More Revolutionary War People Died On NY Prison Ships Than In Battle
If you try tallying up every war in which America participated, in order of how many Americans died in combat, you will wind up with ... a lot of figures that you'll have trouble fairly comparing. Only around 2,000 Americans died in the War in Afghanistan, for example, and yet many more people died in total and it was America's longest war.
Around 50,000 died in combat in Vietnam, totally dwarfing all wars since, combined, many times over. But go further back, and around 200,000 died in the Civil War—if we're just talking about combat. Factor in everyone who died thanks to disease, and the figure rises to three times that.
During the Revolutionary War, around 4,500 Americans died in combat. That's still quite a lot (the entire American population numbered less than 3 million at the time). And yet over 11,000 additional Americans died because the British took them prisoner and kept them in ships in New York's East River. Yes—well over twice as many Americans died in these ships than in every battle combined.
Years before international laws dictated how everyone must treat prisoners of war, getting locked up in a British ship meant all but certain doom. Every day, the British dumped new corpses into the river, and then scooped out that salty corpse water to make broth to serve to the prisoners. The prisoners were naked—by choice, since that slightly postponed their death by heat. Lamps didn't stay lit, and dead bodies would sometimes lie unnoticed for ten days. Bodies, once chucked off the ship, kept washing ashore, where people piled them into barrows then dumped them in mass graves.
Technically, the imprisoned men didn't have to stay in the ships. The British gave them the choice of simply switching sides and fighting for England. Most of the imprisoned weren't even members of the Continental Army or Navy but were privateers. Still, almost all of them chose to stay loyal to America and die.
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Top image: Edward Bookhout