By the grim accounting of Edwin Burrows, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who died in May, some 30,000 American soldiers, sailors, patriotic noncombatants and unlucky bystanders were taken prisoner by the British and held in or around New York City, a Tory hotbed that served as the base of British military operations through most of the war. Around 60 percent, more than 18,000 prisoners, died there — almost three times the 6,800-odd patriots who died in combat.
“My reading of the evidence,” Burrows wrote in his 2008 book, “Forgotten Patriots,” “is that the thousands of Americans who perished in New York during the revolution were the victims of something well beyond the usual brutalities and misfortunes of war, even 18th-century war — a lethal convergence, as it were, of obstinacy, condescension, corruption, mendacity and indifference.
“Although the British did not deliberately kill American prisoners in New York,” he continued, “they might as well have done.”
America’s first prisoners of war in the city were packed inside Quaker, Anabaptist or Presbyterian churches scattered across the tip of Manhattan Island. Others were stuffed inside a leaky sugar refinery. Some of the unluckiest were thrown into a former city jail — an “engine for breaking hearts,” as one prisoner remembered it — that was ruled by a British officer known for beating prisoners and threatening to hang those who angered him.
The worst conditions, where disease and malnutrition were most rampant, were on the handful of prison ships moored in Wallabout Bay, near what is now the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Aboard the Jersey, a former hospital ship, conditions were so bad the vessel became known as Hell. In his 2017 book, “The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn,” historian Robert P. Watson estimated that “as many as 11,500 prisoners may have died” on the Jersey alone.
“We bury 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11 men a day,” one prisoner aboard the ship wrote. “We have 200 more sick and falling sick every day; the sickness is yellow fever, small-pox and in short everything else that can be mentioned. . . . Our morning’s salutation is: ‘Rebels! Turn out your dead!’ ”
On one single, horrible day — Christmas 1782 — 20 prisoners of the Jersey were reportedly buried in shallow graves on the shores of Brooklyn. Covered by just a few feet of sand, their bleached bones, and those of other buried prisoners, were soon exposed to the elements. The poet Walt Whitman, a later Brooklyn resident, recalled hearing stories in which “thoughtless boys would kick them about in play.”
To the British, the makeshift prisons of New York were mainly the product of convenience. Less than two months after the United States declared its independence, British forces routed the “rebels” in the Battle of Brooklyn. In a Dunkirk-like maneuver, George Washington was able to evacuate his army to Manhattan and then farther north, saving the bulk of his fighting force. But he lost several thousand men as prisoners — more than the British knew what to do with.
To avoid antagonizing the locals or disrupting farming on Long Island, which provided food for the war effort, the British placed many of the prisoners on boats. They had done so in previous wars, but — crucially — they treated captured American soldiers not as prisoners of war but as rebels and traitors. In an era before international agreements codified the proper treatment of prisoners, Americans “were at the complete mercy of their enraged captors,” Burrows wrote.
Beatings, whippings and other forms of abuse were frequent. Excrement covered the floors. Rations included moldy, worm-infested biscuits, spoiled meat and foul water. One prisoner cited by Burrows recalled a day when he and his messmates were given “soup,” a generous description given by their captors for “brown water, and fifteen floating peas.” Another prisoner, sailor Christopher Hawkins, wrote in an autobiography that he saw one man driven by hunger to eat lice from his shirt.
The men were cramped together below decks with no room to sleep, and many went naked in the summer. In the winter, frostbite was endemic.
Fifty to 70 percent of all prison ship captives died, by Burrows’s estimate. Given the choice between a ship like the Jersey and joining the British, some prisoners switched sides.
Prisoners aboard the Good Hope reportedly set it on fire, cheering while the ship burned into the sea. Others tried to escape: Somewhat improbably, Hawkins wrote that he stole an ax from his ship’s cook and chopped through a porthole during a storm, timing his ax strikes with peals of thunder.
Although British military officials consistently denied that prisoners were mistreated, reports from escapees, as well as from former captives released in prisoner swaps, brought the story of the Jersey and other New York prisons to an enraged American audience. One popular poem by Philip Freneau (considered by some historians to be more propaganda than journalism) detailed the cruelties of the prison ships. A memoir by war hero Ethan Allen, detailing his captivity in Manhattan and the cruelties of his captors, became a bestseller.
Such stories seemed only to harden the resolve of Americans who supported independence.
“As to our submitting again to the Government of Britain, ’tis vain to think of it,” Benjamin Franklin wrote in a 1777 letter to David Hartley, a British politician. “She has given us by her numberless Barbarities, in the Prosecution of the War, and in the Treatment of Prisoners . . . so deep an Impression of her Depravity, that we never again can trust her in the Management of our Affairs, and Interests.”
Yet soon after the war ended and the last prisoners were freed, the story of the prison ships began to lose its grip on popular memory, Burrows wrote.
Bones in the Brooklyn sand, the remains of the prison ship “martyrs,” were gathered up and placed in a tomb near the Brooklyn Navy Yard. (One popular estimate holds that the tomb contains the remains of about 11,500 prisoners.) In 1873, the remains were moved to a crypt at Brooklyn’s Washington Park, now known as Fort Greene Park, where they were stored in 22 slate boxes. A 149-foot-tall column was eventually added above the burial vault, dedicated in a 1908 ceremony overseen by president-elect William Howard Taft.
The Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, as it’s called, marks what the Daughters of the American Revolution describes as “the largest single Revolutionary War grave in the country.” The National Park Service last year began a study to determine whether it might be eligible for inclusion in the national park system.
Still, few parkgoers seem to recognize its significance. “I’m not sure how many people going by that monument really understand what it is,” said Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy. Most of the people who visit, she said, are “athletic people running up the stairs and dog walkers and tennis players.”
The story of America’s first prisoners of war, Burrows argued, has been forgotten and remembered and forgotten again — partly because of the destruction of the Revolutionary War-era buildings where prisoners were held in Manhattan, partly because of a desire for reconciliation with the British. A sense of historical embarrassment, or a desire to focus on heroism, may have also played a role.
“In American history, somehow we only like to emphasize the positive,” said Kenneth T. Jackson, editor of “The Encyclopedia of New York City” and a history professor at Columbia University. “The American narrative is a heroic, victorious narrative. And if something doesn’t fit into the heroic, victorious, patriotic narrative, then we sort of move it out to the edge. We did that for centuries with slavery, and now it’s moved back to the center of American consciousness, where it should be.
“I’ve taught American history all my life,” he continued. “I think it’s a great country, with great stories. But there’s some sadder times. And this may be the saddest time in American military history.”