The Wretched Prison Ships
Death, disease and injury were the fate of thousands held at sea by the British
There were at least 16 of these floating prisons anchored in Wallabout Bay on the East River for most of the war, and they were sinkholes of filth, vermin, infectious disease and despair. The ships were uniformly wretched, but the most notorious was the Jersey.
Following the Battle of Long Island in August, 1776, and the fall of New York City soon after, the British found thousands of prisoners on their hands, and the available prisons in New York filled up quickly. Then, as the British began seizing hundreds of seamen off privateers, they turned a series of aging vessels into maritime prison ships.
There were more than a thousand men at a time packed onto the Jersey. They died with such regularity that when their British jailers opened the hatches in the morning, their first greeting to the men below was: "Rebels, turn out your dead!" Christopher Vail, of Southold, who was on the Jersey in 1781, later wrote:
When a man died he was carried up on the forecastle and laid there until the next morning at 8 o'clock when they were all lowered down the ship sides by a rope round them in the same manner as tho' they were beasts. There was 8 died of a day while I was there. They were carried on shore in heaps and hove out the boat on the wharf, then taken across a hand barrow, carried to the edge of the bank, where a hole was dug 1 or 2 feet deep and all hove in together.
Few aspects of the war were documented as well as life on the prison ships, presumably because the experience, for those who survived, was forever imprinted in their memories. There are occasional reports of attempts by the British to treat prisoners humanely, but these are the exception. In 1778, Robert Sheffield of Stonington, Conn., escaped one of these ships, and told his story to the Connecticut Gazette. He was one of 350 men jammed in a small compartment belowdecks.
"Their sickly countenances and ghastly looks were truly horrible," the newspaper wrote on July 10, without identifying the ship. "Some swearing and blaspheming; some crying, praying, and wringing their hands, and stalking about like ghosts; others delirious, raving, and storming; some groaning and dying -- all panting for breath; some dead and corrupting -- air so foul at times that a lamp could not be kept burning, by reason of which the boys were not missed till they had been dead ten days."
There were 4,435 battle deaths during the Revolutionary War, according to the Department of Defense. One historian estimated that there were between 7,000 and 8,000 prison ship deaths, but other sources claim even more. A letter-writer from Fishkill in 1783 claimed that on the Jersey alone, 11,644 died. Although that figure is unlikely for the one ship, it is reasonable for all the prison ships together, and is cited regularly.
On his first day in captivity on the Jersey, Capt. Thomas Dring found himself surrounded by men suffering from smallpox. He had never had smallpox, and since there was no one there to inoculate him, he decided to inoculate himself.
"On looking about me, I soon found a man in the proper stage of the disease, and desired him to favor me with some of the matter for the purpose," Dring later wrote. "... The only instrument which I could procure, for the purpose of inoculation, was a common pin. With this, having scarified the skin of my hand, between the thumb and forefinger, I applied the matter and bound up my hand. The next morning I found that the wound had begun to fester; a sure symptom that the application had taken effect."
Built in 1735 as a 64-gun ship, the Jersey was was converted to a prison ship in the winter of 1779-1780. Virtually stripped except for a flagstaff and a derrick for taking in supplies, the Jersey was floated, rudderless, in Wallabout Bay, about 100 yards offshore of what is now the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Its portholes were closed and supplanted by a series of small holes, 20 inches square, crossed by two bars of iron.
The best prisoner quarters on the Jersey was a former gunroom, which went to captured officers. American sailors were kept in two compartments below the main deck. French and Spanish prisoners got the worst quarters, in the hold, and probably had the highest mortality.
Gen. George Washington heard many reports of poor treatment on the prison ships, and on Jan. 13, 1777, he wrote an indignant letter to the chief of the British forces, Gen. Lord William Howe. "You may call us rebels, and say that we deserve no better treatment," Washington wrote. "But, remember, my Lord, that supposing us rebels, we still have feelings as keen and sensible as loyalists, and will, if forced to it, most assuredly retaliate upon those upon whom we look as the unjust invaders of our rights, liberties and properties."
There were various ways to get off the prison ships. The British had a standing offer that any prisoner could be released immediately if he joined the British forces, and an unidentified number did so. Prisoners who carried money with them could buy their way off the ship. Others managed to escape. Also, prisoner exchanges were quite common, with officers exchanged for officers, seamen for seamen, soldiers for soldiers. But for vast numbers of prisoners, there were only two possibilities: death or the end of the war, whichever came first.
Even in the summer of 1782, when the the war's end was more a matter of diplomacy than fighting, the British made life hell for those on the prison ships. On the Fourth of July that summer, the prisoners began hanging flags, singing songs, giving speeches and cheering in a day-long celebration of independence. When they refused to stop when ordered, the guards came below on a reign of terror. Henry R. Stiles, in his book, "A History of the City of Brooklyn," described what happened next:
The helpless prisoners, retreating from the hatchways as far as their crowded condition would permit, were followed by the guards, who mercilessly hacked, cut, and wounded every one within their reach; and then ascending again to the upper deck, fastened down the hatches upon the poor victims of their cruel rage, leaving them to languish through the long, sultry, summer night, without water to cool their parched throats ...
At war's end, survivors were released, and the prison ships abandoned. In later years, bleached bones of the dead were constantly exposed to the tides and weather along the Long Island shore. And well into the next century, low tide regularly exposed the rotting timbers of the Jersey, the ship they called Hell.
Copyright © 2005, Newsday, Inc.
Copyright © Newsday, Inc. Produced by Newsday Electronic Publishing.
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