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Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War Kindle Edition
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Author Burrows deserves the highest praise for this book. Most often the Revolutionary War is dismissed as one with relatively few casualties since the "official" killed in action number is only 4,435, a number that woefully understates the sacrifice in the war. Burrows gives 6,824 based on recent scholarship, but that number still misses the some forty percent of the wounded that later died from their wounds. The official number for wounded is 6,188, but since the wounded to killed ratio was likely around five to one, the wounded was more likely 20,000 of whom probably 8,000 died of their wounds and were permanently lost to the Continental Army and patriot cause.
The author estimates that up to 32,000 American prisoners were held around New York at some point during the war of which up to 18,000 died in captivity. But those released or exchanged were greatly enfeebled and often died within a few months after release. Combining these estimates with those deaths in captivity elsewhere by the British and adding the deaths from sickness while in service estimated at 10,000, and one arrives at deaths from all causes to be over 40,000. Out of a white male population over sixteen estimated at 551,000 of which somewhat more than a third were patriots (say 200,000), then approximately one in five patriots gave his life for his country. Wow, and double wow!
If those numbers seem high, then read Burrow's book. In any case, rebellion was truly a serious business. Most of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were improverished or worse as a result of their actions and the war, and the ordinary patriots also paid a very high price for independence. (I need not even think about the willingness of Americans today to make such sacrifices.) In my Great-great-great-grandfather's company that went with Arnold to Quebec in 1775, only 37% returned, and some of those were enfeebled for life (notably John Joseph Henry.)
Getting into the meat of the author's work, he focuses on the imprisonment of thousands of patriots in and around New York City, in the Sugar House on Manhattan, and in the prison hulks of the Royal Navy. He makes supurb use of contemporaneous sources and accounts, mostly highly credible and descriptive. These accounts have been submerged on purpose by politicians who sought a rapprochement with Great Britain and academic historians attempting to downplay the revolution and the sacrifice of patriots lest such knowledge enhance patriotism in a population they wish to move into a global community governed in a large part by foreigners and foreign interests.
Author Burrows makes use of many ancedotal accounts to illustrate the horrors of British captivity. The activities of David Sproat as commissary for naval prisoners comes in for particular condemnation, and although he favored treating prisoners especially brutally, most of the deaths under his watch were due to simple indifference to their plight. He did not even ease up on the prisoners after Yorktown.
The patriot efforts to bring relief to the captives were ineffective, too little and too late. In 1782, long after Yorktown, the British captured 57 men from the American privateer, "The Chance", and within weeks, "seventeen lay dead and three others were dying..." Of the twenty-five eventually released, one died immediately, and three others could not walk unaided. Even for the survivors, they faced a long and uncertain path to normalcy.
There is so much good in this book that I could write volumes just to make sure that everyone knows what seminal accounts are there. The author even refutes "Cunningham's Confession", proves the best rations the captives were alloted would reduce them to skeletons over time, and discusses events in the 20th century to downplay this story for political purposes. One is struck by the comparison between the Jersey or Good Hope and Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay. Our wartime prisons today are accommodations in the Ritz Carleton in comparison with those experienced in the Revolutionary War yet ignite storms of protests and anti-American feeling. Obviously, we have short memories. They are jolted extremely well by author Burrows, and New York City should be ashamed of itself for forgetting its history.
Purchase and read this book!
One reviewer called this book "path-breaking". I think "heart-breaking" is more like it. Like some others who have reviewed this book, I was also aware of this event but I had never realized the magnitude, duration and horror of it. And while the bulk of the text focuses on the abuse suffered by these patriots, the book takes great pains to discuss the denials, accusations, cover-ups, reprisals and repercussions surrounding it. The political wrangling among Congress, George Washington and concerned citizens is infuriating, as one reads about their bickering while their fellow countrymen died by the dozens weekly. And if they weren't dying, they were tortured by disease, madness, starvation and beatings.
Another terrifying aspect of the event is its almost inevitability. How were the British to treat American captives? As Burrows explains, Great Britain couldn't treat them as prisoners-of-war; that would acknowledge the United States' sovereignty. Instead, they were treated as "D--n rebels" and traitors, and the British administered the cruel punishments and neglect that was usually reserved for the most hated of criminals and enemies. The other contributor to this inevitability was the frothy, rabid anti-American sentiment among the British during the years leading up to the war. This frenzied hatred was carried across the Atlantic before many Englishmen laid eyes on an American.
Finally, the book discusses the often frustrated attempts of New Yorkers to respect the memory of these patriots in the years after the war. For decades, and then over a century, plans to erect a suitable monument were contested, blocked, and hog-tied by petty local and, sometimes, national considerations. The ambivalent attitudes that the City and the Nation held towards Great Britain shifted constantly. This not only affected the plans for a memorial but actually created a rewrite of history and history books, to the point where the deaths of over 10,000 prisoners-of-war was "determined" to be exaggerated or understandable or brought about by the prisoners themselves. The perceptions were so distorted that there was even doubt the deaths even happened, in spite of the bones that continually washed up on the shores of Brooklyn.
When it came to the calculus involved in determining the number of casualties, well... in all honesty, the numbers-crunching was an unnecessarily long distraction: something that could have been relegated to an appendix. It gave me a headache. (Then again, math was never one of my strengths. So maybe it's just me.) However, this should not detract from all of the positives of the book.
However my real issue is personal- I wanted a more comprehensive look at the POW issue. I realize that most of the POWs were in NY but this book really ONLY covers NY. It mentions the POW issue elsewhere but doesn't really cover them in any detail. Also, For a 250 pg book the final 2 chapters are on the historiography of POWs not about the actual POWs themselves.
His source criticism is great and as I said it was very readable. It was maybe a bit to narrative and anecdotal for my tastes. When I first read on a new aspect of the Revolution I just want a nice dry tome giving me all the facts in detail. I know that puts me in the minority.
Forgotten Patriots is not a mass market, popular history book and certainly not hard academic text. I'd call it an accessible almost scholarly narrative.
The last line was terrible and annoying and almost undid the prior 247 pgs. It was like what they tell you to do in a grammar school essay: relate your topic to the present. That alone is enough to cost in ½ star in my book. Combined with the narrative feature and scant coverage of non-NY POWs is what keeps this book from rising to the level of a being a 4-5 star book.