In 1776 Lancaster, Pennsylvania was populated by German and English speakers, families originally from Germany, Ireland, Scotland and England, stuck together and suspicious of each other. They didn’t consider themselves Americans yet, they kept to their own. That was until the British arrived.
Several towns in Pennsylvania were chosen to help hold British prisoners of war during the Revolutionary War. Maybe “hold” is not the correct word. When the first group of British captives arrived in Lancaster in December of 1775, and there were 400 of them (plus 60 wives and children tagging behind), you’d probably not have noticed that they were actually being held captive. In a well-intentioned but wildly unsuccessful scheme, the new government believed that allowing the British soldiers to roam freely in town would gain their sympathy and allegiance to the American cause. But hostile prisoners were a bad addition to a split community already traumatized by several recent Indian wars. No one wanted the enemy living among them. Besides, they already didn’t like the neighbors they had.
It may have been a bit strange at first to have “fellow Brits” as their captors but the British soon made the notion more black and white for the townspeople with some displays of bad behavior and hostile attitudes. The people of Lancaster were not pleased and the seeds were planted: they began to think of themselves as Americans not Germans, Scots or Brits.
Originally the British were to be housed in a Lancaster fort left over from the Seven Years War but the soldiers were permitted to rent their own quarters and the officers were paroled – meaning they had even more freedom and movement. They stayed with hosts a little further into the country.
For the rest of the soldiers the townspeople had no orders for them and no provisions to feed or cloth them. The locals supplied them with blankets, warm clothes and food out of their own pockets hoping to maintain a precarious peace.
The Boat Called Hell
It was a far cry from how the British were treating American prisoners of war. Patriots as the British called them, were seen as treasonous and subjected to deplorable conditions. Many of them were put on prison ships because British territory was always changing. These ships became killing grounds – one was nicknamed “Hell” for its high mortality rate which you were probably begging for what with the disease, smell, abuse and malnourishment. There were only around 1,400 survivors from “Hell” out of the more than 11,000 interred on the ship.
America had seized the moral high ground but that didn’t stop more Americans dying on these ships as prisoners than they did on the battlefields and there were many of them as 32,000 Americans became POWs. 6,800 men died in battle in comparison to the 18,000 who expired on British prison ships (and were tossed overboard). Bodies and bleached bones washed up for years after.
By mid-1776 the British prisoners had become more difficult to control. The town of Lancaster as a experiment with prisoner policy wasn’t going well. Prisoners permitted to walk the streets freely with no guards bred mistrust and a deep uneasiness in the local residents. It didn’t help that the prisoners spent this free time hurling insults, stealing and threatening revenge.
At the same time, many of Lancaster’s local men were finally returning from an American assault in Quebec that had left 400 Americans dead. They arrived home to find their enemies roaming around. And though it didn’t feel like it was possible, tensions were about to reach an even higher level.
In June of 1776 the British officers who were on parole requested approval to leave town on a short fishing trip. They were granted permission to stray up to six miles from their hosts’ homes. They immediately fled North to find British lines after disguising themselves as American Riflemen in their distinct gab (see that here). Their captors were left with discarded scarlet regimentals and a disgust for the British officers who had violated their honor.
Finally it was agreed upon by the government that the people of Lancaster could lock up all of the prisoners as the local militia left for New Jersey. Wounded soldiers or those who could not volunteer for war were posted as guards at the fort.
There was now a distinct difference between the British and American combatants as the people of Lancaster began to share their Revolutionary identity. As for the German immigrants who heavily populated the area they too took on the Revolutionary identity. Many of the Hessian soldiers stayed in America after the war near their former detention centers and became Americans (about 5,000 of the 30,000 who fought for the British did so). Their reputation for being fierce mercenaries lingered and caused deep resentment amongst the German-Americans who refused to forget their former countrymen’s actions during the war and now thought of themselves as Americans first. The Hessians complained that German-Americans treated them worse than anybody.
During the war the small town of Lancaster (population 3,000) saw between 5,000 and 6,000 British prisoners. Eventually the British sent some supplies for their soldiers’ upkeep. The British had been refusing to send supplies previously because the Americans refused to send British prisoners back to England as was the convention. Ultimately they relented.
Continental troops were brought in to guard the detention fort after too many prisoners escaped and in 1783 the British finally signed a peace treaty. A few years after that the U.S. Constitution would be signed and ratified. Today if you go to Lancaster you’ll see the Amish (Pennsylvania Dutch) harmoniously existing next to…well not to confuse you but they call us outsiders “the English.” And that coexistence of diverse cultures all began in Lancaster during the Revolutionary War.
Source: This post was written from notes taken during a lecture by Ken Miller about his book: “Dangerous Guests: Enemy Captives and Revolutionary Communities During the War for Independence”, any mistakes are my own.