The way prisoners-of-war were treated during the American Revolutionary War – and indeed through much of the 18th century – was different from today. Prisoners were generally treated well, however, they were expected to pay for their own food and supplies. Exchanges of prisoners between sides were common, as was the use of parole. Many captured soldiers were also encouraged to defect and enlist in the opposing army; large numbers took up this option, either to avoid imprisonment or simply to facilitate their escape. American soldiers and sailors who refused to defect and who weren’t paroled or exchanged were mostly kept on prison hulks: huge ships or barges kept permanently at anchor in American harbours. The most notorious of these was HMS Jersey (see picture) which held thousands of American servicemen in appalling conditions off New York City. As many as eight a day died from disease, starvation or beatings, their bodies either thrown overboard or buried in shallow graves along the shoreline. Overall it is believed that five times more Americans died in British captivity than in battle during the War of Independence.
A little-known fact about the American Revolutionary War is that it took place during the worst smallpox epidemic in the colonies’ history. This highly contagious viral disease, which caused severe skin deformation and a substantial death rate, had killed an estimated six million Aztecs and Incas in the 16th century. It had been used as a biological weapon during the French and Indian War, with British settlers giving smallpox-infected blankets to French-allied tribes. It is believed that as many as 125,000 people – not only American soldiers but civilians, British troops, slaves and natives – perished from smallpox between 1775 and 1782. Some native tribes particularly were decimated by smallpox, making them more susceptible to invasion and slaughter in the 1780s and beyond. Although Edward Jenner would not invent a smallpox vaccination until 1796, many Americans during the revolution practised a crude form of inoculation: small cuts would be made in the skin and pus from an infected patient would be smeared onto the open wound. Although the patient would become sick with the disease, they generally recovered. It is recorded that John and Abigail Adams had their children inoculated in this fashion; George Washington also ordered several Continental Army units to be inoculated at the first signs of a smallpox outbreak. Although the death toll from the war was dwarfed by the numbers of smallpox deaths, because immigration to America continued at high levels in the war years there was no marked drop in population.
“This does not mean that Americans were correct when they alleged that the British intended the deaths of so many captives… the thousands of Americans who perished in New York during the Revolution were the victims of something well beyond the usual brutalities and misfortunes of war, even eighteenth-century war – a lethal convergence, as it were, of obstinacy, condescension, corruption, mendacity and indifference. Though the British did not deliberately kill American prisoners in New York, they might as well have done. Did Americans treat their prisoners any better? Not necessarily, though circumstances were such that their capacity for inhumanity in this context was never fully tested.”
Edwin G. Burrows, historian