Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War

Edwin G. Burrows, Basic Books, 384 pp., $27.50

After their victories at Brooklyn and Fort Washington in 1776, the British were “perplexed” about how to house their prisoners. They ended up stashing them wherever they could around New York City—in public buildings, old sugar refineries, even churches. Worst of all were the prison ships—decaying wooden hulks, stripped of masts and fittings, and beached near shore with captives jammed below decks. Prisoners lived in miserable, crowded conditions, half-starved, tormented by vermin, forced to lie in their own filth and often under the control of contemptuous, sadistic brutes. Estimates of how many died in New York by the Revolution’s end range above 11,000, but no one will ever know for sure.

The brutal treatment was less a matter of policy than a by-product of the contempt the British felt for the lowly colonists. Since they also carefully avoided treating the rebellious colonies as a sovereign state, this made prisoner exchanges difficult to impossible. The results were a living hell for the Americans. “Unprotected by international agreements or by the code of honor that regulated the conduct of officers and gentlemen,” Pulitzer winner Edwin Burrows writes, “they were at the complete mercy of their enraged captors.”

One of the few heroes in Burrows’ story is Elias Boudinot, George Washington’s commissary general for the prisoners. Washington wanted a “‘shrewd sensible man’ for the job,” Burrows writes. “The man he got was a saint.” Indeed. Boudinot used his own funds to provide desperate prisoners with clothing and blankets. But they would all be quickly forgotten, even though postwar Brooklynites stumbled across the bones of prison ship victims, their “skulls lying about as thick as pumpkins in an autumn cornfield.” Buttressed by captives’ accounts, Burrows’ groundbreaking tale is often gripping but ultimately dispiriting—especially in light of more recent history. “I have refrained from drawing parallels to contemporary events,” he writes, “but I will not be sorry if readers find themselves thinking about Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay.” Forgotten Patriots reminds us that our age holds no monopoly on inhumanity.


Originally published in the February 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.