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Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War Hardcover – November 11, 2008

4.5 out of 5 stars 28 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


Washington Post Book World
“[A] pathbreaking examination of the treatment of American prisoners during the Revolutionary War… Burrows's book is a landmark whose significance far outweighs recent, popular biographies of the Founding Fathers. His sparkling prose, meticulous research and surprising findings recast our understanding of how the new nation was brought forth… Burrows masterfully explores a subject that had been left nearly untouched for more than two centuries.”

Seattle Times
“[Burrows] offers riveting accounts of what prison life was like in New York…It is as if, more than 200 years later, fitting tribute has finally been paid.”

About the Author

Edwin G. Burrows is Distinguished Professor of History at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. He is the co-author of Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, which won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for History, and has received awards also from the Municipal Art Society, the St. Nicholas Society, and the New York Society Library, among others. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani named him a “Centennial Historian of New York.” For the past five years Burrows has been a Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians, and he serves on the board of the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum in Manhattan. He lives in Northport, New York.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; First Edition edition (November 11, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465008356
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465008353
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 0.9 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #669,152 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By David M. Dougherty VINE VOICE on November 27, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a book displaying the best in American historical scholarship! Frankly I have been put off lately by political tomes revising American history to support some agenda -- usually Marxist -- and "proving" that the United States is not the shining light among nations that so many of us believe it is. Yes, our history is studded with evil acts and misguided policies, but eventually the will of a free and democratic people re-asserts itself time and time again in the face of specious propaganda, feckless politicians, and unbridled greed. But I digress.... (I read another book touted by Eric Foner this week.)

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.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Edwin G. Burrows "Forgotten Patriots" is an informative, sobering and, at many times, harrowing account of American revolutionaries (mostly military and sometimes non-military) who suffered unspeakable cruelties and miseries aboard the prison ships and make-shift hell-hole gaols in British occupied New York. Professor Burrows is to be credited for not only bringing (back) to light this history of inhumanity, but for also doing it in a well-documented and accessible manner.

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.
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I'm only aware of one other book that's treated the issue of Patriot POWs -- "American Prisoners of the Revolution" by Danske Dandridge (1910). Dandridge's book is fine for a general audience, but it's somewhat sensationalistic and spends much time transcribing and summarizing primary narrative without adding critical analysis. A number of specific assertions have been disproven by later scholarship.

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.
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