Monday, January 2, 2012

Many local sailors were held in Dartmoor prison during the War of 1812

My focus today is not on a typical old photo from the 19th century. I’ve chosen a foreboding and somewhat creepy image because it points to an important historical theme for the new year. Christina White, the savvy Director of the Freeport Historical Society, recently reminded me that 2012 will usher in the bicentennial of the War of 1812. For those of you can’t imagine why anyone would want to commemorate one of America’s most forgettable wars, pay attention, especially if you live in a seacoast town.

Coastal towns from Portsmouth to Eastport all experienced an economic boom between 1795 and 1805. With shipbuilding on the rise and a growing demand for American agricultural products, the size of the nation’s merchant marine doubled between 1802 and 1810. You can still see this wealth displayed in the elegant Federal style mansions along the main streets of towns like Wiscasset and Kennebunkport. While European countries were embroiled in the bloody Napoleonic wars, American sea captains cheerfully traded with both sides. This rosy situation all changed abruptly when the British imposed an embargo against trade with France and her allies. To enforce that blockade, the Royal Navy needed 140,000 sailors in a hurry. One quick solution was to seize sailors off American ships. This “impressment” of sailors became one of the causes of the War of 1812 and certainly posed a major threat to local sailors.

Dartmoor Prison was a gloomy place high on a windswept hill.

Motivated by these and other grievances, President Madison led the country into war with England in June 1812. Although the United States was very ill prepared, the English forces were completely bogged down in their struggle with Napoleon. This created a window of opportunity for local sailors to become “privateers”. In effect they were state-sponsored pirates who could use their own vessels to seize British merchant ships. These “independent contractors” (as they are now euphemistically called) were motivated by more than patriotism. They were granted the right to auction off the cargoes of their captured prizes at war-inflated prices and split the profits with their crew members.

Given the fact that in the first four months of the war, American privateers captured 219 British merchant vessels, it is not surprising that young men from towns like Freeport and Yarmouth eagerly signed up for voyages on privateers like the Dash. Unfortunately the job was also very dangerous, especially after Napoleon was captured in 1814 and the British navy was able to throw its might against the Americans. So many American sailors were captured that it was no longer feasible to keep them in the rotting old ships that the English used as military prisons. One survivor of these so-called “hulks” was Freeport’s Enos Soule whose vessel was captured by a British frigate. Although Enos survived and later went on to found the Soule Brothers shipyard in South Freeport, his brother Thomas never fully recovered from his time in Dartmoor. The prison claimed another victim when Thomas committed suicide in 1824, very likely from the effects of post traumatic stress.

Old warships ("hulks") became floating prisons.

After a mass escape of prisoners from one of the hulks, the British authorities transferred their American captives to a new high security prison called Dartmoor. Conditions at this place were brutal for the 6500 American sailors and soldiers who were kept there during the War of 1812. Most of them were put to work in stone quarries or they were forced to use the stone to construct additional facilities such as a prison chapel.

The historian William Rowe tells us that at least seven privateers operated out of Yarmouth during the War of 1812, including the schooner Lucy that carried 26 men and one cannon. On January 13, 1814 the Lucy was captured after a nine hour chase by a British warship, the Billerton. Perez Drinkwater, the First Lieutenant on the Lucy, wrote three remarkable letters to family members about his experiences at Dartmoor. After the Billerton returned to her home port of Portsmouth, England, Drinkwater and the other American sailors were temporarily held in one of the prison hulks anchored in the harbor.

He recorded that they spent a week in the old hulk before being forced to march through a snowstorm to Dartmoor prison. Perched on a windswept and rocky moor, the prison was located 1700 feet above sea level where it was exposed to year round blasts of rain or snow. Perez described the starvation rations of black bread and beef tea that they received once a day. He also railed against the cruelty of the guards and the nasty reality of being covered with lice (“creepers”).

In October 1814 he wrote to his wife to tell her that he was concerned about how she was getting along. He told her to seek help from a Yarmouth man named Rotheus who was holding some of Perez’s money. “For I can be no help to you at present, but I hope when I get out of this place to make it up to you.” Just days before his release in April 1815, he described a notorious massacre that occurred when the drunken British commandant of Dartmoor ordered his troops to fire on the American prisoners who were crowded together in the prison yard. Although Perez was unharmed, two members of the Lucy crew were shot, one of them fatally. On a lighter but peculiar note, he told his wife that he was shipping home his filthy bedding. Knowing that it was infested with lice, he advised her not to bring it in the house for a while.

As we move into the bicentennial of the War of 1812, I hope that the stories of local heroes like Enos Soule and Perez Drinkwater will bring the war home and make it worth remembering.

Prisoners like Enos and Thomas Soule were forced to quarry the stones to build St. Michael's church at Dartmoor.


  1. Prisoners of the 1812 War were not forced to quarry stones to build St. Michael's church at Dartmoor. They could volunteer to join a work force and would be paid a wage of sixpence a day, so it was not forced labour. However, payment was made once every quarter and if anyone had attempted to escape from the working party during that time everyone would forfeit their pay. An effective way of ensuring everyone toed the line.

  2. If you would like to hear more about the role of Dartmoor Prison during the War of 1812 I shall be giving a PowerPoint presentation at the 'From Enemies to Allies' International Conference being held at the US Naval Academy, Annapolis on Friday,June, 2013. If you are able to make it please come and say hello.