Letter from Dr. Peter Fayssoux to David Ramsay regarding the treatment of prisoners of war by the British. 26 May 1785

From Gibbes Documentary History of the American Revolution, Vol. 3, p.117

CHARLESTON, March 26, 1785.


In compliance with your request, I now send you some of the most remarkable facots relative to the treatment the American prisoners, the sick in particular, have received, during their captivity in Charleston, from the British. The director general having been confined by the British, the immediate charge of the American hospitals devolved on me, I can therefore answer for the truth of this account, as every circumstance was within my own knowledge. From the surrender of Charleston to the period of Gen. Gates' defeat, I do not think we had any material cause to complaint.

The regulation for the government of the hospital, the supplies of medicines and diet, were in general prescribed by ourselves and acceded to by the British.

After the defeat of Gen. Gates our sufferings commenced. The British appeared to have adopted a different mode of conduct towards their prisoners, and proceeded from one step to another until they fully displayed themselves, void of faith, honor or humanity, and capable of the most savage acts of barbarity.

The unhappy men who belonged to the militia, and were taken prisoners on Gates' defeat, experienced the first effects of the cruelty of their new system.

These men were confined on board of prison-ships, in numbers by no means proportioned to the size of the vessels, immediately after a march of one hundred and twenty miles, in the most sickly season of this unhealthy climate.

These vessels were in general infected with the Small-Pox; very few of the prisoners had gone through that disorder. A representation was made to the British Commandant of their situation, and permission was obtained for one of our Surgeons to inoculate themthis was the utmost extent of their humanity the wretched objects were still confined on board of the prison-ships, and fed on salt provisions, without the least medical aid, or any proper kind of nourishment. The effect that naturally followed, was a Small-Pox with a fever of the putrid type; and to such as survived the Small-Pox, a putrid dysenteryand, from these causes, the deaths of at least one hundred and fifty of the unhappy victims. Such were the appearances, and such was the termination of the generality of the cases brought to the general hospital after the eruption of the Small-Poxbefore, the eruption, not a single individual was suffered to be brought on shore. If any thing can surpass the above relation in the barbarity, it is the following account:

The Continental troops, by the articles of capitulation, were to be detained prisoners in some place contiguous to Charleston; the barracks were pitched on as the proper place; this was agreed to by both parties. The British, in violation of their solemn compact, put these people on board of prison-ships. Confined in large numbers on board of these vessels, and fed on salt provisions in this climate in the months of October and November, they naturally generated a putrid fever from the human miasma. This soon because highly contagious. The sick brought into the general hospital from the prison-ships, generally died in the course of two or three days, with all the marks of a highly septic state. Application was made to Mr. De Rosette, the British commissary of prisoners; the vast increase of the numbers of deaths was pointed out, and he was requested to have proper steps taken to check the progress of a disorder that threatened to destroy the whole of the prisoners.

In consequence of this application Mr. Fisher, our commissary of prisoners, and Mr. Fraser, who formerly practiced physic in this country, but then acted as a British deputy commissary, were ordered to inspect the State of the prisoners in the vessels. This report confirmed the truth of what had been advancedthis can be proved by a very particular circumstance. My hopes were very sanguine that something would be done for the relief of those unhappy persons, but they were entirely frustrated by a person from whom I did not, and ought not to have expected it. Dr. John M'Namara Hays, physician to the British army, a person who had been taken by the Americans on the capture of Burgoyne, who had received the politest treatment from the Americans when a prisoner, and who had the generosity to acknowledge the usage he had met withthis person was ordered to report on the state of the prisonersto my astonishment, I was informed his report was, that the prison-ships were not crowded, perfectly wholesome, and no appearance of infections disorders amongst the prisoners.

I then determined to make one more effect for the relief of these unhappy persons for this purpose I had two of the dead bodies kept in the area of the hospital, and, upon Dr. Hays' daily visit to our hospital, I marked to him the appearances of the subjects, whose bodies were highly tinged with a yellow suffusion, petechied over the breast and trunk, with considerable ecchymosis from extravasated or dissolved blood about the neck, breast and upper extremities. I inquired if it was possible a doubt could remain respecting the nature of their disorder, and expressed my surprise at the report he had made. The words of his reply were, 'that the confinement of the prisoners in prison-ships was the great eyesore, and there was no help for that, it must be done.' The disorder in consequence continued until the cold weather; the number of deaths, joined with the number that were compelled by this treatment to enlist with the British, removed in a great measure the cause. Hitherto a number of our prisoners who were tradesmen had been permitted to remain in the barracks, or in the city, where they were employed by the Britishabout the month of January 1781, they were all confined to the barracks, and there British emissaries were very busy among them, to persuade them to enlist in their new corps. About the same time a supply of clothing, and some money to procure necessaries, arrived from the Congress for the use of the prisoners.

Mr. Fisher, our commissary, was prevented from distributing the clothing, and the prisoners were informed it was a deception, for no supplies had arrived for their use. Their motive was, that by the complicated distress of nakedness and imprisonment, their patience would be exhausted, and enlistment with them would ensue.

To prevent this, means were found to have several bales of the clothing brought to the picquets which inclosed the barracks, and in sight of our soldiers; this measure established the fact.

Disappointed from this quarter, the British Commandant or his ministers determined to observe no measures but what would accomplish their own purposes. All the soldiers in the barracks, including the convalescents, were paraded and harangued by Fraser, the British deputy commissary, and one Low, a recruiting officer for one of the British corps. The conclusion of the affair was, that such as chose to enlist with the British should leave the ranks, and the remainder go on board of the prison ships. A few who had been previously engaged withdrew from the ranks; the large majority that stood firm, after three different solicitations without effect, had this dreadful sentence pronounced by Fraser, 'that they should be put on board of the prison-ships, where they could not expect any thing more but to perish miserably; and that the rations hitherto allowed for the support of their wives and children, from that day should be withheld; the consequence of which would be, they just starve in the streets.'

Human nature recoiled from so horrid a declaration for a few seconds the unhappy victims seemed stupefied at the dreadful prospect; a gloomy and universal silence prevailed. This was followed by a loud huzza for Gen. Washington; death and the prison-ships was the unanimous determination.

The hospital at this time was reduced to the greatest distress imaginable the sick without clothing, covering, or any necessary but one pound of beef and bread very little sugar, no wine, and rarely a small allowance of rum.

We had no resources, and the British would only furnish the absolute necessaries of life. The officers of the hospital, on the mildest representation, were threatened and insulted, frequently prohibited from visiting the sick, once I remember for three days.

It was scarcely possible for men to support such an accumulated misery; but when least expected, a relief was administered to us. A subscription for the support of the sick was filled by people of every denomination with amazing rapidity. Several of the ladies of Charleston, laying aside the distinction of whig and tory, were instrumental and assiduous in procuring and preparing every necessary of clothing and proper nourishment for our poor, worn-out and desponding soldiers.

Thus, sir, I have furnished you with some of the most material occurrences of that unhappy time. I have not exaggerated or written a single circumstance from hatred or prejudice. I could furnish you with a long detail of cruelty and distress exercised on individuals. Major Bocquet's case, exposed in an open boat for twelve hours in a violent fever, with a blistering plaster on his back, extended at length in the bottom of the boat, then put in the dungeon of the Provost with the vilest felons and murderers, left to languish under his complaint until his death seemed certain, only released from his confinement from the dread of a just retaliation the moment his recovery seemed probable, again hurried back to the Provost, there to remain until the general exchange released him from their power.

This instance of severity exercised on an individual, whose only crime was a steady attachment to the cause of his country, and a determined resolution to keep sacred the solemn oath he had taken in its cause, would appear as nothing, were I to enumerate the scenes of woe and distress brought on many citizens of this once happy country, by British cruelty and unnecessary severity. I am sure every breast would be softened, even tears would fall from British eyes.

I am, sir, with esteem, yours, &c.