|Main entrance to Dartmoor - photo cred: B. Henlev|
Designed by Daniel Asher Alexander and constructed originally between 1806 and 1809 by local labour, to hold prisoners of the Napoleonic Wars, it was also used to hold American prisoners from the War of 1812. Although the war ended with the Treaty of Ghent in December 1814, many American prisoners of war still remained in Dartmoor.
From the spring of 1813 until March 1815 about 6,500 American sailors were imprisoned at Dartmoor. These were naval prisoners, and impressed American seamen discharged from British vessels. Whilst the British were in charge of the prison, the prisoners created their own governance and culture. They had courts which meted out punishments, there was an in-prison market, a theatre and a gambling room. About 1,000 of the prisoners were black Americans.
After the prisoners heard of the Peace of Ghent, they expected immediate release, but the British government refused to let them go on parole or take any steps until the treaty was ratified by the United States Senate, 17 February 1815. It took several weeks for the American agent to secure ships for their transportation home, and the men grew very impatient. On 4 April, a food contractor attempted to work off some damaged hardtack on them in place of soft bread and was forced to yield by their insurrection. The commandant, Captain T. G. Shortland, suspected them of a design to break out of the gaol. This was the reverse of the truth in general, as they would lose their chance of going on the ships, but a few had made threats of the sort, and the commandant was very uneasy.About 6:00 pm of the 6th, Shortland discovered a hole from one of the five prisons to the barrack yard near the gun racks. Some prisoners were outside the fence, noisily pelting each other with turf, and many more were near the breach (and the gambling tables), though the signal for return to prisons had sounded. Shortland was convinced of a plot, and rang the alarm bell to collect the officers and have the men ready. This precaution brought back a crowd just going to quarters. Just then a prisoner broke a gate chain with an iron bar and a number of the prisoners pressed through to the prison market square. After attempts at persuasion, Shortland ordered a charge which drove some of the prisoners in. Those near the gate, however, hooted at and taunted the soldiery, who fired a volley over their heads. The crowd yelled louder and threw stones, and the soldiers, probably without orders, fired a direct volley which killed and wounded a large number.
Then they continued firing at the prisoners, many of whom were now struggling to get back inside the blocks.
Finally the captain, a lieutenant and the hospital surgeon (the other officers being at dinner) succeeded in stopping the shooting and caring for the wounded – about 60, 30 seriously, besides seven killed outright. The affair was examined by a joint commission, Charles King for the United States and F. S. Larpent for Great Britain, which exonerated Shortland, justified the initial shooting and blamed the subsequent deaths on unknown culprits. The British government provided for the families of the killed, pensioned the disabled and promoted Shortland.
|American Cemetery and Memorial|
|American Memorial and list of Dead American Prisoners|
The American Cemetery is tended, funded, and maintained by Daughters of the War of 1812.
|French Cemetery and memorial|
Dartmoor was reopened in 1851 as a civilian prison, but was closed again in 1917, when it was converted into a Home Office Work Centre for certain conscientious objectors granted release from prison; cells were unlocked, inmates wore their own clothes, and could visit the village in their off-duty time. It was reopened as a prison in 1920, and then contained some of Britain's most serious offenders.
Now, as we mentioned above, the prisoners are men convicted of less serious crimes of a generally non-violent nature. They are allowed some freedoms and many are quite talented artists, woodcarvers, and sculptors. The products they make are frequently sold in the museum store and the prisoners derive some financial benefit from the sales.
The Museum is quite well done and offers a pretty complete view of the history of Dartmoor Prison.
On a final note, this weekend marks, in America, Memorial Day, a day we remember those who paid the ultimate price for our freedom. A solemn and fitting tribute from a grateful populace.
Until next time,