“A Dangerous Set of People”: British Captives and the Making of Revolutionary Identity in the Mid-Atlantic Interior
Abstract

During fall 1775, American forces captured nearly seven hundred British soldiers manning forts near Montreal. The surrender of the British garrisons posed a problem for the new Continental Congress. Complicating matters for Whigs, their prisoners were fellow Britons seized in an unlawful insurgency. In late 1775, the colonies had yet to declare their independence and reconciliation with Britain remained the hope of many Americans. Mindful of their shared British heritage, officials on both sides continued to situate their opponents within a collective imperial identity. This sense of common kinship informed Continental officials’ approach to their British captives, as they pursued a policy intended to promote kindred relations between the prisoners and their local hosts. Congress dispatched most of the captives to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, an ethnically diverse and provincially oriented hinterland community safely isolated from military operations.

By mid-1776, Pennsylvania’s diversity, the escalating hostilities, and the mounting antagonisms between the insurgents and their prisoners complicated Continental policy. In Lancaster, English and German speakers’ tense encounters with their captives facilitated the break with Britain and nurtured an emerging Revolutionary identity. As the captives defied their hosts and cultivated subversive associations, locals policed the community. The new dangers encouraged local militants to transcend their cultural differences as they distinguished themselves from their enemies and found support in the company of fellow patriots. But the prisoners also exposed the boundaries of locals’ patriotism by revealing competing communal and Continental agendas. Local pressures helped redefine Continental perceptions of the British and transform American prisoner policy.


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