A sultry day in August, 1782, Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. The cargo of humanity chained and sweltering in the hold of the prison-ship, Pack Horse, stirs and sits erect on their mattresses of mildewed and filthy straw. They cast anxious glances at one another as the sounds of the anchor being weighed fills the air. Their eyes, questioning and wondering, roam across the planking overhead where the pounding of bare feet on wood can be heard as British crewmen scurry along the deck and up into the rigging to unfurl the dingy, long unused sails of the prison schooner Pack Horse. Muffled orders, shouted from the bridge by an unknown Captain, float on the oppressive air of the harbor. Suddenly, there is the unmistakable feel of movement as the ship gets under way. A sense of dread fills the hold. After more than a year, the Pack Horse is moving. Under the escort of a British frigate, and as a part of a convoy of merchant ships, the Pack Horse sails quietly across Charleston Harbor, slips over the bar, and scurries out to sea. The convoy is heading for New York.
Three days later, as night falls, the prison ship quietly blends into the darkness and disappears from history. Not until August 20, 1852 does it resurface in a report made to the Senate of the 32nd Congress by a Mr. James. The next year, 1853, it appears in articles in The New York Times and The Charleston Courier before it again slips away from the national consciousness. In 1860 the story resurfaces in a pamphlet entitled A Brief Memoir of the Life and Revolutionary Services of Major William Hazzard Wigg of South Carolina. The pamphlet is an effort by the grandson of one of the prisoners to obtain compensation for the Revolutionary War losses of his grandfather, Major William Hazzard Wigg. Some of those losses involve slaves. Quietly, as Civil War threatens the nation, the memory of the Pack Horse once again sinks from sight.
In December, 2009 the Pack Horse reappears in the form of the novel, “Letters For Catherine.” The novel relates the story of semi-fictional seventeen-year-old William Hunter who rushes to defend Charleston from the British only to end up as one of the unfortunate prisoners rotting in the belly of the Pack Horse. While this novel relies on many historical facts, much of it is conjecture. No one seems to know what really happened to the prison-ship Pack Horse on that night in August, 1782. Incredibly, there are no first hand accounts of one of the greatest stories of the American Revolution, and no contemporary accounts as, it seems, for the next seventy years no one thought to record them. By then, the last of the prisoners had long since been laid to rest.
What is the story of the prison-ship Pack Horse? We know little about the early history of the unhappy vessel and even less of its finale. One day, if we are lucky, some dusty and disintegrating document will come to light that puts an ending to this story.
The Pack Horse began its career as a small coastal schooner. No one knows its measurements, but quite likely it was between twenty and thirty tons with a draft of no more than 6 feet. This would have made it ideal for transferring cargo up and down the rivers of South Carolina. Water, firewood, Loyalist prisoners, the Pack Horse is known to have carried them all. The Journal of the Commissioners of the Navy of South Carolina: July 22, 1779 – March 23, 1780, makes seventeen references to the Pack Horse and to at least one of its captains, John Hardy, but other than mundane, day to day, happenings little light is shed. With the fall of Charleston, the Pack Horse becomes a prize of the British. They continue using it as a prison ship. Now, its prisoners are Patriots, not Loyalists.
The Pack Horse was not an obscure ship in its day. Eliza Wilkinson, a patriotic young lady of Charleston refers to it in a letter as the “Wilful Murder” after going aboard for a visit. The prisoners were men of wealth and substance in the colony of South Carolina. Many of them would go on to become leaders of the future United States. In a letter written to General Nathaniel Greene by the inmates of another Charleston prison-ship, the Torby, the names of John Barnwell, George Mosse, and Charles Pinckney, Jr. appear on a list of the Pack Horse’s prisoners. So why did none of these educated and affluent men write of their sufferings aboard the Pack Horse? That is part of the mystery.
If a Google search of “prison ship pack horse” is done, a myriad of sites pops up. Unfortunately, all give the same information, often word for word. All citations will invariably lead back to the one common source.
What we know of the Pack Horse would fill less than a page. It was a coastal schooner used to carry supplies for the Patriots prior to the fall of Charleston in 1780. It, like the other prison ships that sailed in and out of Charleston Harbor was not a hulk, but was able to, and often did, crack on sail and roam the Southeastern coast. At least once the Pack Horse is known to have entered the harbor of St. Augustine, Florida to empty its hold of Patriot prisoners.
In May, 1781, the British rounded up over one hundred influential Patriots then on parole in the town and herded them onto the prison ships Pack Horse and Torby. There they stayed, most of them, although some, such as Charles Pinckney, Jr. seem to have been exchanged prior to the faithful voyage of 1782.
After more that a year, as the war draws to a close, the Pack Horse is ordered north for a prisoner exchange. Somewhere along the way, the prisoners escape from the hold and take over the ship without the loss of a single man. Evading their escort in the night, they head for the North Carolina Coast. No one knows where they came ashore, some versions of the tale claim Beaufort, North Carolina, others, Halifax, North Carolina. Perhaps they split into groups after reaching shore. This would be understandable, finding food and shelter for thirty-odd men would have been difficult in that worn torn country and the risk of being recaptured would have been a huge concern, for the penalty of attempted escape was death. Months later, the prisoners reappear in South Carolina and resume their lives, never bothering to record what exactly happened.
Research on the Pack Horse is at a dead end. Records that would identify the British frigate that escorted it on its final voyage may one day be found in British archives. If so, the British captain would surely have logged the incident. Arrival in New York harbor of the rest of the ships would also have been recorded. After all, how many convoys sailed from Charleston to New York in August 1782?
Many questions remain. Did the British retrieve the ship and sail it to New York, or was it wrecked and left to rot on the North Carolina coast? Was it returned to the South Carolina Navy from whence it came, or was it used for years afterwards by some North Carolina shipper or businessman? What of the British crewmen who were forced into the hold? Did they escape? Were they exchanged? Did the escape happen at all? The list of questions goes on and on, but the biggest question is: why did the story of the prisoners on the Pack Horse fade from the national consciousness? There was no other such Great Escape from the prison ships. This was unique. The loss of their story is truly a loss for our country, for this was heroism and patriotism at its highest level.
See this article in the Spring 2010 Palmetto Patriot, page 12.