In Our Midst: The Prison Ship Martyrs

September 30th, 2010 · 30 Comments · Explore New York

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

Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, Fort Greene Park

Prison Ship Martyrs Monument - Base

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.

Prison Ship Martyrs Monument - Granite Steps

Prison Ship Martyrs Monument 2

To find out more about the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument and Fort Greene Park, also see:

Fort Greene Park Museum & Visitors Center

Prison Ship Martyrs Association

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30 Comments so far ↓

  • Gretchen

    Susan, I think this must be just about the most moving article you’ve written so far. You gave these prisoners’ lives meaning for anyone seeing that monument. I am curious: is there any interpretive display at the monument (other than that plaque) which explains the history that you so eloquently outlined? Like you, I wonder how many people know about this aspect of NYC’s Revolutionary War history.

  • Susan DeMark

    Gretchen,

    Thank you so much for such wonderful words about the article. I’m honored by them. What carried me through that article was how moved I was by the experience of the monument and my thoughts and readings about what the prisoners endured…and their heroism in the face of such brutal treatment. It is a story that needs to be out there more.

    As for any interpretive display, one outdoor sign off the plaza notes that Fort Greene Park — including the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument — is part of the Revolutionary War Heritage Trail. It has some information on it. There is no interpretive signage right at the monument, meaning at the Doric column and where the crypt lies.

    However, Fort Greene Park has interpretive material and some artifacts at its Visitors Center, which is a short walk away, northeast and adjacent to the Washington Park wing of the monument plaza. The center’s specific materials relating to the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument include a partial list of names of those who died, the monument dedication program, and materials relating to Stanford White.

    The Visitors Center is open every day from 9 a.m.to 5 p.m., though it is sometimes closed if a park ranger needs to be in another part of the park, according to a park ranger with whom I spoke.

    For this piece I wanted to focus on a walking experience of the monument itself, but I plan to return sometime soon to look at and possibly write about the materials at the Visitors Center.

    I do wonder how many who pass this monument know of this part of the Revolutionary War experience. It’s amazing to me, in my discussions with people, how many were unaware of it — and frankly, I did not know the extent of the imprisonment until researching this article.

    It’s so important that we give proper attention to men and women who, after all, helped secure our place as a democracy.

    Again, thank you!

    Susan

  • Nita

    Susan, I never thought about the prisoners…

    Having just returned from visiting the National Holocaust Museum this week, your piece on the Revolutionary War prisoners sickens me even further. They were all real people, no less flesh and blood than me.

    Thanks for enlightening us on their sacrifice for our country.

  • Susan DeMark

    Nita,

    Thank you very much.

    Yes, it’s a part of our history that has escaped widespread attention, so yours is a far-from-isolated case in not thinking about the prisoners.

    I can imagine that this hit home even more after seeing the Holocaust Museum in the same week. Both are very evil and dark chapters in human history.

    At those times, I try to remember the examples of heroism and integrity in our history — otherwise, we would be left with so little hope.

    All the best,
    Susan

  • Out walking the dog

    What a fascinating – and,yes, horrifying – story. Strange what slips through the cracks of official histories. Thank you for writing this.

  • Susan DeMark

    Hello, “Out Walking the Dog,”

    I appreciate your comments very much. So true that it’s a horrifying chapter of our history, one that continues to move me as I reflect on it. I hope to continue to bring the story to light out of its nearly forgotten place in the country’s collective memory.

    Susan

  • Brian in Yakima WA

    Nice article, Susan. I wonder if Giuliani has ever visited the Monument. Probably not, or he might never have called 9/11 the “worst attack on the United States ever in our history.”

  • Susan DeMark

    Brian,

    Thank you very much.

    I’m not sure if the former Mayor visited the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument during his time in office. It is hard to imagine that something did not bring him to this hallowed place. On one hand, he named Edwin G. Burrows, who wrote the definitive book of the American prisoners — as cited above — as a “Centennial Historian of New York.” On the other, when the City Council acted to prevent taxpayer funds from going to a new West Side stadium, Mayor Giuliani responded by cutting funds for various things including the prison ship monument, the Daily News reported at the time.

    As exemplary as the mayor’s leadership was during the aftermath of September 11, and I believe it was, perhaps he missed some teachable moments to discuss this horrible wartime incarceration during the Revolution as an event that had tested New York before. I don’t recall him citing it at the time, though he may have and I missed it.

    Again, thanks,
    Susan

  • Brian in Yakima WA

    No, he didn’t. We were watching for it ;-)

    That would be [an] interesting appointment for him not to have known about the prison ships. Maybe he simply misspoke and “overlooked” it. But it seems that he must have gone to bed many nights thinking about previous attacks on our country and how the WTC attacks ranked. I mean it’s hard to imagine that he would say “worst…ever in our history” if he hadn’t thought about it beforehand and believed it. But I’m sure nobody but historians noticed. Maybe I’m nitpicking. But it is sad that this event in history has been overlooked by 99% of our population (based on my non-scientific poll- J/K) Thanks again, Susan!

  • Susan DeMark

    Brian,

    I agree…when I speak with people I find that many do not have any knowledge about the prisoners on the ships in New York’s harbor during the Revolutionary War. As the phrase goes, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

    Again, thanks!

    Susan

  • Amber

    I wanted to thank you so much for your article! The subject of the American prisoners in the Revolutionary war is a lifelong study for me. In fact, I even wrote a book about them. The prison ship martyrs are in this book as well. It is tragic that many people are unaware of their sacrifice. I hope that someday they will gain the recognition they deserve.

    • Susan DeMark

      Amber,

      Thank you for taking the time to write a comment and offering such positive feedback. As I learned of the prison ship martyrs, I knew that I had to write something about it. How wonderful that you have made the topic of the American prisoners in the Revolutionary War a lifelong study. The suffering and sacrifices of these prisoners — which they made so that we may have democracy — needs to be told much more. I agree with you: It’s tragic that so many do not know of the sacrifice of the prison ship martyrs.

      I would certainly be eager to follow up by reading your book and understanding more about the American prisoners in the Revolutionary War. Also, I’m sure that Mindfulwalker.com readers would be very interested in knowing the title of your book.

      Again, thank you! I appreciate your comments and value your observations more than words can say.

      Susan

  • Amber

    Susan,

    Unfortunately, my book cannot be read quite yet. I am trying to find a publisher who will take my book. I wish it was published!

    But the title of my book is Redeeming Elizabeth. It is a book about a young woman who lost her father and fiancé in a British prison. I wrote the book to bring life to the American prisoners and to the families they left behind to mourn their tragic loss.

    Though I cannot give you my book, I can give you pages of research about the American prisoners that I attached to the end of my book (so people would not think I was making it up) and a trailer I made for my book. I will be sure to give you a copy of my book (signed by me) when I find a publisher.

    • Susan DeMark

      Amber,

      The premise of your book sounds excellent and very moving. It hits upon the real human tragedy that happens during war, and I’m sure it would bring life to the American prisoners of the Revolutionary War and their families.

      I would welcome the opportunity to see the trailer and attached research that you mention, as I have much interest in this often-neglected part of our history.

      I’ll also look forward to that signed copy of your book — and I’m wishing you all the very best in securing a publisher. Keep the faith, as persistence pays, right?

      All the best,
      Susan

  • Bill

    To Brian in Washington – why politicize this event in modern day terms? Yes, 9/11 was the worst attack on American soil in modern times. And, in actuality, given the idea that when this horrific event occurred, this land was not yet officially The United States. I was witness to 9/11 firsthand. I’m sure it appeared much differently on your 20″ television.

  • Bill

    Oh, and to Amber, thanks for allowing people to again see that freedom is not free and that it does come on the backs and sacrifices of the untold and unsung many who have come before us.

  • Sylvia

    This was fascinating. My 5 times great grandfather was wounded at Monmouth and taken prisoner aboard one of the ships in NY harbor. By the grace of God, he survived and lived to the ripe old age of 97.

    You should also look into the history of the Union prisoner of war facility in Alton, Ill., during the Civil War. The conditions were just as bad as on the prison ships, the main difference being that the Alton prison was on land not on water. It was located a few hundred yards from the Mississippi river and was a miasma of disease during the summer. One year, men died at such a rate that they could not be buried in a timely manner but were stacked like cord wood along one wall. The prison was originally an Illinois state prison but was condemned in 1861 as unfit for human habitation. It was just a few months later that it was reopened and ultimately over 1500 men were incarcerated in a facility built to house about 250 or so. Obviously, we didn’t do much better than the British.

    • Susan DeMark

      Sylvia,

      How amazing that your 5 times great-grandfather survived the terrible treatment on the British ships and lived until age 97. Wow. I can only imagine the images and memories that he took with him from that awful experience, but how great that he lived on until, as you say, a ripe old age!

      Your description of the Union POW facility of Alton is indeed chilling. I know the conditions were very harsh…the crowding of the prisoners, the horrible sanitary situation, the disease, etc.

      As you allude to, the United States has its own dark history in treatment of the prisoners during the Civil War. Your description of human bodies “stacked like cord word” says everything about the inhumanity of this prison at Alton. Fort Delaware was another prison where thousands were overcrowded, and many hundreds of Confederate soldiers died.

      In my view, it’s crucial to teach about the maltreatment of prisoners throughout so many wars — “man’s inhumanity to man.”

      Thank you for such thoughtful and insightful comments, Sylvia.

      Susan

  • Tom Teters

    I am following what may be my G5gf, George Dieter – he was a private in the Pennsylvania Flying Camp of the Ten Thousand (Minutemen). He signed up with Capt. Kern’s Company from Amboy, and they fought in the Battle of Long Island. I am trying unsuccessfully to find the list of the 11,500 that died on the British ships. And came to your story, very well expressed and makes me even more forlorn, that I did not learn of this in school and had not even heard about this until a year or so ago.

    What a sacrifice, to know all they had to do was say, ‘I follow the King’, and many of them had ‘signed the oath’, when they came over here years before, and that would have saved their lives. But it was more important to stand for freedom and democracy, how can we do any less today? God Save America.

    • Susan DeMark

      Tom,

      Were I to learn about an ancestor as you have, I would want to learn all I could, too. Do you have reason to believe that George Dieter was on one of the prison ships? Also, have you consulted with either with those at the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, meaning at Fort Greene Park, or checked out the sources in Edwin G. Burrows’ book on the prisoners that I cited above.

      I will follow up with you in an e-mail, in terms of other possible avenues of research for any list of those who died.

      As I gave some sense of in my article, I believe wholeheartedly that this chapter in our history should be taught much, much more in schools.

      Yes, it makes one pause to consider that these prisoners could have saved themselves by swearing allegiance to the British crown — but they stood for the revolution and freedom, despite the certainty of losing their lives. Bravery beyond imagination.

      Thank you for sharing your story, and I fully understand your sentiments!

      Susan

  • Tom Teters

    There is also a list of prisoners on this webpage:
    http://prisonshipmartyrs.com/gpage1.html, evidently the best list available, all the British Admiralty had to offer. Thanks to the Fort Greens Rangers.

  • Patty

    My ancestor was a prisoner on the Jersey for 4 months; luckily he survived. He was a surgeon who tended the American prisoners that the British left to die below decks.

    • Susan DeMark

      Patty,

      Thank you for sharing the history of your ancestor. One can only imagine the horror that he witnessed and sought to ameliorate, as a surgeon. It is fortunate that he could survive such an ordeal.

      How did you learn of this history? Did he leave any written record of this time as a prisoner (for instance, letters) or was this history discovered in another way?

      Kind regards,
      Susan

      • Patty

        I joined the DAR and researched my ancestors. Among them was Dr. Nathan Dorsey, born in Baltimore, took the Oath of Allegiance in 1776, and was stationed on the Lexington as a surgeon. He was captured and held prisoner on the Jersey and was paroled or exchanged in July, 1781. All my information is public record, I have no written words of Dr. Dorsey’s. Wish I did.

        • Susan DeMark

          Patty,

          Thank you! Yes, that would be amazing to have any written words of your ancestor, Dr. Dorsey. That said, it is so good that you have this history, which is a tribute to your research of your ancestors.

          I appreciate you sharing the history of your ancestor. As I had said before, I can only imagine the suffering that Dr. Dorsey endured and witnessed on the Jersey. We have enough of a written record to know now what horrible suffering those on the prison ships went through. Such a sad chapter of our history, and one that makes me appreciate every day the hardships that people like your ancestor went through in order to secure freedom and a new nation.

          I appreciate your sharing of this history, and please do let our audience know if you learn anything more.

          Gratefully,
          Susan

  • Linda

    My husband’s gggggrandfather, Daniel Williams, wasn’t so lucky as he died on the Jersey. A moving, deeply touching account of these brave souls who paid the sacrifice of freedom we presently enjoy. Unfortunately, not enough attention is paid to our Patriots who sacrificed so much, so long ago. Thank you, nicely done.

    • Susan DeMark

      Linda,

      Thank you for contributing your eloquent remembrance of your husband’s ancestor, who sacrificed his life so that we may live in freedom. I would like to hear more about Daniel Williams, if possible.

      I agree very much with you that our country has not and to this day does not pay enough attention to and honor those who gave up so much in the Revolutionary War.

      Thankfully, some do honor these prisoners in accordance with their sacrifice. On Saturday, Aug. 25, at 10 a.m., the Society of Old Brooklynites will hold its 104th annual Commemoration and Memorial Tribute to the Prison Ship Martyrs at the monument, in Fort Greene Park. I will deliver the keynote presentation that day. The program, which is open to the public, will include a maritime piping ceremony and a wreath laying.

      We owe the heroes such as your husband’s ancestor a debt that is beyond calculation. I believe firmly that we must give more attention to the prisoners and understand just how much the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument is sacred ground.

      I appreciate your remembrance, Linda!

      Susan

  • Roy Arvio

    Another fine article of a largely unknown story.

    I would like to know if there are any copyright laws preventing me from sending the main parts of this article on to military and other publications, with due acknowledgment to Wikipedia?

    Thank You
    Roy Arvio

    • Susan DeMark

      Dear Mr. Arvio,

      Thank you for your compliment about the article, and I agree with you that in many places this is a “largely unknown story,” as you note.

      To your query: Yes, copyright law protects original works such as this article that I have created for Mindful Walker. Under copyright law and because I am the owner of the copyright, I have the exclusive right to reproduce this work or to authorize any others — such as a publication — to permit main parts of it to be copied. My site has a copyright on the bottom of each site page, with the copyright for Mindful Walker and Susan DeMark.

      I appreciate your desire to bring this story to a wider audience but it definitely is covered by copyright as an original work. Yes, Wikipedia has this article listed as an “external link” under its article on the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument. which links back to this site. But Wikipedia would not get the acknowledgement.

      If you know of a particular military or other publication that you believe would be interested in this article, I would be happy to contact that publication directly to check into that. Any republication of this article would need to be properly cited and attributed, with my permission, as I own the copyright to it and am not authorizing you to “send the main parts of this article to military and other publications.”

      I will follow up with a correspondence directly to you.

      Sincerely,
      Susan DeMark

      Mindful Walker
      http://www.mindfulwalker.com

  • Alfred Kohler

    A powerful story of man’s inhumanity to man, of what a great nation can do to people it considers ‘traitors’ – and, yet, when its war was lost (1781?), only then did the incarcerated on the prison ships get the status of POW. I read that 40 prisoners had smallpox and were removed from a prison ship; only 3 survived. The number of dead was appalling. Thank you for your very moving cry to honor these heroes. Their story was taught in schools, at least in Brooklyn, until the U. S. under W. Wilson joined the British in its war that became known as WWI.

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