Towering over a crypt on a hill in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park is a 149-foot obelisk. Hundreds if not thousands of people pass near it every day. Park visitors sometimes stop to take a photo. But to a great many of them, probably most, the import of the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument is lost. Few give a thought to the thousands of patriots who died miserable deaths on British prison ships in nearby Wallabout Bay and elsewhere around the occupied city during the Revolutionary War.
In The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn: An Untold Story of the American Revolution, Robert P. Watson recounts in lurid detail just how horrific those conditions were, focusing on the stories of five men and boys who survived confinement aboard the Jersey, the most notorious of the prison ships, and whose accounts survive too. In breezy but sober prose he fills in a large gap in the average American’s knowledge of the 1775-1783 War for Independence.
The Jersey became known as the Hell Ship, with a fearsome reputation throughout the colonies. Those lucky enough to escape its pestilential hold or gain release through a prisoner exchange returned to their families as sick, starving, ghost-like shells of men. During the war’s later years the British wardens packed as many as 1,200 prisoners – mostly captured American privateers, but also sailors, soldiers, Frenchmen and other foreigners – into the holds of the decommissioned Jersey, which, like the other prison ships, had been stripped of everything that made it a seagoing vessel and turned into a rotting hulk. Conditions aboard had been bad enough in 1780 when the vessel was first tied down in Wallabout Bay with about 400 prisoners. It truly became the Hell Ship over the next three years when the population increased threefold.
Severely underfed often with rotting food, beaten, deprived of food and water as punishment for infractions big and small, and afflicted with rampaging fevers, thousands of prisoners died: “[E]very disease imaginable plagued the ship. Smallpox, dysentery, yellow fever, and other contagions ram rampant in the crowded holds and contributed to the shockingly high death toll.” Buried in the shallows off the bay, their bones were recovered for decades afterward. We will never have an accurate count of the dead, but for lack of a better estimate Watson settles on the figure of roughly 11,500, the number carved into the monument in Fort Greene Park.
The men suffered psychologically as well as physically. Many who survived never fully recovered from their ordeal. Aboard the Jersey – and on the hospital ships moored nearby ostensibly to provide medical care, but really serving merely as places to die – Watson writes, “Many prisoners became severely depressed, others simply went mad…It was followed by homesickness, especially among the many teenagers.” According to the account of captured privateer officer Thomas Dring, “these boys ‘died that most awful of all human deaths, the effect of a broken heart.'”
One reason for the terrible conditions was lack of planning. The British had thought the war would be short, so they hadn’t invested in prison facilities. Another was their attitude toward the men they held, whom they considered despicable rebels, not prisoners of war, and thus not due even the minimal respect and care owed “honorable” enemies.
The Crown also intended its harsh treatment of these New York City prisoners, both shipboard and landlocked, to intimidate the rebellious colonists. But Watson notes several times that it had the opposite effect, outraging the Americans and further fanning the flames of freedom.
Repetition is one of the book’s minor flaws. There are occasions when a fact is cited as if for the first time, though we’ve already learned it in a previous chapter in the context of a different theme. But the book’s structure generally works well. Watson’s thematic chapters also roughly follow the course of the war chronologically, beginning with a useful capsule history of the beginnings of the revolution.
After introducing us to his five exemplars, two of whom were mere boys, and explaining how numerous and important the privateers were to the American effort, he offers vivid descriptions of conditions and incidents aboard the Jersey and of prisoner revolts and escapes. The details accumulate into a horrifying tsunami of awfulness.
But he also jumps ship into the wider world, sketching General George Washington’s struggle to facilitate prisoner exchanges, and even giving us occasional glimpses of the humane. Elizabeth Burgin, “probably a war widow living near the prison ships of Wallabout Bay,” visited the ship daily for a time to sell food and other items to any prisoners who had managed to husband some cash. Numerous farmers and other residents – their names, like those of most of the prisoners, lost to history – aided escapees even though they feared exposure to the loyalists among whom they lived.
The prison ships were not, literally speaking, the scenes of the war’s “bloodiest battle,” as Watson puts it. The imprisonment, suffering, and deaths of thousands of Americans did not constitute a battle. But more Americans died on those pestilential, nightmarishly overcrowded floating dungeons than on all the actual battlefields combined. The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn is a long-overdue account of this neglected chapter of the American Revolution.