Sunday, February 1, 2009

Edwin G. Burrows' "Forgotten Patriots"

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.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Forgotten Patriots is a lucky hit for squeamish readers. This is a book about the really terrible treatment accorded the roughly 30,000 Americans who became British prisoners during the Revolutionary War—so terrible that perhaps three of every five succumbed to starvation and disease. I’ve worried that the gory details will deter some history buffs. So I’m glad they’ll see this page first, because it describes the relatively comfortable situation of paroled officers on Long Island. It also involves one of the story’s main characters, a 40-year-old Connecticut militia officer named Jabez Fitch, who fell into enemy hands during the disastrous Battle of Brooklyn in August 1776. Fitch kept a diary during his two years as a British captive that is a wonderful source of information, not only about conditions in the prisons and prison ships of occupied New York City, but also about the courage and resolution of the men who perished in them.

I’d like to add that one of the points I make in Forgotten Patriots is that Americans were deeply shocked by what the British did to their prisoners. They simply could not fathom how honorable men could condone such barbarity, and their anger goes a long way to explaining what kept them fighting for nearly eight years.

But the repercussions extended far beyond Independence. Soon after the war, Amreican diplomats negotiated treaties of amity and commerce with foreign powers that took unprecedented steps to mitigate the evils of war. A pact with Prussia, negotiated in 1785 by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin, included clauses expressly intended “to prevent the destruction of prisoners of war.” It stipulated that in the event of hostilities between the two nations, each would foreswear the use of prison ships and feed their captives the same amount and quality of rations provided their own troops. True, a conflict between the United States and Prussia was unlikely. My point is that this was arguably the first time in modern history that countries at peace with one another had seen the need to establish guidelines for the treatment of POWs, and it was obviously a direct consequence of our own recent experience in the Revolutionary War. Although the Geneva Conventions lay far over the historical horizon, Americans today can take some pride in knowing that we took the first steps down the road.

How we could let ourselves be led so far astray in recent years is another matter.
Read more about Forgotten Patriots at the publisher's website, and visit Edwin G. Burrows' faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue