One of the most gruesome chapters in the story of America’s struggle for independence from Britain occurred in the waters near New York Harbor, near the current location of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. From 1776 to 1783, the British forces occupying New York City used abandoned or decommissioned warships anchored just offshore to hold those soldiers, sailors and private citizens they had captured in battle or arrested on land or at sea (many for refusing to swear an oath of allegiance to the British Crown). Some 11,000 prisoners died aboard the prison ships over the course of the war, many from disease or malnutrition. Many of these were inmates of the notorious HMS Jersey, which earned the nickname “Hell” for its inhumane conditions and the obscenely high death rate of its prisoners.
The British in New York City
In mid-1776, in the early months of the Revolutionary War, the British government sent General William Howe to New York with some 34,000 troops and a large fleet. Howe was authorized to negotiate for peace with the Americans; when these negotiations failed, he invaded Long Island, soundly defeating the rebel forces of General George Washington on August 27. In a critical twist of fate, Washington’s army was able to escape across the East River under cover of fog, and the British fleet was unable to pursue them due to unfavorable winds.
In mid-September, Howe’s Redcoats invaded Manhattan, pushing Washington and his men off the island by October and defeating them at White Plains later that month. Though Continental forces bounced back with victories at Trenton and Princeton that winter, the British would occupy New York for the remainder of the war, with their troops leaving only in November 1783.
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The Prison Ships
During their occupation, British forces captured or arrested thousands of soldiers and civilians, some after battles fought around New York and some for simply refusing to swear allegiance to the Crown. In addition, the Continental government had authorized a number of privately owned, armed ships to serve on behalf of the patriotic cause; some 55,000 American seamen would eventually serve as merchant marines or privateers. Whenever the British captured these privateers, they gave them the choice of joining the Royal Navy or going to prison.
Space in British jails on land soon ran out, and the British began housing prisoners aboard the abandoned or decommissioned warships anchored in Wallabout Bay, the small part of Upper New York Bay located along the northwest shore of the city (now borough) of Brooklyn (between the present-day Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridge). The ships were overcrowded, and conditions aboard were inhuman. Food and water were scarce, and diseases, including small pox, ran rampant.
Conditions Aboard the HMS Jersey
The most infamous British prison ship was the HMS Jersey or Old Jersey, referred to by its inmates simply as “Hell.” More than 1,000 men were kept aboard the Jersey at any one time, and about a dozen died every night from diseases such as small pox, dysentery, typhoid and yellow fever, as well as from the effects of starvation and torture. Even after the British surrender at Yorktown in late 1781, prisoners were kept aboard the Jersey and other ships until the war formally ended in 1783. At war’s end, there were only 1,400 survivors among the inmates of the entire prison ship fleet, and at least 11,000 men and boys died aboard the ships from 1776 to 1783.
When the new U.S. Navy occupied Wallabout Bay and began expanding the Brooklyn Navy Yard on the mud flats near the shore, they found the remains of thousands who had perished aboard the British prison ships. These remains were collected and buried on the grounds of a nearby estate, in the hopes of building a permanent resting place and memorial to the noble service and sacrifice made by these men.
Honoring the Dead
By the late 19th century, the first monument built to honor those who died on the prison ships–on Hudson Avenue in the Brooklyn neighborhood known as Vinegar Hill–had fallen into disrepair, and plans were made to build a new memorial in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park, a new public space designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux (the landscape architects behind Central Park). Funds were raised by the end of the century, and the architectural firm of McKim, Meade and White were commissioned to design the monument itself.
In 1908, President William Howard Taft dedicated the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument (also called the Soldiers and Sailors Monument), an obelisk standing some 150 feet high at the center of Fort Greene Park, on the former site of the Revolutionary War-era Fort Putnam. Beneath the monument was a crypt with 20 coffins containing bone fragments from the thousands who died on the Jersey and other prison ships.