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  • Captives of Liberty: Prisoners of War and the Politics of Vengeance in the American Revolution by T. Cole Jones
  • Lauren Duval (bio)

Prisoners of war, American Revolution, Vengeance, Violence

Captives of Liberty: Prisoners of War and the Politics of Vengeance in the American Revolution. By T. Cole Jones. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019. Pp. 336. Cloth, $39.95.)

During the War for Independence, captive American soldiers starved in British jails and languished aboard disease-ridden prison ships. Denied standing as legitimate combatants, these soldiers and their sufferings occupy a prominent place in the histories of the war. Less familiar, but no less tragic, was the plight of their enemy counterparts, the British and allied German, Native, and loyalist prisoners of war. T. Cole Jones asserts that this oversight is no accident. In his superb new book, Captives of Liberty, he shows this absence to be the consequence of postwar efforts to "shroud the conflict in a haze of patriotic lore" (248) in the aftermath of "a brutal war of vengeance" (3) in which, as a response to the alleged mistreatment of American prisoners, revolutionaries gradually abandoned their commitment to limited warfare.

"The siren call of vengeance" (5), as Jones terms it, led Americans to flout prevailing European military norms and adopt brutal retaliatory [End Page 302] measures against British and allied prisoners. In Connecticut in July 1776, for example, revolutionaries confined over one hundred loyalists to an underground mine. The Convention Army, as the nearly six thousand British and allied prisoners defeated at Saratoga would come to be known, was held captive for five and a half years, during which time they and their families marched 1,100 miles and were confined in eight different states. Nearly 85 percent of the group succumbed to disease, starvation, desertion, and fatigue. As the war drew to close in May 1782, Congress approved a plan to sell German soldiers who surrendered at Yorktown into indentured servitude, a punishment typically reserved for non-Christian enemies. To American revolutionaries, Jones argues, these measures did not seem overly harsh; rather, they were "the just vengeance of a wronged people" (142).

How Americans arrived at this conception of wartime conduct is the guiding question of Captives of Liberty. In examining the debates over and treatment of enemy prisoners of war, Jones persuasively demonstrates how "the democratization of war" (11) had disastrous consequences for enemy prisoners and combatants. In one of the book's most innovative contributions, Jones locates the origin of this transformation in the very nature of the American republican political experiment and Congress's failure to secure "a legitimate monopoly on organized violence" (6). Unlike European armies, directed by elite officers and diplomats, the American war effort was overseen by Congress and dependent on cooperation from state governments and American civilians. Unable to raise revenue through taxes, Congress lacked the funds to support prisoners and "outsource[d] prisoner management to individual states" (6). States routinely flouted Congressional directives by prioritizing the needs of their own citizens; they sought to exchange enemy captives for their own soldiers—not those imprisoned longest, as ordered by Washington. Thwarting efforts to implement national policies, this decentralized system, Jones argues, also shifted unparalleled authority into the hands of ordinary people, many of whom were eager for revenge. Elected officials had little power to restrain these impulses. Independence intensified fears that traitorous enemies resided in their midst, sparking a rampage of "Tory hunting" (109) and civil war that engulfed American communities. Responding to constituents' clamors for vengeance, and seeking leverage in their negotiations with the British, Congress adopted punitive tactics against enemy captives as a strategic necessity after 1776—a reversal of their earlier commitment to humane warfare. The [End Page 303] emergence of this policy of retributive justice, Jones concludes in one of his most important insights, reshapes our understanding of wartime conduct; the unremitting brutality and suffering of the Southern Campaign was not an "abberation" (189) but rather a defining characteristic of the American war effort.

Vengeance, Jones proves, permeated the revolutionary cause and provides a cohesive framework for understanding the military and political elements of the conflict at both the local and national levels. Enemy...


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