The Dartmoor Massacre By Laurie Alice Eakes
On April 6, 1815, more than three months after a peace treaty had been signed between Great Britain and the United States, prison guards fired on Americans confined within the walls of Dartmoor Prison, killing seven and wounding between 35 and 45 others.
|Dartmoor Prison in Devon, England (via Wikipedia)|
When I first read about this incident in a novel by Kenneth Roberts, I was shocked. If I hadn’t known the accuracy of this man’s historical research, I would have doubted the truth of the events that unfolded in the story. Because I knew Roberts was a fine historian, I set out to learn all I could about this incident. Sadly, the information is sparse. What I have been able to find—mostly original sources—says that Roberts wrote an accurate description through the eyes of his protagonist.
What I have been able to learn about this prison has led me to use it in three of my novels—A Necessary Deception and A Reluctant Courtship, two of the books in the Daughters of Bainbridge series, as well as my master’s degree thesis novel True as Fate.
Dartmoor is a high plain in the English county of Devonshire. It is rocky, barren, and plagued by strong, wet winds because Devon is part of the peninsula that sticks out between the Irish (Celtic) Sea and the English Channel. The walls of the prison are high, the interior stark, cold, and damp. Now used as a penitentiary, when built in 1809, Dartmoor was a holding pen for French prisoners of war. When the United States declared war on Great Britain in 1812, American prisoners also found themselves herded into the prison where they often didn’t have so much as drinking water because it froze all the way to the bottom of the containers. Besides being cold, they were malnourished, mistreated, and homesick.
So can anyone blame the men for being restless in April of 1815? The Treaty of Ghent had been signed between the warring countries on Christmas Eve of 1814. So what were the prisoners doing still confined three thousand miles from home?
No one is quite sure, for no one told the truth at the time and what truth exists is mostly lost in time. The most logical cause is that a man named Beasley, the American attaché in charge of the prisoners of war, was incompetent, to outright malicious. Rations had been reduced for no good reason. Paperwork needed to transport the men back to America didn’t go through. In short, the men were angry and the governor of the prison, reportedly a cruel and drunken man, was afraid the Americans intended to break out.
The men were playing a ball game in the prison yard near dusk. Their ball flew over the wall, so they began to call to the guards to throw it back. Due to fear or ignorance, or perhaps even an excuse to fight, the militia that made up the guards, began to fire into the crowd of prisoners.
The men began to run. Those who managed to reach the dormitories locked the doors. Left exposed, the others tried to throw missiles of rocks and other debris at the guards, but guns against stones is no fair contest. In the end, seven Americans were dead and three or four dozen others (sources disagree on this number) were wounded.
Although this incident doesn’t play a role in A Reluctant Courtship, which releases today, the prison and its inmates play an important role in the story, so I wanted to introduce you to the most dramatic incident in the history of this infamous location.
|Reluctant Courtship by Laurie Alice Eakes|
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