I came across such an extended historical topic while conducting a preliminary research project on the early years of Swansboro, North Carolina. I was reviewing a reel of microfilm that I had obtained many years ago from the National Archives in Washington, DC, that dealt with War of 1812 documents. While looking for material associated with southeastern Onslow County and more specifically Swansboro (Swannsborough during that time) that related to the War of 1812, a personal letter written by an American prisoner of war caught my attention.
The first thing about this document that pulled my attention away from my Swansboro research was the length of the letter. The correspondence was not less than twenty pages in length, written in long hand, and in the first person. The letter, in essence, was one man’s personal account of being a prisoner of war in England in the years 1812 & 13.
What intrigued me most was that this individual was not a military person fighting for his country but rather, only a passenger on a vessel from France to the United States. During the War of 1812 nearly any vessel, and her passengers, on the High Seas were subject to capture. This was the case for this man who had been released, prior to boarding the American bound vessel, from being a prisoner in a French prison for a similar turn of events.
The following is an excerpt James Doolittle’s account of his capture:
"On the 12th March 1813 I sailed from L’Orient, passenger on board the Brig Ducornau, of and for New York, Henry Davis Master. On the 14th we were captured after a chase of eight hours, by his Britannic Majesty’s Sloop of War Pheasant, John Palmer, Esquire Commander and carried to Plymouth. Captain Palmer & his officers treated us all with the greatest possible politeness, attention & humanity. We arrived to Plymouth on the 16th, but did not disembark until the 20th. When we landed, Captain Palmer consented that Captain Davis, his mate and myself should remain in the town a few more days until Captain Davis should go through the necessary formalities of making protest &c. before we delivered ourselves up at Mill prison. This is an indulgence which rests with the Commanders of ships of war on their own responsibilities and is generally, thou not always granted to masters, mates, supercargoes & passengers.
On the 27th we delivered ourselves up to Captain Pellowe at Mill prison as a preliminary to being paroled. Here it may be well to observe that not a person can be paroled, or permitted to proceed to Ashburton without passing one or more nights in Mill prison, & when they depart are compelled to take a place in the stage at their own expense."
Mr. Doolittle’s letter goes on to discuss various aspects of his captivity. He writes in great detail on prisoner treatment, manipulation of policy, and his obvious discontent of being labeled a "Prisoner of War" when in fact he was only a civilian passenger on a vessel. Under routine procedures of the day, he, as many others who were in the same predicament, would have been treated with common respect and set free at the earliest opportunity.
Here is part of what Mr. Doolittle reported in regards to his situation on a prison ship (floating prison).
"After rummaging our trunks to satisfy themselves, as they said, that we had no tools, the officers ordered us below; we were shewn to the lower gun deck, where a new and unpleasant scene presented itself. There were on board at this time about 500 prisoners, 300 of whom were on this deck. They had been already counted down for the night & their hammocks being slung, it was not without difficulty that a person could move at all. Here were all ages & colors place indiscriminately together & so thick that they might be said to be literally "stowed in bulk." Every second port has been nailed down & caulked in. The others are secured by gratings composed of iron bars, an inch square, crossing each other at right angles at intervals of 4 inches. These would suppose would be sufficient to secure the prisoners, especially the Americans, who I hope & believe, love their own country too well to wish to desert in so inhospitable as one as Great Britain. Whether their precautions arose from a fear of the prisoners escaping, or from a refinement in barbarity, in which the English will yield the palm to no nation on earth that I know of. I know not but certain it is, that this security content them for every evening at night fall, they shut the ports over these gratings leaving only seven small air ports 7 inches on each side, (which in their turn, were half obscured by the gratings over them) for the admission of air, & these being near the upper deck in the horizontal plane of the hammocks, a circulation of air on this deck was rendered impossible..."
So goes the story of an American War of 1812 Prisoner of War, not of a combatant but, a civilian caught up in an international crisis. Who, in our modern society, knows of this one alienated prisoner? What ever happened to him? He is but one of an endless list of people and events within our bonded histories that were pushed aside, misplaced, or forgotten.
Captain Otway Burns, a War of 1812 Privateer who hailed from Swansboro and New Bern, North Carolina faced similar faintness from the general public. The book I wrote on his life,Captain Otway Burns And His Ship Snap Dragon, explores this nearly forgotten man’s exciting and adventurous life.
Think for a few minutes about things that you can recall about the "old days." What part of the local and American segment of history do you remember that is not reflected upon in today’s society. Local history is part of American heritage. When you come across information dealing with our local history try to pass that knowledge on to your family, friends, and fellow neighbor. You may find that they have a piece of that same history that can be shared with others.
Data used for this article comes from author’s personal research notes and material obtained through National Archives, Washington, DC.
Contact and learn more about the author at his
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