By Elijah McGuire-Berk
Elm Staff Wrtier
On Oct. 23 in Hynson Lounge, Associate Professor of History Ken Miller gave a talk about his first book, “Dangerous Guests; Enemy Captives and Revolutionary Communities During the War for Independence.”
Before Miller spoke, Director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience Adam Goodheart and a friend of Dr. Miller’s gave an opening speech regarding Dr. Miller and his book.
The book is specifically about the treatment of British and Colonial prisoners during the war for American independence. Like many ideas, it didn’t start out where it ended up. Dr. Miller was given the idea for the book many years ago when he was working on his dissertation. Dr. Miller wanted it to be about a story involving a colonial wife who hired two British war prisoners to kill her husband. He said, “My advisor said ‘this will never work, but the British prisoners are an interesting topic. Try to work with those.’” So he did.
It was not an easy task. Dr. Miller said it involved “pain and sweat and not a few tears.” In order to complete the book, he needed to go through a lot of documents over the course of many years.
During the talk, Dr. Miller read from chapter three of “Dangerous Guests.” The excerpt was about Lancaster, Pa. from late 1775 to late 1776 during which colonial forces took roughly 400 British prisoners of war. While Lancaster was an ideal place to keep the prisoners due to the local population’s primarily anti-British views, it lacked the facilities, personnel, and the necessary guidelines needed to keep 400 prisoners of war.
The people of Lancaster decided to simply allow the prisoners to live around the town. They even helped them out when they first arrived in December of 1775 by giving them blankets and food. Even though they viewed the British troops as enemies, they also knew that they were bound by a code of honor not to harm civilians. This method did not work. Six British officers decided to escape by dressing up as Colonists, going on what they referred to as a “fishing trip,” and never returning from it.
While hospitality towards prisoners did not yield the desired results, Miller did bring up the method used by the British to hold their prisoners, namely the prison ships. Those ships were infamous for locking up multiple prisoners in a single room below deck.
The reaction of the Colonists to the escape of the British officials was also mentioned in Dr. Miller’s lecture. The Colonists’ fear of disguised British soldiers led to the implementation of stricter prison guidelines. Such guidelines included things like stricter watch over the prisoners and a more rigid enforcement of the rule that prohibited prisoners from being more than six miles from Lancaster.
For more information on the topic of war prisoners during the American Revolution, Dr. Miller’s book can be found on Amazon or at the WC Bookstore.