10 facts about prison ships
The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn: An Untold Story of the American Revolution by Robert P. WatsonThe most horrific struggle of the American Revolution occurred just 100 yards off New York, where more men died aboard a rotting prison ship than were lost to combat during the entirety of the war.
Moored off the coast of Brooklyn until the end of the war, the derelict ship, the HMS Jersey, was a living hell for thousands of Americans either captured by the British or accused of disloyalty. Crammed below deck--a shocking one thousand at a time--without light or fresh air, the prisoners were scarcely fed food and water. Disease ran rampant and human waste fouled the air as prisoners suffered mightily at the hands of brutal British and Hessian guards. Throughout the colonies, the mere mention of the ship sparked fear and loathing of British troops. It also sparked a backlash of outrage as newspapers everywhere described the horrors onboard the ghostly ship. This shocking event, much like the better-known Boston Massacre before it, ended up rallying public support for the war.
Revealing for the first time hundreds of accounts culled from old newspapers, diaries, and military reports, award-winning historian Robert P. Watson follows the lives and ordeals of the ships few survivors to tell the astonishing story of the cursed ship that killed thousands of Americans and yet helped secure victory in the fight for independence.
Prisons and Prison Ships
Guards posted on the Jersey shot prisoners when they tried to escape. This 18th-century British sea service musket was recently acquired by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation for the Yorktown collection. Patriots taken as prisoners of war by the British Army in America often were confined aboard prison ships. Using ships as prisons was a common 18th-century British practice, since the Crown always seemed to have plenty of surplus naval vessels that could be converted to prisons cheaply and easily. The most notorious of the British prison ships in American waters was HMS Jersey , an obsolete British naval vessel that was used to confine thousands of American prisoners in New York harbor from to To American patriots the Jersey became a symbol of British tyranny. One famous American confined aboard a British prison hulk was the poet Philip Freneau, who wrote one of his best-known poems about the experience.
An inevitable facet of warfare is prisoners. During the American Revolution, thousands of soldiers and sailors were captured by each side and the prisoners suffered in many ways. The impact of these captures extended far beyond immediate manpower concerns, compelling each side to confront unwanted, huge logistical considerations concerning their feeding, clothing, housing and guarding, as they also sought to exploit their use as human capital for bargaining purposes. For the lonely captured, they battled hunger, cold, illness and boredom, finding ways to mitigate their struggles by working, rioting and escaping. There are as many stories as there were prisoners, but some common factors affected most of them.
Shocked, the younger boy fell back. He sat down on the verge of fainting, and could render me no further service. After washing, he pulled some clean clothes over his skeletal frame, the folds of fabric covering the sharp geometry of his protruding bones. He spoke briefly with his family and then went to bed. He barely sat up again for twenty days. Although plagued with crippling diarrhea the whole way and so weak that he could barely pass over a door step without help, he made it home safely.
In the outbreak of the American Revolution halted the transportation of felons to the colonies. Convicts awaiting transportation were put to hard labour on the shores of the Thames and stationed on floating prisons knows as hulks. Prison hulks were decommissioned warships, stripped of their masts, rigging and sails. The subject of my own doctoral research, hulks occupy an interesting position in the history of the nineteenth century British prison system. Hulks were moored up along the Thames and Medway estuaries, as well as at Portsmouth, Bermuda and Gibraltar.
From to , 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, prisoners died aboard the prison ships over the course of the war, many from disease or malnutrition. In mid, in the early months of the Revolutionary War, the British government sent General William Howe to New York with some 34, 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 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 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.
The lot of the Revolutionary War prisoner was hard, not solely because of deliberate policy, but also as neither the British nor the Americans were prepared in to take care of those they caught. Normal jail facilities soon were filled with political prisoners, both Whigs and Loyalists. Then came the large hauls: some four thousand rebels taken around New York City in ; nearly one thousand Germans at Trenton in and ; approximately five thousand British, Germans, and Canadians marched off from Saratoga as the Convention Army in ; over five thousand Americans surrendered in May at Charleston; and perhaps eight thousand British taken captive at Yorktown in October Naval prisoners continued to be taken throughout this period—fishermen, privateers, officers and men of the regular navies, and such special diplomatic prizes as Henry Laurens. While the written record abounds with stories of hardships, atrocities, and escapes, precise facts and accurate figures about prisoners during the Revolution are difficult to arrive at and have only recently been explored by historians.