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. [Read more →]