April 10, 2013

Prisoners of war

Captured soldiers during the War of 1812 faced different forms of confinement. Some men could face severe forms of incarceration where others were released soon after being captured.

When militiamen were captured, both the British and Americans often paroled these men after they promised to not fight for the remainder of the war. If men broke this promise, they could be summarily executed if captured.

If American regulars were captured, they would often be sent to Quebec to remain in prison for the duration of the war. In order to get to their prison some soldiers had to face hardship along the way. The Americans captured after the Battle of Queenston Heights in 1812 were paraded through the streets of Montreal while the band played ‘The Rogue’s March’ and ‘Yankee Doodle.’ The hungry and half-naked prisoners, Winfield Scott being among them, were presented to Sir George Prevost where the prisoners were compelled to remove their hats during the playing of ‘God Save the King.’
Winfield Scott
Some American prisoners were not as ‘fortunate’ as those in Montreal. For captured British subjects who joined the American military, they were given a tough choice, join the British military or face trial and execution as traitors. This harsh treatment caused the Americans to threaten the execution of British soldiers in return, leading to a long negotiation between both countries.

Officers of both countries did not have to fear long incarceration. Some officers were permitted to return home until officially exchanged and those that remained prisoner often lived luxuriously compared to their non-officer comrades. The exchange of officers could prove unfortunate for the liberating country. After Winfield Scott’s return to the American Army, he was quickly promoted and proved quite a challenge for the British in the Niagara 1814 campaign.

For some paroled officers lives could get worse. After Lieutenant Porter Hanks surrendered Fort Mackinac in 1812 he was paroled back to the United States. Hanks was held at Fort Detroit while awaiting his court martial for the surrender of Fort Mackinac. While waiting for his trial the fort was attacked by Isaac Brock’s forces. During the bombardment of Fort Detroit, a cannonball ripped through the room where Hanks was standing, cutting him in half and killing the officer beside him.

If you want to learn more about this topic, make sure you head to the Niagara Historical Society on Thursday, April 18 at 7:30 p.m. David Hemmings will be speaking about prisoners in the War of 1812. Click here for more details. Furthermore, this weekend you can head to Fort George for their School of the Soldier event. 

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