Wednesday, September 17, 2014
British Prison Ships
It all started after the Battle of Brooklyn and the capture of Fort Washington by the British in the Fall of 1776. They had so many prisoners, over five thousand by the end of the year, that they didn't know what to do with them all. After filling every available space in the prisons and opening prisons in other buildings, they decided to house many of the prisoners of war on cattle ships and anchored them off the Hudson and East Rivers.
Often more than a thousand on each ship received poor provisions, bad water, and scant food rations. There was no medical care, and disease, starvation, and dysentery claimed the lives of most of the prisoners before the war was over. The overcrowding problem disappeared. The conditions were so bad that the prisoners set fire to one ship even though it meant many of them would burn to death before the fire was contained.
On July 4th, 1782, some of the prisoners tried to celebrate Independence Day by singing patriotic songs, The guards opened the hatch and hacked at them with knives and swords, wounding as many of them as they could reach. They locked the hatch up and left the wounded without food, water or medical attention until the next afternoon. In that time, 10 died of their wounds. Many other wounded survived the attack but were badly wounded.
General Washington complained of the conditions to British General Howe, but Howe couldn't be bothered to investigate and denied the charges. Howe was the same man who, after the execution of Nathan Hale, tore up the letter Hale was permitted to write to his mother before marching to the gallows.
It is estimated the tens of thousands of patriots died on these ships. But the British gave them a way out. Any prisoner who signed an oath of allegiance to Great Brittan and agreed to fight in the British Army was granted a full pardon. Even with the horrible conditions and almost certain death, very few took advantage of that offer.