The Hard Life of a Soldier

The facts of life for eighteenth-century soldiers were grim. Battle was only one of the dangers soldiers faced. Many men paid with their lives for bad food, clothing, and housing.

The Failures of Medicine

On both sides in the war, more men died of disease than combat. Camp sanitation was often poor. Combined with poor diet and shelter, it could lead to lethal distempers that ravaged the troops. Typhus and smallpox were major killers. The Continental army combated smallpox with forced inoculations, which saved lives.

Medical science in the eighteenth century was for the most part primitive and ineffective. The application of military medicine generally decreased a soldier's chances of survival. Hospitals were dark and unsanitary. General Anthony Wayne described one as a “house of carnage.” Treatments included amputations with dirty instruments, bleedings, and purgings. Soldiers were fortunate if nature was allowed to take its course when they fell ill.

Prisoners of War

The British treatment of American prisoners of war was scandalous. More than 8,500 Americans died in captivity, 47 percent of the total. The British housed their prisoners in overcrowded facilities, the worst being twenty-eight prison ships, most of which inhabited the waters around New York. Life aboard the prison ships was a horror. Men were confined for most of the day in filthy holds that reeked of human waste. Food was inadequate in quantity and quality, often being spoiled and teeming with maggots. In addition, the prison ships were ridden with disease.

Not all captives languished in prison. Some gained their liberty by joining the other side. Others were set free on parole. A paroled prisoner promised he would not take up arms again until formally exchanged. Exchanges involved the formal swapping of prisoners by the two sides.

British prisoners in American hands fared better, though they often did not receive full rations and suffered from disease. The only prisoners who faced intentional mistreatment were loyalists. It was comparatively easy for British prisoners to escape, and many started new lives in America.

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