“rebels, Turn Out Your Dead!—

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In the chill darkness of an October night in 1781 six young American seamen—unaware that the tide of war was shifting dramatically to the side of the colonists—pried the iron bars off a starboard port on a grim hulk anchored in the East River. Close by on the larboard side lay the rural shore of Brooklyn—a sparsely settled area with only the Remsen farmhouse and barn visible from the ship. In the distance off the ship’s starboard was the northernmost end of the port town of New York, occupied like Long Island by the British since the war’s beginning. One by one the sailors lowered themselves on a rope held by shipmates, dropped quietly into the dark water, and swam aft to huddle beneath the stern until the marine guard on the deck turned on his rounds and paced forward. Then they struck off for a point on the Long Island shore some two miles distant, beyond the British sentries.

The last to leave, a young boy who was a poor swimmer, panicked as he saw his companions pull away from him. “Oh! lord have mercy, I shall be drowned!” he shouted. Officers of the night watch on the quarter-deck heard him and launched a boat after the escapees. The terror-stricken youth grabbed the gunwale, only to have one of his hands whacked so hard “that the bone was laid bare.” He was then bayoneted by the guard, hauled aboard, and taken back to the ship, where he died of his wounds the next day. Four of his friends, though stronger swimmers, were shot and killed in the water. The sixth man, who lived to tell the story, circled back to the bow and clung to the anchor chain, with only his nose protruding from the water, until the guards gave up their search. When dawn broke and the upper deck of the old hulk was again swarming with life, the chilled and exhausted survivor climbed up the chain and escaped detection by disappearing into the shaggy mass of humanity.

The fate from which the six made their ill-destined attempt to escape—a fate more dreaded than the lethal penalty of failure—was detention aboard the British prison ship Jersey . She was the most notorious of a dozen decrepit prison and hospital ships moored by the British in a bay in the East River that would later be the site of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. A retired man-of-war, Jersey had once carried sixty-four guns and a crew of four hundred officers and men during nearly forty years of undistinguished service in the Mediterranean and Caribbean. When the American Revolution began, she had been idle six years, disarmed and used as a hospital ship in England. In May, 1776, she sailed in a fleet of transports carrying Hessian mercenaries to the colonies. After three years in New York harbor as successively a floating storehouse and a hospital ship, she became a prison ship in 1780. During the next three and a half years an estimated eleven thousand American seamen died on her rottine decks.

British men-of-war were majestic, handsome vessels: three towering masts carrying billowing square sails and topped with bright pennants; gaily painted and extravagantly decorated sterns; bright and imaginatively carved figureheads; and great, solid hulls that could withstand the pounding of the high seas and still move with massive grace in sheltered waters. But as a prison ship, Jersey was a gloomy, depressing sight. Her masts, rigging, and all her spars save the bowsprit were gone. A gaunt, gallowslike hoist to lift supplies aboard was her only superstructure. Her elaborate figurehead, a rampant royal lion, had been taken away for use on an active vessel. Rudderless, she rested on her keel at low tide on the oozy bottom of the bay. Ebenezer Fox, a sixteenyear-old cabin steward aboard the Massachusetts frigate Protector , captured by the British off Sandy Hook, was plunged into despair by the very sight of Jersey , as a sloop carried him and his shipmates up the river to their imprisonment. “The portholes were closed and secured,” he later wrote. “Two tiers of holes were cut through her sides, about two feet square and about ten feet apart, strongly guarded by a grating of iron bars. … The idea of being a prisoner in such a place was sufficient to fill the mind with grief and distress. The heart sickened. …”

Thomas Dring, veteran of another prison ship, named with bitter irony Good Hope , remembered something more pungent about his initial contact with the ship. As the boat neared the accommodation ladder that led to the gangway on Jersey ’s larboard side, ”… my station in the boat, as she hauled alongside, was exactly opposite to one of the air-ports in the side of the ship. From this aperture, proceeded a strong current of foul vapour, of a kind to which I had been before accustomed, while confined on board the Good Hope; the peculiarly disgusting smell of which, I then recollected, after a lapse of three years. This was, however, far more foul and loathsome than any thing which I had ever met with on board that ship, and produced a sensation of nausea far beyond my powers of description.”