RELIEVE US OF THIS BURTHEN: American Prisoners of War in the Revolutionary South, 1780-1782. By Carl P. Borick. University of South Carolina Press. 170 pages. $29.95.
In its long and illustrious history, the Charleston area has been the scene of confinement for combatants of the many wars fought by our state and nation.
Prisoners from the Indian Wars, the American Revolution, the War Between the States, World War II and the current war on terror have spent involuntary sojourns in the area.
In this new examination of Charleston during the Revolutionary era, Carl P. Borick, assistant director of the Charleston Museum, brings to the fore perspectives derived from writing his 2003 study, “A Gallant Defense: The Siege of Charleston, 1780.”
One of the consequences of the failure of that gallant defense was the pesky presence of almost 4,000 Continentals, militia and seamen suddenly under the jurisdiction of their British captors.
Wars were fought under different rules back in the old days. Many captives were released on their honor to return to their homes and not rejoin the ranks in arms against the crown. Others were released to stay within the limits of the city, even retaining possession of their side arms, with certain restrictions against being involved in troublesome activity.
These more civilized approaches to dealing with prisoners soon were swept aside when the British determined they were neither workable nor safe solutions.
Many of the enlisted men were gathered up and taken aboard ships anchored around the harbor, where they endured a harsh confinement without adequate clothing, food or basic medical attention. The officers were removed to Haddrell’s Point on Mount Pleasant, where they complained about affronts to their status and their “honor.”
Borick chronicles many of their stories in sharp detail, revealing their concerns, depths of deprivation and the faltering efforts on the part of the British and the Continental forces to secure their relief and exchange.
Other interesting developments revealed by the author were the enormous rate of escape — more than 1,000 — and the recruitment and outright impressments of around 800 American prisoners into the British armed forces. By the end of the conflict, only 740 prisoners remained to be exchanged.
Borick has done a commendable job of investigating new sources and brings to light in an interesting and readable way a story that expands the depths of our knowledge about the long history of Charleston and South Carolina.
Reviewer Ben McC. Moise, an author and free-lance writer based in Charleston