Some loose thoughts about Jacob Ritter (1757-1841)

Gaol_in_Walnut_Street_Philadelphia_Birch's_views_plate_24_(cropped)He didn’t speak English when he joined General Washington’s army.

And by 1790, he was both a combat veteran and a torture survivor.

No wonder he became and stayed a Quaker.


A careful reading of his 1840 memoir (a smash in Quaker circles)  yields both facts, but I confess I was too distracted by what I already knew was there: his account of becoming a conscientious objector during the Battle of Brandywine.

Now, after reading more carefully about his time as a prisoner of war in Philadelphia under cruel British Colonel Cunningham, I’m realizing that as a student of PTSD, I have a lot more to learn from him than I’d thought.

This summary of Ritter’s experience in that prison has the basics: “Historian Watson interviewed a survivor of the Walnut Street Jail some years after the War’s end. The veteran, Jacob Ritter, recalled that prisoners were fed nothing for days on end and were regularly targets of beatings by the British guards. The prison was freezing as broken window panes allowed snow and cold to be the only blankets available to the captives. Ice, lice, and mice shared the cells. Desperate prisoners dined on grass roots, scraps of leather, and “pieces of a rotten pump.” Rats were a delicacy. Upward of a dozen prisoners died daily. They were hauled across the street and slung in unmarked trenches like carcasses from an abattoir.”

That excerpt doesn’t mention that Ritter was beaten severely because he turned down English pounds offered by Cunningham if this young man was willing to defect to the British Army.

Or that when he was released, it was into the care of a local Quaker, trusted by the British to get Ritter safely home.

On top of his memories of standing at Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania while mortars rained on him, Ritter had those beatings, those days without food or water. His early twenties were laced with trauma. I’m kind of amazed he could talk.

Right now, he’s inspiring me to open my first chapter — and thus the entire book — with his story, instead of Matthew Lyon’s.

But I also may finally check out my local Friends meeting, to see what yields such strength.






Published by chrislombardi

Journalist, novelist, educator.

2 thoughts on “Some loose thoughts about Jacob Ritter (1757-1841)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: