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In The Revolutionary War, Rape Was A Weapon And a Punishment

by Daniel Russ on November 11, 2019

(This is always the tragedy of military history. You see we all forgive the atrocities on the battlefield and ignore those afterwards. But the honor of battle and fighting for the Crown or the President always evanesces when we see our history is replete with crime. This is from Rick Atkinson’s The British Are Coming.)


One loyalist called “fire-and-sword men.” Even before returning to New York, Howe decreed that flour and salt provisions exceeding a family’s need should be considered “a rebel store, [to] be seized for the Crown.” Confiscation hardly stopped with flour. “They have taken hogs, sheep, horses, and cows, everywhere,” Lieutenant Peale told his journal. “Even children have been stripped of their clothes, in which business the Hessian women are the most active.” A German soldier reportedly rode back to Manhattan with a stolen grandfather clock on his horse.



In the Raritan valley, 650 houses—the homes of about a third of the families in Middlesex County—would be ransacked or burned, along with mills, churches, and other structures. A Presbyterian pastor wrote that Newark “looked more like a scene of ruin than a pleasant, well-cultivated village.… Their plundering is so universal, and their robberies so atrocious, that I cannot fully describe their conduct.” The rampage, he added, targeted “fences, barns, stables, and other outhouses, the breaking of chests, drawers, desks, tables, and other furniture.” From Elizabeth Town to Burlington, victims carefully listed their losses: silver plate, scarlet cloaks, velvet breeches, swanskin waistcoats, surgical instruments, frying pans, jewelry, bombazine gowns, and a “large mahogany case of wax works.” Goose down leaking from feather beds marked the path of spoliation. Princeton had been insulted by predatory American troops in recent months, but the king’s men pillaged with a methodical vengeance, felling apple and pear trees for firewood, burning gristmills, butchering sheep and milk cows, stealing horseshoes from farriers and leather from tanning vats. Nassau Hall at the College of New Jersey was ransacked—the stone cellar became a dungeon—and rare books from Leipzig and Birmingham vanished. “Our army when we lay there spoiled and plundered a good library,” a sergeant in the 49th Foot acknowledged. Farmers in nearby villages were beaten and robbed. “Maidenhead and Hopewell are entirely broken up,” according to an account published on December 12. “The houses are stripped of every article of furniture, and what is not portable is entirely destroyed.”


Loyalists suffered as well as patriots, not least because even Hessians who could read the protection papers often ignored them. An outspoken Tory in Newark who cheered the arrival of British soldiers reportedly had “his very shoes taken off his feet, and they threatened to hang him.” William Livingston, who had succeeded William Franklin as governor, wrote, “The rapacity of the enemy was boundless, their rapine indiscriminate, and their barbarity unparalleled.” Soon after retreating across the Delaware, Washington also began to get reports of rape by British and Hessian soldiers, especially in a rural area north of Trenton. A magistrate, Jared Sexton, took sworn testimony that proved horrifying: the widow Mary Phillips reported being gang-raped, as did Mary Campbell, five months pregnant, and Elizabeth Cain, age fifteen. Rebekhah Christopher reported being raped by two men. Abigail Palmer, age thirteen, said she was raped by soldiers who threatened to blind her with bayonets if she screamed. Sexton’s affidavits were printed in the Pennsylvania Evening Post with the victims’ names redacted, although they were included in a report subsequently sent to Congress.


Other testimonials accumulated as county justices, clergymen, and the governors of New Jersey and New York investigated further, identifying victims as young as ten and as old as seventy in what the historian David Hackett Fischer described as “an epidemic of rape.” “God made these men,” a Quaker said of the assailants, “but I am sure the devil governs them.” General Greene told the governor of Rhode Island in mid-December that enemy “ravages in the Jerseys exceeds all description. Men slaughtered, women ravished, and houses plundered. Little girls not ten years old ravished. Mothers and daughters ravished in the presence of their husbands and sons.” General Howe would tell the House of Commons that during his command in America only one accusation of rape was brought against a royal soldier, whose prosecution ended when the victim declined to testify.


Other allegations, Howe insisted, were American propaganda, although he had tacitly acknowledged disciplinary difficulties in the late fall, when he asked London for additional Guards officers because “it is not in the power of a few officers to keep the men under proper restraint.” The historians Leonard Lundin and Sylvia Frey later concluded that most claims of rape were secondhand and lacked corroborative evidence. Yet in late 1776, several British officers encouraged despicable behavior, while others voiced alarm at the resultant atrocities. Captain Francis Lord Rawdon, now commanding a company in the 63rd Foot, wrote in a private letter from New York that “we should, whenever we get further into the country, give free liberty to the soldiers to ravage at will,” so that “these infatuated wretches … may feel what a calamity war is.” He noted that “the fresh meat our men have gotten has made them as riotous as satyrs. A girl cannot step into the bushes to pluck a rose without running the most imminent risk of being ravished.” Major Charles Stuart wrote his father, a former prime minister, that even loyalists were treated like rebels, with “neither their clothing or property spared, but in the most inhuman and barbarous manner torn from them.” Soldiers, he added, disregarded repeated orders “against this barbarity.” Major Matthew Dixon, the British chief engineer, noted in his orderly book that two soldiers from the 57th Foot had been sentenced to death for rape in New York; “the present licentious behavior of the troops is a disgrace to the country they belong to,” he wrote. Major Stephen Kemble, a native of New Brunswick who served as Howe’s deputy adjutant, decried “every species of rapine and plunder.” Beginning in Westchester County, he had written in his journal of “scandalous behavior” by British troops; the Hessians were “outrageously licentious and … threaten with death all such as dare obstruct them in their depredations. Violence to officers frequently used.… Shudder for Jersey.” Lieutenant John Peebles of the Black Watch made note in his journal of rapes in Rhode Island in December, adding, “There have been other shocking abuses of that nature that have not come to public notice.” Joseph Galloway, a Philadelphia lawyer who had served in Congress but would defect to the Howes in New York this month, subsequently denounced “the savage brutality” of the king’s troops. “In respect to the rapes,” he wrote, “it appears that no less than twenty-three were committed in one neighborhood in New Jersey.”


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