American Prisoners of The Revolution
BY DANSKE DANDRIDGE
A FOUL PAGE OF ENGLISH HISTORY
We will not follow Mr. Graydon now to Long Island. It was then late in January, 1777. The survivors of the American prisoners were, many of them, exchanged for healthy British soldiers. The crime had been committed, one of the blackest which stains the annals of English history. By the most accurate computation at least two thousand helpless American prisoners had been slowly starved, frozen, or poisoned to death in the churches and other prisons in New York.
No excuse for this monstrous crime can be found, even by those who are anxiously in search of an adequate one.
We have endeavored to give some faint idea of the horrors of that hopeless captivity. As we have already said scarcely any one who endured imprisonment for any length of time in the churches lived to tell the tale. One of these churches was standing not many years ago, and the marks of bayonet thrusts might plainly be seen upon its pillars. What terrible deeds were enacted there we can only conjecture. We knowthat two thousand, healthy, high-spirited young men, many of them sons of gentlemen, and all patriotic, brave, and long enduring, even unto death, were foully murdered in these places of torment, compared to which ordinary captivity is described by one who endured it as paradise. We know, we say, that these young men perished awfully, rather than enlist in the British army; that posterity has almost forgotten them, and that their dreadful sufferings ought to be remembered wherever American history is read.
We have already said that it is impossible now to obtain the names of all who suffered death at the hands of their inhuman jailors during the fall and winter of 1776-7. But we have taken Captain Abraham Shepherd's company of riflemen as a sample of the prisoners, and are able, thanks to the pay roll now in our care, to indicate the fate of each man upon the list.
It is a mistake to say that no prisoners deserted to the British. After the account we have quoted from Ethan Allen's book we feel sure that no one can find the heart to blame the poor starving creatures who endeavored to preserve their remains of life in this manner.
Henry Bedinger gives the names of seven men of this company who deserted. They are Thomas Knox, a corporal; William Anderson, Richard Neal, George Taylor, Moses McComesky, Anthony Blackhead and Anthony Larkin. Thomas Knox did not join the British forces until the 17th of January, 1777; William Anderson on the 20th of January, 1777. Richard Neal left the American army on the tenth of August, 1776. He, therefore, was not with the regiment at Fort Washington. George Taylor deserted on the 9th of July, 1776, which was nine days after he enlisted. Moses McComesky did not desert until the 14th of June, 1777. Anthony Blackhead deserted November 15th, 1776, the day before the battle was fought; Anthony Larkin, September 15th, 1776. We cannot tell what became of any of these men. Those who died of the prisoners are no less than fifty-two in this one company of seventy-nine privates and non-commissioned officers. This may and probably does include a few who lived to be exchanged. The date of death of each man is given, but not the place in which he died.
A very singular fact about this record is that no less than seventeen of the prisoners of this company died on the same day, which was the fifteenth of February, 1777. Why this was so we cannot tell. We can only leave the cause of their death to the imagination of our readers. Whether they were poisoned by wholesale; whether they were murdered in attempting to escape; whether the night being extraordinarily severe, they froze to death; whether they were butchered by British bayonets, we are totally unable to tell. The record gives their names and the date of death and says that all seventeen were prisoners. That is all.
The names of these men are Jacob Wine, William Waller, Peter Snyder, Conrad Rush, David Harmon, William Moredock, William Wilson, James Wilson, Thomas Beatty, Samuel Davis, John Cassody, Peter Good, John Nixon, Christopher Peninger, Benjamin McKnight, John McSwaine, James Griffith, and Patrick Murphy.
Two or three others are mentioned as dying the day after. Is it possible that these men were on board one of the prison ships which was set on fire? If so we have been able to discover no account of such a disaster on that date.
Many of the papers of Major Henry Bedinger were destroyed. It is possible that he may have left some clue to the fate of these men, but if so it is probably not now in existence. But among the letters and memoranda written by him which have been submitted to us for inspection, is a list, written on a scrap of paper, of the men that he recruited for Captain Shepherd's Company in the summer of 1776. This paper gives the names of the men and the date on which each one died in prison. It is as follows:
LIST OF MEN RAISED BY LIEUTENANT HENRY BEDINGER, AND THAT HE BROUGHT FROM NEW TOWN, BERKELEY COUNTY, VA., AUGUST FIRST, 1776.
Dennis Bush, Fourth Sergeant. (He was taken prisoner at Fort Washington, but lived to be exchanged, and was paid up to October 1st, 1778, at the end of the term for which the company enlisted.)
Conrad Cabbage, Prisoner, Died, Jan. 7th, 1777. John Cummins, Prisoner, Died, Jan. 27th, 1777. Gabriel Stevens, Prisoner, Died, March 1st, 1777. William Donally, Prisoner, Died, Jan. 10th, 1777. David Gilmer, Prisoner, Died, Jan. 26th, 1777. John Cassady, Prisoner, Died, Feb. 15th, 1777. Samuel Brown, Prisoner, Died, Feb. 26th, 1777. Peter Good, Prisoner, Died, Feb. 13th, 1777. William Boyle, Prisoner, Died, Feb. 25th, 1777. John Nixon, Prisoner, Died, Feb. 18th, 1777. Anthony Blackhead, deserted, Nov. 15th, 1776. William Case, Prisoner, Died, March 15th, 1777. Caspar Myres, Prisoner, Died, Feb. 16th, 1777. William Seaman, Prisoner, Died, July 8th, 1777. Isaac Price, Prisoner, Died, Feb. 5th, 1777. Samuel Davis, Prisoner, Died, Feb. 15th, 1777.
William Seaman was the son of Jonah Seaman, living near Darkesville. Isaac Price was an orphan, living with James' Campbell's father. Samuel Davis came from near Charlestown.
This is all, but it is eloquent with what it does not say. All but two of this list of seventeen young, vigorous riflemen died in prison or from the effects of confinement. One, alone had sufficient vitality to endure until the 8th of July, 1777. Perhaps he was more to be pitied than his comrades.
We now begin to understand how it happened that, out of
more than 2,600 privates taken prisoner at Fort Washington, 1,900 were dead
in the space of two months and four days, when the exchange of some of the
survivors took place. Surely this is a lasting disgrace to one of the greatest
nations of the world. If, as seems undoubtedly true, more men perished in
prison than on the battle fields of the Revolution, it is difficult to see
why so little is made of this fact in the many histories of that struggle
that have been written. We find that the accounts of British prisons are
usually dismissed in a few words, sometimes in an appendix, or a casual note.
But history was ever written thus. Great victories are elaborately described;
and all the pomp and circumstance of war is set down for our pleasure and
instruction. But it is due to the grand solemn muse of history, who carries
the torch of truth, that the other side, the horrors of war, should be as
faithfully delineated. Wars will not cease until the lessons of their cruelty,
their barbarity, and the dark trail of suffering they leave behind them are
deeply impressed upon the mind. It is our painful task to go over the picture,
putting in the shadows as we see them, however gloomy may be the effect.