The Enemy in Our Hands: America's Treatment of Enemy Prisoners of War, from the Revolution to the War on Terror

By Robert C. Doyle | Go to book overview

ONE
Prisoners of Independence
British and Hessian Enemy Prisoners of War

During this unhappy contest, there be every exercise of humanity,
which the nature of the case will possibly admit of.

—General George Washington

With the exception of spies such as British Major John André and some others, during the Revolution the Americans treated enemy prisoners of war (EPWs) relatively well. General George Washington made it known in letters to British General Lord William Howe that he considered it his duty to be humane and generous in his treatment of British and Hessian prisoners of war (POWs), and he often complained to Howe that Americans were not being treated with the same care. Writing to Howe on 23 September 1776, he noted that “during this unhappy contest, there be every exercise of humanity, which the nature of the case will possibly admit of.”1 He was right, at least to a degree: there were instances of serious hostilities toward British POWs by American officers and civilians, most of which never came to Washington’s attention. Some did, however, as the British charges of mistreatment by Colonel David Henley against some British officers showed.

During the Revolution, captures and exchanges large and small took place from the beginning to the end of the war. At first, status became a serious issue. As far as the British were concerned, from 1775 to 1776 the American war in Massachusetts consisted of rebellious individuals and local militias organized to defend the colonies against Indian attacks, and any rebels captured were considered to be civil prisoners guilty of treason against the Crown. The British, however, were more concerned about subduing the rebellious Massachusetts colony than conducting public war. Hence, those soldiers who came into captivity were not executed but held in jails. After the Declaration of Independence was signed and announced during the summer of 1776, everything changed. This act presented the British with a wholly new set of problems—specifically, how to treat those Americans who surrendered

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