Prisoners of War

prison escapes

As long as there have been wars, there have been prisoners of war. Tom Hay talks about Revolutionary War captives.

Learn more: The Public Gaol


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast, I’m Harmony Hunter, and my guest today is Tom Hay, who is site supervisor for the Capitol, Courthouse, and Gaol complex. Hi, Tom.

Tom Hay: Hi, how are you Harmony?

Harmony: Good, thanks for being with us today.

Tom: My pleasure.

Harmony: Hey, I want to read something to you. I have a quote here from President Obama. This is a speech that he made on the occasion of closing Guantanamo. I want to talk to you about this quote today, because you’re here today to talk to us about 18th-century prisoners of war, so I thought this was fitting.

“Time and again, our values have been our best national security asset – in war and in peace; in times of ease and in eras of upheaval.

Fidelity to our values is the reason why the United States of America grew from a small string of colonies under the writ of an empire to the strongest nation in the world.

It’s the reason why enemy soldiers have surrendered to us in battle, knowing they’d receive better treatment from America’s Armed Forces than from their own government.”

Has it always been that way?

Tom: Yes, I think it has been. I think that we have a proud tradition in the way that we have treated military prisoners of war, sometimes we’ve done it better than we have at other times, but we have.

When you compare, in the American Revolution, the American treatment of the British and Hessians that were captured by our forces to the treatment of our forces who were captured by the British and Hessians, we can see that proud national tradition very clearly.

To be fair to the British, I think we also have to remember that at the beginning of the American Revolution, they did not see us as a separate independent nation. They saw us as traitors, as rebels to the crown. Or in today’s terms, they saw our soldiers as non-state actors, much the same as we might see members of al-Quaeda or the Taliban. They don’t represent a legitimate national authority. That’s how our soldiers were treated.

Now, the way that ideally military prisoners were treated at this time was, they used one system we don’t use now, which is called the parole. The parole was simply where you had them sign a piece of paper where they agreed they would not fight until their names were properly exchanged. So if you captured a colonel, he would sign a piece of paper and then go home and wait until he had been told that his name had been exchanged for a colonel on the opposite side, or sometimes it might be three lieutenants equaling one colonel on the opposite side.

Some exchange would be made, or trade, and he would be free to fight again. That way, nations were excused from the trouble and expense and cost of caring for enemy prisoners of war. That was done to a limited degree during the American Revolution.But if you don’t recognize the validity of the people you’re fighting, you’re not going to recognize the validity of their government. Therefore you’re going to have all sorts of different troubles.

Now, the British: they could not simply keep the Americans under a looser confinement, because they could in fact walk home. So they had to keep them under a more rigorous confinement. The very first time that the British end up with lots of Americans as prisoners happened during the New York campaigns of 1776.

At first they’re putting them into jails, but they quickly come up with way too many prisoners that won’t fit into the jails. So they convert sugarhouses, sugar warehouses into prison camps, and they quickly ran out of space there. So they eventually take rotting old ships, and they put them into Wallabout Bay, which is not even a term that they use in New York Harbor anymore. There, they intentionally grounded these rotting old ships into the mud of the harbor, and they would eventually fill them up with American prisoners of war.

From 1776 until peace was finally declared in 1783, historians estimate that around 12,000 Americans would die as prisoners of war in New York and New York City Harbor. What’s amazing about that is that the British had a shortage of men throughout their Army and their Navy. So throughout this entire time period where these men were quite often beaten, they were underfed, they were not given new clothes to wear as their old clothes rotted off, they were given inadequate blankets. At any time, these men could have volunteered to join a British Loyalist unit, or join the Royal Navy and they would have gotten literally a “get out of jail free” card.

But the fact was is that when they had a choice to save their lives by becoming traitor to their country or take a very real risk of losing their lives, and it’s estimated that up to 75 percent of the prisoners would die in captivity, they refused to do so. It is ironic that in this country, that is an incredible sacrifice of Americans for American independence that is very little-known. That’s why I think it’s important that we talk about it.

Harmony: So that’s how the British treated American prisoners of war. How about Americans and the way that they treated British prisoners of war?

Tom: Well, some British prisoners would, in their time, complain mightily about the way they were treated here in Williamsburg. Henry Hamilton, who was a Lt. Colonel and Lt. Governor of Detroit. He was brought here to Williamsburg, and he complained about the fact that he was kept in the jail closely ironed and that he, as a British gentleman, felt that he was being humiliated by being treated as a common criminal.

So there were individuals who felt that they might have been treated very unfairly, but when you look at the number of British prisoners, very few of them were starved to death, very few were given inadequate clothing or decent accommodations made for their basic health. So they might complain how they were treated, but just the mere fact that they lived to make those complaints means that they were better than the 12,000 who died in New York Harbor held by the British or the estimated 20,000 Americans total who died while they were prisoners of the British.

Harmony: So we don’t see the first Geneva Convention until 1864. Is there a code that’s in existence before that, that governs the way that we’re going to treat these prisoners of war?

Tom: There are loose customs, and that’s where they came up with the idea of the parole. George Washington tried very hard to make accommodations for the Americans who were held, but George Washington was a man of his times. So his first reaction is, he wanted to take care of the gentlemen who were held by the British. So he tried very hard to take care of the officers.

Nearly all the reports that we have were the American commissarial prisoners, and they were reporting how the American officers were being treated while they were being held. That just goes to show you that in the 18th century, the gentlemen were first concerned about the better sorts of people, and the American egalitarianism, where everyone is considered equal and we try very hard to treat people equal, would be a development of a later day.

Harmony: So it sounds like whether you’re treating them well, or whether you’re treating them poorly, prisoners are a strain on an army. What is the strategic value of taking prisoners?

Tom: Well, first of all, the strategic value is, if you’re holding them as prisoners, they can’t fight you: number one. Number two, trained soldiers are far more valuable than recent recruits who are somewhat untrained. So there is a premium on veterans, which is one of the reasons why the British were not quick to exchange with the Americans. So that’s one advantage.

The other advantage is, as the Americans discovered, they just might decide not to be British anymore, but become Americans. We had a frontier, and everyone knew that once the war was over, that there would be free land. So, denying their use to the enemy as soldiers, and in our case, getting new citizens of a new republic I think were primary advantages.

Harmony: What does the treatment of prisoners, from this country’s very first war to the one we’re in today, in what ways did it test our American character, and in what ways does it continue to show us our core values?

Tom: Well, we have had challenges in the past. For instance, during the American Civil War, the troubles, the way that some Northern prisoners were being treated, like at Andersonville, a Confederate prison camp where Union troops were held. When you read those stories, that’s truly horrifying.

During WWI and WWII, I think that we ended up being far better on both sides in the way that prisoners were treated, but again, that was a time of clearer choices.

During the Viet Nam war, we were very aware of what was going on with the treatment of our men being held by the North Vietnamese. I think that the stories that we hear from people like Senator John McCain gives us a lot of food for thought in that treatment. Then of course recently – what do we do with non-state actors, people who are not soldiers of a legitimate country – terrorists from al-Quaeda or the Taliban. They don’t consider them terrorists, we do, where do we keep them, what do we do?

There are a lot of questions there, and obviously it’s part of a serious national debate, and I think that many of our fellow citizens were uncomfortable with the idea, but perhaps saw the necessity to it. I don’t have an answer there, because this country is filled with very intelligent people who are trying to determine what to do.

But the quote from President Obama that you quoted earlier, shows that we do believe that we have an obligation to set a moral standard for the world. We constantly try to do that. I think the mere fact that we are having that debate as to how we ought to treat those people, shows our recognition of that national obligation.

Harmony: Great, thank you for being with us today, Tom.

Tom: My pleasure.

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