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American Revolution prisoners of war

From Academic Kids

During the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) the management and treatment of prisoners was very different from the standards of modern warfare. Modern standards, as outlined in the Geneva Conventions, expect captives to be held and cared for by their captors. One primary difference in the eighteenth century, was that care and supplies for captives were expected to be provided by their own army, their government, or private resources.

Throughout the war, there were exchanges of prisoners. These might be made in the field or at higher levels of organization. Usually high ranking officer exchanges would be negotiated for specific named people. There were some exchanges based on numbers for lower ranking people, but these were so limited as to be rare events.

Three other aspects were different than those normally seen in modern warfare. The first is that letters were permitted, and sometimes even encouraged. Prisoners could buy or exchange for food and clothing, including any money sent by their families. The second was the use of 'Parole' by both sides. This would allow prisoners some freedom, in exchange for their promise not to resume the war. The last is that prisoners were encouraged to enlist in the army of the other side. Over the course of the war, as much as a quarter of each army had actually seen service on the other side.

American prisoners

The British forces held relatively few places in strength for long periods. American prisoners tended to be accumulated at these sites. New York City was the major site, Philadelphia in 1777 and later Charleston, South Carolina were also important. Facilities at these places were limited, sometime severely. At times the occupying army was actually larger than the total civilian population.

The British solution to this problem was to use obsolete, captured, or damaged ships as prisons. Conditions here were appalling, and as many men died imprisoned as were killed in actual combat. While the Continental Army named a commissary to supply them, the task was almost impossible. Elias Boudinot, as one of these commissaries, was competing with other agents seeking to gather supplies for Washington's army at Valley Forge.

British prisoners

See: Convention Army.

Some British and Hessian prisoners were paroled to American farmers. Their labor made up for shortages caused by the number of men serving in the American army. Usually their return was room and board, supplied by the contractor.

Further Reading

  • Joseph Lee Boyle (editor); Their Distress is Almost Intolerable: The Elias Boudinot Letterbook, 1777-1778; 2002, Heritage Books (paperback), ISBN 0788422103.
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