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"What was done with soldiers captured at sea?" Topic

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954 hits since 13 Mar 2019
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Comments or corrections?

Winston Smith13 Mar 2019 10:45 a.m. PST

Suppose an American privateer captured a British troop ship with 250 Hessian soldiers onboard.
What would they do with them?
Bear in mind that privateers normally carried excess crew to man prizes to take into a "neutral" port to cash in.

Dadster Supporting Member of TMP13 Mar 2019 10:54 a.m. PST

Any officers with the Hessians? They could be a good source of geld – hold them for ransom. The Hessian troopers – probably no money forthcoming from anyone for them – so sell them as 'laborers' at the first port of call with a market. Or if far enough out at sea – without land fall due for a while and if low on victuals – over the side into the briny they go. Useless mouths to feed….

79thPA Supporting Member of TMP13 Mar 2019 11:33 a.m. PST

Parole and transport to land. Probably an opportunity to sign on if so inclined.

HMS Exeter13 Mar 2019 11:58 a.m. PST

We are the Americans, surrender.

You will be assimilated. Your genetic and ethnic distinctiveness will be added to our own.

Resistance is futile.

Try it,…you'll like it! Lancaster County is lovely this time of year.

historygamer13 Mar 2019 11:59 a.m. PST

They were landed and landed and held captive, just like tn e rest.

Dynaman878913 Mar 2019 12:25 p.m. PST

And like my ancestors (Hessian) quite a few of them decided to stay after the war was over.

Winston Smith13 Mar 2019 3:02 p.m. PST

What if the privateer did not have sufficient crew to both man the ship and guard the prisoners?

Assuming they could, where would they be landed?
Would France accept them if she was not yet at war?

Musketballs13 Mar 2019 5:39 p.m. PST


In those cases where too many prisoners were on hand, it was not unknown for a cartel to be agreed where the captured ship would be allowed to sail back to a friendly port, with those aboard her under obligation not to serve until exchanged.

If a commerce raider accumulated too many prisoners from a succession of captures the same procedure would be followed, with the next capture being used as a cartel to ferry all the prisoners away, or a neutral ship stopped and used.

nevinsrip13 Mar 2019 9:56 p.m. PST

They walked the plank.

Now where's the Associators pictures, Winston?

Dn Jackson13 Mar 2019 11:10 p.m. PST

"What if the privateer did not have sufficient crew to both man the ship and guard the prisoners?"

It was not uncommon to lock them below decks.

Ed Mohrmann Supporting Member of TMP14 Mar 2019 7:09 a.m. PST

If I recall correctly, many of the Hessian/German
mercenaries captured during the AWI were sent to
Western areas on parole.

Reckon same could have been done with troopships'
soldiers, but don't know for sure.

Vincent14 Mar 2019 9:33 a.m. PST

Just remember that if you are a prisoner/soldier it is a pretty terrifying experience. Your life is in the hands of an enemy and you could be killed out of hand at any moment. You are also probably not conditioned for sea travel (ie sea-sick) and have probably no knowledge of how to manage a ship. you are pretty much in your captor's hands. Fortunately there is more money to be had keeping you alive for ransom or payment for possible prisoner exchanges.

79thPA Supporting Member of TMP14 Mar 2019 10:21 a.m. PST

The troops would be locked below deck. If the the troops were offered and accepted parole, there is not need for them to try any monkey business as they won the lottery. They are not going to rot in a jail, nor are they going to have to go in to combat any time soon. When they get ashore they can either disappear, or they can wait for transport back to the home country.

goragrad14 Mar 2019 9:01 p.m. PST

A privateer operating under a letter or marque who killed prisoners would probably be viewed as a pirate and treated accordingly.

Of course unless the troopship was disabled, caught completely by surprise, or otherwise unable to defend itself the likelihood of a privateer capturing it is small.

Privateers, as with pirates operated on the fact that their prey – merchant ships – didn't have crews large enough to adequately defend them. Upon seeing a significant force of infantry on their target one would expect the privateer to break off the action.

Personal logo Bobgnar Supporting Member of TMP14 Mar 2019 9:57 p.m. PST

Back in those days, people still had honor in warfare. Cartels, exchanges, and paroles, would have been Upheld.

42flanker15 Mar 2019 10:17 a.m. PST

On 17th June the George and Annabella, transports carrying two coys of the 71st Regiment from Greenock, entered Boston Harbour, the naval and military officers on board unaware that the city had been abandoned by the British earlier in the summmer (The fleet bringing reinforcements from Britain had been scattered in a storm). After a 12-hour exchange of fire with American privateers and shore batteries, both ships were obliged to surrender. Among those captured was Lieutenant Colonel Campbell, CO of 2nd Bn 71st, together with his adjutant and two quartermasters. Campbell subsequently learned that two other transports, carrying the light coy of the 1st Bn 71st and the grenadiers of the 2nd Bn had also fallen into enemy hands.

On 19th June 1776 he wrote to General Howe:

"I am sorry to inform you, that it has been my unfortunate lot to have fallen into the hands of the Americans, in the middle of Boston harbour…"

Here is the concluding paragraph of his letter: "Since our captivity, I have the honour to acquaint you, that we have experienced the utmost civility and good treatment from the people of power at Boston, insomuch, Sir, that I should do injustice to the feelings of generosity, did I not make this particular information with pleasure and satisfaction.

I have now to request of you, that so soon as the distracted state of this unfortunate controversy will admit, you will be pleased to take an early opportunity of settling a cartel for myself and officer."

According to Stewart of Garth, the transport Oxford carrying men of the Black Watch also fell into enemy hands. The regimental officers ad crew were taken off in the American privateer while a prize crew and guard took charge of the Oxford with the enlisted men of the 42nd still aboard. A few days later the soldiers took control of the ship and, with the aid of a ship's carpenter left on board, nsailed into the Chesapeake. Making landfall at Jamestown, they found this was also in rebel hands and they were made prisoners again, finally being exchanged in 1778.

Winston Smith15 Mar 2019 2:49 p.m. PST

Thank you. Interesting.

I'm reminded of an incident in Lieutenant Hornblower.
His ship was captured at sea.
He was made prisoner in a Spanish port.
After giving his parole, he had the freedom of the city, within limits of course.
While on a walk, he spotted a Spanish merchant ship being pursued in a storm by a British frigate. It hit a notorious and dangerous reef. He quickly got permission from the Mayor (or whoever) to take a volunteer fishing boat out to rescue the sailors. Which he did.
The weather forced his boat out to sea, where it was rescued by the same British ship.
Hornblower informed the Captain that he had given his parole.
"The usual form?"
"Yes Sir."
So at the next opportunity under truce, he returned to the port as a paroled prisoner. The rescued seamen were of course impressed, while the fishermen were released, as per custom.
The notoriety his heroism garnered made a grateful Spain include him in the next exchange.
Fiction of course, but Forrester was a stickler for accuracy.

I've always wondered if having an exchange and parole system amounted to a de facto recognition of a rebel state. Britain and America obviously had a system, pretty early on. Old familiar belligerents like France or Spain and Britain probably had a well established permanent bureaucracy in place. grin
I would love to get more information on this.
It occurred in the American Civil War too.

Musketballs16 Mar 2019 10:03 a.m. PST


There never really was an 'official' agreement between Britain and the US during the Revolution, precisely over the issue of recognition. Instead, numerous little local deals were done instead.
For the War of 1812, a system was agreed at the start of the war, which generally worked well.


However, from November 1812 onwards, the British generally refused to accept the validity of cartels not arranged through the correct appointed agents. This was mainly due to many 'sea-cartels' not following the correct procedure and causing havoc, with neither side aware of exactly how many prisoners they themselves actually had, let alone how many the other side held. Ad-hoc cartels did continue through the war though, when humanity or common sense made it necessary.

Despite having constant warfare forever, there never was a really working agreement between France and Britain during the Napoleonic Wars. There's a few reasons behind that, ranging from the recognition argument with the Republic, through whether Britain should exchange its French prisoners for Spanish not under British command and the relative advantage to be gained from swapping conscripted cannon-fodder for harder-to-obtain volunteer soldiers. Not to mention the tricky issue of the British civilians detained when Amiens broke down.

Local exchanges were common see Wellington's Despatches for some of the haggling over a Lieutenant here and a Captain there, as well as dispute over whether certain individuals were officers or non-combatants.

In late 1813, Wellington was notified by the British Government that Napoleon had proposed a full swap of all British, Spanish and Portuguese prisoners in return for all French prisoners held. Wellington advised against accepting, pointing out that this would return a large force to France, while the Allies had no real need of manpower. IIRC, Edward Paget was the only one he identified as being really missed.

An interesting part of all this that sometimes gets overlooked is the escape of prisoners. You might think that Britain being an island, it would be difficult for the French to get away. Nope…there were nearly 300 escapes from 1810 to the end of the war, with nearly half those being in 1811. All it needed was a complete lack of personal honour, and the rest was pretty simple.
The route used was the major smuggling networks that never stopped working between Britain and the Continent. French luxuries one way, gold guineas, newspapers and prisoners the other. Smugglers even sent agents to major parole hubs to drum up business if the officer agreed the price (and it wasn't cheap), everything was arranged for him transport, safe-houses and channel crossing. Alternatively, families in France with the connections, knowledge and cash would sometimes make the arrangement, although this was rarer.

The escape trade dwindled off after 1811 for a few reasons Wellington's increasingly sarcastic letters home on the number of captured French officer re-appearing in Spain had an effect; the escape of Lefebvre-Desnouettes made the papers and brought unwanted attention which led to some smugglers backing out of that sideline; Napoleon tried to control the smuggling business by setting up an official smugglers haven at Gravelines and cracking down on landings anywhere else. This drastically reduced the number of 'rides' as many smugglers refused to use Gravelines, but could hardly land a prisoner anywhere else.
Escapes did continue, though Phillipon, former Governor of Badajoz, arrived in Oswestry, England as a parolee in May 1812, and was back in France by July. That may well be a record.

Another interesting incident is the 24th Portuguese regiment, taken at Almeida in 1810. Virtually the entire regiment went into French service (Massena having delusions on forming some kind of new Portuguese legion), while quietly passing the word that this was to effect an escape. Wellington's view on this was that it was an acceptable ruse for the rank and file, but dishonourable for the officers. In the event, virtually the entire 24th returned to the Good Side within weeks. The 200 who didn't manage to escape were then sent to France as prisoners.

42flanker16 Mar 2019 10:36 a.m. PST

Thank you for that. Between Royalists and escaped parolees, there's a film pitch to made re. those smuggling tales.

The Channel was ever a grey area.

Musketballs16 Mar 2019 3:37 p.m. PST

As a point of interest, Lejeune's account of his escape:


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