downplay the suffering of American prisoners during the Revolutionary War. Burrows recounts that a prominent American historian claimed that “much of the traditional ill-feeling against Great Britain was groundless.”
As an historian himself, Burrows self-consciously strives to maintain objectivity. Still, the voice he ultimately champions belongs to those who died for their country in hellish prisons in New York. It is as if, more than 200 years later, fitting tribute has finally been paid.