Poet in a Patriot Prison

CONFINEMENT hail! in honour's justest cause.
True to our King, our Country, and our Laws;
Opposing anarchy, sedition, strife,
And every other bane of social life.
These Colonies of British freedom tir'd,
Are by the frenzy of distraction fir'd;
Rushing to arms, they madly urge their fate,
And levy war against their parent state.
Surrounding nations, in amazement, view
The strange infatuation they pursue.
Virtue, in tears, deplores their fate in vain; 
And Satan smiles to see disorder reign;
The days of Cromwell, puritanic rage,
Return'd to curse our more unhappy age.
We friends to freedom, government and laws; 
Are deem'd inimical unto their cause:
In vaults, with bard and iron doors confin'd,
They hold our persons, but can't rule the mind.
Act now we cannot, else we gladly wou'd;
Resign'd we suffer for the public good.
Success on earth sometimes to ill is given,
To brave misfortunes is the gift of Heaven.
What men could do we did, our cause to serve,
We can't command success, but we'll deserve. 

--- Dr. John Smyth

The American frontier west of the Appalachian mountains was a fluid place in 1775.  Settlers, officials, and Native Americans were all struggling to decide where their loyalties and interests lay, with the British government in London, colonial governments, or the rebelling Americans organizing themselves to determine their own fates.  Individuals often switched sides as the war unfolded

One man who was a constant in his loyalty to the crown was Dr. John Connolly of Pittsburgh.  Before the Revolution, he had led Virginia’s efforts as Lord Dunmore’s agent to seize control over the Forks of the Ohio and assert its claims westward, even receiving a promise of land in far-off Kentucky.  When the fighting started in Massachusetts, he developed a plan to mobilize Native Americans and Britain’s far-flung military forces on the frontier to attack Pittsburgh and then march on Virginia.  Dunmore and General Gage both approved.  So, Connolly and two loyalists, Allen Cameron of South Carolina and Dr. John Smyth of Maryland, plus Connolly’s enslaved servant travelled surreptitiously through Maryland, hoping to reach Detroit via Pittsburgh, the Ohio River, the Wabash River, and then anther overland trek.  Local patriots recognized them outside Hagerstown, Maryland and the trio was promptly arrested on the night of November 19.  A quick hearing by the local Committee of Safety decided to ship them off to Frederick, where a more thorough investigation revealed Connolly’s plan.

While the three were imprisoned in Frederick, they concocted a plan for one to escape and continue the mission, particularly to warn the British at Detroit that the Americans were aware of the plan. Carefully husbanding their meager resources, writing letters to officials in the west, hiding them, and developing a plan, word arrived on December 30 that they were to be taken to Philadelphia. That night, the group managed to spring Dr. Smyth from the imprisonment they shared in a single room when the guard fell asleep.

Smyth traveled westward with the assistance of a local loyalist, trudging through snow and dodging patrols searching for him. Although he attempted to cross the Potomac and travel through Virginia where he was less likely to be recognized, militia search parties finally caught him on January 12, 1776. The Americans eventually shipped him off to prison in Philadelphia, where he was confined, “thrown into a cold damp vaulted room, or cell, in the criminal apartment for females, herein at that time more than seventy were confined.” No one was was permitted to speak with the prisoner; he was denied pen, ink, and paper, a chair, bed, blanket, or straw. With no fire to warm himself, the cold bare floor, walls, and vaulted ceiling defined Smyth’s world that winter. Smyth fortuitously obtained a piece of charcoal, which he used to compose a poem on one wall of his cell.

Ironically, the last line harkens back to a line in Joseph Addington’s play Cato, popular in the colonies during the last half of the 18th century. John Adams and George Washington both touched upon it to commend those whose sacrifices in the name of liberty went unrecognized. Addington’s line reads “‘Tis not in mortals to command success, But we’ll do more, Sempronius, we’ll deserve it.” Smyth’s reference highlights that Patriots and Loyalists could each use the same cultural touchstone to defend their actions.

Smyth was no Addington and his lines largely disappeared in dusty archives and old books, but his experience lends a little insight into the life of a British loyalist during the war.

Additional reading:

J.F.D. Smyth, esq, A Tour of the United States of America: Containing an Account of the Present Situation of the Country, Vol II (London: G. Robinson, Printer, 1784), 285.

Eric Sterner, “The Connolly Plot,” Journal of the American Revolution, October 28, 2020. Available at: https://allthingsliberty.com/2020/10/the-connolly-plot/

Eric Sterner, “Joseph Addison’s CATO: Liberty on the Stage,” Journal of the American Revolution, November 2, 2016. Available at: https://allthingsliberty.com/2016/11/joseph-addisons-cato-liberty-stage/)

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