An inevitable facet of warfare is prisoners. During the American Revolution, thousands of soldiers and sailors were captured by each side and the prisoners suffered in many ways. The impact of these captures extended far beyond immediate manpower concerns, compelling each side to confront unwanted, huge logistical considerations concerning their feeding, clothing, housing and guarding, as they also sought to exploit their use as human capital for bargaining purposes. For the lonely captured, they battled hunger, cold, illness and boredom, finding ways to mitigate their struggles by working, rioting and escaping.
There are as many stories as there were prisoners, but some common factors affected most of them. Some were typical of the era while others were specific to this war which had many distinctive attributes that made the handling and fate of prisoners different than what either side was accustomed to. Here’s a list of the overarching factors that the British and Americans had to grapple with in dealing with the men they captured, and those captured from them:
- Nations provided for their own men in captivity. Each government funded the clothing and feeding of its own men held in captivity by the enemy. Either by directly delivering it, providing funds to their captives to purchase it, or reimbursing the opposing government for it, food and clothing of prisoners remained the responsibility of their own government rather than the one that captured them. That was the theory, anyway, but putting it into practice presented many challenges. In their struggle to build and maintain a military infrastructure, neither the Continental Congress nor the individual state governments had established systems to provide for prisoners in British hands. British authorities did not relish the idea of sending money to their prisoners to buy food and other necessities, knowing that it would end up in the hands of their adversaries.
- Prisoners of war presented an unusual challenge for the British government. Treating rebelling subjects as bona fide prisoners of war would be an acknowledgement of American independence and its presence as a legitimate nation entitled to all attending international protocols. But, with an ultimate goal of reconciliation and keeping the American colonies within the British empire, prisoners could not reasonably be subjected to laws against treason that were punishable by death. This conundrum was never resolved until peace negotiations at the end of the war; instead, handling of prisoners was left largely to local military authorities in America.
- Prisoners of war presented an unusual challenge for the Continental Congress. With each state able to take and hold prisoners to the extent each was willing, there was initially no uniform way to set policy about captivity, parole, exchanges and other issues. While the Continental Congress prescribed general rules overseeing prisoners, it delegated much of the actual work to local committees of safety. Their authority allowed them to order the incarceration of prisoners, with further restrictions in solitary confinement, their limited freedom when allowed out on parole prescribing the distance they could travel from the local jail, the time of their departure and their curfew, and in accommodating their various personal needs, including access to money, food, clothing, medical care and religious services.
- Prisoners suffered from corrupt practices of their captors. The delivery of necessities to prisoners of war was subject to the whims of civilian sutlers selling their goods, and inn and tavern keepers providing lodging and food and drink to those on parole. Bribery was frequently required making life even more difficult for prisoners with little money. British prisoners held captive by Americans were often distributed among many towns in widely different conditions, and their hard money was highly sought after by cash-starved Americans. This subjected the prisoners to many corrupt practices by their captors. American prisoners held captive by the British were crammed into very limited spaces, and their food was often delivered by contractors who stood to profit by skimping. This also subjected the prisoners to corrupt practices by their captors.
- Prisoners of war could work to earn money. Large numbers of British and German prisoners supplemented the labor force in regions where they were held, which helped to offset manpower problems caused by men being away for the war. While some men could work within their places of captivity, most were granted paroles, either for the daylight hours or to live at their workplace. Farm laborers were in high demand in rural Connecticut, Pennsylvania and other places, and prisoners were hired out to live and work on farms. Tradesmen such as shoemakers provided valuable services, some even working in factories producing goods for the Continental Army. The relative freedom of working led to rampant desertion among British and German prisoners, some to settle in America and some to make their way to British-held regions. The labor market was different in the refugee-saturated places where American prisoners were held, but a few prisoners nonetheless managed to make and sell simple goods to earn a little precious cash.