A Sugar House Christmas

Ezra Taylor stared at the decorated tree through the narrow slot built into the sugar house. Hessian soldiers had spent the afternoon festooning the limbs of the fir with apples, candied fruits, and ribbons. He’d thought it an odd custom at the time but now that candles flickered in the boughs, its beauty mesmerized him.

“Taylor, you gonna stare at them soldiers all night? Come eat. Walley will be back any moment, and then you’ll get nothing,” Small William said. William’s perpetual stoop in the low ceilinged prison had earned him the incongruous moniker “small”, despite his six foot plus stature; hell, even Ezra, at five feet seven, had developed a bowed posture after only six weeks in the storehouse the British used for a jail.

He sighed. The rich aroma of mince pie and roast mutton abounded, making it almost possible to forget he was held captive were it not for the icy night air swirling about and the squalid mass of humanity huddled with him in the corner. They had scrambled forward when Sgt. Walley appeared, bucket in hand. “It’s a Christmas feast, lads” he’d said, as if the bits of rancid pork and worm-riddled biscuits were what all the fashionable people were eating this Christmas.

Still, bad food was better than none. Their last meal had been two days ago.

“You can have my portion, Will. I haven’t the stomach for it. Besides, I’d like to sit a bit longer and listen to the singing.”

The carols made him think of home. And Elizabeth.

If he closed his eyes, he could see her standing in front of their hearth, singing quietly while she stirred the kettle, an refugee curl escaping from her cap. The cabin would smell sweet, of mountain laurel and yew; the fire beckoning him into its warm glow.

Snow fluttered in, and with it a frosty chill, shattering the image in his head. He tried to hold onto the vision of Elizabeth singing but it distorted into the Hessians’ drunken rendition of Joy to the World, leaving him once more prisoner to Christmas in the sugar house.

a fictional account of Ezra Taylor in the Sugar House

Having never been a soldier…

or a prisoner, I find it difficult to imagine how Ezra might have felt that Christmas in 1776, captive in the Liberty Street Sugar House. First hands accounts of the place paint a picture of a tall, narrow building “without light, attendance, fire in winter or air in summer.” More than 2800 soldiers were captured along with Ezra just over a month earlier when Fort Washington fell to the British, but by summer, fewer than 800 remained alive. Without glass in the narrow windows, when it snowed, they were drifted over while they slept, and when it rained they could not escape the damp. Filthy straw bedding was never changed, and men were packed in so closely that disease ran rampant, “the very dead being suffered to lie exposed for hours awaiting removal to the ever open burial trenches.” When they were fed, it was usually moldy sea-biscuits, full of worms. Rarely did they receive meat, and when they did, it was usually rotten. One account even recalls men fighting over the decayed carcass of a rat.

In such a situation, I would try to find comfort in past remembrances, and so I imagined Ezra doing the same. It’s likely that he had never seen a Christmas Tree before that winter in the Sugar House when the German mercenaries decorated a tree for themselves. Some colonial German settlements had kept the tradition alive in their new world homes, but Ezra’s home in Connecticut was founded by Puritans. Finding no scriptural reference supporting the celebration of Christmas, Christmases there would have been quietly spent with little emphasis on the day. In fact, the yew and mountain laurel I attributed to Ezra’s recollection is likely not accurate, as the puritan view held it a ritual uniquely pagan. Still, I couldn’t help but imagine Elizabeth strewing their small cabin in the sweet smells of winter.

About Elizabeth—she is completely a figment of my imagination. Ezra was married and had at least one son at the time he was taken prisoner, but records of the time, especially for the working class, as Ezra surely was, are scarce and so there is never a mention of his wife’s name. Elizabeth, however,  is a common name for that era, so it’s not impossible

No further record of Ezra exists until the 1790 census, so I can’t say when he was released from his sugar house prison. Many soldiers that were held captive there found themselves in a worse hell when moved to prison ships in the area, and perhaps Ezra was one of those unfortunate ones. But, there are also many accounts of soldiers that escaped from their captors while still held in New York. Personally, I like to imagine Ezra as one of these, sneaking out of the makeshift prison and making his way home to Elizabeth’s waiting arms.

Sappy, I know.

Learn more about…

Revolutionary War

Fort Washington

Colonial Christmases

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