Prisoner of War Escapes and Escapades

New Newspaper News
The University of Texas has posted two new titles from its extensive holdings of nineteenth century newspapers.  Latest postings are one issue of Augusta’s Banner of the South, for June 11, 1870, one issue of the Augusta Herald for April 13, 1819, and a very nice run of the Herald extending from June 30, 1820 to June 28, 1822

Tales of prisoners of war have been the fodder for adventure tales since Jonah was imprisoned by the whale, since Monte Cristo escaped from the Chateau d”If, and since Hogan organized his heroes.  In the Revolutionary War, the symbol for the barbarity of the enemy was the prison shipJersey, magnified by the poet Philip Freneau; in the War of 1812, the prison of note was Dartmoor, in England.

The most celebrated escapee from Dartmoor, was Mr. R. G., “Late one of the Lieutenants of the [privateer] Brig Rattlesnake, under the command of the gallant David Maffet.”  [American Daily Advertiser, Oct 15, 1814]

From the Richmond Enquirer, July 12, 1815

“After the capture of the Rattlesnake the officers were thrust into Dartmoor prison in common with all the crew, not the least distinction being paid to any one.  Mr. R. G. immediately began to revolve in his own mind the means of escape.  For this purpose he purchased all the old rope yarn he could get & made a rope 80 feet long.  He next made a suit of uniform to resemble the centinels on guard, and this he covered by an old great coat of the same color as the soldiers usually wear when on post.  In lieu of a musket, which they usually at night carry, muzzle down, under their coat, Mr. R. G. substituted an umbrella.  When all was prepared, he bribed one of the centinels on post at the gate and obtained the countersign.  Six guineas was paid to the centinel.  A short time previous to the guard being relieved, at midnight, Mr. R. G. lowered himself by his rope out of an upper window 80 feet high [?] to the ground.  The walls were covered with centinels and if they had discovered him he would certainly have been shot; he, however, descended unhurt; and when the gates were opened at 12, to relieve guards, he boldly marched up armed only with a dagger.  Being challenged at the gate by two centinels, “who comes there?”  “A friend.” “Advance and give the countersign,” which being given, “pass,” said one of the centinels.  The other centinel, who was the one that had given the countersign and received 6 guineas, said “No, he is a prisoner..”  The other, still ignorant, replied, “No, he is one of the guard.”  The traitor, however, insisted on arresting Mr. R. G. and he finding his case desperate and burning with just indignation against the villain who had received his money only to betray him, sprung on him with his dagger, determined to put it out of his power ever to cheat another prisoner.  They however were too quick for him and he was taken and confined in the black hole on bread and water without seeing the light of the sun for ten days.  At the expiration of that time, the infamous Shortland had him bro’t out before him and the following conversation took place.

Shortland.  Pray, sir, how did you obtain the countersign?

Mr. R. G. If the man who gave it to me had behaved honorably to me, Death should not have wrested my secret from me.  This is the character, sir, of the Americans, always true to their engagements; but as the soldier evidently took my money only to deceive me, I will turn the scale on him & expose his conduct.  His name is ________ , he gave me the countersign for six guineas and then basely betrayed me.

Shortland:  Have you any proof to substantiate your evidence?

Mr. R. G.  Yes, sir, eight persons.

After these evidences were examined, Shortland ordered the soldier to be taken away and to receive 300 lashes.  He then addressed himself again to Mr. R. G.

Shortland.  Mr. G. I respect you, you are a brave man, and if you will not attempt to escape, I give you my honor as a British officer you shall be exchanged and go home in the first cartel.

Mr. G.  Sir, I have seen too much of the honor of British officers ever to take their word.  I will escape this very night.

Shortland.  Impossible.  I shall double the centinels and if you attempt it you will most assuredly be shot.

Mr. G.  I do not care.  Death is preferable to remaining in this detestable place.

Shortland.  Go back to your prison sir, & remember what I have told you.

The guards were doubled that night in consequence of Mr. G’s threat.  He obtained the countersign for 3 guineas and lowered himself out of the window [obviously, the British had allowed him to keep his 80 foot rope, as well as his disguise], a little before 12 o’clock.  When the gate was opened he marched through.  The centinel on post hailed, “who comes there?”  “A friend.”  “Friend, advance and give the countersign.”  “Wells.”  “Pass.”    He passed on and was hailed and examined 17 times before he got clear.  He now began to breathe.  It was yet night; he turned round to give a last look at the prison where thousands of his countrymen were suffering a tedious confinement.  No time was to be lost.  He was without money, without friends and like an outlaw on the face of the earth, afraid of every person he should meet.  He avoided the haunts of men or rather savage men, and with what scanty subsistence he could pick up from the fields he made his way to the sea coast, there, hungry and weary, he searched and found a boat 18 feet long, and one oar in it; without provision or water or any guide, except his won genius, he boldly put to sea intending to cross the channel:  the distance over 100 miles.–He sculled his little bark and obtained a good offing.  A gale of wind sprung up from the northward:  he converted his umbrella {the British, of course, would never deprive a body of an umbrella!] and all his clothes into a sail and with his oar he steered for France–about half passage, the sea very high and blowing very fresh, he discovered a brig of war.  His heart now sank within him.  He took in his little sail as quick as possible and laid himself down in the bottom of the boat.  When the brig had passed him a sufficient distance he again made sail and finally, after a passage of 36 hours, safely landed in France, free as air.”

A less spectacular (and perhaps more believable) escape was reported in Charleston March 29, 1813, and reprinted in the Baltimore Patriot on April 6, 1813.

“Five American prisoners, all of whom had been officers in different privateers, made their escape from the prison ship in Kingston (Jamaica) harbor, on the 5th January last.  A canoe being kept upon a stage along-side the ship, with which, after having let themselves out of a port-hole, they rowed off.  This was done at night; and the next morning, having got hold of an old musket in their passage out, they captured a copper-bottomed coasting schooner, and gave the crew (negroes) the canoe, with some provisions and water, to go ashore with; and made the best of their way to the island of Cuba, where they all arrived safe.  One of them is now in this city.”

About the Author

Mary Bowden is a researcher working at the Texas Collections Deposit Library at the University of Texas. A little-known but invaluable treasure of U.S. history and the history of American journalism is archived in the collection of bound United States’ Newspapers at the University of Texas at Austin. The collection began more than a century ago and has been stored in recent years in the Texas Collections Deposit Library on the campus of the University of Texas. The sizeable archive is currently in the early stages of being digitized before being moved to a more climate-controlled environment at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus of the University, on the north side of Austin.

Mary Bowden