Title: 'Deprived of Their Liberty': Enemy prisoners and the culture of war in revolutionary America
Name: Trenton Cole Jones
Assistant Professor of History
Purdue University
University Hall
672 Oval Drive
West Lafayette, IN 47907
cole.jones@gmail.com
Year: 2012
Type: Dissertation Fellowship
Summary:

My dissertation examines how revolutionary Americans treated their captured enemies. When the struggle began, I argue, the revolutionary leadership strove to conduct the war according to the prevailing European norms: norms that emphasized restricting violence to the battlefield and treating prisoners humanely, according to their military rank and social station. Contrary to popular and scholarly narratives of the conflict, however, this vision of restrained war did not endure. From the onset of hostilities, British authorities viewed their American foes not as legitimate combatants who deserved the traditional European protections of prisoner-of- war status, but as rebels and traitors to be punished. Consequently, British abuse of American prisoners, both tacitly condoned and at times officially sanctioned, proliferated. The revolutionary leadership wasted no time in capitalizing on the prisoners' ordeals for propagandistic purposes. As accounts of British abuses circulated in the press usually exaggerated but rarely without some truthordinary Americans came to see British soldiers and seamen, as their German and Native American auxiliaries, as appropriate targets for retribution. This phenomenon was exacerbated by civil war as American loyalists mobilized to quell the rebellion. Confronted by multiple threats of loyalist uprisings, the revolutionaries began to conceive of their loyalist neighbors as rebels and traitors. In the fratricidal conflict that ensued, the customs of European warfare were rarely observed. Despite the popular outcry against British abuses and the exigencies of this civil strife, revolutionary leaders might have succeeded in sustaining their humane vision of warfare had they not been politically and financially constrained from asserting control over the war effort. Dependent upon popular support to wage the war, the Continental Congress engaged in a cycle of retaliation that soon spiraled out of control as enemy captives were consigned to the custody of state and local officials bent on revenge for the mistreatment of their captured constituents. These factors, I contend, coalesced to radicalize the war effort, escalating its violence precipitously.

By charting this process of radicalization, my project reveals the seminal role of the war, and is consequent violence, in the social and political transformations of the era. Long overshadowed by revolutionary France, the American Revolution was far more violent than scholars have appreciated. Although elite revolutionaries had not intended to undermine their new nation's commitment to the restraint of wartime violence, the exigencies of war and the limits of republican government combined to erode their control over the war effort, paving the way for the democratization of American society in ways they had never anticipated. Americans from across the social spectrum, including men and women who would have had no influence on the conduct of war in royal America, were no longer pawns or spectators to conflict: they began to adjudicate its practice. Captives of Liberty thus centers the experience of war within the scholarly debates over the character and consequences of the American Revolution. Enemy prisoners, as victims of the wars radicalization, illuminate both the ramifications of the democratization of war and the centrality of war to the democratization of American society.

Bibliography: "'Indignation Shall Hurry us to Action': British Maritime Prisoners and the Radicalization of the Revolutionary War at Sea," The Journal of the Early Republic (Forthcoming 2016)