Only surviving undeveloped Revolutionary War POW camp needs help

In the summer of 1781, the President of Pennsylvania, Joseph Reed, was commanded by Continental Congress to establish a prisoner of war camp in his state to accommodate British troops captured at battles up and down the eastern seaboard. The ones imprisoned after the surrender of General John Burgoyne to General Gates at Saratoga, New York, in 1777, were the most long-suffering. They had been moved around for nearly four years by then, including a deadly forced march along the wintry Appalachian Trail in October of 1780. Others were captured after the Battle of Cowpens, South Carolina, fought on January 17, 1781. Still others were transfers from the Hessian Barracks in Frederick, Maryland, which was used as a prison in 1781.

The location chosen was a field a few miles southeast of York between the town and the Susquehanna River, “so as to be convenient to throw them across the river in any emergency,” as Colonel James Wood of the York Militia put it. The prisoners arrived in August of 1781 and were promptly put to work helping build the sharpened picket fence 15 feet high, the wooden stockade just inside the fence and the fieldstone cabins to house the prisoners. The new camp was dubbed Camp Security. Outside the fence more fieldstone huts were built to house the wives and children who followed their captured husbands. This one was dubbed Camp Indulgence.

Many of Burgoyne’s troops, by now accustomed to their American lives, were granted a great deal of freedom, allowed passes to leave Camp Security at will, allowed to work for local farmers or in their own cottage industries, even allowed to move in with their families at Camp Indulgence. Troops of more recent capture were not given this kind of leeway, most notably those captured after the surrender of Cornwallis after his defeat at Yorktown. The surrender was signed on October 19, 1781, and Cornwallis’ men were dispatched up to Camp Security. They were closely guarded within the stockade confines.

One of Cornwallis’ troops got lucky. Well, kind of. Sergeant Roger Lamb, an Irishman who served with the Twenty-third Regiment of Welsh Fusiliers, made his own luck and his own misfortune by repeatedly escaping imprisonment and returning to the field where he would be imprisoned again. He covers almost all the bases of the prisoners assembled at Camp Security. He fought under Burgoyne and was first captured at Saratoga. He escaped before the Appalachian march and joined Major Andre’s forces. Then he fought under Cornwallis at Yorktown and was captured again and again he escaped. He reached Frederick, Maryland, where he was promptly captured and held in the Hessian Barracks prison. From there he moved to Winchester, Virginia, for a brief stay and then on to York.

His officers warned him he’d be put in jail in Winchester on account of his penchant for flight, and suggested he squirrel himself away in the hospital which would delay his move to York by a few weeks and keep him out of Revolutionary cross-hairs. When he finally reached Camp Security, his old comrades from the Ninth Regiment in Burgoyne’s army were ready for him. They had heard he was coming and so secured a pass for him from the American commander. They even built him a hut at Camp Indulgence. Thus Lamb, unlike the rest of Cornwallis’ troops and despite his mastery of the art of escape, got the same kid glove treatment granted the relatively settled Burgoyne prisoners.

Of course he tried to rouse them into escaping and rejoining the British forces in New York, but they’d been prisoners going on five years by the time Lamb arrived. They were treated well, had families and jobs. They just weren’t up for rejoining the fight. They did help Lamb escape this prison too, though. He and seven of Cornwallis’ men from the Twenty-third Regiment successfully fled in March of 1782 and joined Sir Guy Charlton’s troops in New York City.

The war was basically over by then. Yorktown was the last major battle and preliminary peace negotiations were already in the works in 1782. The Treaty of Paris, signed on September 3, 1783, formally ended the war. Lamb sailed for Portsmouth in December 1783. Upon his return he received his discharge and went back home to Dublin where he became a teacher and started a family. In 1809, he published An Original and Authentic Journal of Occurrences During the Late American War from Its Commencement to the Year 1783, a scholarly account of the War of Independence combined with his personal memoirs drawn from the journals he kept.

(Fun fact: Robert Graves, author of I, Claudius, Goodbye to All That, The Golden Fleece and many other great books, was himself member of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. He enlisted at the outbreak of World War I in August 1914 and as an officer taught regimental history to his platoon. Roger Lamb’s escapes made the history books, and years later Robert Graves would write a fictionalized account of Lamb’s life, Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth.)

Lamb’s memoirs are an invaluable record of life at Camp Security, documenting the differences in temperament and condition between different troops. Now they have been enlisted to provide a whole new service to Camp Security. Photographic copies of Lamb’s original journal with notes and drawings of the prison camp will feature in a fundraising exhibit at the York County Heritage Trust sponsored by the Friends of Camp Security, a non-profit organization that has struggled for years to preserve the grounds of the camp from development.

The field that Camp Security was built on returned to farm and pasture after the war. Even as housing developments mushroomed up all around it, through the herculean efforts of historical preservation organizations and dedicated volunteers most of the land has remained unbuilt upon. It is the only Revolutionary War POW camp to survive in undeveloped condition. It has barely been excavated so there’s such a rich vein of history just waiting to be embraced.

Or destroyed. Developers have been buying, planning, pressing and suing to get their mitts on the property since 1979. Back then they were stopped by a quick archaeological survey that returned artifacts confirming it as the location of Camp Security. It’s been a constant struggle for the past 30 years to keep the wolf from the door. In 2005 Camp Security even made the The National Trust for Historic Preservation List of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

The end could be in sight. Two years ago Springettsbury Township became the proud owner of a 115-acre parcel adjacent to the field, but the 47-acre Hunters Crossing Property which is the central Camp Security site was still owned by real estate developer Timothy Pasch. Last May Pasch sold the property to The Conservation Fund, a nonprofit preservation group, for $1.05 million. They got a bridge loan to pay for it, in the hope that the township and local organizations would be able to raise the sum in time to pay off the loan by deadline.

As of now, they’re still $600,000 short.

[Friends of Camp Security] had been hoping to raise $400,000, but it has only been able to raise about 10 percent of the goal, said president Carol Tanzola.

“I think what has happened is there was a lot of publicity when The Conservation Fund came in and bridged the loan,” she said. “People sat back and said, ‘Oh, it’s done. It’s saved.'”

But there are no guarantees. If the groups can’t raise the money, The Conservation Fund reserves the right to put the property back on the market, she said, “because they need their funding back.”

The deadline has been pushed back from May 8th to August 21st, but that’s a lot of money to raise in a few months. The exhibit of artifacts from Camp Security and Lamb’s beautiful manuscript pages are part of that effort.

You can donate online by clicking the “Donate” button on the FOCS website, or if you prefer to kick it old school, by printing off their form and mailing a check. Every bit counts. Remember what an incredible bonanza of artifacts was found at Camp Lawton, the Civil War POW camp that was spared from development by its prime location on the grounds of a government hatchery and state park? This is older and rarer. It would be a tragedy if we let the chance to save it for future generations slip through our fingers.

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