Finding a born and bred Georgian these days is a little like finding a needle in a haystack especially in the Atlanta area. Fuss all you want to about transplants, but over the years they have helped drag Georgia into the civilized world by attempting to eradicate the negatives alongside natives while assimilating into all things Georgia by keeping the many, many positives our unique culture provides. I love transplants….I’d better anyway….my father-in-law happens to be one. However, transplants aren’t just a 20th and 21st century aspect of living in the modern South. We had them during the American Revolution as well.
Recently I posted 1,2,3,4...I Declare a Paper War over at History Is Elementary. In the post I combined a classroom management strategy with some very poor poetry President James Madison wrote while he was a student at Jersey College….today’s Princeton. It had been quite awhile since I had thought about the strategy or the fact that President Madison had participated in a little harmless “frat boy” fun while in college so I wanted to get my facts straight. When I went back to the stacks to check my sources the name of a friend of Madison caught my attention……Moses Allen.
Rev. Allen was from Massachusetts and attended Jersey College at the same time as young Madison. Visit the post (link above) to find out how “frat boys” in the 1700s had fun. In the meantime I’d like to focus on Moses Allen and his connection to Georgia.
Moses Allen did graduate from college and he became a minister. During the American Revolution he took the position of minister at Midway Congregational Church (an image of the church is with this post) making him a northern transplant. My students are often very disappointed that the colony of Georgia was not as involved in events leading up to the Revolution as the colonies of Massachusetts and Virginia, so I’m always looking for great stories and events to share with them involving their “homeland”. The story of Moses Allen is one such series of events.
The community of Midway was the focal point of Patriot activity in the colony of Georgia leading up to Lexington and Concord and afterward. Immediately upon arriving at Midway, Rev. Allen became involved in speaking out from the pulpit against the British even going so far as to advise his congregation to take up arms. When the First Georgia Continental Battalion was formed Rev. Allen took the position as their chaplain.
Early in 1778 the British marched north from Florida with the community at Midway as their target along with Savannah. British leaders ordered the meeting house to be burned along with many other buildings and stored crops were destroyed.
By December, 1778, Rev. Allen was taken prisoner along with members of his battalion. While the officers were taken to Sunbury where they were paroled, the reverend was taken along with the other men to Savannah where they were placed on British prisoner-of-war ships. Allen’s sermons had not made him a popular figure among the British.
When researching British prison ships used during the Revolution it is very easy to find published accounts dealing with the events in the North mainly focusing on the ships that were stationed in New York’s harbor, however, after Saratoga the focus of the British switched to the South, and prisoner-of-war ships were soon seen from Savannah’s shores.
This article is one online source I found that mentions prisoner-of-war ships in the South. The ships were terrible places to be even though early reporting tended to dismiss the severity of life onboard and deaths as a result of imprisonment were often underreported. The article mentioned above states the Americans that were captured in and around Savannah in 1778 wre held until there was an exchange in 1779, but jails soon filled up again and another prison ship was requested from New York. Pierre Colomb, a Frenchman in a Georgia unit of the Continental Army remembered that over 300 soldiers were held on the ships and that six prisoners had to sleep in a space only five feet wide.
Scurvy was rampant, at least three or four wretches a day died, and this number was soon increased to ten or twelve, the brutal nature of their diseases leaving to others only the task of throwing the bodies overboard. The number of sick increased every day. The poisoned air we breathed affected even the healthiest among us, and yet no help was forthcoming, no medicines, no fresh supplies of any sort.
The article goes on to state …the prospect of confinement on a prison ship also served as a powerful inducement to join the king’s side. Horror stories of New York prison ships had made such vessels infamous by the time the Southern campaign had started. One rebel protested that “all that will not agree to take Arms [the British] are sending on board Prison ships." Seemingly, the threat was successful. Continental General Nathanael Greene wrote in May, 1781 that “one third of the force employed [against us] in the southern states, if we are to form a judgement from the prisoners we take, are deserters from our Army, and prisoners enlisted from our captives.”
This Newsday article focuses mainly on ship conditions in the North, but helps to create a graphic image of what life aboard the ships was like. The article states there were various ways to get off the prison ships. The British had a standing offer that an prisoner could be released immediately if he joined the British forces, and an unidentified number did so. Prisoners who carried money with them could buy their way off the ship. Others managed to escape. Also, prisoner exchanges were quite common, with officers exchanged for officers, seamen for seamen, soldiers for soldiers. But for vast numbers of prisoners, there were only two possibilities: death or the end of the war, whichever came first.
Rather than choose the squalid conditions aboard the prison ships Rev. Allen opted to throw himself overboard in an attempt to escape on February 8, 1779. Sadly he was drowned in the attempt. The story goes that a few of his friends found his body along the river shore, but the British refused to provide any boards to construct a coffin.
This site contains the text of a letter written by Rev. Allen in 1777 along with two sites for publications containing information regarding his life.