May 07, 2014

Longed to be at liberty – Melville prison

During the War of 1812 many were imprisoned by both sides. Melville prison in Nova Scotia was one facility where American prisoners were incarcerated after their capture. In Samuel White’s account of the war, he recounts a description of Melville prison from an assistant surgeon on board an American privateer.

The surgeon’s description of Melville prison was not favourable. He begins by writing that the prison “resembles a horse stable with stalls or stancheons for separating the cattle from each other.” The men slept in hammocks, or attempted to sleep, as the surgeon recounts that the smell of the place was most disagreeable and throughout the night many prisoners would be cursing the prison guards and younger inmates spent the night sobbing.

The author arrived in Melville prison in May 1813 and notes that there were 900 prisoners but many had died the previous winter. The surgeon goes on to state that the men were often mustered outside for parade in the extreme cold with temperatures dipping to ten below zero. The beef rations were a common complaint among the prisoners and on at least one occasion, the prisoners threw their beef over the pickets.
Sketch of Melville Island, 1855

The account goes on to note that about 200 Frenchmen were in Nova Scotia with some of them being there since 1803. The majority of them lived in or near Halifax, working with the inhabitants as cooks and butchers, but some taught dancing and fencing, among other jobs. The author goes on to explain why the French prisoners were treated differently by writing “A Frenchmen always tried to please, while many Americans seem to take an equal delight in letting their master know, that they longed to be at liberty to fight them again.”

Eventually men from Colonel Boerstler failed attack against FitzGibbon reached Melville prison in a deplorable state. After the Battle of Beaverdams the prisoners were marched to Montreal and then packed in transports to Melville. Many of these men had their clothing and possessions taken from them by natives after the Battle of Beaverdams.

In 1814, the men of Melville prison continued to suffer as a harsh winter stuck Nova Scotia, causing many prisoners to suffer from frostbite. Thankfully, for the prisoners news came in February of peace. After settling their debts, many officers found transport back to the U.S., ending their long imprisonment.

On May 11 head out to McFarland House for their annual Mother’s Day Afternoon Tea. Click here for more information.

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