The British prison ships that dotted the Eastern seaboard during American Revolution have been gone for more than two centuries. But the horrors they left in their wake are unlikely to be forgotten: starvation, disease, cruelty and a death toll that may have exceeded 11,000 men and boys—far more than died fighting on land.
While that story is all too familiar to students of the war, there is also another, lesser-known one—the surprising heroism of the ragtag American captives.
Barely three months after the American colonists had declared their independence, the British positioned their first prison ship, the Whitby, in a bay off Brooklyn. They’d soon add prison ships in Charleston, Savannah, Norfolk, off the coast of Florida and in Canada.
Brooklyn and New York City, which British forces occupied, became the most active hub, with a small fleet of ships and several thousand prisoners at any given time. Most of the existing survivor accounts come from men who were held aboard those ships, particularly the HMS Jersey, which would become the most notorious of them all.
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The prisoners were a mix of soldiers, sailors and rebellious civilians. Many were crew members from privateers—privately owned ships authorized by the Continental Congress, which had little navy of its own, to harass and seize British vessels. To crew the privateers, their captains often relied on young men and teenagers from New England and elsewhere in the colonies. They typically had little sailing experience but were eager for more excitement than they’d find behind a plow.
When the British captured a privateer, members of its crew were frequently offered a choice: Sign on with a British vessel or take your chances on a prison ship.
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Most of the young Americans knew what imprisonment would mean. Colonial newspapers had reported on the horrific conditions and brutal treatment aboard the prison ships from the beginning, historian Edwin G. Burrows writes in his 2008 book, Forgotten Patriots. Even so, the great majority of the captured sailors who had any choice in the matter took prison over serving the British. The historian Jesse Lemisch estimated that only about 8 percent of the Americans went over to the other side, although some researchers put the number slightly higher.
Once aboard the prison ships, the recruiting efforts continued. Some prisoners were offered cash, others told that their families would starve in the streets. The horrors of the prison ships also served as a recruiting tool, making any alternative—even betraying one’s country—seem attractive by comparison. Ebenezer Fox, a prisoner on the Jersey, marveled that, “Many were actually starved to death in hope of making them enroll themselves in the British Army.”
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A floating receptacle of human misery
Just how bad were the conditions on these ships? The survivors’ first-person accounts more than speak for themselves.
“I now found myself in a loathsome prison, among a collection of the most wretched and disgusting looking objects that I ever beheld in human form,” wrote Fox, who’d been captured as a teenage cabin steward aboard a privateer. “Here was a motley crew, covered with rags and filth; visages pallid with disease, emaciated with hunger and anxiety, and retaining hardly a trace of their original appearance.”
“I soon found that every spark of humanity had fled the breasts of the British officers who had charge of that floating receptacle of human misery; and that nothing but abuse and insult was to be expected,” wrote Alexander Coffin Jr., who, as an 18-year-old sailor, was imprisoned on the Jersey. “But to cap the climax of infamy we were fed (if fed it might be called) with provisions not fit for any human being to make use of—putrid beef and pork, and worm-eaten bread...”
“There were continual noises during the night,” wrote Thomas Dring, a captured master’s mate from a privateer, age 25. “The groans of the sick and the dying; the curses poured out by the weary and exhausted upon our inhuman keepers; the restlessness caused by the suffocating heat and the confined and poisoned air; mingled with the wild and incoherent ravings of delirium.”
Under such conditions, disease flourished. “Small-pox, dysentery, yellow fever and other contagions ran rampant in the crowded holds,” notes Robert P. Watson in The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn, his 2017 book about the Jersey. Although the British stationed hospital ships nearby, they were poorly supplied and soon overwhelmed with patients. As a result, many of the sick were left aboard the prison ships, where they infected others. By one estimate, at least six prisoners died every day, and sometimes twice that number.
Many of the dead were buried on the nearby beaches, in graves so shallow that their corpses soon poked up through the sand. Prisoners aboard ship could see the bones of their former comrades bleaching in the sun, and skulls and other remnants would turn up for many years thereafter.
George Washington, the commander of the Continental Army, wrote multiple letters to his British adversaries, urging better treatment for the prisoners. In one he questioned why they should be held aboard ships at all and “by crouding them together in a few [ships], bring on Disorders which consign them by half Dozens a Day to the grave.” But even his protests were to little avail.
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‘They preferred to linger and die’
Although the American prisoners greatly outnumbered their guards, there were few reports of attempted rebellions aboard the prison ships, perhaps because most prisoners couldn’t have summoned the strength. Some attempted escape, even though the British promised to kill them on the spot if they were caught.
Among those who succeeded was Christopher Hawkins, age 17, who, with the help of a compatriot, managed to smash open a gun port in the side of the Jersey, taking advantage of a thunderstorm that kept the guards from hearing the noise. He then swam the several miles to shore and arrived on land naked except for his hat.
Others remained behind, knowing that, unless the war ended soon, they had only two options: turn traitor or, in all likelihood, never leave the ship alive.
Even so, they resisted. Dring wrote of one unsuccessful recruiting attempt, involving a British regiment stationed in Brooklyn: “We were invited to join this Royal Band, and to partake of his Majesty’s pardon and bounty. But the prisoners, in the midst of their unbounded suffering, of their dreadful privation and consuming anguish, spurned the insulting offer. They preferred to linger and to die, rather than desert their country’s cause.”
He added, “During the whole period of my confinement, I never knew a single instance of enlistment from among the prisoners of the Jersey.”
Coffin offered a similar account. “Notwithstanding the savage treatment they received, and death staring them in the face,” he wrote in a letter, “…I never knew, while I was on board, but one instance of defection, and that person was hooted at and abused by the prisoners till the boat was out of hearing.”
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Patriotism ‘seldom equaled and never excelled’
In one of the most conspicuous displays of patriotism, some of the prisoners aboard the Jersey staged a July 4th celebration in 1782, complete with songs and little American flags. By now the war was going in the new nation’s favor and much of the British Army had surrendered.
But the guards were not in a party mood. Using their bayonets, they forced the prisoners below decks and locked the hatches. When the singing continued, the guards flung open the hatches and “with lanterns in one hand and cutlasses in the other… cut and wounded all within their reach,” wrote George Taylor, author of an early history of prison ships, Martyrs to the Revolution (1855). “Then, to gratify their hellish feelings, they closed the hatches and left the wounded and dying, in darkness, without the least means of dressing their wounds or stopping the flow of blood.”
In the morning, Taylor wrote, 10 “mangled and lifeless bodies” were hauled up onto the deck for disposal.
Those would not be the last men to die aboard the Jersey. But the dark days of the prison ships were coming to an end. In April 1783, the remaining prisoners in New York were released. The Jersey was abandoned and left to rot away.
The men and boys of the prison ships are not as well remembered as most of the war’s other heroes. Many of their names are not known at all. But the few who survived testified to their sacrifice. As Coffin put it in an 1807 letter, “The patriotism in preferring such treatment, and even death in its most frightful shapes, to the serving [of] the British, and fighting against their own country, has seldom been equalled, certainly never excelled.”