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Striking Dartmoor Massacre broadside

W[illiam] Carnes (artist) / G[eorge] G[irdler] Smith (engraver), Massacre OF THE American PRISONERS OF WAR at DARTMOOR PRISON on the 6th OF APRIL 1815, by the SOMERSETSHIRE MILITIA. Salem, MA, ca 1815.

Though little known today the terrible events at Dartmoor Prison spawned outrage in the United States. During the War of 1812, this prison in Devon, England housed thousands of American sailors along with an even greater number of Frenchmen captured in the long fight against Napoleon. Though the Treaty of Ghent ending the war had been signed in December 1814, months later the Americans were still awaiting repatriation. Conditions were cramped and the food was poor, and hundreds had died of deprivation and disease. Making things worse, the prison’s commandant Captain Shortland seems to have been a short-tempered alcoholic, and relations between captors and captured were tense.

The so-called Dartmoor Massacre occurred on April 6, 1815, when Captain Shortland apparently ordered his men to open fire on the prisoners following the discovery of a hole in one of the prison walls. Some accounts suggest that Shortland panicked, thinking an escape was imminent, others that the shooting was premeditated and that the hole was merely a pretext. Ironically, it may have been made by young boys trying to recover a lost ball. Whatever the circumstances, a number of Americans were killed (seven being the most frequently cited figure), with perhaps 50-60 wounded.

American publishers responded to the event with a torrent of newspaper articles, pamphlets, and engraved broadsides. Offered here is one of the rarest such images, issued in Salem, Massachusetts, hometown to at least nine men who perished at Dartmoor and no doubt dozens more held there.

The image is a plan of the prison taken from a birds-eye perspective, depicting the facility in great detail as well as the events of the massacre itself. It is striking and even brutal, depicting the prison’s concentric walls and fences surrounding an inner yard containing barracks radiating from a central point, with access gates, administration buildings, and housing for the officers and men of the guard in the foreground. Arrayed around the walls and fences are over a hundred redcoats, all firing into a crowd of prisoners in the courtyard. Many of the details are consistent with eyewitness accounts of the events such as that published by John Melish in A Description of Dartmoor Prison(1815)—the positions of the soldiers, prisoners being shot as they attempted to flee into their barracks, even the hole in the wall that purportedly started it all. As the author intended, the impression is indisputably that of a massacre of defenceless men.

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