- Historic Sites
“rebels, Turn Out Your Dead!—
August 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 5
Death in the night was a common occurrence in Jersey ’s steaming hull in the summer and equally so in the cold of the long winter. Six to eleven men died every twenty-four hours, largely from dysentery, smallpox, typhoid, and yellow fever. Routinely the first morning call of the sentry was “Rebels, turn out your dead!” The corpses were carried up the hatchways to the main deck, sewn into their blankets if they had any, lowered into the ship’s boat, and taken ashore to where a hill sloped down from Remsen’s barn to the tidal shore. There, on a thin neck of land between a millpond and the bay, they were buried by shipmates, under armed guard, in shallow mass graves. Duty on these burial parties was desperately sought—solely to get away, however briefly, from the omnipresent stench of the ship and to set foot for a few precious minutes on land. “It was a high gratification,” Dring remembered, “to us to bury our feet in the sand, and to shove them through it, as we passed on our way. We went by a small patch of turf, some pieces of which we tore up from the earth; and [we] obtained permission to carry them on board, for our comrades to smell them.” The makeshift graves were far from adequate, and at every flood tide scores of bodies were washed loose—a fact that haunted the men of the burial parties the rest of their lives. “They [the guards] scarcely allowed us time to look about us,” Dring continued, “for no sooner had we heaped the earth above the trench than the order was given to march. But a single glance was sufficient to show us parts of many bodies which were exposed to view; although they had probably been placed there, with the same mockery of interment, but a few days before.”
Jeremiah Johnson, a teen-age farm boy who lived next to the Remsens, never forgot the gruesome burial grounds. “The whole shore, from Rennie’s Point, to Mr. Remsen’s dooryard,” he wrote, “was a place of graves; as were also the slope of the hill near the house; the shore, from Mr. Remsen’s barn along the mill-pond to Rappelye’s farm. … The atmosphere seemed to be charged with foul air from the prison ships and with the effluvia of dead bodies washed out of their graves by the tides. … The bodies of the dead lay exposed along the beach, drying and bleaching in the sun, and whitening the shores.”
Despite the constant spectre of sickness and death, the prisoners did what they could to maintain order among themselves, to make the most of their pitiable rations, and to increase their chances of survival. Dysentery and malaria were hard to cope with, but the prisoners used to inoculate themselves against smallpox, most prevalent and deadly of their afflictions, by using a common pin to scarify the skin, usually on the hand, and applying to the raw spot some discharge taken from the lesion of an infected shipmate. The able-bodied were organized into working parties who, in return for scrubbing the decks and hoisting supplies aboard, were given extra rations and “the privilege of going on deck, early in the morning, to breathe the pure air.” Among the less fortunate, codes of conduct were voluntarily promulgated among the prisoners, largely directed at preserving whatever health remained by enforcing rather elementary sanitary rules and at preventing “immorality,” ranging from the use of profane language to theft and assault.
Particular attention was given to the equitable distribution of food. This consisted, according to Andrew Sherburne, the captured boatswain of the Maine brig Scorpion , “of worm eaten bread, and salt beef. It was supposed that this bread and beef had been condemned in the British navy. The bread had been so eaten by weevils, that one might easily crush it in the hand and blow it away. The beef was exceedingly salt, and scarcely a particle of fat could be seen on it.” The beef was boiled in dirty sea water that was drawn up from the side of the ship where the wastes of over a thousand men were dumped daily.
Forbidding as the food was, the prisoners treated their scanty, nauseous rations with respect and fanatical discipline. Ebenezer Fox told how the prisoners were divided into small parties, or “messes,” of six men each, for the purpose of obtaining and distributing their food. “The persons chosen by each mess … were summoned by the cook’s bell to receive their allowance, and, when it had remained in the boiler a certain time, the bell would again sound, and the allowance must be immediately taken away: whether it was sufficiently cooked or not, it could remain no longer.” The unsavory diet of the prisoners was occasionally relieved by bran stolen from the troughs of hogs kept in pens on the gun deck as pork for the ship’s officers’ mess. Sometimes, in the summer, nearby farmers would send vegetables to the ship. A fat old woman known as Dame Grant came alongside every other day in a small boat rowed by two boys, and peddled sugar, tea, and other small supplies to those who had some currency. But this did not last long. Dame Grant contracted a fever from the prisoners and died, leaving no successor.