Burrows (Distinguished Professor of History, Brooklyn Coll.), who shared the Pulitzer Prize with coauthor Mike Wallace for Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, here focuses on a neglected aspect of the American Revolution, the prisoners of war held by the British during the conflict. He examines diaries, correspondence, memoirs, newspapers, and pension and government records, from which he includes prisoner testimony that past historians have dismissed as American propaganda. Although establishing the exact numbers of prisoners and deaths is impossible, because records are not available, Burrows finds some startling figures by cross-referencing multiple documents for consistencies. He concludes that there were probably over 30,000 captives (twice the number previously believed) and about 18,000 deaths. The majority of the prisoners were held in New York City in cramped buildings and on prison ships, and many were robbed, beaten, and starved by their British captors, who saw the Americans as rebels, beneath any honor or respect. Both George Washington and Congress knew about these horrendous conditions, but they were limited to arranging prisoner trades and getting food and clothing to the Americans, although they tried daring amphibious raids to rescue prisoners. Although Burrows does not himself suggest overt parallels to current history, readers can draw the connection, which makes for another powerful element to this very interesting and well-written book. Highly recommended.
A Pulitzer Prize–winning historian revisits the story of the brutal, degrading treatment of American prisoners of war during the Revolution.
According to Burrows (History/Brooklyn Coll.; co-author, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, 1999, etc.), 20th-century historians have underestimated the extent and severity of British mistreatment of American prisoners, wrongly dismissing letters, affidavits, legal documents and other contemporaneous accounts as exaggerated propaganda. The author maintains that of the 35,800 American war-related deaths, roughly half died in New York City, either in the prisons, sugar houses and churches converted for the purpose, or prison ships. Victims of rotten food, foul water, overcrowding and a lack of proper clothing, blankets and firewood, a small number of the captives turned coat, sterling "proof" of their virtue. Moreover, as the war progressed, the unspeakable deaths of so many established a kind of moral Rubicon, making reconciliation with the mother country impossible. Americans accused Britain of purposely erecting a system designed "to murder [the prisoners] by inches, to treat them ten times more cruelly than if they had hung them all the day they took them." Although 18th-century rules of war were merely theoretical (even the informal code among officers and gentlemen broke down in this peculiar conflict), references to captured Americans as POWs appeared to concede the reality of American independence and legitimize Congress. With the legal status of the prisoners uncertain, British authorities allowed Gen. William Howe and his subordinates a free hand, with disastrous consequences for the prisoners and forBritish prestige. This horrific tale references such glittering personalities as Washington, Lafayette and Franklin, as well as Ethan Allen and Philip Freneau. Mostly, though, it's the story of thousands of nameless Americans who gave their lives for liberty.
A moving tribute to the martyrs of the prison ships and a cautionary tale for a country, itself now wealthy and powerful, "at risk of becoming the kind of enemy they laid down their lives to defeat."