Violence and brutality: CLA historian and FORCES partner offers new insights into American Revolution

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This review was written by military historian Robert Kirchubel, PhD, operations director of CLA’s FORCES initiative.

Recipient of many laudatory academic and literary reviews (see the New York Times, May 20, 2020), historian T. Cole Jones’ inaugural book, Captives of Liberty: Prisoners of War and the Politics of Vengeance in the American Revolution (University of Pennsylvania Press) lays out the novel thesis that the American Revolutionary War was much more violent than previously thought. Based on archival research, Captives of Liberty unfolds with compelling evidence and insight.

Photo of author T. Cole Jones.
Assistant Professor T. Cole Jones combines archival research and compelling narrative to produces Captives of Liberty, his inaugural book.

The revolution was nothing less than a civil war, with all the ugliness that term has come to mean in modern usage. Conventional wisdom holds that the conflict was between civilized “cousins” from Britain, and generally an adjunct to the erroneously-named limited “cabinet wars” of the 18th century.  Of course, even in the earlier histories of the Revolutionary War, there was some nastiness, for example the well-known prison ships used by the English. However, Captives of Liberty makes brutality an escalating leitmotif of the entire conflict. Jones’ new contributions in this regard are twofold: first, the violence was much more widespread, and second, the American colonists gave as good as they got.

Brutality was not anecdotal or occasional, and prisoners of war – mostly American – were the first victims. Readers familiar with modern counterinsurgencies will know one reason for this; to the British the rebel colonists were not a recognized national or state contingent, but illegal bands of traitors. For the British to treat these captives as prisoners of war in the traditional European sense – paroles for officers and more lenient treatment for the soldiery – would implicitly acknowledge the legitimacy of the revolutionary military, its cause, and rebellious colonies in general. They would not even agree on the rank of George Washington and other American generals, colonels or senior leaders, making exchanges of captives of equal status, the European custom, a difficult rarity. 

Responsibility for administering the British and allied German PoWs devolved largely to American civilian authorities, often the Continental Congress, but more often the new states. These entities had enough trouble feeding, housing and taking care of their own citizens, much less the many hundreds of foreign PoWs now living among them. As the war dragged on, Americans in towns and the countryside became aware of the disparity in the way the two sides treated their captives.

Rumors of abuse of American PoWs by their British captors spread among the states by word of mouth, newspapers, or state and local governments. Eventually citizen groups and state militia units took justice into their own hands, especially in the southern states. This pay-back bled over to Americans still loyal to the crown. The tribalism of 21st century American politics seem mild by comparison. By the later stages of the revolution, Jones’ “politics of vengeance” covered most of the 13 states. The British need look no further than their own arrogance and intransigent policies for the source of their problems. 

Besides its intriguing thesis, Captives of Liberty is also a full-on military history of the Revolutionary War and its milieu. The introduction includes a very interesting discussion of 18th century military laws and customs, which would guide the thinking and actions of Washington, his comrades, and enemies. Since PoWs were taken in just about every battle and theater, Jones covers the war’s most significant actions and the commanders on the scene. He devotes much attention to the invasion of Canada early in the war, and fighting in the south during the later stages – welcome diversions from the usual fare of Saratoga, Valley Forge, Yorktown, etc. Native Americans make numerous important appearances, adding a “third way” to the stories of colonists and Europeans. With a large central government still decades in the future, Jones demonstrates the power of the individual states. Of particular interest to me were the various state Committees of Public Safety, harbingers of similarly named entities in another up-coming revolution in France. 

In addition to Washington, the likes of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock and numerous other founding fathers also pass through the book. An added bonus is the artwork, about which Jones works informative explanations into his text. In conclusion, Captives of Liberty is as fun to read as it is informative. Jones proves that the Revolutionary War was not some “civilized” anomaly to armed conflict, but fits firmly in the arc of brutal warfare found everywhere in history. 

T. Cole Jones is an emerging leading voice in the field of American Military History. His work on the Revolutionary War provides new insights in the emergence of the United States as a military power. An assistant professor of history, he is also an associate faculty member of CLA’s FORCES initiative.

Book cover image for "Captives of Liberty"

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