To walk thoughtfully around the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park is to be asked to delve into a story of unspeakable horror that took place right in New York City’s waters during the Revolutionary War. It’s a story that many of us in the 21st century do not know or one that we neglect. But look into books, journals and diaries, online summaries, and historic newspapers and the story is there.
The Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, sitting on high ground atop Fort Greene Park, honors the patriotic soldiers, sailors, indentured servants, and others who perished in the inhumane conditions aboard floating prisons. It’s far more than a fancy granite memorial. It’s one of New York’s few places where you can come into contact, in a real physical way, with the reality and sacrifice of the Revolutionary War, with tangible evidence that everyday people suffered terribly and lost their lives.
The British government consigned thousands of prisoners to ships around New York during the years of the Revolutionary War that the British occupied the city, from 1776 to 1783. The captives’ suffering was immense and horrible beyond comprehension. Writing of his imprisonment aboard the British ship Jersey, Capt. Thomas Dring observed “that among the emaciated crowd of living skeletons who had remained on board for any length of time, the cook was the only person who appeared to have much flesh upon his bones.”
Those who somehow survived recalled receiving very little food. For a meal, they might have gotten only a hard biscuit full of worms and oil, a tiny bit of oatmeal, or a scant ounce of rotted meat. One prisoner, Ebenezer Fox, told of prisoners learning to pound the biscuits sharply on the ship’s deck to dislodge the worms, according to Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War. Another remembered when he and other prisoners received the severed heads of sheep, which they crushed and mixed with water and a small bit of oatmeal to make a broth.
Edwin G. Burrows’ Forgotten Patriots captures the appalling conditions and death on the prison ships: The British confined prisoners to the lower decks that were often so crowded they had no room to lie down to sleep or anywhere to sit. Guards often beat or terrorized prisoners. Aboard the Jersey, the captives fought “like wild beasts” to get near the ship’s small openings so that they could breathe. The stench was intolerable. The water they drank was putrid. In such unsanitary, befouled, and close conditions and without proper food or water, thousands came down with typhus, dysentery, small pox, yellow fever, and other illnesses and died.
The death toll from starvation, lack of water, disease, extreme heat or cold, and overcrowding was extremely high. More than 11,500 men and women died aboard the prison ships, which were primarily moored in Wallabout Bay, a small inlet that now abuts the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Today, it’s difficult to grasp the extent of wartime horror that occurred in New York, in a small bay on the Brooklyn side of the East River. New York – which has been built over countless times – retains little physical evidence and atmosphere of the war and the colonial era compared with Boston and Philadelphia.
Bones Washing Ashore
The Prison Ship Martyrs Monument is a hallowed place in a city that has layered over so much of its past. Calling it a “lost monument to a forgotten cause,” author Eric Nash, in New York’s 50 Best Secret Architectural Treasures, notes that the Revolutionary War has been “reduced to images such as General Washington at Valley Forge or crossing the Delaware.” Here, beneath a thick, mammoth Doric column rising 149 feet lays a crypt with 20 coffin-shaped boxes that hold the bone fragments of thousands of the prison ship captives. This is sacred ground.
Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, Fort Greene Park
Base of the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument
That the bone fragments found a final resting place here is a tribute to caring New Yorkers in the years after the Revolutionary War and in the 19th century. When prisoners died on the ships, those who held them captive threw their bodies overboard or buried them in the marshes along the shore. For many years, the prisoners’ bones washed up on the shores of Brooklyn and Long Island, and conscientious citizens who collected them sought to make sure there would be a permanent resting place for the remains. In 1808, the fragments were buried in a memorial near the Brooklyn Navy Yard. During subsequent decades, this site fell into disrepair. Ultimately, in 1873, the prisoners’ remains were moved and interred in a vault at the current site in Fort Greene Park (then known as Washington Park).
Still, those who cared about the sacrifices and heroism of the prison ships’ dead persisted in efforts to get a permanent memorial. Finally, in the early 20th century, after the Prison Ship Martyrs Association had raised thousands of dollars, Congress approved funds for the monument, to be matched by the city and state. In what would be architect Stanford White’s final project before his death, the architects McKim, Mead, and White designed the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument. It was dedicated in 1908 in a ceremony attended by President-Elect William Howard Taft, some 20,000 spectators, and 15,000 soldiers, according to the Brooklyn Eagle.
The monument is stately, grand, solemn, and peaceful. The best way to take it in is by walking up from the first of its three wide granite staircases, each about 30-yards-wide and containing 33 steps. As one ascends the third flight of steps, a wide plaza and the massive Doric column come into view. The column, the tallest freestanding Doric column in the world when it was constructed, is topped by a bronze urn. Four 300-pound eagles are situated at the corners of the terrace. The word “expanse” came to mind as I walked quietly.
After walking silently around it, I read the plaque affixed by the Society of Old Brooklynites that tells of soldiers and sailors who “endured untold suffering” on the ships and I looked down at the base and crypt, thinking of the remains buried within. Nearby, a child played on a scooter, a man practiced yoga, a boy glided by on a skateboard, three teens were engaged in perky chatting, and a father wheeled his baby in a stroller. In the midst of life, of play, of serenity, of chatter is a remembrance of death, of lives given in a cause hundreds of years ago. Their lives came to a horrifying end.
A “Pestiferous Shell”
Encountering this place makes what the men and women who died in the Revolutionary War did suddenly become real. It’s not some stereotyped image of men in three-cornered hats or women in colonial garb in a history book. It also renders a vivid sense of New York City under martial law during the American Revolution, occupied by the British forces. It was a place that many thousands had fled, where people were held in makeshift prisons not only on ships but in churches, sugar houses, and the King’s College building. It rapidly became a city of rampant infection and disorder, a “half-ruined, pestiferous shell” by September, 1776, as author Burrows terms it. New York held the bulk of American captives during the Revolutionary War, according to Burrows.
As word spread about the conditions, the harsh treatment of prisoners only served to stiffen the spine of the resistance to British rule. On the prison ships, the soldiers and sailors could have escaped torment and stayed alive by swearing allegiance to the British crown and enlisting in the British forces. Few made this choice. It strikes me that I owe them an incalculable debt.
Watching people going about their day around the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, I couldn’t help but wonder how many know of the entombment and of the story of the brave souls here. It’s a part of our history that isn’t told often enough or is neglected. Yet, like Arlington and Gettysburg, this place makes it clear just how dear our freedom is – especially when it came at the cost of thousands of lives.
To find out more about the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument and Fort Greene Park, also see: