In 1781, during the American Revolutionary War, Camp Security was established as a prison camp. Initially, it housed British General John Burgoyne’s troops, captured at Saratoga, New York, in 1777. To accommodate these prisoners, a fence and living quarters were constructed on a 280-acre farm seized for this purpose in the summer of 1781. In early 1782, additional captives from General Cornwallis’ army, recently taken at Yorktown, joined Burgoyne’s men at Camp Security. It’s worth noting that this camp exclusively held privates and noncommissioned officers from both sides, as officers were either exchanged, held in county prison facilities, or released on parole.
According to period memoirs, some members of the Convention Army, initially confined in the stockade, were eventually allowed to reside in a nearby cluster of huts. However, the Cornwallis troops, considered more likely to attempt escape, remained within the stockade.
Camp Security was under the watchful eye of the York County militia, except for a portion of 1782 when General Hazen’s Continental Army regiment took over guarding duties. A pass system was established, allowing some prisoners to work for local residents, which helped supplement the camp’s limited food, clothing, and blankets provisions. Notably, many prisoners were accompanied by their wives and children, as was common practice during that era. It’s possible that a few Americans were among the prisoners, as some Convention Army members may have married former colonists during their seven years in captivity.
Unfortunately, an epidemic of camp fever struck, resulting in the deaths of many prisoners and family members interred near the camp. These unfortunate souls were laid to rest in a small valley near the camp. Nearly 100 years later, John Gibson, in his 1886 History of York County, Pennsylvania, reported that “the graves are still visible, marked with stones.”
Camp Security was left vacant and eventually abandoned after the war’s conclusion in the spring of 1783. Some former prisoners may have received land in Canada in exchange for their service, while others chose to stay in the United States. However, the majority returned to Britain.
As the 20th century approached, macabre rumors surfaced that these gravesites had been pillaged by a local physician needing specimens for his collection. He would dig up the bodies, boil off any remaining flesh, and take their bones for his medical collection and study.
Around this time, the camp and the nearby cemetery became the backdrop for a ghost story as recounted in Henry L. Fisher’s 1895 poem “Hesse Dahl.” At the heart of the story lay the unhappy and vengeful spirit of a Hessian soldier forever chained to the grounds of Camp Security.
Each Christmas Eve, the spectral soldier would emerge from the darkness of the nearby cemetery, his presence an ominous shadow in the quiet of the night. His ghostly form was a chilling reminder of a tragic history. The cold, unrelenting stare in his eyes reflected his unwavering torment.
The Hessian spirit, wronged by the cruel hand of fate and by the British who had once commanded him, returned from the great beyond to seek vengeance. He blamed the British for his death and his comrades’ slaughter both in battle and from the terrible conditions present at Camp Security.
The unhappy Hessian spirit would roam the camp, his phantom boots leaving no trace on the ground. His spectral figure struck terror into the hearts of the British prisoners, who huddled together in dread. They were reminded of the horrors of war, the brutality they had witnessed, and the suffering they had endured.
His voice, a chilling whisper on the wind, carried the weight of his grievance. He blamed the British for leading them into the abyss of conflict, for betraying their loyalty, and for the bitter end they had met.
The Hessian’s tormenting presence lingers until the first light of Christmas morning. As the dawn broke, he would vanish into the mist, his anger sated, but only until the following Christmas Eve.
And so, the legend lived on, a chilling tale of retribution from beyond the grave, a reminder of the cost of war and the enduring power of a vengeful spirit. Even in death, the Hessian soldier’s rage remained unquenched, and the memory of his torment haunted Camp Security for all time.
While Camp Security is long abandoned, legend has it that the soldier’s ghost still walks the grounds of the former POW camp every Christmas Eve.
Planning Your Visit
Camp Security Park is located at 137 Eastern Blvd, York, PA 17402. It is open from dawn to dusk.
For more information about Camp Security, visit the Friends of Camp Security website.
- Camp Security: A Revolutionary War Era Prison Camp 1781-1783
- York County’s POW Camp Security sparks wide interest – from historians to ghosts
- Hesse-Dhal by Henry L. Fisher
- Camp Security saved, excavations begin
1821 Map of York & Adams Counties Poster$29.99 – $34.99