Military history


“My Country I Fear Has Forgot Me”

Tattoos of early American seafarers (Dye, “Tattoos”)

AMERICAN PRIVATEERS had been contributing no small part to the growing American strategy of trying to “make the war an evil” to the British classes that Madison believed most supported it; they had also been contributing mightily to the swelling population of American captives held in British prisons. And that was the trouble in a nutshell.

From the start privateers had been enveloped in a mist of romanticism; the Republicans lauded them as “the militia of the sea” and “our cheapest & best Navy,” and with the way they seemed to roll republican virtue, American entrepreneurialism, and authorized swashbuckling into one, they offered a story no newspaper editor could improve upon. Privateers were nominally subject to naval discipline and the laws of war and acted with the authority of the president—that was what distinguished them from pirates—but other than that were not under the orders of United States authorities and were free to make war on the enemy’s commerce whenever and wherever they saw fit. One of the first acts of Congress upon the declaration of war was to authorize the president to issue commissions to private armed vessels empowering their captains to “subdue, seize and take any armed or unarmed British vessel, public or private,” and hundreds were issued in the first months of the war. (Although the term “privateer” was often used to refer to any private armed vessel, a distinction was usually drawn between privateers in the strict sense, whose only purpose was raiding enemy shipping, and letters of marque, whose major purpose was to carry a cargo, employing their arms to fight their way through or capture any prizes they fortuitously happened upon along the way.) Any shipowner who was prepared to swear that he was an American citizen and produce two “sureties” willing to sign a bond of $5,000 as a pledge that the ship would obey the laws of war was welcome to try his fortune. From Baltimore, Salem, New York, Boston, and other ports large and small, private armed vessels set out to sea, many bearing self-consciously patriotic names or christened after American military figures of renown, past and present. The small seafaring town of Marblehead, north of Boston, supplied 120 men to the American navy but six times that number to the privateers that sailed from the port; in Baltimore some 6,000 seamen made their way onto the 122 privateers and letters of marque that set out from that city in the course of the war. Some were the usual Fell’s Point rough customers, some were seamen from other ports up and down the Chesapeake, but a good many were farm boys with visions of glory and easy money or other romantics or naïfs drawn to the short stints and adventure the job offered. The rapacious recruiting agents who scoured the portside for men to make up the crews were never very particular.1

American privateering vessels were often beautiful to look at, rakish and distinctive: sharp-lined schooners of two hundred or three hundred tons that could be built in a month and a half, almost everything about them designed for speed over safety or comfort; they had towering masts, light planking that offered little protection against enemy fire or even the normal hazards of wind and weather, almost always relying for their main firepower on a Long Tom, an eighteen- or twenty-four-pounder mounted on a pivot amidships, and almost always relying on cramming a crew of 100 or 150 uncomfortably aboard in order to board and man the prizes they hoped to take. To windward and with enough sea room they could escape from any large warship; with their fleetness and their ability to sail two points closer to the wind than a square-rigged vessel, they could haul off in a direction no frigate or ship of the line could follow. Nipping at the flanks of a convoy, they could dash in and grab a merchant vessel under cover of dark or work in pairs, one leading an escorting frigate off on a chase while the other went in for the kill.2

A few of the privateers did spectacularly well marauding off Halifax and the West Indies, and even farther afield. The Yankee out of Bristol, Rhode Island, was the most successful of the war, taking a total of $5 million worth of enemy shipping in its five cruises, crisscrossing the Atlantic as far as Africa and earning its owners and crews $1 million from the sale of the cargoes and vessels it brought back to American ports. The True-Blooded Yankee, an eighteen-gun brig bought by an American in France, sailed out of Brest on March 1, 1813, and in thirty-seven days captured twenty-seven vessels, took 270 prisoners, held an island off the coast of Ireland for six days, briefly occupied a town in Scotland and burned seven vessels in the harbor, and returned to France with twelve thousand pounds of silk, eighteen bales of Turkey carpets, and two thousand swan skins, among her other booty.3

By the end of 1812 American privateers had brought in some 300 prizes, and a year later the total stood at 700. The trouble was that it was coming at a terrible price. Like most gambling ventures, privateering generally did not pay off at all. Of the five hundred commissions issued to private armed vessels throughout the war, more than three hundred never took a prize before returning home or being captured themselves. Privateers took an average of only 2.5 prizes apiece, a third as many as the average American navy ship. And because they most definitely operated on the “pecuniary system,” they did exactly the things that vastly reduced a commerce raider’s effectiveness, as William Jones had pointed out in his orders to American naval commanders: weakening their crews by manning their prizes and risking their recapture by trying to get them into friendly ports rather than burning or sinking them on the spot. Of the 2,500 prizes taken during the war by American warships and privateers, about 400 were burned, most by the U.S. navy; of the remaining 2,100, some 750 were recaptured before they could be brought into American or neutral ports as prizes.

Privateers also had little interest in taking prisoners so often simply released them. In August 1813 Congress authorized a bounty of $25 for each prisoner brought in by privateers and in March 1814 increased it to $100, but still the fact was that American privateers were rapidly shifting the prisoner balance in Britain’s favor because any privateer that kept at it long enough was almost sure to wind up in enemy hands. Of forty-one privateers that sailed from Salem only fifteen remained uncaptured by the end of the war.4

Still, the chance of hitting the jackpot kept owners and men, or at least a certain kind of men, coming. It cost about $40,000 to purchase and fit out a typical privateer schooner and a single lucky prize—like a West Indiaman laden with coffee, sugar, or rum—could clear $100,000, even after deducting a long list of fees and court costs that went to attorneys and prize agents and auctioneers and owners of the wharves and warehouses that stored the captured ships and cargoes while awaiting adjudication. The usual arrangement was that half the spoils went to the owners and the other half was divided among the officers and crew in proportion to their rank: one share for a landsman, two shares for an able-bodied seaman, up to sixteen for the captain.

“Here was an opportunity of making a fortune,” remarked George Little, a merchant sailor who entered on board the small privateer schooner George Washington when he found himself stranded and moneyless in Norfolk soon after the start of the war. “But then it was counterbalanced by the possibility of getting my head knocked off, or a chance of being thrown into prison for two or three years.” On a typical good cruise an able seaman might stand to earn $300 in prize money for three months’ work, three or four times the going wage for an ordinary seaman on a merchant ship. On an exceptionally good cruise he could literally make thousands: a single prize that the Yankee took, the San Jose Indiano, sailing from Liverpool to Rio de Janeiro filled with silks and other valuable cargo, sold for half a million dollars when she was brought into Portland, Maine, bringing the captain $15,789.69 and even the ship’s two black cabin boys, the lowest men on the totem pole, $1,121.88 and $738.19.5

On a bad cruise, the crew—like the owners—got nothing at all, except for a small advance against their shares paid when they signed on, supplemented sometimes by what they had managed to sell their prize tickets for before the cruise. In Baltimore and other privateering ports there was a lively trade in these tickets, issued to the crew and redeemable for their share of the proceeds when the prizes were finally sold. The tickets were bought and sold like commercial paper or stock shares, or more like lottery tickets, and a good many crewmen who signed on to privateers traded away their promise of future winnings for immediate expenses that the recruiting agents and other dockside merchants, and land sharks, were all too happy to provide: lodging, and clothes, and sea chests, and gewgaws, and food and drink, and small outlays of cash.6

A few privateers were fitted out by experienced ex–naval officers, such as Joshua Barney, whose schooner Rossie, sailing from Baltimore in July 1812, was organized along tight man-of-war lines. But even though he took eighteen British ships in ninety days, Barney concluded the business was not worth it after that first cruise grossed only about $68,000 for the owners, and within a week of her return to Baltimore in October the Rossie was auctioned off. To try to improve the financial incentives, William Jones urged a reduction in the duties privateers had to pay on the goods they brought in; the federal duties sometimes absorbed nearly half the proceeds, while hurriedly arranged prize auctions cut into profits as well by driving down prices for vessels and cargoes such as sugar as much as 30 percent below the fair market value. In August 1813 Congress reduced duties on prizes by one-third.7

But the real problem lay on the risk side of the equation. As the British blockade tightened and dangers grew, the business was left more and more to men of a very different stamp from professional navy men like Joshua Barney, or even professional seafarers of the kind who had plied the legitimate trading routes before the war. George Little, warily eying his shipmates aboard the George Washington, concluded that “they appeared to have been scraped together from the lowest dens of wretchedness and vice … loafers, highbinders, butcher boys &c &c” (a highbinder meaning a paid assassin), while the captain seemed “to be fit for little else than fighting and plunder.” Little was stunned when this “band of ruthless desperadoes” proceeded to plunder the personal belongings of the crew of the first prize they boarded, a merchant brig from Jamaica filled with sugar.8

“I had heard much of the picked crews of American privateers,” said Benjamin Browne, similarly surveying the company he found himself among in Boston harbor on the deck of the privateer Grumbler (it was subsequently rechristened with the more seemly name Frolic). They had been recruited by laying out vast quantities of “villainous bad” whiskey, a few dollars’ advance money, “and the free use of that description of rhetoric which the Irish call blarney,” and “such a hatless, shoeless, shirtless, graceless, unwashed, but not unwhipped set of ragamuffins, I believe never before indulged the gregariousness of their natures by congregating together.” Josiah Cobb itemized the crew of the Boston privateer he joined in 1814, as a naive eighteen-year-old dreaming of adventures of the sea, as “Irish, English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, African and American … and many who could hail from no quarter on the globe, but whose destination required no conjuring to ascertain.” Just before sailing, a man who had signed on as gunner’s mate came aboard Cobb’s ship and immediately began to storm and swear, saying he had sent his baggage aboard on a boat that morning and now it was nowhere to be found. Cobb innocently offered to help the man search, and they began shifting casks and boxes, inspecting hammocks, moving vast coils of rope, but after a while he began to notice the grins of the rest of the crew, who began offering facetious suggestions—“You haven’t yet searched the bottom under the ballast”; “Have you looked in the captain’s breeches pockets?”—and then one deadpanned, “Had you a suit in your bag with alternate stripes of blue and drab? Because if you had, you need not despair at your loss, for yonder you can get a match,” pointing toward the state prison in Charlestown, which lay in full view nearby. The man went slack-jawed and slunk away, because that was indeed where he had directly come from: he had just been released from seven years in prison and had no possessions at all, and had carried through the elaborate charade about his missing bags in an unsuccessful if imaginative bid to cover up the fact.9

Privateers’ memoirs and logs brim with accounts of insubordination, fights among the crew, drunkenness, utterly incompetent seamanship, and men assigned stations they had no qualifications whatever to perform. Browne on joining the Frolic was promptly made captain’s clerk, purser, and sergeant of marines and told to drill the other green landsmen in the use of muskets, boarding pikes, and boarding hatchets. Recruiting surgeons to serve on privateers was so difficult that the George Washington’s specimen seemed to have been all too typical of the type who could be enticed aboard; Little described his ship’s doctor as a man “somewhat advanced in years” who had “read physic in a doctor’s office, and listened to some half-dozen lectures in a medical college,” and whose standard prescription for nearly every ailment was a pint of salt water.10

Privateers were subject to the articles of war and naval courts-martial, but discipline was often almost a parody of a man-of-war’s. Even aboard the famously successful Yankee one of the lieutenants kept being found “dead drunk” and asleep throughout his watch. On another occasion the ship’s gunner, “much intoxicated,” blundered into the magazine holding a lit candle and nearly blew the entire ship to kingdom come. When the captain of the Harpy out of Baltimore tried to exercise his men in sail handling, having noted with concern how slow they had been in sending up the fore topgallant yard the day before, “all the crew came on deck in a mutinous spirit and absolutely refused to obey my commands,” the captain recorded. A few weeks later he tried to discipline a crewman for plundering the clothes of passengers from a Portuguese brig they boarded and had the man put in irons on the quarterdeck, where he sat “swearing he did not give a damn about the vessel or anything else,” and when the captain then ordered him gagged if he wouldn’t keep quiet, “several of the crew cried out on the main deck they would be damned if I would gag him.” Every few days the captain’s log contained entries along the lines of “I reasoned the case with them … I found they would listen to no reason whatever.”11

Enforcing discipline aboard hundreds of privateers was a burden William Jones had no interest in adding to the Navy Department’s already overwhelming responsibilities, and when the crew of the privateer General Armstrong returned to Wilmington, North Carolina, in April 1813 with the captain locked below, it was clearly more than the small U.S. navy gunboat detachment in the port or the department in Washington was able to cope with. The captain demanded that sixty-one of the crew be tried not only for mutiny but the even more serious charge of piracy, since they had taken two prizes after seizing control of the ship and therefore, the captain argued, were acting without a valid privateering commission. The prisoners were confined to three gunboats in Wilmington harbor, but the situation began to spiral out of control when a local man rowing by got into an argument with the navy sentries guarding the prisoners, and in the ensuing altercation was shot and killed. In June, Jones ordered the prisoners all released, arguing that the civil courts, not the navy, had jurisdiction over piracy cases and that in any case it was an impossible burden in wartime to detach five commissioned officers to Wilmington to convene a court-martial. The captain bombarded Jones with angry remonstrances; a local jury acquitted the navy officers of murder of the local man; and the General Armstrong’s crew never was tried on any charges, although an almost surreal prize case arising from their captures eventually reached the United States Circuit Court, with the captain appearing as a witness against his own ship’s owners while the chief witness in favor of the claimants was the leader of the ship’s mutinying crew.12

Ill-disciplined crews and incompetent commanders on a number of occasions led to privateers’ blundering directly into enemy hands. The risk of being taken was greatest when running through the blockading squadron, where the shore limited maneuver room and a privateer was likely to find himself outnumbered and surrounded by a vastly superior enemy force, but even on the open ocean American privateers sometimes threw away their considerable sailing advantages through misjudgment and atrocious seamanship. After blundering within musket shot of a British frigate in the fog on December 14, 1812, the captain of the George Washington ignored the advice of all his officers and insisted on running before the wind, with the result that the frigate “overhauled us without any difficulty” and the crew were all taken prisoner, and remained in British captivity until the end of the war. The crew of Josiah Cobb’s privateer sailed within range of three British frigates before the sleepy lookout spotted them; the crew, then deciding that capture was unavoidable, proceeded to calmly and methodically loot their own ship, one man steadily applying himself to stuffing away most of a ham and a large wheel of cheese in the half hour before the schooner surrendered. “I goes always for the solids,” he explained. The next morning the crew were taken aboard their captor, and two of the Americans immediately began fighting with each other on the deck of the British man-of-war over some simmering difference, which prompted one of the British officers to offer aloud a facetious observation: “I will bear witness to their bravery, as I have seen them fight when surrounded by their enemies on all sides.”13

Another American privateer captain, mistaking a British seventy-four for an Indiaman, ran his ship close alongside and hailed the British ship to strike her colors. “I am not in the habit of striking my colors,” the British captain called back, and at the same moment all three tiers of gunports flew open. “Well,” the American captain replied, “if you won’t, I will.”14

FROM THE start, the British authorities in Canada and the West Indies were almost completely unprepared to deal with the flood of prisoners that came pouring in. As early as September 1812 there were already a thousand American prisoners being held on Melville Island in Halifax harbor; the island had a small garrison and fort consisting of a few wooden buildings, and the prisoners were crowded into the largest of them, a barnlike structure two hundred feet long and fifty feet wide. Admiral Sawyer wrote Secretary Croker that he had had to purchase a captured American ship to serve as extra prison space, but even so the situation was miserable, and explosive.

When the crew of the Vixen arrived on the prison hulk Loyalist in Port Royal harbor, Jamaica, in December 1812, it was already full of “a greater variety of living creatures” than Noah’s ark, in the words of one young American who had earlier been taken prisoner from a privateer. It held not only hundreds of captured Americans but a teeming population of rats and enormous and voracious cockroaches and bedbugs that dropped down on the sleeping men at night. “Had the ark contained as much filth as this old hulk,” the prisoner continued, “the dove never would have returned a second time with the testimony of her having found dry land.” When five of the Americans managed to escape in a boat after bribing one of the sentries with a bottle of rum, the guard was swiftly tried by a court-martial and sentenced to a thousand lashes; the last two hundred were put on after he was dead. “Far from my friends, my country, far from thee / A wretched captive sighs for liberty,” wrote the young American months later, despairing of his release.15

Benjamin Waterhouse, a young surgeon on a Salem privateer captured at sea in May 1813, spent his first night in the prison on Melville recoiled in nightmarish distress and shock; many of the prisoners were crawling with lice, the hammocks were slung four high, one above another, between stanchions that ran through the open space like in a cattle barn, and the whole night was filled with the moans and complaints of his fellow prisoners, some sobbing at their fate, others cursing the British, one man reciting over and over what a fool he had been to have been so headstrong and disobey his parents’ wishes and go to sea. A little before dawn Waterhouse finally drifted to sleep only to be awakened almost instantly, it seemed, by the noisy grinding of locks being unbolted and the doors unbarred and the cries of “turn out—all out!” from the guards and the prodding of a bayonet when he groggily did not move fast enough. “But use makes everything easy,” Waterhouse philosophically observed.16

Both sides were carrying on a war of nerves, the British jailers vexed and baffled by the defiance and petty retaliations the American prisoners were constantly practicing upon them. The British agent in charge of the prisoners at Halifax, a Royal Navy lieutenant named William Miller, was bombarded with complaints and demands and itemizations of rights he was violating. The jailers for their part kept up a steady stream of petty and not-so-petty harassment, forcing the prisoners to stand outside for hours on end, even in bitter cold and snowstorms, under the pretext that the barracks were being washed and that it would be injurious to their health to be allowed back in before all was “perfectly dry.” When the Americans sent a delegation to Miller to complain about the putrid beef being served, he erupted in a fury, ordered the prisoners assembled, mounted the staircase on the side of the prison building, and delivered them a harangue for their “impudence”:

You are a mean set of rascals, you beg of an enemy favors which your own government won’t grant you! You complain of ill treatment, when you never fared better in your lives. Had you been in some French prison and fed on horse-beef, you would have some ground of complaint; but here in His Britannic Majesty’s royal prison, you have everything that is right and proper for persons taken fighting against his crown and dignity. There is a surgeon here for you, if you are sick, and physic to take if you are sick, and a hospital to go to into the bargain, and if you die there are boards enough for to make you coffins, and a hundred and fifty acres of land to bury you in; and if you are not satisfied with all this you may die and be damned.

Then he strutted out of the prison yard to a chorus of hisses. The prisoners then took to hurling pieces of rancid beef over the picket fence surrounding the prison yard, which finally caused the quality of the provisions to improve.17 All the British officials who had American prisoners under their charge complained that they were ungovernable. Just days after the crew of the privateer Frolic arrived in Barbados, Benjamin Browne’s jailer told him that their forty men were more trouble than the five hundred French prisoners he had: “A Frenchman settles down at once in a prison, into habits of quiet order, industry, mild gaiety, and respectful submission,… but your men have such a wild, reckless, daring, enterprising character that it would puzzle the devil to keep them in good order.” When a marine sentry struck an American on a prison hulk in Hamilton harbor in Bermuda, the prisoners promptly sent a committee to the British captain “demanding satisfaction” and forcing from him an apology and an order that the guards were not to strike or abuse the prisoners. “This is all the satisfaction we recd,” wrote Benjamin Palmer in his diary, “but should another American be struck Farewell Marines—These d—m Englishmen must not think they have got Frenchmen to deal with.” A prison keeper in Halifax discovered another example of the Americans’ “enterprising character” when a Spanish silver dollar snapped in two in his hand: it turned out that most of the dollars in circulation in the canteen had been manufactured by one of the prisoners.18

By the fall of 1813 there were rumors that all exchanges of prisoners had been halted. Still, Benjamin Waterhouse and his fellow prisoners in Halifax were constantly assured by their jailers that they would soon be on their way home, that cartel ships were arriving any day, and then one day Waterhouse was among a hundred Americans told to get their baggage, and soon he was being rowed out to a British warship in the harbor. Only when they were alongside the ship did they learn the truth: they were on their way not to home but to England. “Had Miller been on the boat with us,” wrote Waterhouse, “we should most certainly have thrown him overboard.”19

The ship was the Regulus, a thirty-year-old frigate that had been converted to a troop ship twenty years earlier. The prisoners were locked down in the dark and airless hold, two carronades loaded with canister and grape were placed on the quarterdeck pointing forward to command the hatchways, and for the entire voyage the Americans were kept on scant rations as part of an apparently deliberate policy to keep them too weak to try to take the ship. All they could think of was food, Waterhouse recalled; hunger followed them into their sleep, when they would dream of lavish meals and heavily laden tables; they had lengthy debates over whether it was better to eat the worms in the half pound of bread they received each day and whether it was more pleasurable to eat it all at once or in small portions throughout the day. The soldiers who had come to Canada in the ship had left behind an army of fleas that added to the torment of their passage.

One of the American prisoners, passing the Regulus’s captain with his mess’s allotment of oatmeal gruel from the galley, finally burst forth with a complaint: “Sir, Sir, but it is fit food only for hogs.” The captain indignantly asked him what part of America he came from to be so particular about his tastes. “Near to Bunker Hill, Sir,” the prisoner shot back, “if you ever heard of that place.”

On arriving in the Medway they were transferred to a prison hulk, the Crown Prince, one of fourteen old demasted ships of the line moored in the river. Some of the ships held as many as nine hundred prisoners at a time. “Casting a glance around,” wrote an American of his arrival belowdecks on the Irresistible, “I found myself amidst a squalid, cadaverous throng of about six hundred, ranging from fourteen to sixty years of age; and never beheld a set of more wretched human beings. They were nearly starved and almost naked, and wholly unable to take exercise.… It was too dark to read, so they yielded up their minds to corroding despondency, and became sullen and morose. Their features become rigid, and to see a smile upon a face was like a sunbeam illumining a thunder-cloud.”20

Still, the food was a significant improvement; the Americans on the Crown Prince drew up a constitution, a code of laws, and a court to discipline themselves; the smaller number of French prisoners already aboard, however, devoted most of their time, and all their effort, to running billiard tables and roulette wheels, that they had somehow managed to fashion, and with which they proceeded to methodically part the new arrivals from all their cash. “These Frenchmen seldom failed to win,” Waterhouse noted, and were charmingly merciless in refusing to extend credit to the victims they had cleaned out: “I am sorry, very sorry indeed; it is le fortune de guerre. If you have lost your money you must win it back again; that is the fashion in my country—we no lend, that is not the fashion.” A few of the Americans sought their revenge by proposing a wager on whether one of them could tie up a Frenchman and toss him in a sack, but the Frenchmen again demurred: “No, it is not the fashion in our country to tie gentlemen up in sacks.” The Americans finally announced there would be a vote on whether to abolish gambling. The motion passed, with the French opposing.21

Escape might have seemed hopeless, but sixteen men got away one dark night by cutting a hole through the stern and bending the copper down, slipping into the water, and swimming ashore. The copper was then pulled back up into place, and before the next head count the following evening the prisoners also cut a small hole through the deck; after the sergeant had counted the men on one deck, sixteen men slipped through to the next deck and were counted again. But a second escape attempt gave the game away when one of the prisoners’ nerves failed him and he was spotted trying to swim back. The officers searched the ship to try to discover how anyone could have gotten out and finally found the sally port, eliciting a huge roar of laughter from the Americans as they stood gaping at it.

A brasher attempt took place in broad daylight on the adjacent Irresistible. Four Americans, one of them an Indian of the Narragansett tribe, “a man of large stature and remarkable strength,” grabbed the sentry guarding the ship’s jolly boat, which was alongside with all her oars in; threw the sentry into the boat; jumped in after him; and rowed like madmen for the shore, to the uproarious cheers and shouts of encouragement of the prisoners watching from all the hulks in the river. Soon about thirty boats, with 350 British seamen and marines, were in pursuit, firing at the fleeing prisoners. On reaching shore, the fugitives abandoned their hostage and ran flat out for the fields, well ahead of the pursuing marines. But they were quickly surrounded by the local country people, who poured out of the farmhouses and brickyards and recaptured them all but the Indian, who Waterhouse, watching from the deck of the Crown Prince, could see “skipping over the ground like a buck.” But then he too went down, spraining his ankle while leaping a fence.22

The attempt clearly had the British rattled, and the Americans gleefully intensified their sarcastic barrages. Some of the prisoners had taken to studying mathematics to fill the time, and now whenever one of their British jailers walked by, one of the American students would look quizzically at his slate and say aloud, as if reciting an arithmetic problem, “If it took 350 British seamen and marines to catch four Yankees, how many British sailors and marines would it take to catch ten thousand of us?” A story got around that the commander of the Crown Prince, a superannuated forty-five-year-old Royal Navy lieutenant named Osmore—who seemed to look upon his duties mainly for the embezzlement opportunities they presented—had poached some sheep from a field nearby for his personal use. A few days later, as Osmore was getting into the boat with his wife and family to head ashore, a raucous chorus of “Baa! Baa! Baa!” suddenly broke forth from all the ship’s ports. Osmore retaliated by barring the boats that called daily to sell the prisoners garden vegetables; the prisoners then appealed to the commodore for a hearing, which gave them a chance to put Osmore completely on the spot by gravely begging him to explain, both to themselves and to his commanding officer, “how such an unmeaning sound could be construed as an insult.” The ban on the market boats was lifted.23

A few months later all the prisoners were ordered to be put aboard tenders for transfer to Dartmoor Prison. This was the final hardening of the British stand on American prisoners: in January 1814 officials in Washington learned that the British had completely “discontinued the system of releases on account” of American prisoners. In May, Cockburn reiterated his instructions that no captains were to agree to on-the-spot exchanges; all captured Americans were to be sent directly to prisons. “My Ideas of managing Jonathan,” he wrote to Admiral Cochrane explaining his decision, “is by never giving way to him, in spite of his bullying and abuse.”

Instructions went to Halifax from London ordering the wholesale transfer to England of prisoners held there; a large number of ships were due to arrive in the spring transporting fresh troops to Canada, and on their return they were to be filled with the prisoners. At around the same time a decision was made to concentrate all American prisoners in England into one tightly secured location. Dartmoor was a virtual fortress, located in one of the most desolate spots of England, surrounded by miles of wild and uninhabited moorland near the southwestern coast, and usually shrouded in a bone-chilling damp and fog. It had been built in 1806 specifically as a depot for prisoners of war, and with the coming of peace with France in April 1814, it was going to have plenty of room for the six thousand American sailors the British now held in depots and prison hulks scattered around a dozen and a half locations in England, Canada, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and beyond.24

The night before one of the last remaining drafts of prisoners was taken off the Crown Prince, there had been another spirited display of American “impudence”; an altercation with Osmore had resulted in thirty men having their hammocks taken away as punishment, and the men decided that if they would not be able to sleep, Osmore would not either. They waited quietly until ten o’clock; then all hell broke loose in a cacophony of Indian war whoops, oaken benches battering against bulkheads, tin and copper pans banging together. Osmore became so enraged at one point that he threatened to order the marines to fire down the hatches on them. Finally the men quieted down, waited another half hour, then repeated the performance. And so it went all night.

The next morning, as the tender carried them off, a cry of “Baa! Baa! Baa!” came across the water, continuing without cease until the ship was out of hearing.25

BY THE END of 1813 the only American traders who could obtain insurance for their cargoes were letters of marque, and not just any letters of marque but only those swift, sharply built schooners of the kind that the shipwrights of Baltimore and New England had long earned a reputation for. They could carry only a fraction of their maximum load without risking their best sailing trim; insurance rates were a seemingly catastrophic 50 percent, if coverage was obtainable at all, which meant that as far as the underwriters were concerned it was no better than even money that they would successfully run through the two gauntlets of British blockaders, on the American and French coasts; but there were great profits to be made where good luck and good seamanship held. Cotton that sold for thirteen cents a pound in Charleston went for twice that in France. And although it was not their first object, there was always the chance of happening upon a convoy-dodging British merchantman that could be taken as a prize along the way.

It was a strange way to carry on trade or fight a war, but as Yankee sea captain George Coggeshall noted, by this point in the war “there were but three ways for captains of merchant ships to find employment in their ordinary vocations: namely, enter the United States Navy as sailing masters, go privateering, or command a letter-of-marque—carry a cargo and, as it were, force trade and fight their way or run, as the case might be”; and of the three, the last was the least bad on several scores. The captains and crews of letters of marque were a noticeable cut above most of the out-and-out privateers. For one thing, they paid an actual wage to their crews—thirty, forty, even fifty dollars a month—and so drew the more experienced able-bodied seamen, leaving the more desperate characters to the privateers. Like Coggeshall, their commanding officers were usually experienced merchant captains who knew how to handle a ship first and foremost, had sailed often to France and farther points before the war, and had backgrounds much like many of the American navy’s officers, even if they lacked the fighting experience. Coggeshall was twenty-nine, had been at sea since he was a boy, and was the son of a sea captain.26

On the night of November 14, 1813, a thick nor’easter moved into Newport, and obscured behind sheets of blowing snow and propelled by the fresh gale, the schooner David Porter passed rapidly by the fort, out of the harbor, and soon was beyond the blockading squadron, on her way first to Charleston with a load of butter, cheese, and potatoes, then across the ocean for France with a richer cargo. Coggeshall, as captain, had put up $1,500 of his own money in the venture, a quarter of the purchase price of the schooner. The David Porter had the typical armament of a letter-of-marque schooner, four 6-pounders that were not much more than for show but also an 18-pounder Long Tom, that versatile weapon of intimidation, mounted amidships; she also had a far better than average crew, hired at $30 a month for an able seaman, Coggeshall having managed to find most of his thirty men and petty officers, including the gunner, boatswain, and carpenter, right out of the frigate President, which had just returned to Newport with many of her crew past the end of their two-year enlistments.

Nearing Charleston, Coggeshall was chased for four hours by a British brig; the wind was off the land and the brig had the weather gauge. Hoping to draw the brig off so he could tack and weather her, Coggeshall steered wide to leeward. But the brig kept her course to cut off any such attempt at getting to windward, and now Coggeshall feared he was being driven into a trap and decided to run for it as close to the wind as he could, rather than letting himself be pushed out to sea, where other enemy ships might be waiting. Hauling up to cross the Charleston bar, he passed within gunshot of the brig and fired one shot from the Long Tom, splashing water over the enemy’s quarter before running in.

In Charleston he sold his New England produce for a good profit and took on 331 bales of cotton; he stood to earn $23,000 in freight and fees for delivering it to Bordeaux or any other port in France.

They made it to the port of the small, miserable village of La Teste in thirty-seven days, seeing scarcely a sail and not a single man-of-war the whole way, surviving a furious gale in the Bay of Biscay that split open the planking and nearly threw the schooner on her beam ends, the next sea threatening to capsize her. The crew frantically threw two of the guns and the water casks overboard to lighten the ship, and got her running before the wind until a smooth moment came to wear onto the other tack and relieve the strain on the damaged starboard fore shrouds that might send the mast crashing down. The schooner rode literally leaping “from one sea to another” until steadying on the other tack. The day before Wellington’s army marched into La Teste on March 11, 1814, Coggeshall managed to get to sea again, holding a pistol to the head of the reluctant local pilot to persuade him to take the schooner out after he insisted the weather was too bad.27

At daylight on the fifteenth the crew of the David Porter found themselves two miles to leeward of a large frigate. Coggeshall tried the same tactic he had used with his pursuer off Charleston, trying to lure the warship to leeward so he could quickly tack and get to windward. As before, the British ship refused to be drawn, and it seemed there might be nothing for it but to ply to windward, take a full broadside at pistol shot in passing, and hope for the best. But overruling the advice of his officers, Coggeshall decided to try to run before the wind, and with more adroitness and better seamanship than the George Washington’s captain had displayed in executing that maneuver in the same situation, and with a crack crew that knew how to pull off such a surprise, he ordered the square sail and studding sails readied to run up at the same moment when he gave the word. And then in a flash they were running to leeward, and the frigate took five minutes before she could get a studding sail set, in which time the David Porter had gained a clear mile. Everything they could sacrifice went overboard; all the water except for four casks’ worth was started and pumped onto the sails to keep them drawing as tight as a drum, all the sand ballast from the hold was thrown out, and by noon a good eight or ten miles separated them, and by four in the afternoon the frigate was a speck on the water.

They were short of provisions—the baker at La Teste had been unable to provide them more than two bags of bread, and in a mix-up during the chase only two water casks had been spared—but the next morning, “to our unspeakable joy,” first light found them in the midst of a small merchant fleet out of England that had become separated from its escort in a gale a few days before. The first ship they captured was a brig brimming with provisions, and the schooner was soon bursting with hardtack, butter, hams, cheese, potatoes, and beer. They took three more ships before spotting, late in the afternoon, the same frigate that had chased them the day before. Coggeshall ordered the three prizes to hoist lanterns while he slipped away in the growing darkness, and “very soon after this, I heard the frigate firing at his unfortunate countrymen, while we were partaking of an excellent supper at their expense.”28

Coggeshall turned over command of the schooner to his first lieutenant and remained in France to complete arrangements for a large purchase of wine in Bordeaux. The David Porter returned safely to Cape Ann later in the year, taking several more prizes on the way home and ten prisoners, which netted the owners $1,000 as a bounty from the United States government.

Later that year Coggeshall, for his return voyage, took command of “a fine Baltimore built vessel … a remarkably fast sailer,” the letter-of-marque schooner Leo, lying in L’Orient harbor. For three weeks he skillfully dodged British men-of-war in the Bay of Biscay while taking several prizes, and then one afternoon there came racing across their weather quarter a prize to put all others to shame, an English packet just out of Lisbon, bound for England, almost certainly carrying a huge quantity of specie. Just as they were on a course to intercept within a pistol shot, the schooner gave a violent lurch and the foremast snapped in two places.

The only hope now was to get into Lisbon, a neutral port, before the next morning; the seas were teeming with British warships. The Leo’s crew worked for an hour clearing away the wreckage and rigging a jury foremast, and by four o’clock in the afternoon they were making seven knots.29

But with dawn and the Rock of Lisbon in sight the wind died. All day they swept and towed, and just as their hopes had risen again—four miles from land, the Lisbon pilot already aboard—Coggeshall saw coming out, on the ebb tide of the Tagus and a light land breeze, a thirty-eight-gun British frigate. In a matter of minutes they were under her guns, and prisoners of war.

The frigate was the Granicus, and her captain, W. F. Wise, far removed from the growing brutalities of the American war, was of the old and chivalrous school; Coggeshall was given his own stateroom and was invited almost every day to dine with the captain, who was all manners and kindness, praising the seamanship and ingenuity of American sailors and shipbuilders, and more than once urging him, “Don’t be depressed by captivity, but strive to forget that you are a prisoner, and imagine that you are only a passenger.” At Gibraltar the crew was immediately shipped off to England, and Coggeshall and his lieutenants were to follow in a few days, once they had given the required depositions to the admiralty court. The governor of Gibraltar had received positive orders that every American prisoner brought in was to be forwarded to Dartmoor, without exception, and the officers were not to be paroled, despite Wise’s urging that they be treated civilly, all the more so since the Leo had voluntarily released some thirty British prisoners they had taken. “I said but little on this subject,” Coggeshall said afterward, “but from that moment resolved to make my escape upon the first opportunity.”30

It seemed an even more impossible proposition than escaping from a prison hulk in the Medway, for Gibraltar was itself a citadel, with a guarded gate leading to the mainland. The first day Captain Wise said he was prepared to let Coggeshall and his officers attend the court proceedings without a guard if they pledged their parole not to attempt to escape. Coggeshall did so, and used the chance afforded by their stroll back to conduct an hour’s reconnaissance.

The next morning they were to return to the court, and Coggeshall arose, put all the money he had—about a hundred gold twenty-five-franc pieces—in his belt, and slipped a few keepsakes into his pocket.

“Well, Coggeshall, I understand you and your officers are required at the Admiralty Office at 10 o’clock,” Wise greeted him, “and if you and your officers will again pledge your honor, as you did yesterday, you may go on shore without a guard.”

Coggeshall gave him a careful look and replied, “Captain Wise, I am surprised that you think it possible for any one to escape from Gibraltar.”

Wise, pleasantly but firmly, said, “Come, come, it won’t do, you must either pledge your word and honor that neither you nor your officers will attempt to make your escape, or I shall be compelled to send a guard with you.”

“You had better send a guard, sir.”31

And so a lieutenant, with a sergeant and four marines, conducted the Americans to the office. While Coggeshall and one of his lieutenants were waiting in the courtroom for their turn to be examined, the lieutenant walked casually to the door, then urgently beckoned him over; the British lieutenant was not in sight. Coggeshall then cheerfully asked the sergeant if he would like to go up the street to the wineshop at the corner for a glass of wine with them while they waited. The sergeant thought it was an excellent idea and, leaving the rest of the marines, accompanied the two Americans up the street. The wineshop had entrances on each street; Coggeshall and the lieutenant went in one door, and while the sergeant waited there, Coggeshall slipped out the other after whispering to the lieutenant to follow and meet him two blocks over.

Coggeshall removed the eagle insignia from his cockade, and with that gone, his blue coat, black stock, and black cockade “had, on the whole, very much the appearance of an English naval officer.” He waited with growing apprehension at the corner he had named, but the lieutenant did not appear. “I had now fairly committed myself, and found I did not have a moment to spare,” and so he set off with what he hoped was an attitude of “the most perfect composure and consummate impudence” toward the sentinel guarding the Land Port Gate. Fixing the guard with a stern glare, he strode on, received a respectful salute, and in a moment was outside the walls of Gibraltar. He went down to the mole, where a crowd of boatmen were all too eager to row him out to his ship; he chose one, hopped in, and as they got into the bay the oarsmen asked, “Captain, which is your vessel?” Coggeshall was at a loss for a moment, but seeing a Norwegian flag flying from one, he decided that the Norwegians were probably more trustworthy than most people and jabbed a finger toward it.32

He decided that his best chance was to tell the truth, and he could scarcely finish his story before the Norwegian captain grasped his hand, said he had been a prisoner in England and would do anything to help him, and in two minutes flat had him fitted out in a pea jacket, fur cap, and pipe like any Norwegian seaman. The captain then gave him dinner and said he needed to go ashore for a few hours to arrange things.

The Norwegian returned “pleased and delighted”: the whole town was in a state of pandemonium over the escape of the captain of the American privateer. The lieutenant of the frigate had been arrested. The next night a gang of smugglers came alongside silently in a long, fast-rowing boat and “certainly, a more desperate, villainous-looking set was never seen.” But the Norwegian captain had arranged everything; he did business with them all the time, selling them gin and other odds and ends; and the smugglers said they would be all too happy to take the “captains’ brother” to Algeciras, nearby in Spain. The water was smooth, the night dark, and the ten miles’ passage was a matter of two hours’ steady rowing. A lantern was shown for a minute, then covered; an answering signal winked from the shore; and then they were on land crunching their way up a winding track, and at about three in the morning they entered a small cabin, one room with a mat hanging in the middle as a partition. This was where the chief of the smugglers lived with his wife and two small children, and for three days the family took Coggeshall in warmly and kindly. Venturing out cautiously to see if there was an American consul in the town, Coggeshall was able to find his way to an initially disbelieving diplomat, but once he had doffed his fur cap and pea jacket and “looked somewhat more like an American” he was able to tell his story, and the consul—Horatio Sprague, who had been consul in Gibraltar before the war began—immediately invited him to stay with him and offered to help him on his way. After waiting ten days in hopes of hearing news from his two lieutenants, he hired a guide and mule and, dressed as a peasant to avoid the brigands, traveled over zigzagging mountain footpaths to Cádiz, where he arrived two weeks later, just before sundown, the sun’s final rays lighting the church steeples and the mountains beyond them in a burst of gold. He made his way to Lisbon on a coasting schooner, then to New York on a filthy and vermin-infested Portuguese brig, finally arriving home in May 1815 to learn that the war was over and peace had been restored. “I cannot leave this brig without warning my friends and countrymen never to take passage across the Atlantic in a Portuguese vessel of any description,” he wrote.33

FOR THE five thousand less fortunate Americans who would be marched from Plymouth harbor during the year 1814 over sodden roads through rain and mist, Dartmoor Prison presented a paradox of leniency and misery. It was sixteen miles across the moors, and few of the men were in any condition to make the trek, deprived for so long of exercise in the prison hulks. The clay soil of the road would turn to “the consistency of mortar” in the steady rain, and many of the prisoners lacked shoes, while others lost them in the sucking ooze. “Our march might have been traced for several miles by the old boots, shoes, and stockings, which were left sticking in the mud in the hurry of the march,” wrote one American sailor. A file of British soldiers on either side prodded them on their way with bayonets while officers on horseback shouted orders to keep moving.34

It was surreal to be on land again, but much about their imprisonment seemed to defy reality at times. The overcrowded old sixty-four that carried Benjamin Waterhouse and his companions from the Medway to Plymouth was commanded by a tyrannical captain who threatened to put any of the Americans in irons if they complained about the shortage of food and had one of his marines severely flogged for selling some of his own tobacco to a prisoner. But the lieutenant was humane, and after the captain promptly went ashore upon their arrival at Plymouth, Waterhouse was astonished at the flotilla of boats that put off from the shore filled with the hundreds of prostitutes of the town offering their accustomed trade to any arriving ship. Soon there were as many girls aboard as there were prisoners; the going rate was half a crown, scarcely fifty cents.35

And then a week later the prisoners were trudging from seven in the morning to half past eight in the evening across a landscape seemingly as barren as the moon’s; a few of the seamen who simply were unable to take another step were thrown into the baggage carts as the ragged procession went on without a stop. Halfway there the guard was changed, a detachment from Dartmoor taking over, and the march, which had been steadily uphill, now became a steep climb, still with no halt for rest or food. One of Benjamin Browne’s messmates grew so fatigued on the march that he could no longer carry his overcoat and first tried to pay one of his companions to carry it for him, then even tried to give it away but could get no takers.

The prison itself loomed “like some huge monster” through the mist. An eighteen-foot-high wall of solid granite blocks, a half mile long, surrounded the whole prison, with three guardhouses spaced around it. The arriving prisoners entered through a heavily guarded main gate, passed in and out of a courtyard that held the houses and offices of the commandant and surgeon, then through another gate in a fifteen-foot-high stone inner wall into a second courtyard and parade ground where the barracks and hospital buildings were, then finally through a gate in a twelve-foot-high iron palisade topped with sharp spikes, within which lay the actual prison buildings, seven in all.

The prison barracks were three stories high, all built of granite as well, with single huge rooms on each floor slung with hammocks in tiers three high and a foot and half apart; the walls constantly dripped with moisture and the floors were icy, the only light coming from small windows covered with iron bars and wooden shutters that gave the prisoners the choice of pitch darkness or even more dampness from the cold and constant sea wind.36

Most of the arriving prisoners had a similar tale to tell of their miserable first night at Dartmoor, cast onto a bare stone floor without bedding or dry clothes, their meager possessions not yet arrived in the slow-moving carts. One old man “amused himself and annoyed all others by singing a line of one and a verse of another of all the old songs he could recollect from his earliest boyhood” through the night, recalled one American sailor, but none were inclined to sleep anyway as hunger, aching limbs, and the hard floor overcame even their utter exhaustion.37

The next morning a clerk accompanied by a squad of soldiers arrived to record the name, age, height, physical description, and place of birth of each of the prisoners (those records would incidentally provide one of the most complete demographic portraits of American seamen of the era) and then the men were turned out into the yard “to Receive hammocks beds and Blankets that was as full of Lice as the Devil is of Wickedness,” Joseph Valpey, a Salem privateersman, recorded in his diary. Guards with muskets patrolled a walk along the inner stone wall, and between the inner wall and the iron paling was the “cachot,” or “Black Hole,” a windowless stone hut where prisoners were confined for punishment.

The bleakness of the physical setting simply stunned many of the Americans; they could not believe, they said, that such a spot existed in England; there was not a bush or tree, and even rabbits and birds seemed to find the moor too forsaken a place to live. The local people believed it was alive with demons and ghosts at night; none set forth from the nearby town of Princetown if it meant being caught on the moor after sundown. Valpey said he saw the sun three times in the first month he was there and not at all the next two months. The yellow woolen prison jackets and trousers the men were issued made the prisoners themselves the only colorful objects in a landscape of unremitting drabness.38

But many of the jailers were kind and apparently felt a kinship with the Americans, at least as compared with the thousands of Frenchmen they had had charge of for the previous eight years. One day Benjamin Browne was standing with a group of Americans who were poking some fun at the imperturbable turnkey of prison number 7 when a French prisoner, who had been taken in an American privateer, decided to join in the fun and, striking a comical pose, began razzing the jailer—“Jean Bull, Jean Bull, rote beef, rote beef, pomme de terre—God tam”—whereupon the Englishman calmly raised his fist and knocked the Frenchman down, to tumultuous cheers from the Americans. The jailer explained he “could take a joke from a Yankee, because they were cousins loik,” but was not going to put up with it from “a frog-eating Frenchman.”39

The Americans were left almost completely to themselves to organize the prison, maintain discipline, and fill their time as they chose. Most of the barracks elected committees, ran their own courts to punish offenders, and carried out merciless floggings on fellow prisoners caught stealing, skimming the fat off the mess’s soup for their own use (“the grand Vizier’s office at Constantinople is not more dangerous than a cook’s at this prison,” opined Waterhouse), or letting themselves become too filthy. Every day the local farmers and tradesmen were allowed to hold a market on the parade ground from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., and vegetables, milk, meat, butter, tea, sugar, clothes, shoes, tobacco, soap, trinkets, and books were sold to supplement the prison-issued diet of beef, bread, barley, cabbage, onions, potatoes, and herring. In January 1814 the American government began supplying a small allowance to the prisoners through the American prisoners’ agent in London, initially one and a half pence a day, raised in April to two and a half pence, doled out in the form of two 1-pound notes a month to each six-man mess; and many of the men also spent their time making ship models with beef bones for the spars and hulls and twisted human hair for the rigging, weaving baskets, fashioning tinware and shoes, even building violins. Others set up shops to resell in small quantities consignments of tobacco and dry goods they purchased from the town’s grocers, or peddle ersatz coffee boiled up from burnt bread, or fried codfish and potato cakes known as plumgudgeon at a penny a piece, or a stew called freco whose predominant ingredient “by an almost infinite degree” was water, at two pennies a pint. George Little earned a shilling a day washing his fellow prisoners’ clothes, at sixpence per dozen.40 Adding to their surreal circumstances, many of the two thousand Americans thrown into British prisons after being released from impressment in the Royal Navy at the start of the war started receiving the pay and prize money they had been owed. In all, probably at least $10,000 a month was coming into the pockets of the Dartmoor prisoners and promptly placed into circulation in the flourishing prison economy.41

At times Dartmoor seemed more “a thriving village than a notorious and unhealthy prison,” as one historian put it. One American prisoner observed that “Dartmoor prison was a world in miniature, with all its jealousies, envying and strife.” There were informers and the type of corrosive doomsayers that afflict every prison and army barracks: “there is a set of busy-idlers among us,” Waterhouse complained, “a sort of newsmongers, fault-finders, and predictors, who are continually bothering us with unsubstantial rumors.”42 An elaborate effort to stage a mass escape by tunneling under the walls was foiled in the summer of 1814 by an informer, who received his release and a passport to the United States for his betrayal. For forty nights the prisoners had dug for hours in shifts, hiding the excavated dirt each morning by plastering it on the walls and covering it with whitewash or waiting for a heavy rain and dumping it in the water channels that ran through the yard; they had reached as far as the inner wall when one morning a thousand soldiers marched into the yard and the colonel strode right to the hidden entrance of the tunnel, thoroughly inspected the excavation, and delivered an apparently unironic tribute to the prisoners for their industry before ordering his men to fill it in. Little said his fellow prisoners vowed to kill the man if they ever caught up with him back home.43

There was also a gang of toughs who styled themselves “the Rough Allies” who bullied and intimidated anyone they could, knocking over rivals’ market stalls, running gaming tables and pawning operations, and denouncing as “Federalists” anyone who tried to stand in their way. But there was also a lending library of several hundred books in prison number 7, purchased by a prisoner with his discharge money from the British man-of-war he had served aboard as an impressed seaman; there was a regular school in prison number 1 offering classes at sixpence a week in mathematics, navigation, French, and Spanish; there was a music society and religious services.44

Nothing captured the contradictions of Dartmoor more than prison number 4, which housed the thousand or so black prisoners. They had been mixed in with the rest of the prisoners until spring 1814, when the white prisoners petitioned the commandant to have the blacks separated, claiming “it was impossible to prevent these fellows from stealing.”45 That may or may not have been so, but prison number 4 soon acquired a reputation as the most well-regulated of them all. Browne observed that “many of the most respectable prisoners preferred to mess in No. 4, on account of the superior order of that prison.” It was presided over by a six-foot-three black man known as “King Dick,” who strode through the barracks in a bearskin cap and summarily put down any challenges to his authority with a huge cudgel he always carried at his side. King Dick held a monopoly on the gambling and beer stalls in number 4, but also staged theatrical performances, having taken over the stock of costumes and scenery left by the departing French prisoners, charging the white prisoners sixpence to see Othello and Romeo and Juliet. A protégé of King Dick’s called Simon preached feverish sermons on Sundays and succeeded in converting two white prisoners to his brand of fervent Christianity; number 4 had several schools that were popular with the white prisoners as well. “In No 4 the Black’s Prison I have spent considerable of my time, for in the 3rd story or Cock loft they have reading whriting Fenceing, Boxing Dancing & many other schools which is very diverting to a young Person,” Nathaniel Pierce, a privateersman from Newburyport, wrote in his journal; “indeed there is more amusement in this Prisson than in all the rest of them.”46

There was no cure for the tedium and homesickness, though, and as the year 1814 dragged on with no release in sight, the sameness of each day after day became the prominent feature in prisoners’ journals: “have done nothing this day but set down in my birth and walk about the Prisson … more unpleasant weather … wet and disagreeable weather … made a tour through all the prisons … kept My house and Received Company as it came both good and bad … had no imployment to Day … This day comes in with heavy rains and blowing weather nothing worthy of remark has transpired … This day comes in with more Dartmoor weather … Evening I past in reading—Time goes Tegeous …” Boredom drove two prisoners to wager a pot of porter on the outcome of a louse race, but one had to forfeit when the entrant he had been carefully keeping in the collar of his shirt vanished the day of the race.47 Joseph Valpey filled a notebook with poems and similarly tried to make light of their verminous conditions:

In Yallow dress from head to foot

Just like a swarm of Bee’s

From Morn to Night you’ll see a sight

of Hunting lice and flea’s.

But most of his poems were becoming maudlin laments, of fortitude gone, hopes extinguished, loves forgotten;

My country I fear has forgot me

And I doubt if I see you again48

It would have taken a paragon of administrative efficiency, psychological subtlety, and keen leadership to have successfully commanded a prison of six thousand increasingly restless American prisoners, but the commandant of Dartmoor, like all the British prison commanders, was a broken-down and over-the-hill officer given the job because the Admiralty did not know what else to do with him. The following year Captain Thomas G. Shortland would become one of the most hated men of the war when the situation at Dartmoor spiraled out of control, hundreds died of disease, and then—months after the war’s end—guards opened fire on prisoners in an incident that confirmed all the worst American beliefs about British tyranny and cruelty. But Shortland was probably less evil than inept, more overwhelmed with a responsibility he did not begin to know how to discharge than deliberately malicious; and at the start, at least, he seemed to be making an effort at being accommodating. He told an acquaintance that he never “read or heard of such a set of Devil-daring, God-provoking fellows, as these same Yankees; I had rather have the charge of five thousand Frenchmen than five hundred of these sons of liberty; and yet, I love the dogs better than I do the damn’d frog-eaters.”49

For most of 1814 the brunt of the prisoners’ resentments fell upon the American agent for prisoners in London, Reuben Beasley, another overwhelmed man. Beasley almost never replied to the many petitions and entreaties the prisoners sent him. He visited American prisoners only twice, both times seeming to recoil in physical horror not only at the conditions the men were being held in but from the men themselves; and his cold and aloof exterior only reinforced the growing belief among those thousands of men so far from home for so long that they had become expendable pawns in a war without end.50

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!