1814: Patrick R. Wybault to Major Thomas Melvill, Jr.

The following War of 1812 letter was written by Patrick R. Wybault, Deputy Assistant Commissary General—a British agent dispatched by Sir George Prevost, Governor General of Canada, to observe and report on the treatment of British officers being held as Prisoners of War in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and elsewhere.

Maj. Thomas Melvill, Jr. (1776-1845)

Wybault’s letter was addressed to Major Thomas Melvill, Jr. (incidentally also uncle of Herman Melville) who was the Deputy Marshal and Agent for Prisoners in Pittsfield, Mass. In the letter, dateline 23 December 1814 from Pittsfield, Gen. Wybault, profusely thanks Melvill for his multiple kindnessess to his British prisoners. This is not surprising, given that Melvill purposely strove to be hospitable to his prisoners, e.g., even letting them go off the prison grounds at times to work as paid employees around town. For that matter, his efforts were so successful that some British military leaders were concerned that some of their captured officers would prefer staying in America rather than return to their military duties.

The conditions Wybault found at Pittsfield were considerably at odds with those found at Greenbush (see footnotes). The captured POWs were initially kept in a barracks at Pittsfield, then in two barns at the rear of the Cantonment on North Street. Expecting another 1,500 prisoners, Melville, workin with little or no funds from the national government, enlisted Captain Hosea Merrill, a lumber dealer and builder, to construct new quarters. Until they were ready, measures were taken to maintain the prisoners in Cheshire and Stockbridge.

[Note: This letter is from the personal collection of Richard Weiner and was transcribed and published on Shared & Shared by express consent.]


Pittsfield [Massachusetts]
23rd December 1814


Having been informed by several of the British officers stationed at Cheshire on their parole, that there is no longer any accommodation for them in that village, they have inconsequence applied to me to be removed to Stockbridge where there are only a few stationed at present. I have in consequence to request you will allow the seven British officers whose names I have mentioned to you this morning, to proceed and take up their quarters at Stockbridge, should it not interfere with your public arrangements and am led to suppose it will not as Captain Free of the Indian Department has obtained your permission to proceed to Stockbridge in consequence of there being not sufficient quarters at Cheshire.

The British Prisoners of War here now in this depot have expressed to me the many obligations they all feel under for the humane and kind treatment they have received since they were placed under your charge and beg to assure you, I shall not fail to make it known on my return to Canada to his Excellency, Lt. General Sir George Prevost.

I have been particularly requested by the British prisoners to beg you will permit one of their officers to visit them in the prison once a fortnight, which will contribute in a great measure to their comfort and happiness, and , have therefore to request on your receiving Mr. Commissary General Mason’s answer on this subject. You will be pleased to make it known to the Senior British Officers at Stockbridge and Cheshire.

I beg leave to return you my most sincere thanks, as also to Col. [Simon] Larned for the permission you have granted to British Prisoners in allowing them to march into the country once a week a few miles for the benefit of their health. Your allowing them to keep their fires two hours longer than usual will also add much to their comfort. I have the honor to be, sir, your most obedient servant, — P. R. Wybault, D. A. C. Gen’l

From the Dedham Gazette, 20 January 1815

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