Read the Revolution: Captives of Liberty

08/09/2023

Captives of Liberty:
Prisoners of War and the Politics of Vengeance
in the American Revolution

Written by: T. Cole Jones

The rules of warfare drastically changed during the American Revolution. From the beginning of the war, Britain viewed the Americans as “damned rebels,” who deserved nothing more than harsh treatment if captured. George Washington, on the other hand, believed in the European custom of acting with honor in all aspects of warfare, which included treating prisoners of war fairly and with the respect their rank deserved. How could this young and inexperienced army care for enemy prisoners when they could barely care for themselves? When does the need to seek retribution on your tormentors become more important than acting with honor?

T. Cole Jones’s book, Captives of Liberty: Prisoners of War and the Politics of Vengeance in the American Revolution sets out to answer those questions. Using examples from the Canadian campaign, Battle of Brooklyn, Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga, and the Southern campaign as case studies, Jones argues that Americans believed they were upholding European customs in their handling of prisoners of war. But when the British did not extend the same courtesies, Americans found it increasingly difficult to justify providing adequate care and respect for their enemy. “Atrocity rhetoric compounded real accounts of British mistreatment of American captives in the press,” Jones writes, which drove Americans to demand harsher treatment towards their enemies, setting off a spiral of competing violence against each other. As the war dragged on, honor was replaced with the need for revenge.

Excerpt from Captives of Liberty
Perched on the highest point on Manhattan Island overlooking the Hudson River, in November 1776 Fort Washington was an impressive feat of military engineering. Named in honor of the American commander, the pentagonal fortification was the Continental Army’s last hope to prevent the island from falling into British hands. Despite assiduous preparation that past summer, American forces had been unable to stop a Crown armada from landing nearly twenty-five thousand British and Hessian troops on Long Island in August. The long-feared “Armies of foreign Mercenaries” that Jefferson had decried in example of envelopment, Major General Howe defeated the Continentals on August 27 at the Battle of Brooklyn, capturing over a thousand prisoners. Washington, who had bloodlessly driven the British from Boston in March, retreated the length of Manhattan, losing men, materiel, and most of his mettle at Kip’s Bay, Harlem Heights, and White Plains. The British were unimpressed with their adversary’s haphazard and unsoldierly defense of New York. One Hessian described the American officers as “nothing but mechanics, tailors, shoemakers, wig-makers, [and] barbers,” hardly the stalwarts who had bloodied the regulars at Concord and Bunker Hill. Victory was almost too easy. Perhaps the formidable entrenchments of Fort Washington would at last offer worthy opposition.

Dig Deeper: Learn about James Forten’s time as a prisoner of war in the Museum’s current special exhibit Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia, which you can visit in person or immerse yourself in the recently launched 360-degree virtual tour.

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