Revolutionary POWs and American Identity
A new book by Professor Ken Miller explores how life next to thousands of British and Hessian prisoners of war helped transform a Revolutionary community’s sense of self and country.
CHESTERTOWN, MD—In a book due this August from Cornell University Press, Associate Professor of early American history Ken Miller reveals how wartime pressures nurtured a budding patriotism in the ethnically diverse revolutionary community of Lancaster, Pa., where thousands of British and Hessian prisoners of war were held in the town’s makeshift detention camp.
Dangerous Guests: Enemy Captives and Revolutionary Communities during the War for Independence highlights the patriots’ heated and unpredictable dealings with their prisoners. As the escalating hostilities brought hundreds and soon thousands of prisoners to Lancaster’s doorstep, residents faced a daily war at home, where many of the detainees openly defied their hosts—fleeing, plotting, and rebelling, often with the clandestine support of local loyalists. General George Washington, furious over the captives’ ongoing attempts to subvert the American war effort, branded them “dangerous guests in the bowels of our Country.”
For Miller, the prisoners of war furnished a useful lens for investigating the local development of Americans’ embryonic national identity, a process complicated by colonial Lancaster’s bewildering mix of ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups.
While interactions with the hostile detainees encouraged many residents to transcend their longstanding differences and define themselves collectively against a common enemy, there also were significant numbers who sympathized with the captive Hessians or considered the British prisoners to be the true patriots in the struggle. Ultimately, as residents grew increasingly alienated from the British, they became more deeply invested in a distinct American identity.
“Alliances were forged and then severed as circumstances required,” noted Revolutionary-era historian Caroline Cox writes. “As Miller relates these shifting challenges, he shows that individuals and communities repeatedly reinvented themselves.”