The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Dartmoor Massacre, The

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DARTMOOR MASSACRE, The, 6 April 1815. During the War of 1812 the American naval prisoners of the British, with impressed American seamen discharged from British vessels, were collected at Dartmoor military prison. On 31 March 1815 they numbered 5,693, including about 1,000 negroes. They had heard of the Peace of Ghent, 24 Dec. 1814, and expected immediate release; but the British government refused to let them go on parole or take any steps till the treaty was ratified by the Senate, 17 Feb. 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 the dishonest food contractor attempted to work off some damaged hardtack on them in place of soft bread and was forced to yield by their insurrection, and the commandant, Capt. T. G. Shortland, suspected them of a design to break jail. This was the reverse of truth in general, as they would lose their chance of going on the cartels; but a few had made reckless threats of the sort and the commandant was very uneasy. About 6 P. M. of the 6th he discovered a hole from one of the five prisons to the barrack yard near the gun-racks. Others had been begun, apparently for pastime. Some prisoners were outside the guard railing noisily pelting each other with turf, and many more near the breach (and the gambling tables), though the signal for return to prisons had sounded; altogether he was convinced of a plot, and rang the alarm bell to collect the officers and have the men ready. This luckless precaution brought back a crowd just going to quarters; just then a prisoner broke a gate-chain with an iron bar and a number pressed through to the prison market square; and after attempts at persuasion, Shortland ordered a charge which drove part of the prisoners in. Those near the gate, however, hooted 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, losing their heads, they followed the throng of prisoners struggling franctically to get within the prison doors, shooting them down as they went, some even going up to the doors and firing in; while others ran up to the walls and fired into the fleeing knots below. Finally the captain, a lieutenant and the hospital surgeon (the other officers being at dinner) succeeded in stopping the murder 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, who agreed in exonerating Shortland, justifying the first firing, blaming the subsequent and pronouncing the culprits undiscoverable. The British government provided for the families of the killed, pensioned the disabled and promoted Shortland. Consult Charles Andrews, ‘The Prisoners' Memoirs; or Dartmoor Prison’; Cobb, ‘A Green Hand's First Cruise, Together with Five Months in Dartmoor.’