A Privateersman's Letters Home from Prison
by Bruce Felknor
Capt. George Duffy's POW Page brings us outstanding accounts of many of our fellow WW II veterans who were prisoners of war. Now the courtesy of an editor at Naval Institute Press enables me to share with you the remarkable letters from prison of a Yankee privateersman captured in the War of 1812. The editor is Kimberley A. VanDerveer, the production editor on my book "The U.S. Merchant Marine at War, 1775-1945." She is a direct descendant of the author of the letters, Perez Drinkwater of North Yarmouth, Maine. His letters were first published in the Machias [Maine] Union on May 3, 1881, when the War of 1812 was as recent as World War II is to us.
Perez Drinkwater was lieutenant of the privateer schooner "Lucy" when he was captured by the British Navy brig "Billerikin" in the last days of 1813. He was landed, with the rest of his crew, in the southwest of England, as he wrote to his brother Elbridge Drinkwater at home. It is obvious that he wrote repeatedly, but neither his earlier letters nor answers to them ever got through. In the first letter, five months into his incarceration, it is obvious that the experience had done nothing to sweeten his disposition toward his captors.
[In the letters below, I have added paragraphing, but left other punctuation and spelling untouched.]
DARTMOOR PRISON Saturday Morning, May 20th, 1814
Dr. Brother -
. . .We arrived into Plymouth on the 20th of Janurary was put on board the [prison-ship] Brave on the 24th and was landed from her on the 31 and marched to this place in a snow storm. This Prison is situated on one of the highest places in England and it either snows or rains the whole year round and is cold enough to wear a great coat the whole time there is 10,000 of us here now but the French are about going home. . .
This is the first time that I was ever deprived of my Liberty and when I sit and think of it it almost deprives me of my sences for we have nothing else to do but sit and reflect on our preasant situation which is bad anough god noes for we have but 1 lb and a half of black bread and about 3 ounces of beef and a Little beef tee to drink and all that makes us one meal a Day the rest of the time we have to fast which is hard times for the days are very Long heir now I want to get out of heir before the war is over so that I can have the pleasure of killing one Englishman and drinking his blood which I think I could do with a good will for I think them the worst of all the human race for their is no crimes but what they are gilty of. . . .
. . . yisterday they called up 500 French men to go away their was one that had been in prison Nine years and had worn his blanket out so that he had but half of it to give those rebels and on that acount they sent him back and put him on the bottom of the books for exchangeing, the man took it so hard that he cut his throught and was found dead between the prison dores, and a thousand other such deeds they have been guilty of since we have been confined heir in this cursed place and a monght these rebels for I can call them nothing better and I shall never dye happy till I have had the pleasure of killing one of them which I am determined to do if an oppertunity ever offers to me to doe it. . . .
. . .we have plenty of creepers [insects such as bedbugs and lice] heir to turn us out in the morning, them and the Englishmen together don't Let us have much peace Day nor night for they are both enimyes to us and Likewise to peace and the more they can torment the human rase the better they are pleased. . . .
I hope that you will write to me every oppertunity that affored you to do for it would be a happy thing for me to heir from you I have wrote several Letters to you be fore and shall still continue to write every oppertunity, you must tell Sally to bare her misfortunes with as much fortitude as she can till my return I must conclude with wishing you all well. So god bless you all and be with you for I cannot.
From your sincere friend & Brother.
A well-dressed privateersman shown at right
Perez's letter to his wife (below) appears to be the only one that got through -- though he kept trying -- despite the ever-present "creepers," which -- small wonder -- were getting on his nerves.
ROYAL PRISON, Dartmore Oct. 12th 1814
Dear Sally -
It is with regret that I have to inform you of my unhappy situation that is, confined heir in a loathsom prison where I have wourn out almost 9 months of my Days; and god knows how long it will be before I shall get my Liberty again. . . . I cheer my drooping spirits by thinking of the happy Day when we shall have the pleasure of seeing you and my friends. . .
This same place is one of the most retched in this habbited world. . . neither wind nor water tight, it is situated on the top of a high hill and is so high that it either rains, hails or snows almost the year round for further partickulars of my preasant unhappy situation, of my strong house, and my creeping friends which are without number. . . .
. . .my best wishes are that when these few lines come to you they will find you, the little Girl [his daughter] my parents Brothers sisters all in good helth I have wrote you a number of letters since my inprisenment here and I shall still trouble you with them every oppertunity that affords me till I have the pleasure of receiving one from you which I hope will be soon. . . .
I am compeled to smugle this out of prison for they will not allow us to write to our friends if they can help it. . . . So I must conclude with telling you that I am not alone for there is almost 5,000 of us heir, and creepers a 1000 to one. . .
Give my Brothers my advice that is to beware of coming to this retched place for no tongue can tell what the sufferings are heir till they have a trial of it. So I must conclude with wishing you all well so God bless you all. This is from your even [ever] derr and beloved Husband.
PEREZ DRINKWATER, Jun.
The Treaty of Ghent ended the war in December 1814, but Perez Drinkwater and several thousand other Americans languished in prison month after month. The following April he was still there when the wanton and brutal massacre (which he spells variously) of American prisoners was ordered by a drunken British officer.
One survivor said the prisoners were wont to play ball in the prison yard. When a random ball would sail over the wall, the sentry would toss it back, but one day he refused. Several prisoners threatened to dig under the wall to retrieve it, and when he refused they started digging.
When the prison commander discovered this, he ordered all prisoners into the compound, where he had stationed squads of soldiers at eight different points, and now ordered them to fire. Perez writes below that only seven men were killed and thirty-eight wounded. Other accounts put the toll as high as hundreds of men, mostly American
seamen. Perez may have been citing only what he saw in his section. One tradition has it that most of the soldiers deliberately fired in the air. If so, it could explain a low death toll. However, two days after the massacre, and the very day before his release, Perez Drinkwater wrote to his father and mother with news of his impending freedom, and with a chilling postscript on the massacre.
A.D. 1815 DARTMOOR PRISON Ap. 8th
I have the pleasure to inform you that I am in good helth and my best wishes are that when these few lines Come to hand they may find you the same and all my frinds. Dowtless you have heird of the marcichre [massacre] of Dartmoor in which ther was 7 killed and 38 wounded, it was done on the 6th of this month, the soldiers fired on us when we were all in the yard about 5000 they fired on us in all directions and after we was [back] in the prison they killed a number in the prison.
It was one of the most retched things that ever took place Amonghts the savages much more amonghts peple that are the bullworks of our religion. I had the good fortin [fortune] to escape their fury, but they killed some while begging for mercy after being wounded they likewise kicked and mangle the dead right before our faces. Pain Perry of North Yarmouth was one that was wounded but not bad. . . .
I shall leave heir to morrow morning for London and from their to Crownstad and from their to Portland in the brig Albert of Portland I think it will be much more to my advantage than to return home in a corveat [corvette] as it will be some time before it comes to my turn. . . .
There is a number of men here that belong to Yarmouth, falmouth, freeport and Pownal that will inform you of the Late mascree [massacre] at this place . . . one of our Crew was killed in the Late Marseehree [massacre] his name was James Man two has died besid John Strout belonging to Portland tomorrow will be a happy day if I live to see it as I shall get my liberty Please to remember me to my friends & to my Wife I hope that you [will] assist her till my return which I hope will be in 4 months.
I remain your obedient son,
As to the massacre and the tradition that many of the riflemen deliberately missed, it should be noted that in that era British troops, and warships as well, placed little emphasis on aimed fire and great stress on rapid fire. The quality of mercy implied in the tradition was scarcely evident in the brutality that Perez reported to his parents. Prison has often been observed to brutalize jailers as well as prisoners.
Perez Drinkwater eventually did return home, and took up postwar life and activity in community affairs, and died an old man, full of age and honors.
Map adapted from Encyclopedia Britannica.
Other illustrations from Picture Book of the Revolution's Privateers, C. Keith Wilbur, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books, 1973
Bruce Felknor's Home Page
Merchant Marine in War of 1812
American Prisoners of War buried at Dartmoor Prison
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