The early 1800’s was a difficult time for England. Already at war with France and Napoleon Bonaparte, the financial strain was further increased when it entered into a war with America. The War of 1812 sometimes referred to as “the Second War of Independence” was fought between the United States and Great Britain from 1812 to 1814.
English instituted extensive maritime barricades of European ports to prevent American ships helping the French. The resulting seizures of American merchant shipping quickly brought demands for retaliation from the United States.
On June 18, 1812, the United States declared war on Great Britain. Almost immediately they called for an invasion of Canada. The initial American successes turned to a number of defeats resulting in English ships effectively blockading the American coastline and subjecting it to a series of hit and run raids and the capture of numerous ships.
In 1814 with France collapsing, Great Britain launched a number of major attacks on American cities, resulting in the burning of the White House and other public buildings. With America facing bankruptcy, morale was extremely low.
The majority of the crew captured from the American ships were transported to Plymouth in southwest England to spend their time in notorious Dartmoor prison, constructed primarily by French Prisoners of War to house them and their countrymen.
However, the rich French aristocracy were fortunate. Their money allowed the bribery of prison officers and paid for lodgings away from the prison in what could be considered to be luxurious accommodation with the local gentry and farms as far away as Plymouth and Tavistock.
Despite the signing of the Treaty of Ghent on 24 December 1814, thousands of American prisoners remained under lock and key in Dartmoor prison undergoing continued humiliation, near starvation and death in the cramped freezing conditions. The prisoners were infested with hundreds of ”creepers” and the severe overcrowding resulted in many of the prisoners sleeping uncomfortably on the roof trusses of the chapel roof way up in the cock loft.
The only respite was the opportunity for the prisoners to carve and sculptor animal bones and barter (at the barter gate) with the farmers for fresh local vegetables and produce. Uniquely, to Dartmoor prison, a daily market was set up inside the prison, where the local people sold their fresh produce to the prisoners.
Despite the end of the war neither country could agree who was responsible for repatriating the prisoners so they remained in jail. In April 1815 a drunken prison officer ordered a wanton and brutal massacre, the officers firing in all directions, on as many as 5000 prisoners in the yard, resulting in the death, it is alleged, of several hundred American seamen.
The following day it was agreed to release all American prisoners and several years later a monument was erected for the dead prisoners who had been buried in unmarked graves on the moor outside of the prison walls.