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  • Extorting Philadelphia: Commodore Beresford and the Vixen Parolees
  • Ross Hassig (bio)

Philadelphia was an official though little-used prisoner-of-war (POW) exchange station for nine months at the opening of the War of 1812. But notoriously, it was also the locus of the most egregious violation of the sanctity of cartels returning paroled POWs in the entire war. This violation of the bilateral exchange agreement and international law, benefiting the British as it did, was castigated by the Americans but ignored at all levels by the British naval commanders and the British government.

When the US Congress declared war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812, the United States had no current laws or regulations to deal with POWs. The State Department took responsibility for caring for POWs in the United States, and by late August Secretary of State James Monroe had designated six cities as the only authorized places to dispatch and receive the ships known as cartels conveying POWs—Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Norfolk, and Charleston—and had established formal rules for their conduct.

When the British ambassador left the United States on the declaration of war, the British chargé d’affaires, Anthony St. John Baker, was left at Washington as the temporary official in charge of POWs in the United States. In that capacity, Baker designated [End Page 519] officials at these cartel cities to act as his agents. Alexander Walker, a British merchant in Philadelphia, had already been superintending the departure of British subjects (“Enemy Aliens”) from the United States at Philadelphia. In August 1812 Baker appointed him to be the British agent for POWs there.1

On the American side, the US Marshals were responsible for POWs. The office of the marshal for Pennsylvania, John Smith, was at Philadelphia. The British POWs who came into Smith’s custody were paroled to towns outside Philadelphia, if they were officers, passengers, or other noncombat-ants. The rest were confined in local jails.2

Philadelphia was designated as one of the American exchange stations in the first exchange agreement between the United States and Great Britain, which was signed at Halifax on November 28, 1812.3 By this agreement, each side named four exchange cities: Halifax, Quebec, Bridgetown (Barbados), and Kingston (Jamaica) for the British, and Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston for the United States. Among the agreement’s provisions, each side was to employ two cartel vessels to transport POWs, who were to be furnished passports from both governments. They would sail as flags of truce, fly the agreed-on flags indicating their cartel status, and not enter the appointed exchange ports except in emergencies.

It was expected that Philadelphia would receive POWs from New York and from every part of the Chesapeake, primarily by inland waterways.4 But such was not the case. Philadelphia received relatively few POWs compared to the other exchange stations, as the latter were closer to the various British depots.

Although Secretary of State James Monroe was not entirely satisfied with the agreement that Mitchell had negotiated at Halifax in November 1812, the government had nevertheless put most of its terms into effect.5 On the British side, Admiral Sir John Borlase Warren, the commander-in-chief of the British naval forces on the North American and West Indian stations, approved the agreement, as did the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty in London, with minor exceptions.6 Thus, the agreement of November 12 remained in effect in early May 1813 when the Rebecca Sims, an American merchant vessel captured by HMS Southampton on September 12, 1812, entered the waters of the Delaware as a cartel under a flag of truce.7

To avoid the threat of British capture, many American merchant vessels obtained British licenses that allowed them to sail unmolested. The British had granted such licenses to American ships prior to the War of 1812 and continued thereafter. Although these licenses were explicitly outlawed by [End Page 520] the US Congress, shippers adopted many ruses to continue trading with the British, and both Portugal and Spain were nominally neutral countries, so shipments could theoretically continue with them. Most of these vessels sailed from the United States for either...


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