The Prison Ship Jersey
Brooklyn Historical Society
Americans died in British prison ships in
New York Harbor than in all the battles of
the Revolutionary War.
There were at least 16 of these floating
prisons anchored in Wallabout Bay on the
East River for most of the war, and they
were sinkholes of filth, vermin, infectious
disease and despair. The ships were
uniformly wretched, but the most notorious
was the Jersey.
Following the Battle of Long Island in
August, 1776, and the fall of New York City
soon after, the British found thousands of
prisoners on their hands, and the available
prisons in New York filled up quickly. Then,
as the British began seizing hundreds of
seamen off privateers, they turned a series
of aging vessels into maritime prison ships.
Sketch of Starving Men on
Charles Allen Munn Collection,
Fordham University Library
more than a thousand men at a time packed
onto the Jersey. They died with such
regularity that when their British jailers
opened the hatches in the morning, their
first greeting to the men below was:
"Rebels, turn out your dead!"
There were 4,435 battle deaths during the
Revolutionary War, according to the
Department of Defense. One historian
estimated that there were between 7,000 and
8,000 prison ship deaths, but other sources
claim even more. A letter-writer from
Fishkill in 1783 claimed that on the Jersey
alone, 11,644 died. Although that figure is
unlikely for the one ship, it is reasonable
for all the prison ships together, and is
Built in 1735 as a 64-gun ship, the Jersey
was was converted to a prison ship in the
winter of 1779-1780. Virtually stripped
except for a flagstaff and a derrick for
taking in supplies, the Jersey was floated,
rudderless, in Wallabout Bay, about 100
yards offshore of what is now the Brooklyn
Navy Yard. Its portholes were closed and
supplanted by a series of small holes, 20
inches square, crossed by two bars of iron.
Prison Ship Martyrs Monument
There were various ways to get off the
prison ships. The British had a standing
offer that any prisoner could be released
immediately if he joined the British forces,
and an unidentified number did so. Prisoners
who carried money with them could buy their
way off the ship. Others managed to escape.
Also, prisoner exchanges were quite common,
with officers exchanged for officers, seamen
for seamen, soldiers for soldiers. But for
vast numbers of prisoners, there were only
two possibilities: death or the end of the
war, whichever came first.
end, survivors were released, and the prison
ships abandoned. In later years, bleached
bones of the dead were constantly exposed to
the tides and weather along the Long Island
shore. And well into the next century, low
tide regularly exposed the rotting timbers
of the Jersey, the ship they called Hell.
of the those who died in the floating
prisons on Wallabout Bay is forever
enshrined at the Prison Ship Martyrs
Monument in Brooklyn's Fort Greene Park.
It took a while to get there, however. It
wasn't until 1808 that the bones of many of
the prison ship dead were given a proper
burial near the Navy Yard in Brooklyn by the
Tammany Society of New York. In 1873 the
bones were re-interred in Fort Greene Park.
The current monument was erected in 1908 by
the Society of Old Brooklynites. Now, the
Brooklyn group is planning to erect an
eternal flame -- actually, a stainless steel
sculpture in the shape of a flame that would
be gilded, like the flame of the Statue of
Liberty -- atop the column.
The General Slocum Burns.
Bodies on the Shore.
Identifying bodies on Brother Island.
On shore, a few
hundred feet away, thousands of horrified spectators could only helplessly watch
events unfold. It was over in about ten minutes.
A Pier Became a Makeshift Morgue.
Carrying a Baby to the Cemetery.
There were not enough hearses
to bury all the