Virginia and Prisoners of War in the American Revolution

Convention Army prisoners built shelters at Charlottesville in early 1779, similar to winter camps built by George Washington's army at Valley Forge
Convention Army prisoners built shelters at Charlottesville in early 1779, similar to winter camps built by George Washington's army at Valley Forge
Source: National Park Service, What Happened at Valley Forge

During the American Revolution, the rebelling Patriots captured their first large batch of British soldiers when attacking forts outside Montreal in 1775. Before the Peace of Paris was signed in 1783, 13,000 British and German auxiliaries would be captured.

Those first prisoners were sent from Canada to Pennsylvania. Farmers near Lancaster, York, Carlisle, and Reading had to adjust to having large numbers of captives in their area for the next eight years.1

Virginians seized Cahokia, Vincennes and Kaskaskia in the Illinois Country in 1778. The residents were supportive of the Americans and the British had withdrawn their forces, so the victories created no "prisoners." Instead, inhabitants chose to take an oath of allegiance provided by George Rogers Clark.

The British reoccupied Vincennes in 1778. Clark recruited French militia from Kaskaskia plus Virginia militia, and Fort Sackville at Vincennes was surrounded. Two French-Canadians and four Native Americans were captured outside the fort. The French were released, but the four Native Americas were executed with tomahawks in full view of the people inside the fort the night before the British surrendered.

When Lt. Gov. Henry Hamilton surrendered the fort, the French-Canadians who were supporting him were paroled. Hamilton and the other British officers, plus 18 privates, were marched 1,200 miles to Williamsburg. Hamilton was incarcerated in the colony's jail (now recreated by Colonial Williamsburg) and later in Chesterfield County. He was treated as a common criminal rather than as a prisoner of war, accused of being a "hair buyer" who had encouraged Native Americans to scalp Americans on the frontier.2

Governor Thomas Jefferson resisted requests from George Washington to treat Hamilton and two other British officers as prisoners of war, rather than as common criminals. A special board convened to assess the situation:3

...resolved to advise the Governor that the said Henry Hamilton, Philip Dejean, and William Lamothe, prisoners of war to be put into irons, confined in the dungeon of the publick jail, debared the use of pen, ink, and paper, and excluded all converse except with their keeper.

Hamilton was ultimately exchanged, in a deal pushed by George Washington but opposed by Governor Thomas Jefferson.

During the American Revolution, the Continental Army and Virginia militia captured British soldiers, German Auxiliary Troops, and Loyalists. Loyalists were treated more harshly than organized troops; not all were made prisoners. Virginians who fought in South Carolina at the 1780 Battle of Kings Mountain brought home no prisoners from the Tories who fought with Major Patrick Ferguson. They remembered the killing of those in the 3rd Virginia who had surrendered at the Battle of Waxhaws to Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton's militia earlier in 1780, and applied "Tarleton's quarter" to the Tories.

In contrast, General Nathanael Greene had the uniformed British troops captured at the Battle of Cowpens in January, 1781 marched to Winchester.4

British and German officers and enlisted men typically were marched from battlefields to prisoner of war camps, and kept there until exchanged. The most-southern American prisoner of war camps were located in Northern Virginia, which was the closest part of the state to the main theater of war until 1780.

Because the British had full control of the sea, prisoner of war camps were placed far from the head of navigation, the Fall Line. That reduced the risk of British ships bringing a raiding force upstream in order to recapture prisoners. As British troops moved into Virginia in 1780, prisoners were relocated to Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Prisoner of war camps were located in regions with many farms. That facilitated gathering supplies, particularly food. At the time of the American Revolution, warring nations were responsible for providing supplies for their prisoners. Where access was limited, British officials were supposed to pay for the support food, clothing, and other supplies provided to the prisoners by the Americans. Similarly, Americans were supposed to pay for support provided to their troops in British prisons.

Not all of the German troops were "Hessians." Six different principalities in what today is Germany provided troops to Great Britain. The German rulers who contracted with King George III to provide troops were:
Charles I, Duke of Braunschweig-Wolfenb├╝ttel
Frederick Augustus, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst
Frederick, Prince of Waldeck
Frederick II, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel
William, Count of Hesse-Hanau
Charles Alexander, Margrave of Anspach-Bayreuth

During the American Revolution, 1,200 German auxiliaries died in battle and over 6,000 died from disease. At the end of the war, 17,000 returned to Germany, but 5,000 chose to stay in North America.5

The American victory at Trenton on December 26, 1776 resulted in 1,000 captive German auxiliaries. Most were taken to Lancaster, but roughly 26 officers and an equal number of their servants were taken to Virginia's first prisoner of war camp at Dumfries. George Washington was unsuccessful in efforts to exchange five of the officers for Maj. Gen. Charles Lee. The British agreed only to informal exchange cartels, resisting recognition of the Continental Congress as a legitimate government, until 1782.

They were marched there in January, 1777. General Howe sailed up the Chesapeake Bay and unloaded his army at Elkton, Maryland in August, 1777, increasing the risk that the British might launch a raid to recapture the German officers and soldiers at Dumfries. The prisoners were marched to Winchester, 60 miles further inland and on the other side of the Blue Ridge.6

officers of German auxiliary regiments were brought to Dumfries in 1777, and were initially kept in a camp on Powell's Creek before finding housing in town
officers of German auxiliary regiments were brought to Dumfries in 1777, and were initially kept in a camp on Powell's Creek before finding housing in town
Source: Historic Prince William, Eugene M. Scheel Historical Map

The 2,139 British, 2,022 Germans, and 830 Canadians who General John Burgoyne surrendered at the Battle of Saratoga in October, 1777 were not supposed to end up imprisoned in Charlottesville. The terms of surrender for the "Convention Army" included shipment to Britain, but the Confederation Congress voided the deal. Those soldiers were, over the next five and a half years, force to march 1,100 miles. Roughly 85% of Gen. John Burgoyne's army died from disease and starvation, or deserted and started a new life in America.

Starting in November 1778, the Convention Army captives were marched 700 miles south. They moved in six divsions, three British and three German, marching one day behind each other. When the prisoners were crossing th Huddson River in Dcember 1778, General Sir Henry Clinton sought to intercept and rescue the Convention Army. His ships sailed up the Hudson River too late, however.

On the march, 299 British and 280 German troops escaped into the countryside. During the year spent in Masssachusetts, 1,368 in the Convention Army had deserted. Some intentionallly joined the American army in order to get close to British lines, so they could desert a second time.7

The Convention Army prisoners crossed the Potomac River and reached Loudon County at the end of 1778. Their route in Virginia between Loudoun County to Charlottesville between January 2-January 14 passed through Leesburg, Prince William County, Warrenton, Culpeper County, and Orange Court House.

At Charlottesville, the prisoners were forced to build their own shelters, on what today is Barracks Road. In October, 1780, British forces led by Major General Alexander Leslie occupied Hampton Roads. The British captives in the Albemarle Barracks near Charlottesville were marched to Winchester.

the Convention Army captured in 1777 ended up being imprisoned at Charlottesville
the Convention Army captured in 1777 ended up being imprisoned at Charlottesville
Source: University of Michigan, William L. Clements Library,
Plan of part of the province of Virginia

They were moved again in February, 1781, to Frederick, Maryland. Most were moved in June to Reading, Pennsylvania. Some were still in Frederick in 1781, when General "Mad Anthony" Wayne marched from Pennsylvania to Virginia to resist the British forces under Lord Cornwallis who were marching through central Virginia.

The British soldiers captured at Cowpens were sent initially to Winchester and then to Pennsylvania, over the objections of Pennsylvania officials. Privates and noncommissioned officers were kept at Camp Security in Pennsylvania. The Germans captured at Cowpens were left in Albemarle County, since they were considered less likely to escape in order to join a British raiding party.8

The American-French victory at Yorktown in October, 1781 required finding places to keep the British and German prisoners. They were marched to Fairfax Court House, where they were divided into two groups. One was sent to Winchester, and the other group to Fort Frederick in Maryland. The Winchester prisoner of war camp was closed in 1782. Those prisoners wre set to Fort Frederick, and then to camps in Pennsylvania.9

The Articles of Capitulation accepted by General Cornwallis specified:10

The soldiers to be kept in Virginia, Maryland, or Pennsylvania, and as much by regiments as possible, and supplied with the same rations of provisions as are allowed to soldiers in the service of America.

The two locations chosen by George Washington were west of the Blue Ridge, safe from a British assault from the sea. Winchester was 240 miles away from Yorktown, and the march to Fort Frederick in Maryland was also a two-week march away.

Among the 3,029 prisoners sent to Winchester were 948 German auxiliaries. There were 696 German auxiliaries among the 2,924 sent to Fort Frederick in Maryland. An additional 1,300 sick and wounded stayed near Yorktown until they recovered enough to go to prison.

Both Winchester and Fort Frederick were in areas with a high percentage of German settlers. Throughout the American Revolution, the American strategy was to encourage the German auxiliaries to defect by having German-speaking prisoners work on farms with German-speaking settlers.11

Not all of those captured at Yorktown were sent to prisoner of war camps. The Articles of Capitulation specified that some German and British officers would accompany the prisoners, so there would be commanders with authority to maintain control over the regiments. There was a surplus of officers, so many were granted parole along with Cornwallis and provided with transportation by a truce ship to New York. The British officers maneuvered to gain parole and freedom rather than imprisonment, and the British prisoners left Yorktown with fewer than the authorized number of British officers.12

The British officers were allowed to retain personal baggage. George Washington promised to provide wagons to carry that baggage for officers going to prisoner of war camps, if wagons were available. However, officers could not retain property that had been seized from Virginians. The owne of a stolen horse discovered Col. Banstre Tarleton was riding it. As recorded in an American officer's diary:13

This afternoon Col. Tarlton was dismounted from his horse by an inhabitant who owned the horse.

Cornwallis was allowed to transport "such soldiers as he may think proper" to New York and Europe without examination by the Americans. This allowed the British to move all the American deserters out of Yorktown safely, while Washington avoided the political difficulties of punishing men who had relatives supporting the American cause in the civil war.14

Some of the men and women who had abandoned enslavement on plantations and joined the British, as Cornwallis marched through Virginia, may also have been shipped out of Virginia in this manner. Cornwallis had expelled about 2,000 of the formerly enslaved people from his camp at Yorktown, trying to conserve supplies. They had been trapped between the lines, or managed to get into nearby woods before the surrender. George Washington ordered them to be rounded up and returned to their masters.15

One American deserter found in the British camp received the severest form of military discipline. The General Orders issued by George Washington on October 28 included:16

George Leadbetter charged with Desertion to and being found in arms with the enemy was tried and found Guilty being a breach of the 6th Section - Article 1st - of the rules and Articles of war - and Sentenced to Suffer Death.
The Commander in Chief approves the Sentence of the Court.

The march from Yorktown started on October 21, 1781. Prisoners reached Winchester on November 5. They crossed the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg on November 1, and the Shenandoah River on November 4.17

After a winter in Winchester, the British troops were transferred to the Frederick, Maryland and then to camps in Pennsylvania. All the German auxiliaries were sent to the "Hessian Barracks" in Frederick, Maryland, at the beginning of 1782, after the British soldiers there were moved to Pennsylvania. The 1,500 Germans were then sent to Pennsylvania.18

The largest number of Virginians to be captured in the Revolutionary War occurred when General Benjamin Lincoln surrendered his Continental Army after the siege of Charleston, South Carolina. Nearly 900 men in the 1st Virginia Brigade and 600 men in the 2nd Virginia Brigade ended up imprisoned in ship within Charleston Harbor. The common soldiers died from poor food and sanitation on the prison ships, while officers were eventually exchanged.

Many of the Americans captured by the British during the American Revolution were transported to New York City and imprisoned in old ships. Conditions were horrible, and 50-70% of those prisoners died. In the Revolutionary War, more Americans died as prisoners of war than in battle.19

Albemarle Barracks

Civil War Prisons

Prisoner of War Camps in Virginia - World War II

Prisons in Virginia

Virginia and Prisoners of War Before the American Revolution

Links

References

1. Ken Miller, "'A Dangerous Set of People': British Captives and the Making of Revolutionary Identity in the Mid-Atlantic Interior," Journal of the Early Republic, Volume 32, Number 4 (Winter 2012), https://www.jstor.org/stable/23315190 (last checked January 18, 2021)
2. Clarence Walworth Alvord, "The Oath of Vincennes," The American Catholic Historical Researches - New Series, Volume 7, Number 4 (October, 1911), https://www.jstor.org/stable/44374979; "The Battle of Vincennes," RevolutionaryWar.us, https://revolutionarywar.us/year-1779/battle-of-vincennes/; "A Prisoner of War, March 8 to June 16, 1779," in John D. Barnhart (editor), Henry Hamilton and George Rogers Clark in the American Revolution with The Unpublished Journal of Lieut. Gov. Henry Hamilton, 1951, https://www.in.gov/history/3008.htm; "Henry Hamilton," Dictionary of Canadian Biography, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/hamilton_henry_4E.html; "Jefferson Ignored 'Hair Buyer' Sir Henry," Daily Press, February 16, 1992, https://www.dailypress.com/news/dp-xpm-19920216-1992-02-16-9202170126-story.html; "George Rogers Clark Memoir," Indiana Historical Bureau, https://www.in.gov/history/2426.htm (last checked January 16, 2021)
3. James H. O'Donnell, III, "'National Retaliation': Thomas Jefferson's Brief for the Imprisonment of Henry Hamilton," Selected Papers from the 1985 and 1986 George Rogers Clark Trans-Appalachian Frontier History Conferences, National Park Service, 1988, http://npshistory.com/series/symposia/george_rogers_clark/1985-1986/sec6.htm (last checked January 16, 2021)
4. "Cowpens National Battlefield," National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/cowp/learn/historyculture/the-battle-of-cowpens.htm; "The Battle of King's Mountain," RevolutionaryWar.us, https://revolutionarywar.us/year-1780/battle-kings-mountain/; "British Colonel Tarleton gives 'quarter' in South Carolina," History Channel, https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/tarleton-gives-quarter-in-south-carolina (last checked January 16, 2021)
5. "Finding Aid on Prisoners of War," David Library of the American Revolution, p.33, https://www.amphilsoc.org/sites/default/files/2020-01/attachments/Prisoners%20of%20War.pdf; "Why were they all called Hessians," Amrev-Hessian Mailing List Website, http://freepages.rootsweb.com/~amrevhessians/military/why.htm; "The Ansbach-Bayreuth Army in America," Exulanten, http://www.exulanten.com/delta.html; "Hessian Soldiers in Lovettsville," Lovettsville Historical Society and Museum, April 3, 2020, http://www.lovettsvillehistoricalsociety.org/index.php/hessian-soldiers-in-lovettsville/ (last checked January 8, 2021)
6. "Document Traces Hessian War Role," New York Times, April 27, 1986, https://www.nytimes.com/1986/04/27/nyregion/document-traces-hessian-war-role.html; "Finding Aid on Prisoners of War," David Library of the American Revolution, p.419, https://www.amphilsoc.org/sites/default/files/2020-01/attachments/Prisoners%20of%20War.pdf; "What Happened to the Captured Hessians?," Washington Crossing Historic Park, January 29, 2020, https://www.washingtoncrossingpark.org/captured-hessians/; Marie Rasnick Fetzer, "The Hessian Barracks at Winchester, Virginia and Frederick, Maryland," 2009, p.7, https://rasnickfamily.org/thehessianbarracks.pdf; William M. Welsch, "Trading Generals," Journal of the American Revolution, March 17, 2020, https://allthingsliberty.com/2020/03/trading-generals/; "Prisoners of War," Mount Vernon, Prisoners of War (last checked January 14, 2021)
7. "Sir Henry Clinton Attempts to Save the Convention Army," Journal of the American Revolution, March 26, 2015, https://allthingsliberty.com/2015/03/sir-henry-clinton-attempts-to-save-the-convention-army/; "Gentleman Johnny's Wandering Army," American Heritage, December 1972, https://www.americanheritage.com/gentleman-johnnys-wandering-army (last checked March 10, 2024)
8. "Articles of Capitulation, Yorktown," Mount Vernon, https://www.mountvernon.org/education/primary-sources-2/article/articles-of-capitulation-yorktown/; William Feltman, The Journal of Lieut. William Feltman, of the First Pennsylvania Regiment, 1781-82: Including the March Into Virginia and the Siege of Yorktown, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1853, p.2, https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Journal_of_Lieut_William_Feltman_of/9YEsAAAAMAAJ (last checked October 21, 2021)
9. "Camp Security History," Camp Security, http://www.campsecurity.org/history/; Kelly Mielke, "Captives of Liberty: Prisoners of War and the Politics of Vengeance in the American Revolution," Journal of the American Revolution, December 16, 2020, https://allthingsliberty.com/2020/12/captives-of-liberty-prisoners-of-war-and-the-politics-of-vengeance-in-the-american-revolution/; "Hessian Prisoners in American Hands," Amrev-Hessian Mailing List Website, http://freepages.rootsweb.com/~amrevhessians/military/hpnah.htm (last checked January 8, 2021)
10. "Articles of Capitulation; October 18, 1781," The Avalon Project, Yale Law School, https://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/art_of_cap_1781.asp (last checked November 4, 2023)
11. Marie Rasnick Fetzer, "The Hessian Barracks at Winchester, Virginia and Frederick, Maryland," 2009, https://rasnickfamily.org/thehessianbarracks.pdf (last checked January 14, 2021)
12. "Camp Security History," Camp Security, http://www.campsecurity.org/history/; Kelly Mielke, "Captives of Liberty: Prisoners of War and the Politics of Vengeance in the American Revolution," Journal of the American Revolution, December 16, 2020, https://allthingsliberty.com/2020/12/captives-of-liberty-prisoners-of-war-and-the-politics-of-vengeance-in-the-american-revolution/; "Hessian Prisoners in American Hands," Amrev-Hessian Mailing List Website, http://freepages.rootsweb.com/~amrevhessians/military/hpnah.htm (last checked January 8, 2021)
13. William Feltman, The Journal of Lieut. William Feltman, of the First Pennsylvania Regiment, 1781-82: Including the March Into Virginia and the Siege of Yorktown, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1853, p.24, https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Journal_of_Lieut_William_Feltman_of/9YEsAAAAMAAJ (last checked October 21, 2021)
14. Donald Jackson (editor), "The Diaries of George Washington - Volume III: 1771-75, 1780-81," University of Virginia Press, 1978, p.432, https://lccn.loc.gov/75041365 (last checked October 21, 2021)
15. Gregory J. W. Urwin, "'Abandoned to the Arts & Arms of the Enemy:' Placing the 1781 Virginia Campaign in Its Racial and Political Context," 2014 Harmon Memorial Lecture, p.2, pp.21-22, https://www.usafa.edu/app/uploads/Harmon57.pdf (last checked October 20, 2021) 16. "General Orders, 28 October 1781," Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-07305 (last checked October 21, 2021)
17. Marie Rasnick Fetzer, "The Hessian Barracks at Winchester, Virginia and Frederick, Maryland," 2009, https://rasnickfamily.org/thehessianbarracks.pdf (last checked January 14, 2021)
18. "Camp Security History," Camp Security, http://www.campsecurity.org/history/ (last checked January 14, 2021)
19. "'Turn out your dead!' In America's War for Independence, POWs paid a terrible price," The Washington Post, July 4, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2018/07/03/turn-out-your-dead-in-americas-war-for-independence-pows-paid-a-terrible-price/; "The Siege of Charlestown," Carolana, https://www.carolana.com/SC/Revolution/revolution_siege_of_charleston.html (last checked January 18, 2021)


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