“Freedom is a light for which many men have died in darkness.”
—Memorial for unknown soldiers of the Revolution buried in Philadelphia
In Crucible of War, Elizabeth Howard and Dr. Pieter Vander Groot learn about the infamous British prison ships in New York harbor. In Valley of the Shadow, Elizabeth is going to get up close and personal with the conditions aboard these floating prisons, so I thought we’d take a look at the misery American prisoners endured.
For officers, rank had its privileges then as now. Captured officers were generally held under relatively pleasant conditions until they were paroled in exchange for a pledge not to resume participation in the war. The lot of common soldiers who fell into the hands of the British was quite different, however.
Because the British considered the rebels to be traitors, soldiers were not accorded prisoner-of-war status and could be hanged, though the British quickly saw the wisdom of not enforcing that penalty. But without the protection of regulations governing their treatment, American soldiers were imprisoned under conditions hard for us to imagine today. And they usually remained prisoners until the war ended or they died, whichever came first.
The British began using prison ships in 1776, mostly to hold prisoners before transferring them to one of the prisons on shore, but that soon began to change. As many as 32,000 soldiers were confined in New York alone, first in public buildings that had been converted to prisons, and then increasingly aboard one of the derelict hulks anchored in Wallabout Bay along the north shore of Long Island.
The British imprisoned captured soldiers, sailors of American and other nationalities, and private citizens, many of the latter because they refused to swear allegiance to the Crown of England. It’s been estimated that as many as 56 different nationalities were represented, and that more than 11,500 Continental soldiers died during the course of the war. The most notorious, dubbed “Hell” by those who suffered aboard it, was the HMS Jersey. Firsthand accounts describe horrific conditions.
More than a thousand prisoners were held on each ship, confined below decks in dank, dark holds. Although small groups of inmates were usually allowed on deck for brief periods each day, an individual soldier might wait several days for his turn for a glimpse of sunlight, a lungful of fresh air, and a chance to stretch limbs cramped from severely overcrowded conditions. Positions near one of the iron gratings that covered the few available ports, offering slight relief from the unimaginable stench of sweat, refuse, sickness, and rotting corpses, were fiercely guarded.
Starvation was a common cause of death, in addition to sickness. Rations were scarce and usually spoiled. Commissaries of prisoners such as Joshua Loring, Jr., and William Cunningham were brutal men who mistreated their charges and commonly sold off provisions meant for the prisoners in order to line their own pockets. When food did make it to the unfortunate victims, it was barely edible. One common practice was to break up moldy biscuits into a kettle of water so the weevils or maggots that infested them would float to the top where they could be skimmed off before the mixture was boiled. If the prisoners had no fire, which was often the case, they ate their rations raw, including any meat. Some survived by eating garbage. Others bought old shoes, which they cooked and ate.
Inevitably malnutrition led to infections such as typhus, dysentery, and scurvy, which caused bleeding gums, open sores, the loss of teeth, and debilitation. Smallpox, yellow fever and dysentery ran rampant. Cold weather was another ordeal. Lacking fire, warm clothing, and blankets, prisoners froze.
When Washington and Congress learned about the conditions American soldiers were subjected to, they implored the British to exchange prisoners or at least allow them to provide proper food, clothing, and medical care. Family members and friends of the prisoners also petitioned to provide care for their loved ones. But for the most part, their pleas fell on deaf ears, and prisoners continued to suffer and die. This, along with the harsh policies the British enforced where they were in control, increasingly hardened the opposition of American citizens to England.
Over time the death toll aboard the ships became staggering. Each morning the dead would be hauled up on deck. Later in the day the bodies were cast overboard or brought to shore where they were buried in shallow mass graves along Wallabout Bay in Brooklyn. So many remains washed up to litter the shore that residents of Brooklyn were forced to collect the bones for burial. Many of the dead were later interred in the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument at Fort Greene Park.