Telling the story of our forgotten patriots

Created date

July 13th, 2009

It was on the worn pages of Thomas Wertenbaker s Father Knickerbocker Rebels that Edwin Burrows first encountered mention of American prisoners during the Revolutionary War. The obscure volume, published in 1948, offered only a sparsely detailed account of British prison ships anchored around New York City, just enough to pique Burrows interest. He went in search of more books on the subject but couldn t find a single contemporary work devoted to telling the story of the prison ships, land prisons, or the prisoners themselves. It appeared that an entire chapter in one of the most important events in American history was gone from the popular consciousness, leaving a disturbing gap that Burrows closes with his latest book, Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War (Basic Books, 2008). I wasn t sure how much I would be able to find when I started looking for material back in the early 2000s, so I originally planned on doing a relatively short book that told what I think is a great story, says Burrows, who coauthored the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. It wasn t until I started discovering more sources that I understood the story s true scale, which made it even more amazing that this topic hadn t been on anybody s radar for two centuries. Life as a Revolutionary prisoner For the next several years, he scoured databases, archives, and the manuscript collections of state and local historical societies in search of anything that might effectively convey life in one of the British Army s prisons. During this time, Burrows uncovered thousands of Revolutionary War pension applications, dozens of newspapers, and letters and diaries from prisoners and relatives. Woven together, these individual snapshots are cinematic in detail, underscoring the perils that accompanied the War for Independence as well as the risks and sacrifices of those who waged it. The story focuses on New York City where the British established their primary base of operation and had the highest concentration of prisons in the colonies. It was here that they imprisoned some 30,000 Americans over the war s seven-year duration and, as Burrows reminds the reader, in a time when there were no laws governing the treatment of captive soldiers. In these facilities, which ranged from converted war ships to a five-story sugar refinery called the Old Sugar House, American prisoners often fell victim to squalid living conditions and the capricious abuses of British guards. John Fell, who spent a year in the infamous Provost jail, kept an almost daily record of brutal whippings, rancid food, and cramped conditions with sometimes as many as 20 men in one small room. John Fell s account is one of those little gems that laid hidden away in a box of papers at the Brooklyn Historical Society, Burrows says. He kept this diary in a tiny bound book, no bigger than a three-by-five note card. It really puts you in the moment when he talks about having no blankets in the winter and suffocating in the summer heat. Details like these and the 18,000 American prisoners who died because of them beg an important question that Forgotten Patriots seeks to answer. How could atrocities of this magnitude in a war of such importance go neglected for so long? Overshadowed by later conflict Burrows assigns some responsibility to later conflicts like the Civil War, the unprecedented scale of which helped to drive some aspects of the Revolution from the pages of history books. With barely a handful of survivors still living in the mid-19th century, it could also be that the story simply faded with the generation that experienced it. Most importantly, though, Burrows suggests that the story s disappearance may have been more a consequence of selective scholarship and international relations than it was a victim of historical amnesia. Historians, in the late 1890s and early 1900s, became very nervous about raking up a story that might in some way prejudice the emerging Anglo-American friendship, he explains. I found it very striking how many of these scholars would simply say, That was then, and this is now. It s an old story, so there s no point in talking about it. But the past, even when it s ugly, is nonetheless a part of history, a fact that underpins the foundation of this book. In some ways, this 200-year-old story still has its application today, especially in the wake of the Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib controversies. As Burrows puts it, it was during the Revolution that our own experience with prisoner abuse led us to believe that we are supposed to do better.