Somebody asked me last night what my favorite discovery has been so far. My immediate answer (and I stand by it today) was the horrible story of the HMS Jersey and of the other prison-ships during the Revolutionary War. I’ve been waiting to write about it for a while, since I first came across it in my research on Clinton Hill.
Call me macabre, but I think I’m fascinated by it because I never learned about it in school. Concord, Lexington, and Paul Revere? Check. Valley Forge? You bet. Cornwallis and Yorktown? Of course. One of the greatest atrocities in American history? Not a peep.
This statistic might drop your jaw like it did mine: in the Revolutionary War, around 4,500 American soldiers died in combat. On the prison-ships, the death-count was around 11,500. But we knew little about this number until locals made some gruesome discoveries in the following decades.
We interrupt this story for a public-service announcement: I’m absolved from putting together a comprehensive history this week thanks to the Brooklyn Navy Yard website, which talks about the constant transformation of the area*. If you want more information, go to the exhibit “Brooklyn Navy Yard’s Past, Present and Future” at BLDG 92. It’s awesome, and it’s free!
Back now to our regularly scheduled post. The HMS Jersey, the most notorious of the eleven ships used for this purpose, was a former gunship that had been decommissioned and allowed to decay while resting on the bed of Wallabout Bay. It was used for the storage of supplies until 1780, when it was re-purposed to hold soldiers and sailors unfortunate enough to be put in its hold.
Even during the war, these ships struck fear in the hearts of Americans. Ebenezer Fox, who survived the Jersey, wrote: “The idea of being incarcerated in this floating Pandemonium filled us with horror; but the idea we had formed of its horrors fell far short of the realities which we afterwards experienced.”
Prisoners were packed into tight quarters. Disease ran rampant. Each group of six men was allotted rations for four — if you can call them rations. “All our food appeared to be damaged,” recalled Fox. “The bread was mouldy, and filled with worms. It required considerable rapping upon the deck before the worms could be dislodged from their lurking places in a biscuit.” Meat was boiled in the surrounding, stagnant water, into which the ship’s chamber-pots were daily emptied. Summer heat — and the accompanying stench — was amplified by the closeness of the captives’ bodies.**
When prisoners died, the British would sink the corpses overboard, or bury them in mass graves in the tidal flats of Wallabout Bay. Erosion had its way with the mud, and in the 1790s, bones started becoming exposed. Digging for an expansion of the Navy Yard in the early 1800s turned up countless bodies. Nathaniel Scudder Prime, a witness to the excavation, wrote that “skulls and feet, arms and legs [were] sticking out of the crumbling bank in the wildest disorder”.
Some of the remains were placed in thirteen coffins, which were carried in a procession to a new resting-place on Jackson Street (now Hudson Avenue in Vinegar Hill) on May 26, 1808. These coffins were joined by 18 hogsheads (63-gallon containers) filled with bones. In 1873, the contents were moved to a permanent site in what is now Fort Greene Park; in 1908, the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument was completed over the crypt. The monument is a 149-foot pillar.
Some all-star names participated in this homage: Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted designed the crypt, while Stanford White designed the monument. It’s fitting that, from the top, you can see the place where the prison-ships were once anchored.
*Unfortunately, the very first fact is likely wrong — Sarah Rapelje, eldest daughter of Jansen de Rapelje, was probably born in Fort Orange, now Albany. According to her mother’s journal, the family moved to Manhattan from Fort Orange in 1626, the year after Sarah was born. What is not in doubt is that Sarah (fitting name) was a matriarch of sorts to Brooklyn: she claims as descendants several prominent families, including Bergen and Polhemus.
**If you want to read more about the conditions on the ships, check out Fox’s book. Not for the faint of heart!
Clinton Hill and Wallabout by Brian Merlis (Israelowitz Publishing, 2011)
A history of the city of Brooklyn : including the old town and village of Brooklyn, the town of Bushwick, and the village and city of Williamsburgh by Henry R. Stiles (Heritage Books, 1993 reprint, orig. 1867-1870).