A Haunting Reminder of Our Past
By Jerry Mikorenda
In New York City, you’re always digging up someone or something that wasn’t supposed to be there. It comes with the territory.
Build a Federal Court complex at Foley Square and discover the African Burial Ground. Start digging for a parking garage at the National 9/11 Memorial site and find a 18th century Hudson River sloop double-parked. This year, a vacant lot slated for a preschool in Gowanus, Brooklyn, is said to be the final resting place of the “Maryland 400”— a battalion of Minutemen who held the line against the British as Washington’s troops barely escaped capture (if the “400” failed, the American rebellion would have ended there).
While other towns embrace their contributions to the Revolution, New York City has always had a “meh” attitude about its role, especially if it meant tying up valuable real estate with enshrined buildings. Manhattan was the strategic epicenter of the war. Washington wanted to lay waste to it, the British wanted it as their headquarters to split the rebellious colonies in two.
During the siege of Manhattan in 1776, the British had numerous opportunities to end the war but couldn’t get out of their own way. The American’s inexperience cost them dearly with whole militias surrendering amid the confusion. Even with the battle lost, Congress wouldn’t allow Washington to burn the city. His army escaped to New Jersey leaving the British in control with thousands of Americans troops captured and nowhere to house them.
Robert Watson’s The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn sheds light on this little-known, yet dark chapter in American history. Nearly a decade after Edwin Burroughs, Forgotten Patriots, Watson broaches a subject often glossed over – the horrific treatment of American prisoners during the Revolution.
With little room for camps in the city, the British converted churches and sugar houses into prisons. When that wasn’t enough to contain the flood of captives, they “hulked” sailing vessels no longer fit for service. More than twenty ships had their masts and cannons removed, and portholes nailed shut. They were anchored in Wallabout Bay (near the Brooklyn Navy Yard) throughout the war. In plain sight of Manhattan, these ships were meant to strike fear in the rebels and deter patriotism.
The most infamous of these prisons – the HMS Jersey – is the main culprit of Watson’s intimately researched narrative. Commissioned in 1736, the thousand-ton ship was half a football field long and held sixty cannons. Defeated in several battles by the Spanish during the War of Jenkins’ Ear (don’t ask), her crew of four hundred believed the ship was damned. They were right. The British would cram more than a thousand American prisoners below deck. Rotting from the inside, the Jersey had to keep its bilge pumps going continuously not to sink.
Prisoners simply called the ship “Hell.”
Author and editor of thirty-six books, Watson is a professor of history at Lynn University. The narrative flair he showed in his previous works, such as The Nazi Titanic and America's First Crisis, continues with Ghost Ship.
The text is accessible to the casual reader, yet contains enough notes and appendixes to be a resource for the serious scholar. He pulls no punches. An estimated 11,500 Americans died on the Jersey. That’s double the number killed in all the battles of the Revolution combined. Watson makes a case that the Jersey was the bloodiest “battle” of the war.
His argument is convincing and personal in detail. Watson renders the big picture through the lives of common folk caught up in the conflict. Each chapter opens with a stanza from Phillip Freneau’s epic 1781 poem The British Prison Ship. Captured in 1780, Freneau was imprisoned for six weeks on the Jersey and went on to be known as, “The Poet of the American Revolution.”
What is striking about the text is how the visceral undertones of doom permeate every sentence as if the stench of that long-gone ship still lingered. Watson described the Jersey as “moored like a monstrous, condemned beast by heavy black chains.”
In the chapter “Welcome to Hell” Watson depicts a captured American officer approaching the Jersey for the first time: “Thomas Dring never forgot the 'dreaded' feeling he and his officers experienced approaching the ship. There on the upper deck, they observed a “multitude of human beings” milling about slowly. All the prisoners looked close to death… he [the British Commissary] bellowed in an “exalted manner… There rebels, there is the cage for you!”
Through the eyes of Dring, Thomas Andros and many other extraordinary Jersey prison memoirists, we learn that most of the detainees on these ships weren’t soldiers. They were privateers, sailors, and children. Some of the captured boys were as young as ten or twelve years old. A few families were paid to have their sons pressed into service. Other lads sought riches and adventure at sea. These youngsters were imprisoned as adults and dealt with in the harshest manner imaginable.
As deplorable as conditions were and as wretchedly as the prisoners were treated, Watson reports amazing stories of survival and escape. Shortly after his capture, Dring found himself surrounded by men dying of small pox.
Knowing he must survive the disease on the cramped Jersey, he cut his hand and dabbed material from a pustule on the wound inoculating himself. He saved many other lives on the ship with the same treatment. After five months, Dring was freed in a rare prisoner exchange arranged by George Washington.
Thirteen-year-old Christopher Hawkins’ tale was one of endurance. He and a friend found an old crowbar and pried open a sealed porthole. The boys slipped into the cold water and swam toward Long Island. Hawkins lost his shipmate in the darkness but made his way to shore. He hid in a barn naked and starving. In Oyster Bay, he was captured by Tories. A Patriot helped him escape. He then took refuge with a family whose father died on the Jersey. Eventually, the long journey north took Hawkins home to Rhode Island.
For those left behind on the Jersey, the cry “Rebels, throw out your dead” began every morning. Connecticut native Andros was appalled by the practice of finding corpses, stripping the bodies, and then lowering them into the “dead boat.” Andros observed that each day nearly a dozen prisoners died overnight. Well into the 19th century, the bones from shallow beachhead graves washed up along the Brooklyn shoreline.
In the end, the Jersey failed in its final mission. Instead of deterring rebels, its despotism transformed a benign populous into Patriots. As the war came to a close, the British sold parts of their prison ships in American newspapers. The Jersey sank into the Brooklyn mud never to be heard of again – until now. Watson summons the forgotten and anonymous voices of the Jersey’s dead to speak again.
In New York City, this season has been dubbed the “summer of hell” because of various mass transit issues such as overcrowding, lack of air conditioning, and late trains.
If you want to truly appreciate what a summer of Hell was like, read The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn.
Jerry Mikorenda is a freelance writer. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, Newsday, and the Boston Herald, and in various magazines and blogs.