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Bittersweet ending for the David Library

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T. Cole Jones, assistant professor of history at Purdue University, who delivered the final lecture at the David Library of the American Revolution on Dec. 17 called it “a bittersweet experience.”

The library on the River Road in Washington Crossing will close its doors at year’s end and its contents will be moved permanently to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, according to Meg McSweeney, chief operating officer.

McSweeney and Norval D. Reece, treasurer of the library’s board of trustees, also called the event “bittersweet” and there were more than a few teary eyes among the crowd of about 170 who attended this lecture. McSweeney said it was the final in a series of about 100 lectures given at the library.

In an interview, Jones said, “I’ve been doing research here since my undergraduate days and did most of the research for my Ph.D. dissertation here.” He was a fellow at the library and is sad the library is moving, but, he said, the move “will allow the library to reach a broader audience. Philadelphia will now be a one-stop shop for research of the period.”

But he added, “It will never replace the scholarly experience of being a fellow at the David Library, living here and having access 24/7 to the records.”

Jones is the author of a new book, “Captives of Liberty: Prisoners of War and the Politics of Warin the American Revolution.” His book, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, describes how prisoners were treated during the Revolutionary War.

That was also the topic of the lecture during which he revealed some surprising and shocking facts.

He said the American forces captured more than 17,000 British and allied soldiers, loyalist civilians and British sailors. Captives sometimes numbered more than Revolutionary soldiers and what to do with them was an ongoing problem for American troops.

To understand the forces at play he said it is necessary to look at the process of taking prisoners earlier in history. In the 1600s. for example, armies took few prisoners, instead hacking their enemies to death on the battlefield.

In the next century during the Age of Enlightenment, attitudes changed and leaders began to treat prisoners more humanely, with victorious “gentleman officers,” treating enemy officers, generally of the same elite social class, with kindness or even freeing them.

However, after the British defeated the Americans in the Battle of Fort Washington and rebel captives died from brutal treatment, disease and starvation on prison ships anchored in New York Harbor, public outcry often led to vengeance.

He said the two sides couldn’t agree on how to exchange their prisoners and there was a 60 percent mortality rate.

In some cases, though, the Americans exchanged prisoners or allowed prisoners enough freedom to work on nearby farms or sent them to camps in central Pennsylvania.

Interestingly, Jones described the American Revolution as “essentially a civil war” among people who spoke the same language. He said, “The British high command believed the majority of Americans were still loyal to the king.”

The civilian population sometimes took matters into their own hands and in “extra-legal” ways. Since British soldiers were hard to get to, the rebels went after loyalists, accusing them of sedition and treason, and hanged or punished them, specifically in retaliation for the treatment on the prison ships. He said this happened “at a much greater level than historians previously had known.”

Jones said this horrified George Washington but he had no control over the situation as governors of the individual states did their own thing when it came to either punishing or releasing prisoners.

Another complication was what to do with the wives and children many of the Hessians, who were mercenaries, had brought with them.


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