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Edwin Burrows, a professor at Brooklyn College, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for co-authoring Gotham, the authoritative account of the history of New York City up to the point of its constitutional reorganization in 1898, which produced the New York City of five boroughs we know today. His latest effort Forgotten Patriots takes on the barely known plight of American prisoners during the Revolutionary War, digging into an impressive array of diaries, letters and contemporary newspaper accounts. I put six questions to Professor Burrows about the detainee abuse saga of the 1770s, and what meaning it has for Americans today.
1. Your book recounts the story of the fifteen to eighteen thousand Americans who died in British captivity in the Revolutionary War, and it’s published at a time in which the abuse of prisoners by our own government figures prominently in our political dialogue. To what extent did the current controversies inspire your choice of topic?
Truth be told, I began thinking about the book that became Forgotten Patriots more than a decade ago. While gathering materials on the British occupation of New York for Gotham, I noticed that this amazing story had attracted very little interest among historians. There were a couple of dull academic monographs and scholarly articles, but nothing recent and certainly nothing that managed to convey the magnitude of what happened.
The irony is that when I decided to write something about the Revolutionary War prisons and prison ships, I assumed the story was so poorly known because there wasn’t much material to work with. I thought I could knock off the book in a few years at most, sell the movie rights, and retire in style. Fat chance. The more I dug, the more stuff I turned up—not just the handful of captivity narratives written by former prisoners, but newspaper stories, pension applications, private correspondence, unpublished memoirs, and the like.
So I was already knee-deep in the subject when the news broke about conditions at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. On the one hand, I realized that I had to step up the pace because my topic had suddenly become very timely. On the other, I needed to resist the temptation to belabor the similarities (and differences) between the present and what happened 200-plus years ago. My sense is that readers don’t need me to beat them over the head. The main points are pretty obvious—that humiliating and abusing captured insurgents (let alone torturing them) is always counterproductive because it gives them the moral high ground and only makes them fight harder. Conditions in the prisons and prison ships of occupied New York were a huge reason that the British failed to win American hearts and minds during the Revolutionary War; it’s not hard to see that conditions in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo have likewise cost us dearly in the so-called “War on Terror.”
2. The Bush Administration insists that it treats prisoners “humanely,” consciously drawing upon the key word used by George Washington in his famous December 1776 order on the treatment of prisoners. Does the administration’s conduct depart from the tradition of humane treatment that the Americans established in the Revolutionary War?
To begin with, I’ve found little or no evidence that the mistreatment of American prisoners was designed to extract information. There is some reason to think, in fact, that depriving them of adequate food, clothing, and firewood was intended to make them easier prey for British military and naval recruiters (which it sometimes did). But mostly the Revolutionary War story is one of depraved indifference: the British just didn’t care what became of captured Americans. Washington and Congress were understandably appalled, and while they sometimes threatened to retaliate against British soldiers in their custody, they hated the idea. I think it’s a safe conclusion they would have been dismayed to learn that an American government would ever stoop to the intentional infliction of pain on helpless prisoners. Such behavior would have struck them as not only criminally inhumane but dishonorable. They would be embarrassed by it. That we are even having a debate about waterboarding and other forms of torture is disgraceful.
3. The number of Americans who died in British captivity in the Revolution is staggering—as you note, it was three times the number of Americans who died in battle—yet the story is not well known. You note that the fate of American prisoners was a volatile political issue around 1800, but that historical revisionists, including a number of very prominent American historians, discounted the episode in this century. Can you explain what events caused the issue to rise and fall in the nation’s historical conscience?
I’d point to several things here. For one, most American prisoners were confined in and around New York City, and its explosive growth in the 19th century obliterated every one of the places associated with the POW story. It’s hard to remember something when all physical traces of it have torn down and built over. Only the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park and the Soldiers’ Memorial in Trinity churchyard serve as reminders of what happened, but neither could be described as well-known.
Another element of the explanation involves the gradual thawing of relations between the United States and Great Britain. By 1900 or so, much of the enmity between them had dissipated and historians on this side of the Atlantic were stressing the English roots of American values and institutions. The Revolution seemed like an aberration—a regrettable misunderstanding between kindred peoples. Railing about the thousands of men who perished in British prisons during the war was, well, ill-mannered. Progressive historians, struggling to liberate their craft from old-fashioned patriotic hoopla, likewise thought it better to talk about more tangible things like money and trade and who owned what. After World War I, when the United States and Great Britain became formal allies, the growing awareness that governments actually dissemble and lie—the new word for this was “propaganda”—induced still other historians to conclude that the prisoner-of-war-story had been greatly exaggerated, even falsified. The upshot of all this was that by the middle of the 20th century the story had been effectively squelched. As Samuel Eliot Morison, one of our most distinguished historians, declared in his 1959 biography of John Paul Jones, it was an “unpleasant subject… and there is no point in stirring it up again.”
4. The brutal treatment of American prisoners by the British could be justified on the basis of King George’s refusal to recognize them as prisoners of war; instead they were denigrated as criminals and rebels. Arguably this was done as part of an effort to demoralize the colonists. But you suggest that the Americans were able to turn this into a weapon against the British, to use it to rally support and resolve. How was this done? In the end did the use of official cruelty helped or harmed the British cause?
Newspapers: that’s the short answer to your first question. It’s true that Congress made limited experiments with what we would now call propaganda, compiling stories of British misconduct in an effort to influence popular opinion and bolster support for the war. By and large, however, the abuse of American prisoners in New York and elsewhere became public knowledge because the story was spread through newspapers. Eyewitness reports from former prisoners, or letters from men still in captivity, were printed and reprinted, over and over again, by papers in every colony. (And now that virtually all of these papers can be searched online, it’s possible to see how quickly particular stories could spread up and down the continent.) Only months after the British occupation of New York in September 1776, Americans everywhere knew about the deplorable conditions in the prisons and prison ships there. It remained a hot topic until the very end of the war in 1783, inscribed in popular culture for generations by the enormously successful Narrative of Colonel Ethan Allen’s Captivity, Written by Himself (1779) and Philip Freneau’s equally famous epic poem, “The British Prison Ship” (1781). In the aggregate, these stories amounted to nothing less than a public-relations coup for the patriots. They boosted recruiting and convinced many Americans—Benjamin Franklin being a case in point—that reconciliation with the mother country was impossible. Although cruelty was not the only reason that the British lost the war, it ensured they would never be able to recover the trust and respect of the American population.
By the way, it’s not the case that Americans didn’t mistreat British soldiers and seamen who fell into their hands. I cite some especially notorious examples in the book to show that Americans too were capable of great cruelty toward captives, perhaps especially when those captives were Loyalists. Broadly speaking, however, we need to keep two points in mind. First, prisoners held by the Americans were never concentrated in one place but scattered around the country in myriad locations, often poorly supervised by local authorities. Not only were they thus spared the contagions that ravaged the overcrowded prison populations of New York (where the mortality sometimes reached as high as 70 percent), but many of them apparently just walked away and returned to their units. Put differently, the infant American state was too inefficient, too preoccupied with survival, to create the machinery that could well have produced a very different outcome. That said, there was also a significant gulf between American and British beliefs about how they should handle captives. To the British, the Americans were rebels against their lawful sovereign and should be lucky to escape the hangman’s rope if captured. In 1777, Parliament suspended habeas corpus so that captives could be confined indefinitely. We should not be surprised that everyone else, from commanders in the field all the way up to the king, never troubled themselves about the lethal conditions in their prisons. American opinion, by contrast, generally inclined to Washington’s view that prisoners must be treated humanely. Governor William Livingston, famously tough on Loyalists, said it best. Abusing prisoners, he wrote, was counterproductive, morally inexcusable, and inconsistent “with the honour of the American nation whose glory it has hitherto been to triumph over its Enemy not only by force of arms but by the virtues of humanity.”
5. You write that the British authorities gave broad power to the local commanders with respect to how to treat the prisoners. How does this mesh with the the idea that there was a “British policy” on what to do with the Americans in the first place?
I think it’s important here to recognize that a government can set policy even when circumstances require that the actual implementation of that policy be delegated to commanders in the field. For years prior to the war, King George III and his ministers (most notably the American Secretary, Lord George Germain), backed by solid majorities in Parliament, railed against American insurgents as a contemptible, unscrupulous rabble and threatened to hang every one of them taken in arms. As I argue in the book, that kind of posturing—violent and vengeful—fostered a lynch-mob mentality among the English population at large and throughout the armed forces. The upshot, basically, was that the men and officers sent to crush the rebels had every reason to think there were few if any restrictions on what should be done with captives. Almost no one thought they deserved to be treated as conventional prisoners of war, so it’s hardly surprising to find that they weren’t. This officially-sanctioned hostility persisted even when it became apparent that executing captured Americans was impractical (there were just too many, besides which Congress was soon threatening retaliation against their own prisoners). While it may be true, in other words, that generals Howe, Clinton, and other commanders were immediately responsible for what happened to American detainees, their lack of humanity clearly reflected the prevailing assumptions and expectations back in London. Three thousand miles of ocean can’t insulate Germain and the king from the consequences of their bloody-minded rhetoric.
Perhaps I could add here a telling example: when the American general Charles Lee was taken prisoner in 1776, General Howe wanted to have him executed as a deserter from the British Army. It wasn’t an open-and-shut case, however, so Howe waited for Germain and the king to give him the go-ahead—meaning that three thousand miles of ocean were no impediment when a local commander was unsure what the government wanted him to do. In the voluminous correspondence that flowed back and forth across the Atlantic during the Revolutionary War, there is no evidence that Howe or any other British commander-in-chief needed instructions on the treatment of American detainees except Lee. They knew, and acted accordingly.
6. If we look at the European tradition in warfare in the 18th century, the plight of the ordinary soldier seems to draw very little attention or concern. But this seems to have changed with the American Revolution, in which the treatment of prisoners became a subject of intense concern and political dialogue. How do you account for this transformation?
One of the points I try to make in Forgotten Patriots is that Americans were deeply shocked by what the British did to their prisoners in New York and elsewhere. They simply could not fathom how honorable men could condone such barbarity, and as I have suggested, their anger prolonged the insurgency until the British threw in the towel. But the repercussions extended beyond Independence. The ink on the Treaty of Paris was barely dry when American diplomats began to negotiate treaties of amity and commerce with foreign powers that took unprecedented steps to mitigate the evils of war. A treaty with Prussia, negotiated in 1785 by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin, included clauses expressly intended “to prevent the destruction of prisoners of war.” It stipulated that in the event of hostilities between the two nations, each would forswear the use of prison ships and feed their captives the same amount and quality of rations provided their own troops. No matter that a conflict between the United States and Prussia was unlikely at best: this was arguably the first time in modern history that countries at peace with one another had seen the need to establish guidelines for the treatment of POWs, and it was obviously a product of our own recent experience in the Revolutionary War. The Geneva Conventions lay far over the historical horizon, to be sure, though Americans can take some pride in knowing that we took the first steps down the road. How we could let ourselves be led so far astray in recent years is another matter.
More from Scott Horton:
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