Saturday January 22, 2011

GREAT BARRINGTON

Berkshire County played a role in most North American conflicts, but perhaps its most unusual was as a prisoner of war nexus during the War of 1812. J.E.A. Smith in his "History of Pittsfield 1800 to 1876" describes the era as one of great political discontentment. James Madison was president. We were at war with Great Britain. Federalists opposed the war. Democrats backed it. Pittsfield was a manufacturing town. Lemuel Pomeroy's factory laborers turned out muskets for the military. Textile mills flourished. Elkanah Watson inaugurated the Berkshire Agricultural Society fair.

An unexpected novelty appeared in autumn 1813, according to historian Smith, when "the first elephant which ever crossed the Berkshire hills. It was exhibited, on the 6th and 7th of October -- the 6th being cattle-show -- in the open space east of Captain Campbell's coffee-house on Bank row."

Pittsfield was designated as a depot for prisoners of war. Local tradesmen appreciated the extra business. Orders flew for cloth, food and materiels. With the Federalists nagging at his heels, Major Thomas Melville Jr., commissary and superintendent of supplies, established order in his department.

American troops, meanwhile, poured into the city to organize and drill before striking off for the Great Lakes to scuffle with the British. "One entire company of the 9th regiment, and apportion of the others, were raised in Berkshire," Smith said.


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Their battlefield success generated a problem: where to house prisoners such as the 200 that showed up in Pittsfield December 1813.

The captured soldiers were kept initially in a barracks, then in two barns at the rear of the Cantonment on North Street. Expecting another 1,500 prisoners, Melville, working with little or no funds from the national government, enlisted Captain Hosea Merrill, a lumber dealer and builder, to construct new quarters. Until they were ready, measures were taken to maintain prisoners in Cheshire and Stockbridge.

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One of those prisoners was Lt. David Wingfield, commander of a small schooner, the Vincent, captured July 30, 1813, at Lake Ontario. Wingfield wrote in his journal: "The officers who were taken in Canada were sent to Pittsfield; and on our arrival we were informed by Major Melville that we were still to consider ourselves as hostages, but the government gave us leave to reside at different houses in Cheshire, provided we sign our paroles to confine ourselves strictly within the limits of that farm, and not to walk in any public road. If we refused, we were to be confined in the depot at this place, until the negotiations for a release, or an exchange, was terminated. As the former was preferable to confinement we had no hesitation in complying. After signing our paroles we were informed by Major Melville we might take our own time in proceeding to Cheshire."

When he reached Cheshire, Wingfield said, "I was seized with a severe fit of fever and ague, and at last reduced to such a state of weakness as to be unable to sit up above an hour at a time."

The deputy marshal in Pittsfield eventually gave permission for the prisoners to leave the farms. "We easily procured horses," Wingfield said, "and made excursions to every town and village within ten or fifteen miles of Cheshire, which made this the most pleasant time by far, of any we had passed since we had been taken, and I believe I continued it for sometime after I had perfectly recovered, on purpose to have the indulgence continued. While I was in this state we received our paroles with the same limits as at first, and several of the officers were permitted to go to Canada on three months leave, but if not exchanged within that period, to return."

Wingfield was released after nine months as a prisoner, and returned to Kingston, Ontario, at the Upper Great Lakes. After three years in North America, Wingfield returned to England. His journal in Canada's National Archives was transcribed and published in 2009.

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British soldiers and sailors were not the only prisoners held in Pittsfield and Cheshire, but they were the greatest in number, and as a rule were not well behaved.

"Many of them were habitually unruly," Smith wrote, "and, on two occasions at least, plots to escape in a body and by violence, were formed, and it became necessary to cover the prisons with the cannon, of which the post had four nine-pounders, with a threat of firing unless order was restored. At other times the small-arms of the guard sufficed.

"The least troublesome of the prisoners were the Germans," Smith went on. "The most unruly and dangerous were about 170 marine and sailors -- the survivors of a picked detachment sent out from the lake fleet ."

The War of 1812 was resolved in 1814 with the Treaty of Ghent. But before news of the compact arrived to these shores, the infamous Battle of New Orleans took place late that year and into the next at Chalmette Plantation. Maj. Gen. Andrew "Old Hickory" Jackson gained victory with a conglomerate army of everyone from former black Haitian slaves to Tennessee frontiersmen to Jean Lafitte's pirates.

The prisoner-of-war camp in Cheshire? No longer needed and long gone.

Bernard Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.