Correspondence Of Washington And Others

General Washington cannot with justice be blamed for any part of the sufferings inflicted upon the naval prisoners on board the prison ships. Although he had nothing whatever to do with the American Navy, or the crews of privateers captured by the British, yet he exerted himself in every way open to him to endeavor to obtain their exchange, or, at least, a mitigation of their sufferings, and this in spite of the immense weight of cares and anxieties that devolved upon him in his conduct of the war. Much of his correspondence on the subject of these unfortunate prisoners has been given to the world. We deem it necessary, in a work of this character, to reproduce some of it here, not only because this correspondence is his most perfect vindication from the charge of neglect that has been brought against him, but also because it has much to do with the proper understanding of this chronicle.

One of the first of the letters from which we shall quote was written by Washington from his headquarters to Admiral Arbuthnot, then stationed at New York, on the 25th of January 1781.


Through a variety of channels, representations of too serious a nature to be disregarded have come to us, that the American naval prisoners in the harbor of New York are suffering all the extremity of distress, from a too crowded and in all respects disagreeable and unwholesome situation, on board the Prison-ships, and from the want of food and other necessaries. The picture given us of their sufferings is truly calamitous and deplorable. If just, it is the obvious interest of both parties, omitting the plea of humanity, that the causes should be without delay inquired into and removed; and if false, it is equally desirable that effectual measures should be taken to obviate misapprehensions. This can only be done by permitting an officer, of confidence on both sides, to visit the prisoners in their respective confinements, and to examine into their true condition. This will either at once satisfy you that by some abuse of trust in the persons immediately charged with the care of the prisoners, their treatment is really such as has been described to us and requires a change; or it will convince us that the clamors are ill-grounded. A disposition to aggravate the miseries of captivity is too illiberal to be imputed to any but those subordinate characters, who, in every service, are too often remiss and unprincipled. This reflection assures me that you will acquiesce in the mode proposed for ascertaining the truth and detecting delinquency on one side, or falsehood on the other. The discussions and asperities which have had too much place on the subject of prisoners are so irksome in themselves, and have had so many ill consequences, that it is infinitely to be wished that there may be no room given for reviving them. The mode I have suggested appears to me calculated to bring the present case to a fair, direct, and satisfactory issue. I am not sensible of any inconvenience it can be attended with, and I therefore hope for your concurrence.

I should be glad, as soon as possible, to hear from you on the subject.

I have the honor to be, etc., George Washington.

To this letter, written in January, Admiral Arbuthnot did not reply until the latter part of April. He then wrote:

Royal Oak Office April 2lst. 1781.


If I had not been very busy when I received your letter dated the 25 of Jan. last, complaining of the treatment of the naval prisoners at this place, I certainly should have answered it before this time; and, notwithstanding that I then thought, as I now do, that my own testimony would have been sufficient to put the truth past a doubt, I ordered the strictest scrutiny to be made into the condition of all parties concerned in the victualling and treatment of those unfortunate people. Their several testimonies you must have seen, and I give you my honor that the transaction was conducted with such strict care and impartiality that you may rely on its validity.

Permit me now, Sir, to request that you will take the proper steps to cause Mr. Bradford, your Commissary, and the Jailor at Philadelphia, to abate the inhumanity which they exercise indiscriminately upon all people who are so unfortunate as to be carried into that place.

I will not trouble you, Sir, with a catalogue of grievances, further than to request that the unfortunate may feel as little of the severities of war as the circumstances of the time will permit, that in future they may not be fed in winter with salted clams, and that they may be afforded a sufficiency of fuel.

I am, Sir, your most obdt and hble srvt M. Arbuthnot.

Probably the American prisoners would have been glad to eat salted clams, rather than diseased pork, and, as has been shown, they were sometimes frozen to death on board the prison ships, where no fire except for cooking purposes seems ever to have been allowed.

In August, 1781, a committee appointed by Congress to examine into the condition of naval prisoners reported among other things as follows: “The Committee consisting of Mr. Boudinot, Mr. Sharpe, Mr. Clymer, appointed to take into consideration the state of the American prisoners in the power of the enemy report:

“That they have collected together and cursorily looked into various evidences of the treatment our unhappy fellow-citizens, prisoners with the enemy, have heretofore and do still meet with, and find the subject of so important and serious a nature as to demand much greater attention, and fuller consideration than the present distant situation of those confined on board the Prison-ships at New York will now admit of, wherefor they beg leave to make a partial representation, and desire leave to sit again. * * *”


“A very large number of marine prisoners and citizens of these United States taken by the enemy, are now closely confined on board Prison-ships in the harbor of New York.

“That the said Prison-ships are so unequal in size to the number of prisoners, as not to admit of a possibility of preserving life in this warm season of the year, they being crowded together in such a manner as to be in danger of suffocation, as well as exposed to every kind of putrid, pestilential disorder:

“That no circumstances of the enemy’s particular situation can justify this outrage on humanity, it being contrary to the usage and customs of civilizations, thus deliberately to murder their captives in cold blood, as the enemy will not assert that Prison-ships, equal to the number of prisoners, cannot be obtained so as to afford room sufficient for the necessary purposes of life:

“That the enemy do daily improve these distresses to enlist and compel many of our citizens to enter on board their ships of war, and thus to fight against their fellow citizens, and dearest connections.

“That the said Marine prisoners, until they can be exchanged should be supplied with such necessaries of clothing and provisions as can be obtained to mitigate their present sufferings.

“That, therefor, the Commander-in-chief be and he is hereby instructed to remonstrate to the proper officer within the enemy’s lines, on the said unjustifiable treatment of our Marine prisoners, and demand, in the most express terms, to know the reasons of this unnecessary severity towards them; and that the Commander-in-chief transmit such answer as may be received thereon to Congress, that decided measures for due retaliation may be adopted, if a redress of these evils be not immediately given.

“That the Commander-in-chief be and he is hereby also instructed to direct to supply the said prisoners with such provisions and light clothing for their present more comfortable subsistence as may be in his power to obtain, and in such manner as he may judge most advantageous for the United States.”

Accordingly Washington wrote to the officer then commanding at New York, Commodore Affleck, as follows:

Headquarters, August 21 1781


The almost daily complaints of the severities exercised towards the American marine prisoners in New York have induced the Hon. the Congress of the United States to direct me to remonstrate to the commanding officer of his British Majesty’s ships of war in the harbor upon the subject; and to report to them his answer. The principal complaint now is, the inadequacy of the room in the Prison-ships to the number of prisoners, confined on board of them, which causes the death of many, and is the occasion of most intolerable inconvenience and distresses to those who survive. This line of conduct is the more aggravating, as the want of a greater number of Prison-ships, or of sufficient room on shore, can hardly be pleaded in excuse.

As a bare denial of what has been asserted by so many individuals who have unfortunately experienced the miseries I have mentioned, will not be satisfactory, I have to propose that our Commissary-general of prisoners, or any other officer, who shall be agreed upon, shall have liberty to visit the ships, inspect the situation of the prisoners, and make a report, from an exact survey of the situation in which they may be found, whether, in his opinion, there has been any just cause of complaint.

I shall be glad to be favored with an answer as soon as convenient.

I have the honor to be yr most obdt srvt George Washington


New York 30 August 1781


I intend not either to deny or to assert, for it will neither facilitate business, nor alleviate distress. The subject of your letter seems to turn on two points, namely the inconvenience and distresses which the American prisoners suffer from the inadequacy of room in the Prison-ships, which occasions the death of many of them, as you are told; and that a Commissary-general of prisoners from you should have liberty to visit the ships, inspect the situation of the prisoners, and make a report from an actual survey. I take leave to assure you that I feel for the distresses of mankind as much as any man; and since my commission to the naval command of the department, one of my principal endeavors has been to regulate the Prison and hospital ships.

The Government having made no other provision for naval prisoners than shipping, it is impossible that the greater inconvenience which people confined on board ships experience beyond those confined on shore can be avoided, and a sudden accumulation of people often aggravates the evil.

But I assure you that every attention is shown that is possible, and that the Prison-ships are under the very same Regulations here that have been constantly observed towards the prisoners of all nations in Europe. Tables of diet are publicly affixed; officers visit every week, redress and report grievances, and the numbers are thinned as they can provide shipping, and no attention has been wanting.

The latter point cannot be admitted to its full extent; but if you think fit to send an officer of character to the lines for that purpose, he will be conducted to me, and he shall be accompanied by an officer, and become a witness to the manner in which we treat the prisoners, and I shall expect to have my officer visit the prisoners detained in your jails and dungeons in like manner, as well as in the mines, where I am informed many an unhappy victim languishes out his days. I must remark, had Congress ever been inclined, they might have contributed to relieve the distress of those whom we are under the necessity of holding as prisoners, by sending in all in their possession towards the payment of the large debt they owe us on that head, which might have been an inducement towards liberating many now in captivity. I have the honor to be, Sir, with due respect, etc,

Edmund Affleck

Much correspondence passed between the English and American Commissaries of Prisoners, as well as between Washington and the commanding officer at New York on the subject of the naval prisoners, but little good seems to have been effected thereby until late in the war, when negotiations for peace had almost progressed to a finish. We have seen that, in the summer of 1782, the hard conditions on board the prison ships were in some measure mitigated, and that the sick were sent to Blackwell’s Island, where they had a chance for life. We might go on presenting much more of the correspondence on both sides, and detail all the squabbles about the number of prisoners exchanged; their treatment while in prison; and other subjects of dispute, but the conclusion of the whole matter was eloquently written in the sands of the Wallabout, where the corpses of thousands of victims to British cruelty lay for so many years. We will therefore give only a few further extracts from the correspondence and reports on the subject, as so much of it was tedious and barren of any good result.

In December of the year 1781 Washington, on whom the duty devolved of writing so many of the letters, and receiving so many insulting replies, wrote to the President of Congress as follows:

“I have taken the liberty of enclosing the copies of two letters from the Commissary-general of Prisoners setting forth the debt which is due from us on account of naval prisoners; the number remaining in captivity, their miserable situation, and the little probability there is of procuring their release for the want of proper subjects in our hands.

“Before we proceed into an inquiry into the measures that ought to be adopted to enable us to pay our debt, and to affect the exchange of those who still remain in captivity, a matter which it may take some time to determine, humanity and policy point out the necessity of administering to the pressing wants of a number of the most valuable subjects of the republic.

“Had they been taken in the Continental service, I should have thought myself authorized in conjunction with the Minister of War to apply a remedy, but as the greater part of them were not thus taken, as appears by Mr. Skinner’s representation, I must await the decision of Congress upon the subject.

“Had a system, some time ago planned by Congress and recommended to the several States, been adopted and carried fully into execution, I mean that of obliging all Captains of private vessels to deliver over their prisoners to the Continental Commissioners upon certain conditions, I am persuaded that the numbers taken and brought into the many ports of the United States would have amounted to a sufficiency to have exchanged those taken from us; but instead of that, it is to be feared, that few in proportion were secured, and that the few who are sent in, are so partially applied, that it creates great disgust in those remaining. The consequence of which is, that conceiving themselves neglected, and seeing no prospect of relief, many of them entered into the enemy’s service, to the very great loss of our trading interest. Congress will, therefore, I hope, see the necessity of renewing their former, or making some similar recommendation to the States.

“In addition to the motives above mentioned, for wishing that the whole business of prisoners of war might be brought under one general regulation, there is another of no small consideration, which is, that it would probably put a stop to those mutual complaints of ill treatment which are frequently urged on each part. For it is a fact that, for above two years, we have had no occasion to complain of the treatment of the Continental land prisoners in New York, neither have we been charged with any improper conduct towards those in our hands. I consider the sufferings of the seamen, for some time past, as arising in great measure from the want of that general regulation which has been spoken of, and without which there will constantly be a great number remaining in the hands of the enemy. * * *”

Again in February of the year 1782 Washington wrote to Congress from Philadelphia as follows:

Feb. 18, 1782.

* * * “Mr. Sproat’s proposition of the exchange of British soldiers for American seamen, if acceded to, will immediately give the enemy a very considerable re-enforcement, and will be a constant draft hereafter upon the prisoners of war in our hands. It ought also to be considered that few or none of the Continental naval prisoners in New York or elsewhere belong to the Continental service. I, however, feel for the situation of these unfortunate people, and wish to see them relieved by any mode, which will not materially affect the public good. In some former letters upon this subject I have mentioned a plan, by which I am certain they might be liberated nearly as fast as they are captured. It is by obliging the Captains of all armed vessels, both public and private, to throw their prisoners into common stock, under the direction of the Commissary-general of prisoners. By this means they would be taken care of, and regularly applied to the exchange of those in the hands of the enemy. Now the greater part are dissipated, and the few that remain are applied partially. * * *”

James Rivington edited a paper in New York during the Revolution, and, in 1782, the American prisoners on board the Jersey addressed a letter to him for publication, which is given below.

“On Board the Prison-ship Jersey, June 11, 1782.


Enclosed are five letters, which if you will give a place in your newspaper will greatly oblige a number of poor prisoners who seem to be deserted by our own countrymen, who has it in their power, and will not exchange us. In behalf of the whole we beg leave to subscribe ourselves, Sir, yr much obliged srvts,

“John Cooper “John Sheffield “William Chad “Richard Eccleston “John Baas”


David Sproat, Commissary of Prisoners, to the prisoners on board the Jersey, New York.

“June 11 1782

“This will be handed you by Captain Daniel Aborn, and Dr, Joseph Bowen, who, agreeable to your petition to his Excellency, Rear-Admiral Digby, have been permitted to go out, and are now returned from General Washington’s Head-quarters, where they delivered your petition to him, representing your disagreeable situation at this extreme hot season of the year, and in your names solicited his Excellency to grant your speedy relief, by exchanging you for a part of the British _soldiers_ in his hands, the only possible means in his power to effect it. Mr. Aborn and the Doctor waits on you with his answer, which I am sorry to say is a flat denial.

“Enclosed I send you copies of three letters which have passed between Mr. Skinner and me, on the occasion, which will convince you that everything has been done on the part of Admiral Digby, to bring about a fair and general exchange of prisoners on both sides. I am

“your most hble Srvt, “David Sproat “Comm. Gen. for Naval Prisoners.”


David Sproat to Abraham Skinner, American Commissary of Prisoners.

New York lst June 1782


“When I last saw you at Elizabeth Town I mentioned the bad consequences which, in all probability, would take place in the hot weather if an exchange of prisoners was not agreed to by the commissioners on the part of General Washington. His Excellency Rear-Admiral Digby has ordered me to inform you, that the very great increase of prisoners and heat of the weather now baffles all our care and attention to keep them healthy. Five ships have been taken up for their reception, to prevent being crowded, and a great number permitted to go on parole.

“In Winter, and during the cold weather, they lived comfortably, being fully supplied with warm cloathing, blankets, etc, purchased with the money which I collected from the charitable people of this city; but now the weather requires a fresh supply–something light and suitable for the season–for which you will be pleased to make the necessary provision, as it is impossible for them to be healthy in the rags they now wear, without a single shift of cloathing to keep themselves clean. Humanity, sympathy, my duty and orders obliges me to trouble you again on this disagreeable subject, to request you will lose no time in laying their situation before his Excellency General Washington, who, I hope, will listen to the cries of a distressed people, and grant them, (as well as the British prisoners in his hands) relief, by consenting to a general and immediate exchange.

“I am, sir, etc, “David Sproat.”

It is scarcely necessary to point out to the intelligent reader the inconsistencies in this letter. The comfortable prisoners, abundantly supplied with blankets and clothing in the winter by the charity of the citizens of New York, were so inconsiderate as to go on starving and freezing to death throughout that season. Not only so, but their abundant supply of clothing was reduced to tattered rags in a surprisingly short time, and they were unable to be healthy, “without a single shift of clothing to keep themselves clean.”

We have already seen to what straits they were in reality reduced, in spite of the private charity of the citizens of New York. We do not doubt that the few blankets and other new clothing, if any such were ever sent on board the Jersey, were the gifts of private charity, and not the donation of the British Government.

No one, we believe, can blame General Washington for his unwillingness to add to the British forces arrayed against his country by exchanging the captured troops in the hands of the Americans for the crews of American privateers, who were not in the Continental service. As we have already seen, the blame does not rest with that great commander, whose compassion never blinded his judgment, but with the captains and owners of American privateers themselves, and often with the towns of New England, who were unwilling to burden themselves with prisoners taken on the ocean.

The next letter we will quote is the answer of Commissary Skinner to David Sproat:

“New York June 9th. 1782


From the present situation of the American naval prisoners on board your prison-ships, I am induced to propose to you the exchange of as many as I can give you British naval prisoners for, leaving the balance already due you to be paid when in our power. I could wish this to be represented to his Excellency, Rear Admiral Digby, and that the proposal could be acceded to, as it would relieve many of these distrest men and be consistent with the humane purposes of our office.

“I will admit that we are unable at present to give you seaman for seaman, and thereby relieve the prison-ships of their dreadful burthen, but it ought to be remembered there is a large balance of British soldiers due to the United States, since February last, and that as we have it in our power we may be disposed to place the British soldiers who are now in our possession in as disagreeable a situation as those men are on board the prison ships.

“I am yr obdt hble srvt “Abraham Skinner”


“New York June 9th 1782


“I have received your letter of this date and laid it before his Excellency Rear Admiral Digby, Commander in charge, etc, who has directed me to give for answer that the balance of prisoners, owing to the British having proceeded, from lenity and humanity, on the part of himself and those who commanded before his arrival, is surprized you have not been induced to offer to exchange them first; and until this is done can’t consent to your proposal of a partial exchange, leaving the remainder as well as the British prisoners in your hands, to linger in confinement. Conscious of the American prisoners under my direction, being in every respect taken as good care of as their situation and ours will admit. You must not believe that Admiral Digby will depart from the justice of this measure because you have it in your power to make the British prisoners with you more miserable than there is any necessity for. I am, Sir,

“yr hble servt “David Sproat.”

The prisoners on board the Jersey published in the _Royal Gazette_ the following


“Prison Ship Jersey, June 11th 1782

“Friends and Fellow Citizens of America:

“You may bid a final adieu to all your friends and relatives who are now on board the Jersey prison ships at New York, unless you rouse the government to comply with the just and honorable proposals, which has already been done on the part of Britons, but alas! it is with pain we inform you, that our petition to his Excellency General Washington, offering our services to the country during the present campaign, if he would send soldiers in exchange for us, is frankly denied.

“What is to be done? Are we to lie here and share the fate of our unhappy brothers who are dying daily? No, unless you relieve us immediately, we shall be under the necessity of leaving our country, in preservation of our lives.

“Signed in behalf of prisoners

“John Cooper “John Sheffield “William Chad “Richard Eccleston “George Wanton “John Baas.

“To Mr James Rivington, Printer N. Y.”

This address was reproduced in Hugh Gaines’s “New York Gazette”, June 17, 1782.

Whether the John Cooper who signed his name to this address is the Mr. Cooper mentioned by Dring as the orator of the Jersey we do not know, but it is not improbable. Nine Coopers are included in the list, given in the appendix to this volume, of prisoners on the Jersey, but no John Cooper is among them. The list is exceedingly imperfect. Of the other signers of the address only two, George Wanton and John Sheffield, can be found within its pages. It is very certain that it is incomplete, and it probably does not contain more than half the names of the prisoners who suffered on board that dreadful place. David Sproat won the hatred and contempt of all the American prisoners who had anything to do with him. One of his most dastardly acts was the paper which he drew up in June, 1782, and submitted to a number of American sea captains for their signature, which he obtained from them by threats of taking away their parole in case of their refusal, and sending them back to a captivity worse than death. This paper, _which they signed without reading_ was to the following effect:


New York, June 22, 1782.


We beg you will be pleased to give the inclosed Report and Resolve of a number of Masters of American Vessels, a place in your next Newspaper, for the information of the public. In order to undeceive numbers of our countrymen without the British lines, who have not had an opportunity of seeing the state and situation of the prisoners of New York as we have done. We are, Sir,

yr most obdt, hble srvts,

Robert Harris, Captain of the sloop Industry John Chace Charles Collins, Captain of the Sword-fish Philemon Haskell Jonathan Carnes


We whose names are hereunto subscribed, late Masters of American vessels, which have been captured by the British cruisers and brought into this port, having obtained the enlargement of our paroles from Admiral Digby, to return to our respective homes, being anxious before our departure to know the true state and situation of the prisoners confined on board the prison ships and hospital ships for that purpose, have requested and appointed six of our number, viz, R. Harris, J. Chace, Ch. Collins, P. Haskell, J. Carnes and Christopher Smith, to go on board the said prison ships for that purpose and the said six officers aforesaid having gone on board five of the vessels, attended by Mr. D. Sproat, Com. Gen. for Naval Prisoners, and Mr. George Rutherford, Surgeon to the hospital ships, do report to us that they have found them in as comfortable a situation as it is possible for prisoners to be on board of ships at this season of the year, and much more so than they had any idea of, and that anything said to the contrary is false and without foundation. That they inspected their beef, pork, flour, bread, oatmeal, pease, butter, liquors, and indeed every species of provisions which is issued on board his British Majesty’s ships of war, and found them all good of their kind, which survey being made before the prisoners, they acknowledged the same and declared they had no complaint to make but the want of cloaths and a speedy exchange. We therefore from this report and what we have all seen and known, _Do Declare_ that great commendation is due to his Excellency Rear Admiral Digby, for his humane disposition and indulgence to his prisoners, and also to those he entrusts the care of them to; viz: To the Captain and officers of his Majesty’s prison-ship Jersey, for their attention in preserving good order, having the ship kept clean and awnings spread over _the whole_ of her, fore and aft: To Dr Rutherford, and the Gentlemen acting under him * * *, for their constant care and attendance on the sick, whom we found in wholesome, clean sheets, also covered with awnings, fore and aft, every man furnished with a cradle, bed, and sheets, made of good Russia linen, to lay in; the best of fresh provisions, vegetables, wine, rice, barley, etc, which was served out to them. And we further do declare in justice to Mr. Sproat, and the gentlemen acting under him in his department, that they conscientiously do their duty with great humanity and indulgence to the prisoners, and reputation to themselves; And we unanimously do agree that nothing is wanting to preserve the lives and health of those unfortunate prisoners but clean cloaths and a speedy exchange, which testimony we freely give without restriction and covenant each with the other to endeavor to effect their exchange as soon as possible:

For the remembrance of this our engagement we have furnished ourselves with copies of this instrument of writing. Given under our hands in New York the 22 of June, 1782.


Robert Harris John Chace Charles Collins Philemon Haskell Carnes Christopher Smith James Gaston John Tanner Daniel Aborn Richard Mumford Robert Clifton John McKeever Dr. J. Bowen.

The publication of this infamously false circular roused much indignation among patriotic Americans, and no one believed it a trustworthy statement. The “Independent Chronicle”, in its issue for August, 1782, had the following refutation: 1

“Mr Printer:

“Happening to be at Mr. Bracket’s tavern last Saturday, and hearing two gentlemen conversing on the surprising alteration in regard to the treatment our prisoners met with in New York, and as I have had the misfortune to be more than once a prisoner in England, and in different prison-ships in New York, and having suffered everything but death, I cannot help giving all attention to anything I hear or read relative to the treatment our brave countrymen met with on board the prison-ships of New York. One of the gentlemen observed that the treatment of our prisoners must certainly be much better, as so many of our commanders had signed a paper that was wrote by Mr. David Sproat, the commissary of naval prisoners in New York. The other gentleman answered and told him he could satisfy him in regard to the matter, having seen and conversed with several of the Captains that signed Mr. Sproat’s paper, who told him that, although they had put their names to the paper that Mr. Sproat sent them on Long Island, where they were upon parole, yet it was upon these conditions they did it: in order to have leave to go home to their wives and families, and not be sent on board the prison-ships, as Mr. Sproat had threatened to do if they refused to sign the paper that he sent them. These captains further said, that they did not read the paper nor hear it read. The gentleman then asked them how they could sign their names to a paper they did not read; they said it was because they might go home upon parole. He asked one of them why he did not contradict it since it had appeared in the public papers, and was false: he said he dare not at present, for fear of being recalled and sent on board the prison-ship, and there end his days: but as soon as he was exchanged he would do it. If this gentleman, through fear, dare not contradict such a piece of falsehood, I dare, and if I was again confined on board the prison-ship in New York, dare again take the boat and make my escape, although at
the risk of my life.

“Some of the captains went on board the prison-ship with Mr. Sproat, a few moments, but did not go off the deck.

“In justice to myself and country I am obliged to publish the above.

“Captain Rover.”

Besides this refutation of Sproat’s shameful trick there were many others. The _Pennsylvania Packet_ of Tuesday, Sept. 10, 1782, published an affidavit of John Kitts, a former prisoner on board the Jersey.

“The voluntary affidavit of John Kitts, of the city of Phila., late mate of the sloop Industry, commanded by Robert Harris, taken before the subscriber, chief justice of the commonwealth of Pa., the 16th day of July, 1782.–This deponent saith, that in the month of November last he was walking in Front St. with the said Harris and saw in his hand a paper, which he told the deponent that he had received from a certain Captain Kuhn, who had been lately from New York, where he had been a prisoner, and that this deponent understood and believed it was a permission or pass to go to New York with any vessel, as it was blank and subscribed by Admiral Arbuthnot: that he does not know that the said Robert Harris ever made any improper use of said paper.”


From the _Pennsylvania Packet_, Phila., Tuesday, Sept. 10, 1782.

“The voluntary Affidavit of John Cochran, of the city of Phila., late mate of the ship, Admiral Youtman, of Phila., taken before the subscriber, the 16 day of July, 1782.

“The said deponent saith, that he was taken prisoner on board the aforesaid ship on the 12 of March last by the ship Garland, belonging to the king of Great Britain, and carried into the city of New York, on the 15 of the same month, when he was immediately put on board the prison-ship Jersey, with the whole crew of the Admiral Youtman, and was close confined there until the first day of this month, when he made his escape; that the people on board the said prison-ship were very sickly insomuch that he is firmly persuaded, out of near 1000 persons, perfectly healthy when put on board the same ship, during the time of his confinement on board, there are not more than but three or four hundred now alive; that when he made his escape there were not three hundred men well on board, but upward of 140 very sick, as he understood and was informed by the physicians: that there were five or six men buried daily under a bank on the shore, without coffins; that all the larboard side of the said ship was made use of as a hospital for the sick, and was so offensive that he was obliged constantly to hold his nose as he passed from the gun-room up the hatchway; that he seen maggots creeping out of a wound of one Sullivan’s shoulder, who was the mate of a vessel out of Virginia; and that his wound remained undressed for several days together; that every man was put into the hold a little after sundown every night, and the hatches put over him; and that the tubs which were kept for the use of the sick * * * were placed under the ladder from the hatchway to the hold, and so offensive day and night, that they were almost intolerable, and increased the number of the sick daily. The deponent further saith, that the bilge water was very injurious in the hold, was muddy and dirty, and never was changed or sweetened during the whole time he was there, nor, as he was informed and believes to be true, for many years before; for fear, as it was reported, the provisions might be injured thereby; that the sick in the hospital part of the said ship Jersey, had no sheets of Russia, or any other linen, nor beds nor bedding furnished them; and those who had no beds of their own, of whom there were great numbers, were not even allowed a hammock, but were obliged to lie on the planks; that he was on board the said prison ship when Captain Robert Harris and others, with David Sproat, the commissary of prisoners, came on board her, and that none of them went or attempted to go below decks, in said ship, to see the situation of the prisoners, nor did they ask a single question respecting the matter, to this deponent’s knowledge or belief; for that he was present the whole time they were on board, and further the deponent saith not.

“John Cochran”

“Theodore McKean C. J.

It seems singular that Sproat should have resorted to such a contemptible trick, which deceived few if any persons, for the reputation of the Jersey was too notorious for such a refutation to carry weight on either side.

In the meantime the mortality on board continued, and, by a moderate computation, two-thirds of her wretched occupants died and were buried on the shore, their places being taken by fresh victims, from the many privateers that were captured by the British almost daily.Citations:

  1. This letter is said to have been written by Captain Manly, “five times” a prisoner during the Revolution.[]

Dandridge, Danske American Prisoners of the Revolution, Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, 1911, 1967.

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