After the defeat of Gen. Gates, our sufferings commenced. The British appeared to have adopted a different mode of conduct towards their prisoners, and proceeded from one step to another, until they fully displayed themselves, void of faith, honor or humanity, and capable of the most savage acts of barbarity.
The unhappy men who belonged to the militia, and were taken prisoners on Gen. Gates' defeat, experienced the first effects of the cruelty of their new system.
These men were confined on board of prison ships, in numbers by no means proportioned to the size of the vessels, immediately after a march of one hundred and twenty miles, in the most sickly season of this unhealthy climate.
These vessels were in general infected with the small pox; very few of the prisoners had gone through that disorder. A representation was made to the British Commandant of their situation, and
The Continental troops, by the articles of capitulation, were to be detained prisoners in some place contiguous to Charlestown; the barracks were pitched on as the proper place; this was agreed to by both parties. . . . The British, in violation of their solemn compact, put these people on board of prison ships . . . . Confined in large numbers on board of these vessels, and fed on salt provisions in this climate in the months of October and November, they naturally generated a putrid fever from the human miasma. This soon became highly contagious. The sick brought into the general hospital from the prison-ships, generally died in the course of two or three days, with all the marks of a septic state.
Application was made to Mr. de Rosettee, the British commissary of prisoners; the vast increase of the numbers of deaths was pointed out, and he was requested to have proper steps taken to check the progress of a disorder that threatened to destroy the whole of the prisoners.
In consequence of this application, Mr. Fisher, our commissary of prisoners, and Mr. Fraser, who formerly practised physic in this country, but then acted as a British deputy commissary, were ordered to inspect the state of the prisoners in the vessels. This report confirmed the truth of what had been advanced . . . this can be proved by a very particular circumstance . . . My hopes were very sanguine that something would be done for the relief of those unhappy persons, but they were entirely frustrated by a person
I then determined to make one more effort for the relief of these unhappy persons . . . for this purpose I had two of the dead bodies kept in the area of the hospital, and, upon Dr. Hays daily visit to our hospital, I marked to him the appearance of the subjects, whose bodies were highly tinged with a yellow suffusion, petechied over the breast and trunk, with considerable ecchymosis from extravasated or dissolved blood about the neck, breast and upper extremities. I inquired if it was possible a doubt could remain respecting the nature of their disorder, and expressed my surprise at the report he had made. The words of his reply were ‘that the confinement ‘of the prisoners in prison-ships was the great eye-sore, and there ‘was no help for that, it must be done.’ The disorder in consequence continued until the cold weather; the number of deaths, joined with the number that were compelled by this treatment to enlist with the British, removed in a great measure the cause. Hitherto a number of our prisoners who were tradesmen had been permitted to remain in the barracks, or in the city, where they were employed by the British . . . about the month of January, 1781, they were all confined to the barracks, and there British emissaries were very busy amongst them, to persuade them to enlist in their new corps. About the same time a supply of clothing, and some money to procure necessaries, arrived from the Congress for the use of the prisoners.
Mr. Fisher, our commissary, was prevented from distributing the clothing, and the prisoners were informed it was a deception, for no supplies had arrived for their use. Their motive was, that by the complicated distress of nakedness and imprisonment, their patience would be exhausted, and enlistment with them would then ensue.
To prevent this, means were found to have several bales of the
Disappointed from this quarter, the British commandant or his ministers determined to observe no measures but what would accomplish their own purposes. All the soldiers in the barracks, including the convalescents, were paraded, and harangued by Fraser, the British deputy commissary, and one Low, a recruiting officer for one of the British corps. The conclusion of the affair was, that such as chose to enlist with the British should leave the ranks, and the remainder go on board the prison-ships. A few who had been previously engaged withdrew from the ranks; the large majority that stood firm, after three different solicitations without effect, had this dreadful sentence pronounced by Fraser, ‘that they should be ‘put on board 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, that they must starve in the streets.’ Human nature recoiled from so horrid a declaration . . . for a few seconds the unhappy victims seemed stupified at the dreadful prospect; a gloomy and universal silence prevailed . . . This was followed by a loud huzza for Gen. Washington; death and the prison-ships was the unanimous determination.
The hospital at this time was reduced to the greatest distress imaginable . . . the sick without clothing, covering, or any thing necessary but one pound of beef and bread . . . very little sugar, no wine, and rarely a small allowance of rum.
We had no resources, and the British would only furnish 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 I remember for three days.
It was scarcely possible for men to support such an accumulated load of misery, but when least expected, a relief was administered to us. A subscription for the support of the sick was filled by the people of every denomination with amazing rapidity. Several of the ladies of Charlestown, laying aside the distinction of Whig and Tory, were instrumental and assiduous in procuring and preparing every necessary of clothing and proper nourishment for our poor worn out and desponding soldiers.
Thus, Sir, I have furnished you with some of the most material occurrences of that unhappy time. I have not exaggerated or written a single circumstance from hatred or prejudice. I could furnish you with a long detail of cruelty and distress exercised on individuals . . . . Major Broquet's case, exposed in an open boat for twelve hours in a violent fever, with a blistering plaster on his back, extended at length in the bottom of the boat, then put into the dungeon of the provost with the vilest felons and murderers, left to languish under his complaint until his death seemed mortally certain, only released from his confinement from the dread of a just retaliation . . . . the moment his recovery seemed probable, again hurried back to the provost, there to remain until a general exchange released him from their power.