While researching his Pulitzer-Prize-winning Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (with Mike Wallace; Oxford UP 1999), Edwin Burrows uncovered the story of thousands of American soldiers who had been held prisoner by the British during the Revolutionary War in and around New York. Now he’s back to tell the tale in a full-length book:Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War(Basic Books, 2008). Burrows explains that the British faced a dilemma when deciding what to do with the Americans. On the one hand, if they granted them the status of prisoners of war, that would to some degree legitimate the American cause. Only the soldiers of legal combatants could be POWs, and in the eyes of the British the Americans weren’t legal combatants but rather rebels. On the other hand, if the British classified them as rebels, then they would be placing the Americans–as English subjects–under the protection of English law. That would mean the Americans could not be held without formal charges being brought and trials undertaken. The British weren’t ready to do that. So they opted to suspend habeas corpus and leave the Americans to rot in fetid jails and horrific prison ships. American protests went unanswered, American prisoners died like flies, and when it was all over almost no one bothered to remember. Except Ted Burrows. We should thank him for reviving a story that is all too relevant today as Americans deal with their own dilemmas regarding “enemy combatants.”
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