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Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War Kindle Edition
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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.
While I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about our colonial American history I actually was surprised by the extent of the POW's suffering along with the notable persons who were captured and held under some really horrific conditions.
This book may not be the most academic and there will always be someone who doesn't agree with the statistics or an analysis and has to quibble over them. The book isn't a bad read and it does tell a nearly forgotten chapter/cost of the American Revolution (and most wars in general) that will always need to be highlighted.
It's safe to say that any study of the American revolution that doesn't include aspects of the material in this book or another (if one exists) book that covers this material is an incomplete study.
Burrows relies much more on reasoned discussion to cull through the lore, pointing out what could not, and what must, be true. He also supplies much-appreciated background discussion of relevant issues, when such wouldn't necessarily be otherwise understood by a general audience.
Considering that the prisoner issue was such a large portion of the total American sacrifice, it's a wonder that the issue has been left on the back burner for so long. As a descendant of a Continental officer who spent most of the war as a paroled POW on Long Island, it's an issue of particular interest for me.
I'll point out one fault: I believe that the Continental Army's failure to exchange its captured officers was less attributable to the reasons suggested by Burrows, and more to do with a problem universal to wars of all time -- a tendency to blame the vanquished. The few officers captured at Ft Washington (for example) who were quickly released or exchanged, largely found themselves frozen out of further assignments in the Continental Army. I believe the many who languished for years as POWs, did so as scapegoats for the defeats they suffered. I would have welcomed a discussion of this issue by Burrows.