You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. Matthew 5:14-16

Monday, June 11, 2012

Patriot Prisoners and Prison Ships

Susan F. Craft

Author's Note -- In my novel, The Chamomile, the main character, Lilyan Cameron, has a 14-year-old brother, Andrew, who sneaks away from home to fight with the Patriots, but is captured and imprisoned on a British ship anchored in Charleston Harbor. Lilyan joins a spy ring to rescue the prisoners.

I knew I couldn't have the rescue take place on any of the three real prison ships because of the meticulous ships' logs and rosters of prisoners. For the same reason, I didn’t want to use the name of any of the ships I found on a list of Revolutionary War British prison ships.

So, I decided to create a fictitious name. I found a map of England on the Internet and searched for coastal towns, which is what many boats were named after. I found the fishing village/port of Brixham and liked all the history associated with it - Francis Drake's ship the Golden Hind docked there--plus it was near Torbay, which is the name of one of the real prison ships. I searched British maritime and War Department records to see if there already was a ship named Brixham and found the H.M.S. Brixham, a Royal Navy minesweeper in service from 1940-48, so I thought it would be okay to name my little schooner the Brixham. 

During the Revolutionary War in South Carolina, Continental troops captured by the British, by the articles of capitulation agreed upon by both parties, were to be detained “in some place contiguous to Charleston, SC, preferably in barracks.”

The British violated this compact and put the men onboard prison ships; three of which were the Torbay, the Success-Increase, the Pack Horse.

Example of a prisoner of war barracks.
Confined in large numbers on these vessels and fed on salt provisions in the hot, humid climate in the months of October and November, many became ill with smallpox, measles, and cholera. The sick, who were taken to the general hospital from the prison ships, generally died in the course of two or three days, “with all the marks of a highly diseased, contagious state.” 
Charleston Harbor

Mr. De Rosette, the British commissary of prisoners, received many complaints pointing out the numbers of deaths and requesting relief for the prisoners and improvement in the conditions.

Mr. Fisher, the commissary of prisoners, and Mr. Fraser, who formerly practiced physic, were ordered to investigate. Their report confirmed the truth, but their efforts to make improvements were frustrated by Dr. John M'Namara Hays, a physician to the British army. During the war, he had been taken prisoner by the Americans at Burgoyne and had received the politest treatment from the Americans. He reported that the prison ships were not crowded, perfectly wholesome, with no appearance of infections disorders amongst the prisoners. When confronted, Dr. Hays said, “the confinement of the prisoners in prison ships is a great eyesore, and there is no help for that, it must be done.”

In January 1781, a supply of clothing and some money to purchase necessaries for the prisoners in the barracks arrived from the Congress, but Mr.  Fisher was prevented from distributing them. This was done to frustrate the prisoners into becoming so despondent that they would succumb to persuasions to enlist in the British army.

Some enlisted, but a majority did not.  It was then that Mr. Fraser pronounced “that they should be put on board of the prison ships, where they could not expect anything more but to perish miserably; and that the rations hitherto allowed for the support of their wives and children, from that day should be withheld; the consequence of which would be, they just starve in the streets.”

British prison ship.
The British did not always wait for American captives to agree to switch sides. As early as March 1781 Americans on the prison ships encountered the heavy hand of impressment. On the Prince George, a British party announced that two dozen of the captives were to be forced into the Royal Navy. Some inmates complained that “they thought it hard Congress should find sailors for the King,” but those who refused were ordered to be tossed “into the boat alongside the ship.” On the Success-Increase one captive was “caned and kicked ... very severely and forced ... with a number of others, into the boats.” Another of the Americans was tossed from the deck into a waiting boat, and others were beaten “in the most barbarous manner.”
Private Thomas Duffey, a prisoner on the Success-Increase wrote:
            Last March being a prisoner of war on board the Success-Increase in Charlestown harbour, Captain Cook, British commissary of Prisoners, attended by a Sergeant Brown and four or five captains of transports, came on board and asked the prisoners if any would go to London in the fleet, where they would be set free. The prisoners declined his offer, upon which Captain Cook told them if they did not go voluntarily they would be forced on board; the captains of the transports then made choices of the men, upon their appearing very much adverse to go into the boats, Sergeant Brown beat and abused them in the most barbarous manner; particularly one of the men, whom he threw from the gunwale of the ship into one of the boats. I was among those who were thus forced on board the boats and was sent on board a transport brigatine with the others, where I was kept for five days with a few other prisoners who were distributed among different vessels, I went to Charlestown on promising to enlist in the British Cavalry; I heard Captain Cook declare, to the above transaction, that if the prisoners did not enlist in thirteen days in the British service, they would all be sent to the West Indies, where they would be put on board ships-of-war.

The prisoners had no resources, and the British would furnish only the absolute necessaries of life. The officers of the hospital, on the mildest representation, were threatened and insulted, frequently prohibited from visiting the sick, once for three days.

Furious that provisions had been withheld from the prisoners, several of the ladies of Charleston from both sides, Whig and Tory, procured supplies and prepared clothing and proper nourishment and delivered them to the ships.

Following is a letter from officers aboard the Torbay to Major General Nathanael Greene. The letter contained the names of the 130 prisoners.

Prison Ship Torbay,
Charles Town Harbour the 18th May 1781

We have the honour of inclosing [sic] you a Copy of a letter from Colonel Balfour Commandant of Charles Town, which was handed us immediately on being put on board this Ship: The Letter speaking for itself needs no comment; Your Wisdom will best dictate the notice it merits - We just beg leave to observe that should it fall to the Lot of all, or any of us to be made victims, agreeable to the menace therein contained, we have only to regret that our blood cannot be disposed of more to the Advancement of the Glorious Cause to which we have adhered. A seperate [sic] Roll of our names attends this letter.

With the greatest respect we are Sir
Yr. most Obedient and most H'mble Servants

Stephen Moore Lieut. Col. No. Carolina Militia
John Barnwell Major So. Carolina Militia

In the North, more than 11,500 Americans were held captive on British prison ships. They died of disease, starvation, violence and neglect. A monument to these soldiers was erected in Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, NY; it overlooks Wallabout Bay, the site where these prisoners were held captive in sixteen British prison ships between the years of 1776 and 1783.

Prison Ship Jersey

Every morning, British guards yelled “Turn out your dead!” and the bodies were taken and buried in shallow graves along the shore. A British ship called Jersey was nicknamed “Hell” by its prisoners because of crowded conditions, sickness, starvation, whippings and frequent deaths.

General George Washington complained about the prison ships in his letter to British commander General William Howe on January 13, 1777. Prisoners were released if they renounced the Patriot cause and pledged their loyalties to King George III. When the war ended in 1783, the remaining prisoners were freed.

Due to the nature of human behavior, it is understood that mistreatment is carried out on both sides. In their second letter to General Nathanael Greene officers aboard the Torbay wrote:

Wallabout Bay monument to Patriots
aboard British prison ships.

            In a war circumstanced as the present, there will be some instances of enormities on both sides. We would not wish to particularize, but doubt not there are acts of cruelty frequently committed by the irregulars of your army, and are convinced that on our part as well as our own they are generally to be attributed to an ignorance of the rules of warfare and a want of discipline; but the idea of detaining in close custody as hostages a number of men, fairly taken in arms and entitled to the benefit of a solemn capitulation is so repugnant to the laws of war and the usages of civilized nations that we apprehend it will rather be the means of increasing its horrors, than answering those of humanity you expect.


  1. My ancestor Gabriel Phillips was a Charleston Bay prisoner and i have an account of his travails which i can send you. Do you know of a list where i might find more about his time as a prisoner?

    1. My ancestor was also a prisoner on the ships in Charleston Bay. I wondered if I could read these accounts of your ancestor??

  2. I plan on reading this work to see how it compares to Letters for Catherine, another historical novel set on a Charleston prison ship.