A peek at “Relieve Us of This Burthen: American Prisoners of War in the Revolutionary South, 1780-1782”

Relieve Us of This Burthen: American Prisoners of War in the Revolutionary South, 1780-1782, published this month by the University of South Carolina Press, will be available in the Charleston Museum gift shop next week. If you have read A Gallant Defense: The Siege of Charleston, 1780 you might see this as a sequel to that work.  It is in a sense, since a good portion of the book covers what happened to the prisoners of war that were captured at the Siege of Charleston. My interest in the Siege, however, derived primarily from my interest in the fate of those prisoners taken in Charleston. Years ago, I became intrigued with the 6,000 soldiers and sailors who surrendered in the city. What happened to them? Were they all crammed onto prison ships as were those held in New York City? Ultimately, some were, but of the 6,000 men taken at the fall of Charleston, less than half were actually held by the British.

Per the terms of capitulation between the American commander, General Benjamin Lincoln, and the British commanders, General Sir Henry Clinton and Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot, the militiamen in Charleston were to return to their homes on parole, meaning they gave their word that they would not serve again or do anything to impede British efforts until they were exchanged. In the weeks after the surrender, paroled militiamen streamed out of Charleston and left for home. Many, for a variety of reasons, promptly broke those paroles and fought against the British again. So much for giving their word. 

The British held the Continental soldiers, the professional soldiers who were the backbone of the patriot war effort, in Charleston, and sent their officers to Haddrells Point in Mt. Pleasant. Luckily for a substantial number of these Continentals, British control over them was loose at first. Held in the military barracks which were close to the defense lines on the outskirts of Charleston, hundreds, and possibly as many as one thousand, escaped in the weeks after the city surrendered. Having essentially already let the horse out of the barn, the British imprisoned the remainder, along with prisoners captured at the Battle of Camden and other places in the South Carolina backcountry, aboard prison ships in the harbor. These were the prisoners who suffered most during the British campaigns in South Carolina. Wracked by disease and short of food, clothing and money, they suffered appallingly and numbers perished. Understandably, many joined the British forces to avoid a certain death. You can learn more about their fates in the book. We hope to see you at the book signing on February 7.

Lecture and Book Signing Relieve Us of This Burthen: American Prisoners of War in the Revolutionary South, 1780-1782
February 7
6:30 p.m.
Free and open to the public. For more information, please check our calendar listing or call (843) 722-2996 x235.

Carl Borick
Assistant Director, The Charleston Museum