Captives of Liberty
Prisoners of War and the Politics of Vengeance in the American RevolutionUniversity of Pennsylvania Press Early American Studies
336 Pages, 6.00 x 9.00 in, 11 illus.
- Published: July 2022
- Published: November 2019
- Published: October 2019
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Contrary to popular belief, the American Revolutionary War was not a limited and restrained struggle for political self-determination. From the onset of hostilities, British authorities viewed their American foes as traitors to be punished, and British abuse of American prisoners, both tacitly condoned and at times officially sanctioned, proliferated. Meanwhile, more than seventeen thousand British and allied soldiers fell into American hands during the Revolution. For a fledgling nation that could barely afford to keep an army in the field, the issue of how to manage prisoners of war was daunting.
Captives of Liberty examines how America's founding generation grappled with the problems posed by prisoners of war, and how this influenced the wider social and political legacies of the Revolution. When the struggle began, according to T. Cole Jones, revolutionary leadership strove to conduct the war according to the prevailing European customs of military conduct, which emphasized restricting violence to the battlefield and treating prisoners humanely. However, this vision of restrained war did not last long. As the British denied customary protections to their American captives, the revolutionary leadership wasted no time in capitalizing on the prisoners' ordeals for propagandistic purposes. Enraged, ordinary Americans began to demand vengeance, and they viewed British soldiers and their German and Native American auxiliaries as appropriate targets. This cycle of violence spiraled out of control, transforming the struggle for colonial independence into a revolutionary war.
In illuminating this history, Jones contends that the violence of the Revolutionary War had a profound impact on the character and consequences of the American Revolution. Captives of Liberty not only provides the first comprehensive analysis of revolutionary American treatment of enemy prisoners but also reveals the relationship between America's political revolution and the war waged to secure it.
"Captives of Liberty is an insightful and magnificent achievement, providing a major contribution to the literature on the period."—History: Reviews of New Books
"An ambitious and impressive book, Captives of Liberty offers a fresh interpretation of the American Revolution that will be required reading for scholars of the era."—Journal of the Early Republic
"As T. Cole Jones reminds us in his timely and compelling monograph, the violence of the American Revolution was not only profound, but also profoundly important in shaping the nature of the contest. Jones focuses on the prisoners of war who were at the epicentre of suffering in the Revolution . . . Jones is to be commended for this invaluable contribution to our understanding of the ways in which a War for Independence became a destructive Revolutionary War that had far-reaching political effects."—Social History
"[A] very comprehensive yet relatively concise treatise on the largely overlooked area of prisoner treatment during the Revolution. It is highly readable and engaging and deserves a place on the shelf of any student of this period in history. Jones's work provides a fresh take on the conflict's character and the central role prisoners held in shaping it that shifts perceptions of both the conflict itself as well as our national historical memory of it."—Journal of the American Revolution
"Captives of Liberty shines brilliant new light on the question of just how brutal the American Revolutionary War really was. Based on extensive archival research, T. Cole Jones presents overwhelming evidence that prisoners of war regularly endured retaliatory privation, horrible suffering, and death. Along the way, Jones helps shatter longstanding images of a restrained, almost civilized military conflict. Beautifully written, Captives of Liberty is a magisterial work."—James Kirby Martin, author of Benedict Arnold, Revolutionary Hero: An American Warrior Reconsidered
"An impressive treatment of the subject of prisoners of war in the American Revolution and an antidote to nostalgia, Captives of Liberty reminds us that the American Revolution was a brutal conflict in which the atrocities were not exclusive to the southern theater nor to any one side. It is a significant contribution to the historiography of the Revolution."—Andrew O'Shaughnessy, author of The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire
"In Captives of Liberty, T. Cole Jones deftly challenges perceptions of a 'civilized' and restrained American Revolution by illuminating how the management of prisoners, whether inadvertently dire due to provisioning problems or deliberately grim as a political weapon, tracks a course of escalation from proportional retaliation to bloody revenge in the conflict. This superb and engrossing study presents a war not only for but also between hearts and minds when the treatment of captives put popular sentiments, political decisions, and military custom at odds in a struggle to reconcile emotions and vengeance with law, order, and honor."—Holly Mayer, author of Belonging to the Army: Camp Followers and Community during the American Revolution
- Winner of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution Excellence in American History Book Award
- Winner of the Society of the Cincinnati Prize, granted by the American Revolution Institute of the Society of the Cincinnati
- Honorable Mention for the Colonel Richard W. Ulbrich Memorial Book Award, granted by the U.S. Military History Group
- Honorable Mention for the Harry M. Ward Book Prize, granted by the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond
- Finalist for the Journal of the American Revolution's JAR Book of the Year Award