American Prisoners of The Revolution
BY DANSKE DANDRIDGE
THE TRUMBULL PAPERS AND OTHER SOURCES OF INFORMATION
We will now quote from the Trumbull Papers and other productions, what is revealed to the public of the state of the prisoners in New York in 1776 and 1777. Some of our information we have obtained from a book published in 1866 called "Documents and Letters Intended to Illustrate the Revolutionary Incidents of Long Island, by Henry Onderdonk, Jr." He gives an affecting account of the wounding of General Woodhull, after his surrender, and when he had given up his sword. The British ruffians who held him insisted that he should cry, "God save the King!" whereupon, taking off his hat, he replied, reverently, "God save all of us!" At this the cruel men ran him through, giving him wounds that proved mortal, though had they been properly dressed his life might have been spared. He was mounted behind a trooper and carried to Hinchman's Tavern, Jamaica, where permission was refused to Dr. Ogden to dress his wounds. This was on the 28th of August, 1776. Next day he was taken westward and put on board an old vessel off New Utrecht. This had been a cattle ship. He was next removed to the house of Wilhelmus Van Brunt at New Utrecht. His arm mortified from neglect and it was decided to take it off. He sent express to his wife that he had no hope of recovery, and begged her to gather up what provisions she could, for he had a large farm, and hasten to his bedside. She accordingly loaded a wagon with bread, ham, crackers, butter, etc., and barely reached her husband in time to see him alive. With his dying breath he requested her to distribute the provisions she had brought to the suffering and starving American prisoners.
Elias Baylis, who was old and blind, was chairman of the Jamaica Committee of Safety. He was captured and first imprisoned in the church at New Utrecht. Afterwards he was sent to the provost prison in New York. He had a very sweet voice, and was an earnest Christian. In the prison he used to console himself and his companions in misery by singing hymns and psalms. Through the intervention of his friends, his release was obtained after two months confinement, but the rigor of prison life had been too much for his feeble frame. He died, in the arms of his daughter, as he was in a boat crossing the ferry to his home.
While in the Presbyterian church in New Utrecht used as a prison by the British, he had for companions, Daniel Duryee, William Furman, William Creed, and two others, all put into one pew. Baylis asked them to get the Bible out of the pulpit and read it to him. They feared to do this, but consented to lead the blind man to the pulpit steps. As he returned with the Bible in his hands a British guard met him, beat him violently and took away the book. They were three weeks in the church at New Utrecht. When a sufficient number of Whig prisoners were collected there they would be marched under guard to a prison ship. One old Whig named Smith, while being conducted to his destination, appealed to an onlooker, a Tory of his acquaintance, to intercede for him. The cold reply of his neighbor was, "Ah, John, you've been a great rebel!" Smith turned to another of his acquaintances named McEvers, and said to him, "McEvers, its hard for an old man like me to have to go to a prison! Can't you do something for me?"
"What have you been doing, John?"
"Why, I've had opinions of my own!"
"Well, I'll see what I can do for you."
McEvers then went to see the officers in charge and made such representations to them that Smith was immediately released.
Adrian Onderdonk was taken to Flushing and shut up in the old Friends' Meeting House there, which is one of the oldest places of worship in America. Next day he was taken to New York. He, with other prisoners, was paraded through the streets to the provost, with a gang of loose women marching before them, to add insult to suffering.
Onderdonk says: "After awhile the rigor of the prison rules was somewhat abated." He was allowed to write home, which he did in Dutch, for provisions, such as smoked beef, butter, etc. * * * His friends procured a woman to do his washing, prepare food and bring it to him. * * * One day as he was walking through the rooms followed by his constant attendant, a negro with coils of rope around his neck, this man asked Onderdonk what he was imprisoned for.
" 'I've been a Committee man,'" said he.
" 'Well,' with an oath and a great deal of abuse, 'You shall be hung tomorrow.' "
This mulatto was named Richmond, and was the common hangman. He used to parade the provost with coils of ropes, requesting the prisoners to choose their own halters. He it was who hung the gallant Nathan Hale, and was Cunningham's accessory in all his brutal midnight murders. In Gaine's paper for August 4th, 1781, appears the following advertisement: "One Guinea Reward, ran away a black man named Richmond, being the common hangman, formerly the property of the rebel Colonel Patterson of Pa.
After nearly four weeks imprisonment the friends of Adrian Onderdonk procured his release. He was brought home in a wagon in the night, so pale, thin, and feeble from bodily suffering that his family scarcely recognized him. His constitution was shattered and he never recovered his former strength.
Onderdonk says that women often brought food for the prisoners in little baskets, which, after examination, were handed in. Now and then the guard might intercept what was sent, or Cunningham, if the humor took him, as he passed through the hall, might kick over vessels of soup, placed there by the charitable for the poor and friendless prisoners.
EXTRACT FROM A BETTER FROM DR. SILAS HOLMES
"The wounded prisoners taken at the battle of Brooklyn were put in the churches of Flatbush and New Utrecht, but being neglected and unattended were wallowing in their own filth, and breathed an infected and impure air. Ten days after the battle Dr. Richard Bailey was appointed to superintend the sick. He was humane, and dressed the wounded daily; got a sack bed, sheet, and blanket for each prisoner; and distributed the prisoners into the adjacent barns. When Mrs. Woodhull offered to pay Dr. Bailey for his care and attention to her husband, he said he had done no more than his duty, and if there was anything due it was to me."
Woodhull's wounds were neglected nine days before Dr. Bailey was allowed to attend them.
How long the churches were used as prisons cannot be ascertained, but we have no account of prisoners confined in any of them after the year 1777. In the North Dutch Church in New York there were, at one time, eight hundred prisoners huddled together. It was in this church that bayonet marks were discernible on its pillars, many years after the war.
The provost and old City Hall were used as prisons until Evacuation Day, when O'Keefe threw his ponderous bunch of keys on the floor and retired. The prisoners are said to have asked him where they were to go.
"To hell, for what I care," he replied. "In the Middle Dutch Church," says Mr. John Pintard, who was a nephew of Commissary Pintard, "the prisoners taken on Long Island and at Fort Washington, sick, wounded, and well, were all indiscriminately huddled together, by hundreds and thousands, large numbers of whom died by disease, and many undoubtedly poisoned by inhuman attendants for the sake of their watches, or silver buckles."
"What was called the Brick Church was at first used as a prison, but soon it and the Presbyterian Church in Wall Street, the Scotch Church in Cedar Street, and the Friends' Meeting House were converted into hospitals."
Oliver Woodruff, who died at the age of ninety, was taken prisoner at Fort Washington, and left the following record: "We were marched to New York and went into different prisons. Eight hundred and sixteen went into the New Bridewell (between the City Hall and Broadway); some into the Sugar House; others into the Dutch Church. On Thursday morning they brought us a little provision, which was the first morsel we got to eat or drink after eating our breakfast on Saturday morning. * * * I was there (in New Bridewell) three months. In the dungeons of the old City Hall which stood on the site of what was afterwards the Custom House at first civil offenders were confined, but afterwards whale-boatmen and robbers."
Robert Troup, a young lieutenant in Colonel Lasher's battalion, testified that he and Lieut. Edward Dunscomb, Adjutant Hoogland, and two volunteers were made prisoners by a detachment of British troops at three o'clock a m. on the 27th of August, 1776. They were carried before the generals and interrogated, with threats of hanging. Thence they were led to a house near Flatbush. At 9 a. m. they were led, in the rear of the army, to Bedford. Eighteen officers captured that morning were confined in a small soldier's tent for two nights and nearly three days. It was raining nearly all the time. Sixty privates, also, had but one tent, while at Bedford the provost marshal, Cunningham, brought with him a negro with a halter, telling them the negro had already hung several, and he imagined he would hang some more. The negro and Cunningham also heaped abuse upon the prisoners, showing them the halter, and calling them rebels, scoundrels, robbers, murderers, etc.
From Bedford they were led to Flatbush, and confined a week in a house belonging to a Mr. Leffert, on short allowance of biscuit and salt pork. Several Hessians took pity on them and gave them apples, and once some fresh beef.
From Flatbush after a week, he, with seventy or eighty other officers, were put on board a snow, lying between Gravesend and the Hook, without bedding or blankets; afflicted with vermin; soap and fresh water for washing purposes being denied them. They drank and cooked with filthy water brought from England. The captain charged a very large commission for purchasing necessaries for them with the money they procured from their friends.
After six weeks spent on the snow they were taken on the 17th of October to New York and confined in a house near Bridewell. At first they were not allowed any fuel, and afterwards only a little coal for three days in the week. Provisions were dealt out very negligently, were scanty, and of bad quality. Many were ill and most of them would have died had their wants not been supplied by poor people and loose women of the town, who took pity on them.
"Shortly after the capture of Fort Washington these officers were paroled and allowed the freedom of the town. Nearly half the prisoners taken on Long Island died. The privates were treated with great inhumanity, without fuel, or the common necessaries of life, and were obliged to obey the calls of nature in places of their confinement." It is said that the British did not hang any of the prisoners taken in August on Long Island, but "played the fool by making them ride with a rope around their necks, seated on coffins, to the gallows. Major Otho Williams was so treated."
"Adolph Myer, late of Colonel Lasher's battalion, says he was taken by the British at Montresor's Island. They threatened twice to hang him, and had a rope fixed to a tree. He was led to General Howe's quarters near Turtle Bay, who ordered him to be bound hand and foot. He was confined four days on bread and water, in the 'condemned hole' of the New Jail, without straw or bedding. He was next put into the College, and then into the New Dutch Church, whence he escaped on the twenty-fourth of January, 1777. He was treated with great inhumanity, and would have died had he not been supported by his friends. * * * Many prisoners died from want, and others were reduced to such wretchedness as to attract the attention of the loose women of the town, from whom they received considerable assistance. No care was taken of the sick, and if any died they were thrown at the door of the prison and lay there until the next day, when they were put in a cart and drawn out to the intrenchments beyond the Jews' burial ground, when they were interred by their fellow prisoners, conducted thither for that purpose. The dead were thrown into a hole promiscuously, without the usual rites of sepulchre. Myer was frequently enticed to enlist." This is one of the few accounts we have from a prisoner who was confined in one of the churches in New York, and he was so fortunate as to escape before it was too late. We wish he had given the details of his escape. In such a gloomy picture as we are obliged to present to our readers the only high lights are occasional acts of humanity, and such incidents as fortunate escapes.
It would appear, from many proofs, that the Hessian soldier was naturally a good-natured being, and he seems to have been the most humane of the prison guards. We will see, as we go on, instances of the kindness of these poor exiled mercenaries, to many of whom the war was almost as great a scene of calamity and suffering as it was to the wretched prisoners under their care.
"Lieutenant Catlin, taken September 15th, '76, was confined in prison with no sustenance for forty-eight hours; for eleven days he had only two days allowance of pork offensive to the smell, bread hard, mouldy and wormy, made of canail and dregs of flax-seed; water brackish. 'I have seen $1.50 given for a common pail full. Three or four pounds of poor Irish pork were given to three men for three days. In one church were 850 prisoners for near three months.' " "About the 25th of December he with 225 men were put on board the Glasgow at New York to be carried to Connecticut for exchange. They were aboard eleven days, and kept on coarse broken bread, and less pork than before, and had no fire for sick or well; crowded between decks, where twenty-eight died through ill-usage and cold." (This is taken from the "History of Litchfield," page 39.)
EXTRACT FROM A LETTER DATED NEW YORK, DEC. 26, 1776
"The distress of the prisoners cannot be communicated in words. Twenty or thirty die every day; they lie in heaps unburied; what numbers of my countrymen have died by cold and hunger, perished for want of the common necessaries of life! I have seen it! This, sir, is the boasted British clemency! I myself had well nigh perished under it. The New England people can have no idea of such barbarous policy. Nothing can stop such treatment but retaliation. I ever despised private revenge, but that of the public must be in this case, both just and necessary; it is due to the manes of our murdered countrymen, and that alone can protect the survivors in the like situation. Rather than experience again their barbarity and insults, may I fall by the sword of the Hessians."
Onderdonk, who quotes this fragment, gives us no clue to the writer. A man named S. Young testifies that, "he was taken at Fort Washington and, with 500 prisoners, was kept in a barn, and had no provisions until Monday night, when the enemy threw into the stable, in a confused manner, as if to so many hogs, a quantity of biscuits in crumbs, mostly mouldy, and some crawling with maggots, which the prisoners were obliged to scramble for without any division. Next day they had a little pork which they were obliged to eat raw. Afterwards they got sometimes a bit of pork, at other times biscuits, peas, and rice. They were confined two weeks in a church, where they suffered greatly from cold, not being allowed any fire. Insulted by soldiers, women, and even negroes. Great numbers died, three, four, or more, sometimes, a day. Afterwards they were carried on board a ship, where 500 were confined below decks."
The date of this testimony is given as Dec. 15th, 1776: "W. D. says the prisoners were roughly used at Harlem on their way from Fort Washington to New York, where 800 men were stored in the New Bridewell, which was a cold, open house, the windows not glazed. They had not one mouthful from early Saturday morning until Monday. Rations per man for three days were half a pound of biscuit, half a pound of pork, half a gill of rice, half a pint of peas, and half an ounce of butter, the whole not enough for one good meal, and they were defrauded in this petty allowance. They had no straw to lie on, no fuel but one cart load per week for 800 men. At nine o'clock the Hessian guards would come and put out the fire, and lay on the poor prisoners with heavy clubs, for sitting around the fire.
"The water was very bad, as well as the bread. Prisoners died like rotten sheep, with cold, hunger, and dirt; and those who had good apparel, such as buckskin breeches, or good coats, were necessitated to sell them to purchase bread to keep them alive." Hinman, page 277.
"Mrs. White left New York Jan. 20th, 1777. She says Bridewell, the College, the New Jail, the Baptist Meeting House, and the tavern lately occupied by Mr. De la Montaigne and several other houses are filled with sick and wounded of the enemy. General Lee was under guard in a small mean house at the foot of King Street. Wm. Slade says 800 prisoners taken at Fort Washington were put into the North church. On the first of December 300 were taken from the church to the prison ship. December second he, with others, was marched to the Grosvenor transport in the North River; five hundred were crowded on board. He had to lie down before sunset to secure a place." Trumbull Papers.
"Henry Franklin affirms that about two days after the taking of Fort Washington he was in New York, and went to the North Church, in which were about 800 prisoners taken in said Fort. He inquired into their treatment, and they told him they fared hard on account both of provisions and lodging, for they were not allowed any bedding, or blankets, and the provisions had not been regularly dealt out, so that the modest or backward could get little or none, nor had they been allowed any fuel to dress their victuals. The prisoners in New York were very sickly, and died in considerable numbers."
"Feb. 11, 1777. Joshua Loring, Commissary of Prisoners, says that but little provisions had been sent in by the rebels for their prisoners." Gaine's Mercury.
Jan. 4th. 1777. "Seventy-seven prisoners went into the Sugar House. N. Murray says 800 men were in Bridewell. The doctor gave poison powders to the prisoners, who soon died. Some were sent to Honduras to cut logwood; women came to the prison-gate to sell gingerbread." Trumbull Papers.
The New York Gazetteof May 6th, 1777, states that "of 3000 prisoners taken at Fort Washington, only 800 are living."
Mr. Onderdonk says: "There seems to have been no systematic plan adopted by the citizens of New York for the relief of the starving prisoners. We have scattering notices of a few charitable individuals, such as the following:--'Mrs. Deborah Franklin was banished from New York Nov. 21st, 1780, by the British commandant, for her unbounded liberality to the American prisoners. Mrs. Ann Mott was associated with Mrs. Todd and Mrs. Whitten in relieving the sufferings of American prisoners in New York, during the Revolution. John Fillis died at Halifax, 1792, aged 68. He was kind to American prisoners in New York. Jacob Watson, Penelope Hull, etc., are also mentioned.' "
BRITISH ACCOUNT OF MORTALITY OF PRISONERS
Dobbyn, master of a transport, thus writes from New York, Jan. 15th, 1777.
'We had four or five hundred prisoners on board our ships, but they had such
bad distempers that each ship buried ten or twelve a day.' Another writer,
under date of Jan. 14th, '77, says, 'The Churches are full of American prisoners,
who die so fast that 25 or 30 are buried at a time, in New York City. General
Howe gave all who could walk their liberty, after taking their oath not to
take up arms against his Majesty.'" (From a London Journal.)