Our Connection to the Prison Ship Martyrs

September 5th, 2012 · 2 Comments · Be a Mindful Activist, Explore New York

The thousands of Revolutionary War prisoners who died in horrible and inhumane conditions aboard ships moored in New York waters form one of the most neglected chapters of American history. Many New Yorkers and Americans do not know about or have forgotten these prisoners, even though a far larger number of those fighting for the cause in the Revolutionary War died as prisoners than succumbed in combat.

Some have sought, however, to keep their memory alive for a long time. Each year for 104 years, the Society of Old Brooklynites has honored the Prison Ship Martyrs, as they are known, in an annual tribute and rededication of the stately memorial devoted to them in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park.

The Society asked me to participate and deliver the keynote speech for the 104th annual tribute at the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument on Aug. 25. The moving ceremony, on a sunny late-summer morning, included a dance interpretation about the prisoners, opera selections, music from a maritime piping ceremony, and remarks by city and state dignitaries.

Below is my keynote speech, dedicated to the prisoners’ memory, to share with the Mindfulwalker.com audience.

Keynote: The Prison Ship Martyrs

Thank you to the Society of Old Brooklynites for the honor of speaking here today and participating in this important memorial tribute. Good morning, Brooklynites and distinguished guests.

James Little was 16 years old when he joined the Connecticut militia. He did so in answer to the authorization of the Continental Congress for the raising of an army to fight a building threat of the British against New York and the Eastern seaboard. Sixteen years old! James Little likely could not have anticipated the suffering he would endure and witness in just the next year.

Little fought with the army in New Jersey and then at Fort Washington at the northern tip of Manhattan. The British captured Little and thousands of soldiers at Fort Washington, only months after he joined the militia. Their captors took Little and other prisoners on a forced march for four days from Harlem south to New York City. They had no food, and they had to march through the British and Hessian troops, who taunted and harassed them, and beat them with the butts of their guns. Not too long afterward, the British put Little and many others on a prison ship, the Grosvenor.

The conditions he had experienced could not have prepared him for the appalling situation on the ship. In the lower berth, Little and other prisoners were so crowded together that they could not lie down or sit, day after day after day. Their captives gave very little food to Little and the other prisoners, maybe a small amount of gruel with water in the morning or a very dry biscuit in the evening – food that was not edible. Becoming weaker, he watched others die around him, and the dead bodies were then hoisted on deck. Then Little came down with small pox, as the disease raged through the ranks of the prisoners. A doctor came to take out those with small pox to the shore – about 40 prisoners. Of those 40, Little was one of only three prisoners who survived.

This story, this experience was repeated thousands of times, in those men and some women who died. Or, like James Little, they survived the horrors of mistreatment, neglect, and disease on the prison ships. Through their policy, the British put thousands of prisoners on ships in New York waters from 1776 to 1783. Many, many died from starvation, disease, lack of water, exposure to extreme heat or cold, and in overcrowded conditions. More than 11,500 people died aboard the ships, which were moored in Wallabout Bay, a small inlet that lies adjacent to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and nearby.

Immense Suffering

As decade after decade proceeds, century after century, these first American prisoners of war are in danger of becoming less real to us. History books often neglect them. Ask yourself: If you say Wallabout Bay, is it as known as Valley Forge, Gettysburg, or Pearl Harbor? Although the prisoners are in our midst, so many people forget them. This is a chapter of history that many in the 21st century do not know or one we have heard and forgotten about. But look into books, journals and diaries, online records, and historic newspapers, and the story is there.

To remember the Prison Ship Martyrs, we need to know them: Who were they? What did they experience? What do they have in common with us? To walk this monument is a beginning, a place to gather together, talk about their lives, and understand their suffering – in the words of Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, to be with them in compassion and in tribute. Today, we come here to honor them and to be mindful of their horrible suffering, their sacrifice, and their spirit.

Our popular image for the Revolutionary War – the struggle for our freedom from tyranny and the rule of monarchy – is that of the Founding Fathers. As Edwin Burrows, the author who wrote the path-breaking book on the prisoners, Forgotten Patriots, has said, “It’s more important than ever to know how the United States was made – not merely by those gentlemen in powdered wigs and knee britches we have heard so much about in recent years, but also by thousands upon thousands of mostly ordinary people who believed in something they considered worth dying for.”

Yes, they, the prisoners on the ships and in other horrid dungeons of detention, and those who died in battle, are our Founding Brothers and Sisters, our Founding Children.

Prison Ship Martyrs Monument - The Base

The base of the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument

Opera Singer - 104th Annual Tribute to the Prison Ship Martyrs

Madison Marie McIntosh sings at the 104th Annual Tribute to the Prison Ship Martyrs.

This sacred ground, in which lies a crypt beneath with 20 coffin-shaped boxes holding prisoners’ remains, honors the brave soldiers, seamen, indentured servants, and civilians who perished in the inhumane conditions aboard these floating prisons. This is one of the few places in New York City where you can come into contact, in a physical way, with the reality and tangible evidence that people like you and I suffered horribly for a cause that continues to define our country today.

They were people who, because they took risks for an ideal and for principles, suddenly saw their lives descend into torment that was immense and gruesome. Christopher Hawkins, barely about 16, was imprisoned on the most infamous of the ships, the Jersey, which the prisoners called “Floating Hell.” Able to survive this imprisonment, he wrote in a memoir, in the third-person, “Here he endured all the horrors of that `floating hell.’ His allowance of food was limited, and what he had was of the worst description, and utterly unfit for a human being. His drink was brackish water taken from the sides of the ship, where all the filth and refuse were thrown. Biscuits, eaten by weavels, through and through; bread, sour, and often covered with mould; meat, discolored and putrified by age, and through which myriads of maggots leaped about in play – these constituted his daily fare.”

He was keenly aware of the sick and the dying around him. Hawkins recalled being held with hundreds of others in a narrow portion of the ship, excluded from fresh air and deprived of daylight. Contagious disease and illness raged through the vessel, such as small pox and scurvy. Lice and vermin, he said, “were his constant companions and tormenters.”

Awareness of Their Sacrifices

It’s impossible to read these prisoners’ accounts and not become aware of how much they sacrificed. In the midst of life in Fort Greene Park today – of play, of serenity, of chatter, of spending our days the way we choose to – is a remembrance of death, of lives given in a cause hundreds of years ago, and we can contemplate the prisoners’ enormous sacrifices. In fighting for freedom, they lost their own freedom entirely and were held against their will. On the ships, the soldiers and sailors could have escaped this torment and remained alive by swearing allegiance to the British crown and enlisting in the British forces. We don’t know exactly how many decided to do this, but we can safely say that relatively few swore allegiance to the opposite side.

We recognize today that opponents in a war deserve humane treatment. Today, we have the Geneva Convention guiding our treatment of prisoners of war. There was no such thing then. Moreover, the British denied those captured in the American Revolution the status of being called prisoners of war.

Beyond the horrible mistreatment in life that the prisoners received, their captors accorded them no dignity in death. When the prisoners died aboard the ships, the captors tied cannonballs to them and threw their bodies overboard or buried them in hastily dug and very shallow graves on the Wallabout shoreline. As an 1808 account later noted, “The bodies were crowded and pressed down into the earth without decency or humanity.”

So many gave their lives, and beyond their sacrifice, what about the survivors? Their experiences often scarred them for a long time. Those who escaped; became involved in the prisoner exchanges; or otherwise managed to survive, in many cases, sacrificed their peace of mind because of what they had suffered and witnessed. Christopher Vail, a sailor, as author Burrows observed, spent just two weeks on the Jersey “but was haunted for the rest of his life by the experience.”

Haunted, yes. We can see this in the memoirs they created, the letters they submitted to Congress in the early 19th century when seeking to qualify for pensions, and in other recollections. We find so much suffering and sacrifice.

Understanding Their Spirit

Yet, we can find much evidence of, be mindful about, and honor their spirit under horrifying circumstances. In the midst of horror, the brutality of many of their captors, despondency, and a wholly desperate situation, the prisoners at various times exhibited a life spirit and carried the values we revere today. Aboard the Jersey, Ebenezer Fox recalled, the prisoners petitioned Governor George Clinton to “meliorate the wretchedness of our situation” and to further bring a full accounting to General Washington.

Many sought to escape, and some succeeded. The prisoners risked punishment and even death by defying the officers in charge of the ships by displaying their support for their cause, in defiance of the British.

By such principles, these prisoners were our forebears, and within their experience is an interconnection across generations of the United States, from the 18th century to the 21st century. First, in their memories and other accounts, the survivors left us proof: They wanted us to remember. They wanted future generations to know what had happened aboard these prison ships – to remember and to hold dear that for which they had sacrificed so much and for which their fellow prisoners had lost their lives. They wanted us not to forget.

Despite the magnitude of what happened just off these shorelines of New York, the first inclinations after the Revolutionary War to build a monument or honor the prisoners dissipated fairly quickly.

But there were the bones – the bones that lie beneath us now. For years, these whitened bone fragments washed up on the sandy shores of Wallabout Bay, often exposed as the tides changed. The British abandoned that horrible ship, the Jersey, and in time it broke apart, its rotting boards visible at low tide. A son of one of the surviving prisoners remembered how his father would point to the pieces of the Jersey’s hulk from the shoreline.

For many years, the bones washed up and many saw them on the beaches, and caring citizens collected them. Some sought to secure a permanent resting place. In 1808, the fragments were buried in a memorial near the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Ultimately, in 1873, the prisoners’ remains were moved and interred in a vault here. Still, those who cared about the sacrifices and heroism of the prison ships’ dead persisted in efforts to get a permanent memorial. Finally, they succeeded as the government and private efforts – especially by the Society of Old Brooklynites and the Prison Ship Martyrs Association – came together to build and dedicate the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, this sacred space, 104 years ago.

So, today and in our time, what must we do with this knowledge and this remembrance? It’s cliché to say we must remember…it’s the kind of remembering we do. We need to remember the horror that happened right here at New York’s shoreline, to learn more about it, and to keep it forefront in our consciousness. Learn the stories and tell the stories. Tell the stories of what happened to the prisoners to your children, your grandchildren, your parents, your sisters and brothers, your friends, your classmates.

As a city and nation, we can consider and campaign for greater recognition and memorials to these first American prisoners of war. Should we have a memorial at the New York City waterfront so that visitors and New Yorkers have a greater understanding, when they look at these waters, of all that happened here? I believe we should! When I am on the Staten Island Ferry, at the Brooklyn waterfront, or across in Manhattan, I have a different feeling now when I look across the waters. This was the place where thousands gave their lives. It imparts a very profound sense of those waters and our history.

We are connected to the prisoners and to this place. It is a place of play and gathering, to enjoy our city, and yet this monument renders it a place of solemnity. Their spirits are in the midst of us. Their interconnection runs from James Little’s imprisonment after that forced march in New York, down through the souls who carefully gathered their bones, to the 20,000 who came here in 1908 at the monument’s dedication, to us and to our children. We must take our place within the generations and understand the horrors that happen in war and specifically the suffering that these Revolutionary War prisoners endured. The prisoners knew it. As one of those who were confined on the Jersey in 1782, Capt. Alexander Coffin, wrote later, “The truly brave will always treat their prisoners well.”

We must take our place within the generations, carry and honor this history, learn from it, and be mindful of the prisoners’ suffering and their bravery. Their spirits are here, among us, and their spirit absolutely helped form the freedoms we possess today.

Walt Whitman knew this, saw the connection of the generations, and believed that we needed to honor the prisoners. Let us keep their memory and this connection forefront as we end today with Walt Whitman’s poem, “The Wallabout Martyrs”:

Greater than memory of Achilles or Ulysses,
More, more by far to thee than the tomb of Alexander
Those car loads of old charnel ashes, scales and splints of mouldy bones
Once living men – once resolute courage, aspiration, strength,
The stepping stones to thee to-day and here America

Further Reading

To read more on Mindfulwalker.com, also see:

In Our Midst: The Prison Ship Martyrs

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