Historians of the American Revolution have long noted the horrific conditions American sailors endured in British captivity. Treated as rebels and pirates, more Americans perished in British prisons and prison ships than in combat. Yet few scholars have questioned how the revolutionaries responded to such provocation. In answering this question, this essay explores how revolutionary Americans addressed the problems of capturing, confining, administering, and eventually releasing enemy mariners over the course of the war.

At the outset of hostilities, colonial Americans possessed a normative set of expectations about the conduct of war at sea derived from their understandings of European conventions and their experience in prior imperial conflicts. These norms stressed the humane treatment of enemy prisoners and their speedy release through equitable exchange. As the war progressed, however, and Americans learned of the continual abuse of captured American sailors, Parliament's criminalization of American privateering, and a surge of loyalist privateers that brought civil war to the high seas, revolutionaries began to reconsider this humane stance. These factors coalesced to radicalize the revolutionary war effort, transforming captive British and loyalist mariners into ideal objects of retributive justice in the eyes of their captors. Politically constrained from either forming a naval bureaucracy capable of curbing the war's escalating violence or ending the odious cycle of retaliation through a large-scale prisoner exchange, Congress only exacerbated the problem. Captive mariners continued to endure unremitting horrors for the remainder of the war. Though Washington and others trained in the European mode decried this transformation, once begun, peace alone could end the radicalization of the Revolutionary War at sea.