1500-1799 | United States


A sugar house prison in New York – Internet Book Archive Images – no known restrictions – via Flickr.

10 August 1781

During the American Revolutionary War, the British kept so many captive rebels in New York that it became a virtual city of prisons. Thousands were confined in squalid conditions and with little to eat, in makeshift jails converted from old sugar refineries, churches and warehouses. Captured officers were sometimes able to purchase extra rations, but the diet of most imprisoned rebel soldiers was usually insufficient for long term survival. One American prisoner, who was locked into a stable alongside 500 others, recalled that scraps of food were tossed to them ‘in a confused manner, as if to so many hogs, a quantity of old biscuit, broken, and in crumbs, mostly moulded, and some of it crawling in maggots, which they were obliged to scramble for.’1 Some prisoners became so hungry that they ate their shoes, garbage or almost anything they could lay their hands on.2

As the jails became increasingly overcrowded, the British resorted to using prison ships moored at Wallabout Bay on Long Island. Conditions on board were generally even worse than those on land. There were scarcely any facilities for washing and rarely any possibility of medical attention. No lamps or candles were permitted below the main deck with some vessels holding up to a thousand prisoners in their dark overcrowded hulls. Infectious diseases killed so many of the half starved inmates that the sandy shoreline was soon lined with the markings of trenches to bury the daily dead.3 The mortality rate among those confined on board was at least 50 per cent and sometimes even reached 70 per cent during the hot summers. By the end of the war, more than twice the number of American soldiers has died as prisoners of the British, as had died in battle.4

An inmate on board one of the prison hulks, the Jersey, known to those confined within by its sobriquet ‘hell afloat,’ explained in a letter dated 10 August 1781 that ‘we bury 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11 men every day; we have 200 more sick and falling sick every day; the sickness is the yellow fever, small-pox, and in short everything else that can be mentioned… Our morning’s salutation is ‘Rebels ! Turn out your dead !’5 Some New York prisoners reported that the bodies of the dead would be left lying in heaps, sometimes on open ground exposed to scavenging hogs and carrion birds, before they were eventually taken away and thrown naked into shallow mass graves.6


  1. Samuel Young cited in William R. Lindsey, ‘Treatment of American Prisoners of War During the Revolution, The Emporia State Research Studies, Kansas State Teachers College Emporia, Volume XXII, summer 1973, No 1, p. 10 accessed online at url https://www.iroquoiscsd.org/cms/lib/NY19000365/Centricity/Domain/198/pow%20am%20rev.pdf
  2. Holger Hoock, Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth, Crown, New York, p. 190.
  3. William R. Lindsey, op. cit., p. 15.
  4. Holger Hoock, op. cit., pp. 222-223.
  5. Henry Onderdonk, Jr., Documents and Letters Intending to Illustrate the Revolutionary Incidents of Queens County, Leavitt, Trow and Company, New York, 1846, p. 238.
  6. Holger Hoock, op. cit., p. 197.

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