More Americans died as British prisoners than died in combat

In the freezing rain, on Christmas Eve, 1776, the British prisoner ship “Glasgow,” had a hard time getting through the Long Island Sound partly because of the bad weather, but also because of the frequent stops to bury the American prisoners who kept dying aboard the ship.
Such was one of the stories, 1999 Pulitzer Prize Winner Edwin Burrows recounted in his presentation at the Harding Township Historical Society’s annual meeting on Thursday, Jan. 25.

Burrows talked about New York’s City’s forgotten role as a jailhouse, where more Americans died as British prisoners than died in combat during the American Revolution.

The upstairs of the New Vernon Volunteer Fire Department and Emergency Squad building on Village Road drew more than 50 people to hear Burrows stories

Burrows is a history professor at Brooklyn College, and won the Pulitzer Prize in history for his book, “Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898.” His lecture was on the subject of his current work in progress, “The Prisoners of New York.”

Burrows shared several key problems and one mystery that emerged in the course of his research.

The first problem surrounded the dubious number of prisoners who died at the hands of the British.

After George Washington’s failed invasion of New York City in 1776, British forces based the center of their military operations for North America there. However, Burrows said the British had never truly contemplated what to do with the large number of prisoners in their charge, so they resolved the problem by squeezing them into public and private buildings in the city. There, they often perished of hunger, maltreatment, and disease.

Burrows said the horrendous conditions in the prisons claimed many American lives.

“It was New York, not Valley Forge and Philadelphia where most Americans lost their lives,” during the American Revolution, said Burrows.

The real death toll was never known, as the British were unwilling to recognize Americans as prisoners of war.

Burrows said the second problem was the intention behind the British treatment of American soldiers, whom they called “rebels.”

The harrowing accounts of British cruelty are found in the widely-read narrative of Ethan Allen’s time spent as a British prisoner for three years.

But Burrows said there was no written documented proof that the British wanted to kill Americans. Furthermore, he said that there were extenuating circumstances for the treatment of Americans, as the British were always short on provisions, Red Coats suffered from diseases, and prisoners were never treated well in the 1800s.

The third problem Burrows said, was of memory, namely why the story isn’t known.

“Memory needs anchors,” Burrows said. “Other than St. Paul’s Chapel, the Bowling Green, and the Morris-Jumel Mansion, nothing survived, not a brick. Every remnant of the revolution disappeared from the urban landscape well before the civil war.”

“You can’t bus school children there like you can in Boston and Philadelphia,” he said.

Burrows said the prisoner of war story didn’t just disappear, but was buried by historians and others who said, “we don’t want to talk about this anymore.”

Prominent Patriot

During his research, Burrows said he uncovered a mystery, which shrouded a New Jersey figure, Richard Stockton, who has a rest stop on the turnpike named after him, the Richard Stockton Service Area in Hamilton Township, Mercer County.

Stockton, a prominent patriot and signer of the Declaration of Independence, was also taken as a British prisoner and survived. Yet the mystery concerning the terms under which he was released.

In dealing with the mystery of what happened to Stockton, Burrows challenged the claims of another Pulitzer Prize winning author, David Hackett Fischer. In his book “Washington’s Crossing,” Fischer claims Stockton was a turncoat.

“I think that is probably not correct. The case against Stockton was more ambiguous than Fischer lets on,” Burrows said. “It wasn’t as open and shut.”

Burrows said rumors that Stockton was the only signer to recant and seek a pardon from the British raise a number of questions.

The sources of what happened to Stockton are few and unclear and is mainly a letter written by John Witherspoon, a college friend, fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence, who arguably should have known what happened to Stockton.

But Burrows said the letter doesn’t add up. Burrows said Witherspoon’s letter appears to say that Stockton both took an oath of pardon and was given parole, and if he recanted why would he then return to Princeton to be shamed among his peers instead of staying in New York where most traitors remained? He also argued that British press would have reported it, as they did, about Benedict Arnold.

“Imagine the Benedict Arnold rest stop on the New York State Thruway,” Burrows said.

Before Burrows address, the meeting kicked off with the historical society’s annual business.

Bruce Wild, president of the Historical Society, said it has been a great year for the group.

In addition to the annual antique show and sale at the Tunnis-Ellick’s house and the open houses this past fall, Wild said the society has added evening programs.

Pamela Sharples bid adieu to her role as a treasurer of the historical society,and Wild welcomed two new trustees and long-time Harding residents, Joe Demeter and Mary Scaff.

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