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Report on the Ravages of the British

From Diary of the American Revolution, Vol I. Compiled by Frank Moore and published in 1859.

April 18. –The committee appointed by Congress some time ago to inquire into the conduct of the British troops in their different marches through New York and New Jersey, have to-day reported: –That in every place where the enemy has been, there are heavy complaints of oppression, injury, and insult, suffered by the inhabitants, from officers, soldiers, and Americans disaffected to their country’s cause.

The committee found these complaints so greatly diversified, that as it was impossible to enumerate them, so it appeared exceedingly difficult to give a distinct and comprehensive view of them, or such an account as would not appear extremely defective when read by unhappy sufferers or the country in general. In order, however, in some degree to answer the design of their appointment, they determined to divide the object of their inquiry into the following parts, and briefly state what they found to be the truth upon each.

First: —The wanton and oppressive devastation of the country, and destruction of property.

The whole track of the British army is marked with desolation, and a wanton destruction of property, particularly through Westchester county, in the State of New York, the towns of Newark, Elizabethtown Woodbridge, Brunswick, Kingston, Princeton, and Trenton, in New Jersey. The fences destroyed, houses deserted, pulled in pieces or consumed by fire, and the general face of waste and devastation spread over a rich and once well-cultivated and well-inhabited country, would affect the most unfeeling with compassion for the unhappy sufferers, and with indignation and resentment against the barbarous ravagers.

It deserves notice, that though there are many instances of rage and vengeance against particular persons, yet the destruction was very general and often undistinguished; those who submitted and took protections, and some who were known to favor them, having frequently suffered in the common ruin. Places and things which from their public nature and general utility should have been spared by civilized people, have been destroyed or plundered, or both. But above all, places of worship, ministers, and other religious persons of some particular Protestant denominations, seem to have been treated with the most rancorous hatred, and at the same time with the highest contempt.

Second: —The inhuman treatment of those who were so unfortunate as to become prisoners.

The prisoners, instead of that humane treatment which those taken by the United States experienced, were in general treated with the greatest barbarity. Many of them were kept near four days without food altogether. When they received a supply, it was insufficient in quantity, and often of the worst kind. They suffered the utmost distress from cold, nakedness, and close confinement. Freemen and men of substance suffered all that a generous mind could suffer from the contempt and mockery of British and foreign mercenaries. Multitudes died in prison. When they were sent out, several died in being carried from the boats on shore, or upon the road attempting to go home. The committee, in the course of their inquiry, learned that sometimes the common soldiers expressed sympathy with the prisoners, and the foreigners more than the English. But this was seldom or never the case with the officers; nor have they been able to hear of any charitable assistance given them by the inhabitants who remained in or resorted to the city of New York, which neglect, if universal, they believe was never known to happen in any similar case in a Christian country.

Third: —The savage butchery of those who had submitted, and were incapable of resistance.

The committee found it to be the general opinion of the people in the neighborhood of Trenton and Princeton, that the British, the day before the battle of Princeton, had determined to give no quarter. They did not, however, obtain any clear proof that there were general orders for that purpose, but the treatment of several particular persons at and since that time, has been of the most shocking kind, and gives too much countenance to the supposition. Officers wounded and disabled, some of them of the first rank, were barbarously mangled or put to death. A minister of the gospel, who neither was nor had been in arms, was massacred in cold blood at Trenton, though humbly supplicating for mercy.1

Fourth: —The lust and brutality of the soldiers in abusing women.

The committee had authentic information of many instances of the most indecent treatment and actual ravishment of married and single women; but such is the nature of that most irreparable injury, that the persons suffering it, though perfectly innocent, look upon it as a kind of reproach to have the facts related, and their names known. Some complaints were made to the commanding officers on this subject, and one affidavit made before a justice of the peace, but the committee could not learn that any satisfaction was ever given, or punishment inflicted, except that one soldier in Bennington was kept in custody for part of a day.

On the whole, the committee are sorry to say that the cry of barbarity and cruelty is but too well founded; and as in conversation those who are cool to the American cause, have nothing to oppose to the facts but their being incredible and not like what they are pleased to style the generosity and clemency of the English nation, the committee beg leave to observe that one of the circumstances most frequently occurring in the inquiry, was the opprobrious, disdainful names given to the Americans. These do not need any proof, as they occur so frequently in the newspapers printed under their direction, and in the intercepted letters of those who are officers, and call themselves gentlemen. It is easy, therefore, to see what must be the conduct of a soldiery greedy of prey, towards a people whom they have been taught to look upon, not as freemen defending their rights on principle, but as desperadoes and profligates, who have risen up against law and order in general, and wish the subversion of society itself. This is the most charitable and candid manner in which the committee can account for the melancholy truths which they have been obliged to report. Indeed, the same deluding principle seems to govern persons and bodies of the highest rank in Britain; for it is worthy of notice that not pamphleteers only, but King and Parliament, constantly call those acts lenity, which on their first publication filled this whole continent with resentment and horror.2

 

1 The following circumstances relative to the death of the Reverend Mr. Roseburgh, chaplain to a battalion of the Pennsylvania militia, who was killed at Trenton, on the evening of the second of January, are given in the affidavit of the Reverend George Duffield: –“As a party of Hessian Jagers marched down the back of the town after the Americans had retreated, they fell in with him, when he surrendered himself a prisoner; notwithstanding which, one of them struck him on the head with a sword or cutlass, and then stabbed him several times with a bayonet, whilst imploring mercy and begging his life at their hands.” This account was given by a Hessian, who said that he had killed him, (save only that he did not know Mr. Roseburgh’s name, but called him a damn’d rebel minister,) and that Cortlandt Skinner, and several other officers who were present at the relation of the fact, highly applauded the perpetrator for what he had done. After he was thus massacred he was stripped naked, and in that condition left lying in an open field, till taken up and buried near the place by some of the inhabitants. –Pennsylvania, Evening Post, April 29.

2 Pennsylvania Evening Post, April 24.