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US Prisoners of War in England Play Ball - at Great Peril, It Turned Out

Salience Prominent
Tags Military
City/State/Country: England
Immediacy of Report Contemporary
Age of Players Adult


A ball game reportedly led to the killing and wounding of many US prisoners in England's Dartmoor prison  in April 1815:

"On the 6th of April, 1815, as a small party were amusing themselves at a game of ball, some one of the number striking it with too much violence, it flew over the wall fronting the prison and the sentinels on the other side of the same were requested to heave the ball back, but refused; on which the party threatened to break through to regain their ball, and immediately put their threats into execution; a hole was made in the wall sufficiently large for a man to pass thro' - but no one attempted it."

500 British soldiers appeared, and the prisoners were fired upon en masse.




"Massacre of the 6th of April," American Watchman, June 24, 1815. Accessed via subscription search, 2/14/2009.

Other Accounts:

  1. "The Judicial Report of the Massacre at Dartmoor Prison," in John Melish, "Description of Dartmor Prison, with an Account of the Massacre of the Prisoners" (Philadelphia, J.Bioren, 1816)  Per Altherr, ref #97. 
  2. [Waterhouse, Benjamin], A Journal of a Young Man of Massachusetts, Late a Surgeon on Board an American Privateer, Who Was Captured at Sea by the British in May, Eighteen Hundred and Thirteen, and Was Confined First, at Melville Island, Halifax, then at Chatham, on England, and Last, at Dartmoor Prison (Rowe and Hooper, Boston, 1816), p. 186. Per Thomas L. Altherr, "A Place Leavel Enough to Play Ball," reprinted in David Block, Baseball Before We Knew It, pages 247-249 and ref #92.
  3. "Journal of Nathaniel Pierce of Newburyport [MA], Kept at Dartmoor Prison, 1814 - 1815," Historical Collections of Essex Institute, volume 73, number 1 [January 1937], p. 40. Per Altherr's refs #91 - #98.
  4. [Andrews, Charles] The Prisoner's Memoirs, or Dartmoor Prison (private printing, NYC, 1852), p.110. Per Altherr's refs #93 and  95.
  5. [Valpey, Joseph], Journal of Joseph Valpey, Jr. of Salem, November 1813- April 1815 (Michigan Society of Colonial Wars, Detroit, 1922), p. 60.  Per Altherr's ref #96.
  6. Herbert A. Kenny, Cape Ann: Cape America (J. B. Lippincott, 1971), pp. 83-4. (From The Centennial Address of Dr. Lemuel)  See excerpt at Supplemental Text, below.

Some observers assume that ballplaying was mainly a juvenile pastime in this time period.  Clearly the players in this case, and in other instances of military play, were of age.

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Can we be certain that this was a base-running game?  Can we rule out that the game was a vigorous 1800's form of handball?

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Submitted by Joanne Hulbert, (for 5th reference)
Submission Note Email of July 22, 2019.
Has Supplemental Text Yes


<comments voting="Plus" />

Supplemental Text

Centennial Remarks of Dr. Lemuel

“In 1812 the United States declared war with England, but, its results to this place were not like those of the old war. . . . . During the war, a number of our men in other privateers and others in merchant vessels found their way, before the war closed, in the prisons of Halifax and some few in Dartmoor prison, England.

“In the latter prison were Benjamin Colby, Joseph Bailey, and one from Folly Cove. . . . . Those in Dartmoor prison were there at the time of the shooting of the prisoners. It was said the prisoners complained of their bread, which i supposed to have aroused some ill feeling. There are accustomed to exercise themselves by playing ball. One day the ball went over the wall into the barracks. the soldiers there did not return it as usual, when some of the prisoners threatened to break through the wall, they were commanded to desist, but the soldiery, by declining, a fire was opened upon the prisoners and seven were killed and a large number were wounded. Our men were retained i prison some six months. this was in 1815……”