The War of 1812: Prisoners of War - Page Banner

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Letter Both sides, at one time or another, captured significant numbers of enemy troops and were thus responsible for their housing, feeding and general maintenance, an expense that neither wished to undertake. The use of parole was common, particularly for militiamen who were captured at actions like Detroit (Ohio militia) and York (Upper Canada Militia), whereby they would sign a document which pledged they would not take further part in the war. It was not uncommon for militiamen from both countries to seek parole like this when it was available as it guaranteed them legal exemption from military service.

Militia officers and regular troops of all ranks were a different matter. American soldiers captured by the British were often taken to Quebec for incarceration until exchanged. British soldiers captured by the Americans were often taken deep into the United States.

Enlisted men were generally kept confined in conditions that were not healthy. Officers, as gentlemen, were entitled to better treatment. The documents in this section show the type of conditions imposed on Henry Nelles when he was a prisoner of the United States. He was given a degree of liberty after pledging not to escape or violate the laws of the country. The correspondence between Captain William Hamilton Merritt and his fiancée is further evidence of the relatively easy conditions for officers. Both Nelles and Merritt were captured at the Battle of Lundy's Lane. No first hand description of conditions for enlisted men held prisoner is available at the Archives of Ontario.


Henry Nelles

Letter Henry Nelles of the Niagara District was a Captain in the Upper Canadian embodied militia who served through two years of the War of 1812. He is mentioned as the riding companion of Thomas Ridout in the letter reproduced in the section on Niagara in 1813. Captured at Lundy's Lane, Nelles spent the rest of the war as a prisoner in the United States.

“I wrote you yesterday from [Fort] Schloser, mentioning that I have fallen into the hands of the Enemy and requesting you to forward to me my baggage. But as we are to be removed from this place, and as it is very uncertain that the baggage will reach me safe, I beg you will not send any of it, as I can procure both money and clothes when I arrive at Albany. Give my love to Sally and tell her I hope she will not make herself unhappy, in consequence of my misfortune.”

Extract from an original letter from Captain Henry Nelles (Buffalo) to
his father Robert Nelles (Upper Canada), July 27, 1814
Robert Nelles family fonds
Reference Code: F 542, box MU 2190
Archives of Ontario

Passport of Captain Henry Nelles, January 7, 1815 [front]

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Passport of Captain Henry Nelles, January 7, 1815 [front]
Robert Nelles family fonds
Passport
Reference Code: F 542, box MU 2192
Archives of Ontario

Passport of Captain Henry Nelles, January 7, 1815 [back]

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Passport of Captain Henry Nelles, January 7, 1815 [back]
Robert Nelles family fonds
Passport
Reference Code: F 542, box MU 2192
Archives of Ontario

The reverse of the passport includes a physical description of Henry Nelles.

 

The terms of parole on an officer were not onerous, in the case of Henry Nelles, "on your arrival there [Berkshire], you will report yourself to Capt. D. Brown who will aid you in procuring quarters. You will then have liberty to walk in the roads in the said town to the extremity of its limits which will be designated to you by said Capt. D. Brown and you will report yourself personally to him at his house the Saturday of each week…And I do require, that all letters wrote or received by you , be sent for inspection to this office, and also notify you that conversations on the subject of a public nature, with citizens are expressly forbidden."

Officers and enlisted men could be exchanged for an equal number of the same rank amongst enemy prisoners. When exchanged, the terms of the parole no longer operated and the officers and men were free to serve in the regular or militia forces.

Document regarding the exchange of Captain Henry Nelles, prisoner of War, August 10, 1814

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Document regarding the exchange of
Captain Henry Nelles,
prisoner of War, August 10, 1814
Robert Nelles family fonds
Textual record
Reference Code: F 542, box MU 2192
Archives of Ontario

Document regarding the parole of Captain Henry Nelles, prisoner of War, August 10, 1814

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Document regarding the parole of
Captain Henry Nelles,
prisoner of War, August 10, 1814
Robert Nelles family fonds
Textual record
Reference Code: F 542, box MU 2192
Archives of Ontario

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William Hamilton Merritt and Catherine Prendergast

Letter William Hamilton Merritt was a Captain of the Provincial Dragoons (cavalry), serving through most of the War of 1812. He was captured at the Battle of Lundy's Lane in 1814 along with Henry Nelles. He had met Catherine Prendergast before the war while in the United States on business or while visiting relatives. Her family was prominent in business in New York state. The correspondence reproduced here documents their relationship between 1812 and 1814, despite the complications of war. Their courtship, while Merritt was a prisoner of war in the United States, is a great example of the impact of conflict on two individuals and of the general social mores of the time.

Many more letters between William and Catherine are available in our holdings of the William Hamilton Merritt family papers. Merritt returned to Upper Canada when the war ended and was soon followed by Catherine Prendergast. They were married in 1815.

The photograph to the right shows Merritt much later in life. Unfortunately, we could not locate an image of Catherine in our collection.

Photo: Portrait of William Hamilton Merritt, 1860

[Portrait of William Hamilton Merritt], 1860
William Notman
Archives of Ontario Photographic Collection
Black and white negative
Reference Code: S 657
Archives of Ontario

 

“This is the first and only opportunity that may occur of my writing during the War. I embrace it most cordially altho I do not conceive it to be very safe. The unhappy situation which our Countries are placed in will deprive me [from] time of the greatest pleasure I have ever enjoyed viz. seeing you, as we were actuated by no juvenile affection the world cannot convince me you will ever forfeit that confidence I have ever placed in you, and which my life consists. Time never can efface the impression your delightful image has made on my fond heart, if I should be separated from you for years I will ever remain the same as you left me.”

Extract from an original letter from William Merritt (Fort Detroit)
to Catherine Prendergast, September 4, 1812
William Hamilton Merritt family fonds
Reference Code: F 662, box MU 5856, package 43
Archives of Ontario






“You cannot imagine what an effect yours of the 9th ultimo has had on my depressed spirits, having not heard a word [?] from you since the commencement of the War … You mention my leaving the Army (I would at any time risk my existence to preserve your peace as ensure your regard for me) on a moments reflection you will perceive it is utterly impossible....

.... However as ladies generally are no politicians, I'll drop the subject.”

Extract from an original letter from William Merritt (12 Mile Creek)
to Catherine Prendergast, February 9, 1814
William Hamilton Merritt family fonds,
Reference Code: F 662, box MU 5856, package 43
Archives of Ontario



To listen to an excerpt from this letter in .wav format (487K), click here.To listen to an excerpt from this letter in "wav" format (487K) click here. It is also available in "aif" format (487K)

Letter from William Merritt (12 Mile Creek) to Catherine Prendergast, February 9, 1814 (pages 1 and 4)

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Pages 1 and 4

Letter from William Merritt (12 Mile Creek) to Catherine Prendergast, February 9, 1814 (pages 2 and 3)

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Pages 2 and 3

Letter from William Merritt (12 Mile Creek) to Catherine Prendergast, February 9, 1814 (pages 5 and 8)

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Pages 5 and 8

Letter from William Merritt (12 Mile Creek) to Catherine Prendergast, February 9, 1814 (pages 6 and 7)

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Pages 6 and 7

Letter from William Merritt (12 Mile Creek) to Catherine Prendergast, February 9, 1814
William Hamilton Merritt family fonds
Reference Code: F 662, box MU 5856
Archives of Ontario


Letter from William Merritt (Buffalo) to Catherine Prendergast, July 27, 1814 (Pages 1 and 4)

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Pages 1 and 4

Letter from William Merritt (Buffalo) to Catherine Prendergast, July 27, 1814 (Pages 2 and 3)

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Pages 2 and 3

Letter from William Merritt (Buffalo) to Catherine Prendergast, July 27, 1814
William Hamilton Merritt family fonds
Reference Code: F 662, MU 5856
Archives of Ontario


“You not doubt will be very much surprized (sic) in finding me at this place. I had the misfortune of falling in the hands of the Americans in the action of the 25th Inst. at Lundy's Lane....

....My dear girl I need not to mention what [inexplicable] delight it would afford me to see you should I be gratified with the sight of you my captivity would be [secretly?] wished for.”

Extract from an original letter from William Merritt (Buffalo)
to Catherine Prendergast, July 27, 1814
William Hamilton Merritt family fonds
Reference Code: F 662, MU 5856, package 43
Archives of Ontario



image of speakerTo listen to an excerpt from this letter in "wav" format (657K) click here. It is also available in "aif" format (657K).




“My Dear Papa … I received a letter from Mr. Merritt. He was then a prisoner at Buffalo, says he expected to be sent to [Greenbush] immediately. Also has been very fortunate since the War & expresses a desire to see you perhaps you can make it convenient to give him a call. Our family are all well.”

Extract from an original letter from Catherine Prendergast
to her father Jediah Prendergast, August 7, 1814
William Hamilton Merritt family fonds
Reference Code: F 662, box MU 5856, package 43
Archives of Ontario



image of speakerTo listen to an excerpt from this letter in "wav" format (589K) click here. It is also available in "aif" format (589K).




“Dear Sir,

I received yours of 6th August last mail. I assure you it is very gratifying to me to know that you enjoy so much tranquillity in your new situation & are not destitute of friends & especially that you are willing to consider mine as such, and I sincerely hope you may ever receive such civility in this country that you may never regret the cause that compelled (sic) you to leave your own, if not I shall be apt to turn traitor myself. … You really make me believe you are in earnest for surely if you were not you would not be telling the old story to everyone. However don't think I have any objections to the confidents you were pleased to put in Aunt Sally ho! I am rejoiced to hear you have been there and believe you have secured yourself a good friend.”

Extract from an original letter from Catherine Prendergast (Mayville)
to William Merritt (Greenbush), September 7, 1814
William Hamilton Merritt family fonds,
Reference Code: F 662, box MU 5856, package 43
Archives of Ontario




Letter from Catherine Prendergast (Mayville) to William Merritt (Greenbush), September 14, 1814 (Pages 1 and 3)

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Pages 1 and 3

Letter from Catherine Prendergast (Mayville) to William Merritt (Greenbush), September 14, 1814 (Page 2)

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Page 2

Letter from Catherine Prendergast (Mayville) to William Merritt (Greenbush), September 14, 1814
William Hamilton Merritt family fonds
Reference Code: F 662, box MU 5856
Archives of Ontario


“Dear Sir, I received your agreeable letter by papa the 9th inst. With what rapture did I peruse it. The contents is certainly soothing to my mind than any thing you have written. The idea of you & pa acknowledging each other as friends contributed to the most to my happiness of any thing that occurred in my life. My Dear papa generous conduct in this one instant has completely banished every thought from my mind that I ever harboured to his prejudice & feel as if I must ever more be guided by his will and pleasure. And as for yourself you have almost disappointed me (happy disappointment) for I must tell you that I could not help thinking at times you were like many others & it would be impossible that your mind would be the same for such a length of time…”

Extract from an original letter from
Catherine Prendergast (Mayville)
to William Merritt (Greenbush)
September 14, 1814
William Hamilton Merritt family fonds
Reference Code: F 662
box MU 5856, package 43
Archives of Ontario


“I received yours of Nov. the 9 with one accompanying it for Mr. Merritt which I sent on the same day by a Mr. James … And this morning had the pleasure of receiving a letter from Mr. M. with one enclosed for you which I took the liberty to read your goodness had afforded me the perusal of your correspondence. I must acknowledge it a great mark of friendship … I conversed very freely with Mr. Merritt on matters between you and him as his anxiety appeared very great…”

Extract from an original letter from
Sally Prendergast (Litchfield) to
her niece Catherine Prendergast
December 10, 1814
William Hamilton Merritt family fonds
Reference Code: F 662
box MU 5856, package 42
Archives of Ontario

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