A forgotten chapter in the naval history of the American Revolution is to be found in the story of the prison ships in New York Harbor, used by the British for the imprisonment of captured seamen. The name "Jersey," often applied to these ships, was derived from the most famous of them, an old dismantled 64-gun ship of that name, and not from the Jersey shore of the North River, as many have believed.
The first vessel employed as a prison hulk in New York Harbor was a transport, the Whitby, which was anchored in Wallabout Bay, or the Wallebocht, as it had been known in Dutch times, on October 20, 1776. Wallabout Bay was a small indentation on the Long Island shore across the East River from Corlears Hook. The Brooklyn Navy Yard is on this little bay, and the British shipping in New York wintered in the channel opposite the present site of the Navy Yard during the whole period of the Revolution. The various prison ships which succeeded the Whitby and formed a small squadron of prison hulks were anchored in Wallabout Bay. The shores of the bay were the burial grounds of the prisoners who died during their captivity as well as those among the guard and crews of the prison ships who succumbed. A comparison of the old chart prepared by Jeremiah Johnson with a modern chart shows that Sands Street passes right through one of the principal areas used as a burying ground.
The names of the most important prison vessels in addition to the Whitby were the Good Hope, which one cannot but feel was a somewhat ironic title for a prison ship, the Falmouth, Prince of Wales, Hunter, Stromboli, and Jersey.
There are numerous accounts of these ships by prisoners. Many of their descriptions, however, are so melodramatic as to throw doubt on their complete veracity. The best and probably the most authentic narrative is that of Captain Thomas Dring, a New England sea captain who tells a simple and straightforward story that has an air of verity about it such as one often sees in log book entries of events. Dring, when captured, was a mate on the privateer Chance, of Providence, R.I. The Chance was taken, with some other prizes, by the 21-gun-ship Belisarius, and her crew sent to the Jersey. The sketch of the Jersey, or the “Hell Ship” as she was significantly called, is reproduced from Dring’s book. She was moored in the stream opposite a small dock which was convenient for the landing of parties, watering, and burial. The tent on the quarter-deck was used to shelter the armed guard in hot weather. At the break of the quarter-deck was a strong wooden barricade nearly 10 feet in height extending across the deck, loopholed for musketry and with a heavy door on each side where the ladder led down to the waist. She had been stripped of even her figurehead. The bowsprit remained and was used to hoist in supplies. Her ports were closed and holes 20 inches in diameter crossed by strong bars were cut in her side as air holes. The guard and crew were quartered aft and here also were the cabins of the officers. The personnel in charge of the vessel consisted of the captain, two mates, twelve seamen, and an equal number of superannuated marines. In addition a draft of about 30 soldiers was usually aboard from one of the English or Hessian regiments in New York.
Each prisoner as he was received was brought up to the quarter-deck and his name, rate, and ship on which he was serving when captured was recorded. He was then sent down to the main deck to find a place to deposit his bag, a difficult thing to do on a ship as crowded as these vessels were. The prisoners were formed into messes of six and each morning rations were served out to them. The regular ration allowed was § that of the British Navy at that period. This, with the day of issue, was as follows:
Sunday—1 lb. biscuit, 1 lb. pork, 1 lb. peas
Monday—1 lb. biscuit, 1 lb. oatmeal, 2 oz. butter
Tuesday—1 lb. biscuit, 2 lb. beef
Wednesday—1 1/2 lb. flour, 2 oz. suet
All the narrators unite in reviling the food and no doubt it was bad enough. In many instances it seems to have been moldy bread, half spoiled pickled beef and pork, or provisions which had been condemned for regular issue. There were no fresh vegetables. An old bumboat woman known as Dame Grant supplied vegetables as well as sugar, milk, and other delicacies to prisoners fortunate enough to have a little money to pay for them. She was very corpulent, so much so that she could scarcely climb the gangway, and parcels of her wares, with prices affixed, were delivered by two boys who rowed her boat. She died in 1780 and her death was greatly deplored by the inmates of the hulks.
The prison ships offered ideal ground for contagious diseases to take root and flourish. In addition to the common respiratory diseases such as colds, tonsillitis, influenza, and pneumonia, the contagious fevers, measles, scarlet fever, chicken pox, and small pox were soon introduced with dire results. No doubt diptheria and epidemic meningitis were present at times. Dring has a pathetic description of the death of a boy about twelve years of age who was one of the Chance’s crew. His account of the boy’s brief illness and death strongly suggests to a medical man that the disease to which he succumbed was epidemic cerebrospinal fever. Typhus fever and smallpox, however, were the diseases most prevalent. The former, or “jail fever,” spread as it is by the body louse, was a scourge of the eighteenth-century jails; the absence of proper bathing and laundry facilities and the consequent infestation of clothing with vermin, making it a disease of epidemic proportions among prisoners of the period.
Smallpox, before the time of Jenner and the discovery of vaccination, was a disease from which no one escaped. The only thing which prevented its causing wholesale epidemics among the adult population was the fact that most of the people who lived to become adults had acquired immunity by an attack in childhood. Inoculation, introduced into England by Lady Mary Montagu from Turkey in 1718, was practiced to some extent as a preventive measure before the discovery of vaccination in 1796. Dring says that shortly after he entered the Jersey he saw a number of cases of smallpox among his fellow prisoners and not having had the disease inoculated himself on the web of the thumb. He obtained material for the inoculation from a pustule on one of the smallpox patients and used a common pin for the operation. Dysentery and typhoid were causes of many deaths, though they were of lesser importance apparently than typhus and smallpox. Scurvy must have occurred on such a diet as the prisoners received, though it does not receive much notice. It is more than probable that enough potatoes or other fresh vegetables were obtainable to keep it in check to some degree.
The captives were allowed on deck during the day and sent below at sunset and gratings placed over the hatches at which sentries with fixed bayonets were posted. In hot weather conditions in the crowded 'tween decks may well be imagined. No lights were allowed and to move about in the crowded space was difficult. The after part of what had been the gun deck was occupied by the captured officers. This was not a regulation of the captors but a custom established among the prisoners themselves. They also had a system of regulations made up which they followed as well as they could under the circumstances.
Many of the prisoners slept in hammocks, others on the deck. On one side were a number of bunks for the sick. These were usually full, of course, though the very ill were transferred to the hospital ships, of which there were three, the Falconer, Good Hope, and Hunter. The latter was rather a medical depot ship than a hospital ship, and from her, if weather permitted, a British surgeon responded to a call from one of the prison ships, much as a medical guard call would be made now. Prisoners were detailed as nurses, though Dring says that they robbed the sick and dying rather than cared for them.
A working detail was made up each morning and sent ashore as water and provision party. It was in charge of one of the captured officers and accompanied, of course, by a guard. This duty was eagerly sought by the prisoners who welcomed it as an opportunity to get away from the noisome and crowded prison ship and to set their feet on the ground again.
Many attempts to escape were made and some were not without success. The strongly barred ports were sometimes forced and men lowered themselves over the side and swam for it. As the distance was about 2 miles, in order to avoid landing on a beach well patrolled by sentries, a number were probably drowned in such attempts. Dring records an attempt in which the fugitives were fired on by the guard and pursued in an armed boat, one man being fatally wounded with a cutlass and brought aboard to die.
Philip Freneau, the poet, was one of the prisoners on the Jersey prison ship. He was taken when a passenger on the armed ship Aurora of Philadelphia which was captured by the British frigate Iris. He was sent to the Scorpion. He relates a most successful attempt to escape in which about 35 men were involved. They rushed the sentries, disarmed them, and taking possession of a small schooner alongside made sail and were soon out of sight.
Freneau afterwards became ill and was transferred to the hospital ship Hunter. He says of her,
The Hunter had been very newly put to the use of a hospital ship. She was miserably dirty and cluttered. Her decks leaked to such a degree that the sick were deluged with every shower of rain. Between decks they lay along, struggling in the agonies of death, dying with putrid and bilious fevers, lamenting their hard fate to die at such a fatal distance from their friends; others totally insensible and yielding their last breath in all the horrors of light-headed frenzy.
Conditions on the ships were not always as bad as this, as is evidenced by other observers. David Stanton in a letter dated August 29, 1779, says a good word for the "Hell Ship" herself,
I was taken with a number of others on or about the 5th of June last in the ship Oliver Cromwell, carried into New York and put on the prison ship Jersey. There was nothing plundered from us, we were kindly used by the Captain and others that belonged to the ship. Our sick were attended by physicians who appeared very officious to recover them to health. Our allowance for subsistence was wholesome and in reasonable plenty, including the allowance by the Continental Congress sent on board. About three or four weeks past we were removed on board the prison ship Good Hope, where we found many sick; there is now a hospital ship provided, to which they are removed and good attention paid, and doubt not the same hospitality is used towards those of the enemy, where the fortune of war has cast into our hands. On the whole we were as humanely treated as our condition and the enemy's safety would admit.
No doubt conditions on the ships varied, much depending on the character of com manding officer and subordinates, and such circumstances as the weather, time of year, presence of epidemic diseases, and particularly the number of prisoners on board and consequent crowding. Washington made frequent representation to the British of bad conditions prevailing and the British naval commanders, notably Admiral Byron and Admiral Digby, expressed concern regarding the situation of the prisoners and exerted themselves to alleviate their hard lot. Their efforts were not apparently without success for in 1782 a report of six American shipmasters on parole stated that,
they had been on board the prison and hospital ships to inspect the state of the American naval prisoners and found them in as comfortable situation as it is possible for prisoners to be on board ship and much better than they had an idea of.
The dead were buried on shore by details made up from the prisoners. Burials were in the loose sands of the seashore and the action of wind and wave exposed the bones of those who had been buried. The remains of some Hessian and British soldiers were also buried there. In 1803 a memorial was presented to Congress requesting that a suitable monument be erected at the site on the shore and the bones be gathered together and buried near it. Agitation was continued until in 1808, through the efforts of the Tammany Society, the cornerstone of a vault was laid upon land donated for that purpose at the southeastern corner of the navy yard near the end of Fourth Street and Hudson Avenue, Brooklyn. On May 26, 1808, a great public funeral attended by 15,000 persons was held and 13 coffins containing bones collected from the shores of Wallabout Bay were interred.
It is impossible to ascertain with much exactitude the total number of captives held in the prison ships and the total number who died there. The ships were used almost exclusively for maritime prisoners. Indeed, Washington in a letter to General Howe dated January 13, 1777, protesting regarding the treatment of the prisoners, refers to them as “officers and men in our naval department.”
Dring and some others mention that prisoners were exclusively sailors. Not all naval prisoners were held on the New York ship but practically all were confined there. There was one ship at Halifax and some captured seamen were held in England, most of them at Mill Prison at Plymouth, and Forton Prison at Portsmouth. The number was not large, however, probably not above a few thousand. The Jersey prison ships were the principal places of confinement for men captured at sea. It will be remembered that a large number of captured privateers were released by the British sometimes without parole, merely for lack of a suitable place for confinement and to avoid the necessity of feeding and guarding them. It is equally difficult to arrive at the number who died on the Jersey ships. The whole number of the Continental forces in the American Revolution was considered by Duncan as close to 400,000. Thacher, whose estimates are the most reasonable, places the total loss of the Continentals at 70,000 men, of which number 7,000 died of battle wounds and 63,000 of disease, a ratio of practically 10 deaths from disease to 1 in battle. Thacher estimates that 11,000 died in the prison ships. Colonel Duncan, in comparing British and American losses in the Revolution, says:
The colonists, on the other hand, were for the greater part from country districts where they had lived in isolation. They had not come in contact with typhus, smallpox, and dysentery, or even the more common diseases such as measles They afforded new material, in which such diseases are always most violent and most fatal Moreover, when these youths, fresh from the country, were crowded into hospitals, even in barracks and, worst of all, in those chambers of death called military prisons, they were the helpless prey of all the most fatal infections in their most pernicious forms. British soldiers were not so crowded in hospitals and prisons and were less susceptible to the dangers of crowding.
It is highly probable that Thacher’s estimate of 11,000 deaths in these prison ships during the whole period of the war is not far from the truth.