American Prisoners of The Revolution
BY DANSKE DANDRIDGE
THE EXPERIENCE OF EBENEZER FOX (CONTINUED)
The miseries of our condition were continually increasing. The pestilence on board spread rapidly; and every day added to our bill of mortality. The young were its most frequent victims. The number of the prisoners was constantly augmenting, notwithstanding the frequent and successful attempts to escape. When we were mustered and called upon to answer to our names, and it was ascertained that nearly two hundred had mysteriously disappeared, without leaving any information of their departure, the officers of the ship endeavored to make amends for their past remissness by increasing the rigor of our confinement, and depriving us of all hope of adopting any of the means for liberating ourselves from our cruel thralldom, so successfully practiced by many of our comrades.
"With the hope that some relief might be obtained to meliorate the wretchedness of our situation, the prisoners petitioned General Clinton, commanding the British forces in New York, for permission to send a memorial to General Washington, describing our condition, and requesting his influence in our behalf, that some exchange of prisoners might be effected.
"Permission was obtained, and the memorial was sent. * * * General Washington wrote to Congress, and also to the British Commissary of Naval prisoners, remonstrating with him, deprecating the cruel treatment of the Americans, and threatening retaliation.
"The long detention of American sailors on board of British prison-ships was to be attributed to the little pains taken by our countrymen to retain British subjects who were taken prisoner on the ocean during the war. Our privateers captured many British seamen, who, when willing to enlist in our service, as was generally the case, were received on board of our ships. Those who were brought into port were suffered to go at large; for in the impoverished condition of the country, no state or town was willing to subject itself to the expence of maintaining prisoners in a state of confinement; they were permitted to provide for themselves. In this way the number of British seamen was too small for a regular and equal exchange. Thus the British seamen, after their capture, enjoyed the blessings of liberty, the light of the sun, and the purity of the atmosphere, while the poor American sailors were compelled to drag out a miserable existence amid want and distress, famine and pestilence. As every principle of justice and humanity was disregarded by the British in their treatment of the prisoners, so likewise was every moral and legal right violated in compelling them to enter into their service.
"We had obtained some information in relation to an expected draught that would soon be made upon the prisoners to fill up a complement of men that were wanted for the service of his Majesty's fleet.
"One day in the last part of August our fears for the dreaded event were realized. A British officer with a number of soldiers came on board. The prisoners were all ordered on deck, placed on the larboard gangway, and marched in single file round to the quarter-deck, where the officers stood to inspect them, and select such ones as suited their fancies without any reference to the rights of the prisoners. * * * We continued to march round in solemn and melancholy processsion, till they had selected from among our number about three hundred of the ablest, nearly all of whom were Americans, and they were directed to go below under a guard, to collect together whatever things they wished to take belonging to them. They were then driven into the boats, waiting alongside, and left the prison ship, not to enjoy their freedom, but to be subjected to the iron despotism, and galling slavery of a British man-of-war; to waste their lives in a foreign service; and toil for masters whom they hated. Such, however, were the horrors of our situation as prisoners, and so small was the prospect of relief, that we almost envied the lot of those who left the ship to go into the service of the enemy.
"That the reader may not think I have given an exaggerated account of our sufferings on board the Jersey, I will here introduce some facts related in the histories of the Revolutionary War. I introduce them as an apology for the course that I and many of my fellow citizens adopted to obtain temporary relief from our sufferings.
"The prisoners captured by Sir William Howe in 1776 amounted to several thousands. * * * The privates were confined in prisons, deserted churches, and other large open buildings, entirely unfit for the habitations of human beings, in severe winter weather, without any of the most ordinary comforts of life.
"To the indelible and everlasting disgrace of the British name, these unfortunate victims of a barbarity more befitting savages than gentlemen belonging to a nation boasting itself to be the most enlightened and civilized of the world,--many hundreds of them, perished from want of proper food and attention.
"The cruelty of their inhuman jailors was not terminated by the death of these wretched men, as so little care was taken to remove the corpses that seven dead bodies have been seen at one time lying in one of the buildings in the midst of their living fellow-prisoners, who were perhaps envying them their release from misery. Their food * * * was generally that which was rejected by the British ships as unfit to be eaten by the sailors, and unwholesome in the highest degree, as well as disgusting in taste and appearance.
"In December, 1776, the American board of war, after procuring such evidence as convinced them of the truth of their statements, reported that: 'There were 900 privates and 300 officers of the American army, prisoners in the city of New York, and 500 privates and 50 officers in Philadelphia. That since the beginning of October, all these officers and privates had been confined in prisons or in the provost. That, from the best evidence the subject could admit of, the general allowance of the prisoners did not exceed four ounces of meat a day, and that often so damaged as to be uneatable. That it had been a common practice of the British to keep their prisoners four or five days without a morsel of meat and thus tempt them to enlist to save their lives.'
"Many were actually starved to death, in hope of making them enroll themselves in the British army. The American sailors when captured suffered even more than the soldiers, for they were confined on board prison ships in great numbers, and in a manner which showed that the British officers were willing to treat fellow beings, whose only crime was love of liberty, worse than the vilest animals; and indeed in every respect, with as much cruelty as is endured by the miserable inhabitants of the worst class of slave ships. * * * In the course of the war it has been asserted on good evidence, that 11,000 prisoners died on board the Jersey. * * * These unfortunate beings died in agony in the midst of their fellow sufferers, who were obliged to witness their tortures, without the power of relieving their dying countrymen, even by cooling their parched lips with a drop of cold water, or a breath of fresh air; and, when the last breath had left the emaciated body, they sometimes remained for hours in close contact with the corpse, without room to shrink from companions that Death had made so horrible, and when at last the dead were removed, they were sent in boats to the shore, and so imperfectly buried that long after the war was ended, their bones lay whitening in the sun on the beach of Long Island, a lasting memorial of British cruelty, so entirely unwarranted by all the laws of war or even common humanity.
"They could not even pretend that they were retaliating, for the Americans invariably treated their prisoners with kindness, and as though they were fellow men. All the time that these cruelties were performed those who were deprived of every comfort and necessary were constantly entreated to leave the American service, and induced to believe, while kept from all knowledge of public affairs, that the republican cause was hopeless; that all engaged in it would meet the punishment of traitors to the king, and that all their prospect of saving their lives, or escaping from an imprisonment worse than death to young and high-spirited men, as most of them were, would be in joining the British army, where they would be sure of good pay and quick promotion.
"These were the means employed by our enemies to increase their own forces, and discourage the patriots, and it is not strange they were successful in many instances. High sentiments of honor could not well exist in the poor, half-famished prisoners, who were denied even water to quench their thirst, or the privilege of breathing fresh, pure air, and cramped, day after day, in a space too small to admit of exercising their weary limbs, with the fear of wasting their lives in a captivity, which could not serve their country, nor gain honor to themselves.
"But worse than all was the mortifying consideration that, after they had suffered for the love of their country, more than sailors in active service, they might die in these horrible places, and be laid with their countrymen on the shores of Long Island, or some equally exposed spot, without the rites of burial, and their names never be heard of by those who, in future ages, would look back to the roll of patriots, who died in defence of liberty, with admiration and respect, while, on the contrary, by dissembling for a time, they might be able to regain a place in the service so dear to them, and in which they were ready to endure any hardship or encounter any danger.
"Of all the prisons, on land or water, for the confinement of the Americans, during the Revolutionary War, the Old Jersey was acknowledged to be the worst; such an accumulation of horrors was not to be found in any other one, or perhaps in all collectively.
"The very name of it struck terror into the sailor's heart, and caused him to fight more desperately, to avoid being made a captive. Suffering as we did, day after day, with no prospect of relief, our numbers continually augmenting, * * * can it be thought strange that the younger part of the prisoners, to whom confinement seemed worse than death, should be tempted to enlist into the British service; especially when, by so doing, it was probable that some opportunity would be offered to desert? We were satisfied that death would soon put an end to our sufferings if we remained prisoners much longer, yet when we discussed the expediency of seeking a change in our condition, which we were satisfied could not be worse under any circumstances, and it was proposed that we should enter the service of King George, our minds revolted at the idea, and we abandoned the intention.
"In the midst of our distresses, perplexities, and troubles of this period, we were not a little puzzled to know how to dispose of the vermin that would accumulate upon our persons, notwithstanding all our attempts at cleanliness. To catch them was a very easy task, but to undertake to deprive each individual captive of life, as rapidly as they could have been taken, would have been a more herculean task for each individual daily, than the destruction of 3000 Philistines by Sampson of old. To throw them overboard would have been but a small relief, as they would probably add to the impurities of the boiler, by being deposited in it the first time it was filled up for cooking our unsavory mess. What then was to be done with them? A general consultation was held, and it was determined to deprive them of their liberty. This being agreed upon, the prisoners immediately went to work, for their comfort and amusement, to make a liberal contribution of those migratory creatures, who were compelled to colonize for a time within the boundaries of a large snuff box appropriated for the purpose. There they lay, snugly ensconced, of all colors, ages, and sizes, to the amount of some hundreds, waiting for orders.
"British recruiting officers frequently came on board, and held out to the prisoners tempting offers to enlist in his Majesty's service; not to fight against their own country, but to perform garrison duty in the island of Jamaica.
"One day an Irish officer came on board for this purpose, and not meeting with much success among the prisoners who happened to be on deck, he descended below to repeat his offers. He was a remarkably tall man, and was obliged to stoop as he passed along between decks. The prisoners were disposed for a frolic, and kept the officer in their company for some time, flattering him with expectations, till he discovered their insincerity, and left them in no very pleasant humor. As he passed along, bending his body and bringing his broad shoulders to nearly a horizontal position, the idea occurred to our minds to furnish him with some recruits from the colony in the snuff box. A favorable opportunity presented, the cover of the box was removed, and the whole contents discharged upon the red-coated back of the officer. Three cheers from the prisoners followed the migration, and the officer ascended to the deck, unconscious of the number and variety of the recruits he had obtained without the formality of an enlistment. The captain of the ship, suspecting that some joke had been practised, or some mischief perpetrated, from the noise below, met the officer at the head of the gangway, and seeing the vermin crawling up his shoulders, and aiming at his head, with the instinct peculiar to them, exclaimed, 'Hoot mon! what's the maitter wi' your back!' * * * By this time many of them in their wanderings, had travelled from the rear to the front, and showed themselves, to the astonishment of the officer. He flung off his coat, in a paroxysm of rage, which was not allayed by three cheers from the prisoners on deck. Confinement below, with a short allowance, was our punishment for this gratification.
"From some information we had obtained we were in daily expectation of a visit from the British recruiting officers, and from the summary method of their procedure, no one felt safe from the danger of being forced into their service. Many of the prisoners thought it would be better to enlist voluntarily, as it was probable that afterwards they would be permitted to remain on Long Island, preparatory to their departure to the West Indies, and during that time some opportunity would be offered for their escape to the Jersey shore. * * * Soon after we had formed this desperate resolve a recruiting officer came on board to enlist men for the 88th Regiment to be stationed at Kingston, in the island of Jamaica. * * * The recruiting officer presented his papers for our signature. We hesitated, we stared at each other, and felt we were about to do a deed of which we were ashamed, and which we might regret. Again we heard the tempting offers, and again the assurance that we should not be called upon to fight against our government or country, and with the hope that we should find an opportunity to desert, of which it was our firm intention to avail ourselves when offered,--with such hopes, expectations, and motives, we signed the papers, and became soldiers in his Majesty's service,
"How often did we afterwards lament that we had ever lived to see this hour? How often did we regret that we were not in our wretched prison ship again, or buried in the sand at the Wallabout!"
There were twelve of the prisoners who left the Jersey with Ebenezer Fox. They were at first taken to Long Island and lodged in barns, but so vigilantly were they guarded that they found it impossible to escape. They were all sent to Kingston, and Fox was allowed to resume his occupation as a barber, much patronized by the officers stationed at that post. He was soon allowed the freedom of the city, and furnished with a pass to go about it as much as he wished. At last, in company with four other Americans, he escaped, and after many adventures the party succeeded in reaching Cuba, by means of a small sailing boat which they pressed into service for that purpose. From Cuba they took passage in a small vessel for St. Domingo, and dropped anchor at Cape Francois, afterwards called Cape Henri. There they went on board the American frigate, Flora, of 32 guns, commanded by Captain Henry Johnson, of Boston.
The vessel soon sailed for France and took several prizes. It finally went up the Garonne to Bordeaux, where it remained nine months. In the harbor of Bordeaux were about six hundred vessels bearing the flags of various nations. Here they remained until peace was proclaimed, when Fox procured service on board an American brig lying at Nantes, and set sail for home in April, 1783.
At length he again reached
his mother's house at Roxbury, after an absence of about three years. His
mother, at first, did not recognize him. She entertained him as a stranger,
until he made himself known, and then her joy was great, for she had long
mourned him as lost.