Sunday, June 28, 2009

Prisoners of War: Men of the 71st Regiment taken in Boston Harbor, 1776

It is well known that two British armies were captured in America, one at Saratoga in 1777 and the other at Yorktown in 1781. There were of course other prisoners of war besides these, some taken piecemeal and others as complete units. Among the latter were two companies of the 71st Regiment captured in 1776 before even setting foot on the American continent. When their transports arrived in Boston harbor three full months after the British army had evacuated that city, they were set upon by American ships and forced to surrender after a brief fight. The most famous of those imprisoned was Lt. Col. Archibald Campbell, who was eventually exchanged for Ethan Allen.

Like their later, more famous counterparts imprisoned at Saratoga and Yorktown, these highland prisoners were marched inland. Like other British prisoners of war, many managed to escape. Some absconded directly from their quarters, while others were allowed to take work in the country and made their way off from their employers. Over a year after their capture, two of these men were advertised in a Connecticut newspaper:

On the night after the 15th of September made his escape from Mr. Abijon Roe's of Simsbury, one Robert Mallen, a prisoner of war, a Highlander of the 71st regiment; had on when he went away a short regimental coat and vest, long tow cloth trowsers, and the Scotch bonnet; is about 19 years old, grey eyes, short, well set, short curl'd sandy hair, something freckled, rather slow of speech, and of few words. And on the 21st of September made his escape over the pickets at Hartford goal, one Alexander Adams, a Highlander of the 71st regiment; is a short lad, red hair, had on a brown coat with red cuffs, Scotch bonnet, light gray eyes. Also escaped from Hezekiah Katchum, the 26th of September, one John Blake, a prisoner of war, taken at Long Island; about 26 years old, about 5 feet high, dark complexion, black hair; had on a brown coat, a red jacket, white trowsers, and felt hat. Whoever will take up and secure either of the above runaways in any goal in this or the neighbouring states, and inform the subscriber, shall have five dollars reward for each, from Ez'l Williams Commissary of Prisoners. [Connecticut Courant, 29 September 1777]

The descriptions of the highlanders gives some insight on the men in this newly-raised regiment and the conditions they endured as prisoners. They were young. That no trade is associated with Mallen suggests that they were working as a farm laborer, while Adams' escape over the stockade-fenced jail yard has an air of daring. Although British soldiers normally received new uniforms each year, imprisonment prevented this resulting in a mixture of regimental and non-military clothing.

The third man in this advertisement, John Blake, was a soldier in the 1st Battalion of Delancey's Brigade, a loyalist corps. He was captured during a raid on Sag Harbor, Long Island, on 24 May 1777 (our thanks to Todd Braisted, , for this information).

As the war progressed and formal correspondence was effected between the warring sides, arrangements were made to exchange prisoners. By this time, however, the Americans had lost track of the individual prisoners of war, as evidenced by a newspaper ad that appeared in a Massachusetts newspaper:

Whereas all the prisoners of the 71st regiment, (by order of Elias Boudinot, Esq, Commissary General of Prisoners) are to be collected, in order to be ready to send to Newport, on the first notice: I do hereby require all Sheriffs, Committees and Selectmen, in the different towns, to send all the Prisoners of War of the 71st regiment of British, sent out to their care by the honourable Council of this State, or otherwise to Rutland, to the care of Peter Frazer, Lieutenant of the 71st regiment, who will have necessary orders for that purpose.
Given under my hand, at Boston, June 14, 1778.
Joshua Mersereau, D. C. Gen. of Prisoners.
[Continental Journal, 18 June 1778]

An ad in a different newspaper placed the following month shows that some of the prisoners were not inclined to be exchanged:

Deserted from the barracks of the 71st regiment, at Rutland, the following prisoners of war, viz: Aleksander Adinson, five feet five inches high, sandy hair, swarthy complexion, had on when he went away, a brown short coat and long trowsers; James Dowell, five feet five inches and a half high, brown hair, fair complexion, had on when he went off a loose great coat; James Moat, five feet ten inches high, blonde hair, dark complexion, had on when he went away, a red coat faced with blue, with the 21 on the buttons. Joshua Mersereau, D. C. G. of prisoners. [Massachusetts Spy, 16 July 1778]

By this time, the highland prisoners had lost or abandoned all vestiges of their uniforms, while the third man, a more recent prisoner from the Saratoga campaign, still retained his. At this time, we have no evidence that any of these men returned to the British army.