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Treatment of prisoners of war in Revolutionary times

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote a couple of weeks ago about the abuse of prisoners of war by American soldiers and CIA agents. Of interest to readers of this blog was Friedman’s reference to the book “Washington’s Crossing,” by David Hackett Fischer. Friedman writes:

What is particularly moving is one of Mr. Fischer’s concluding sections, “An American Way of War,” in which he contrasts how Washington dealt with prisoners of war with how the British and Hessian forces did: “According to the ‘the laws’ of European war, quarter was the privilege of being allowed to surrender and to become a prisoner. By custom and tradition, soldiers in Europe believed that they had a right to extend quarter or deny it. ... In these ‘laws of war,’ no captive had an inalienable right to be taken prisoner, or even to life itself.”

American attitudes were very different. “With some exceptions, American leaders believed that quarter should be extended to all combatants as a matter of right. ... Americans were outraged when quarter was denied to their soldiers.” In one egregious incident, at the battle at Drake’s Farm, British troops murdered all seven of Washington’s soldiers who had surrendered, crushing their brains with muskets.

“The Americans recovered the mutilated corpses and were shocked,” wrote Mr. Fischer. The British commander simply denied responsibility. “The words of the British commander, as much as the acts of his men,” wrote Mr. Fischer, “reinforced the American resolve to run their own war in a different spirit. ... Washington ordered that Hessian captives would be treated as human beings with the same rights of humanity for which Americans were striving. The Hessians … were amazed to be treated with decency and even kindness. At first they could not understand it.” The same policy was extended to British prisoners.

The insight I get from this has to do with Toussaint Louverture’s treatment of prisoners during the Haitian Revolution. Louverture was roundly praised for his humanity to captured soldiers, and it seems this is all the more remarkable considering that he would have been well within the norms of the day to mistreat them in the extreme.

Reflecting on the previous post about Haitians in the American Revolution, I wonder if there was an opportunity for Christophe and others to bring back any of Washington’s values. Could the father of Haiti have been influenced by the father of America?

This is purely idle speculation, mind you, but it would be interesting if there were any evidence either way on the subject.

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