- Historic Sites
“rebels, Turn Out Your Dead!—
August 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 5
Since escape from Jersey , when not frustrated by informers, was often successful, the possibility of mutiny must have occurred to new prisoners. There were sometimes as many. as fourteen hundred prisoners aboard, and the crew of the ship consisted of only seventeen men —a commander, two mates, a steward, a cook, and twelve sailors; the armed guard consisted of from twelve to forty somewhat tired functionaries, variously made up of invalid marines, English troops detached from duty in regiments stationed on Long Island, Hessians, or refugee American loyalists. (These last were worst of all because of their efforts to prove themselves more loyal than the king.) Even in their decrepit condition the prisoners could easily have overpowered His Majesty’s representatives. It might have been difficult at night, when the prisoners were below decks and one guard with a gun and fixed bayonet could control a hatchway (although Ebenezer Fox reported that one sentinel at a main hatchway, a tough Irishman called “Billy the Ram,” “while leaning carelessly on his gun” and talking with a prisoner, “received a tremendous blow from the fist of his entertainer, on the back of his head, which brought him to the deck in a state of insensibility,” and permitted the escape of fifteen of the thirty men who reached the upper decks). But in daytime, when the mass of prisoners was swarming on the upper deck and a guard would not have had room to aim a gun or raise a bayonet, the guards and the entire crew could have been thrown overboard.
Why, then, was there no mutiny ? The answer lay in the weakened condition of the prisoners. Half-starved and sick, they would have severely tested their remaining energy just getting to shore. Then, without supplies or transportation, they would have had to travel through miles and miles of enemy-held territory and enemy-controlled waters. Under these circumstances, mutiny would have amounted ultimately to little more than mass suicide.
If mutiny was out of the question, so was any prospect of a mass exchange. No one on the colonial side seemed to have any effective authority to deal with privateer seamen held by the enemy. Had such authority existed, the colonials were in a very poor bargaining position, since none of the colonies wanted the expense of imprisoning captured British sailors (they just let them go or enlisted them on their own ships), and, as a result, had no one to exchange. As for the few official American naval prisoners aboard Jersey , it was the policy of the British to offer in exchange only those prisoners who had been incarcerated so long that their capacity for service was all but extinct and their early death almost inevitable.
General Washington had no authority over either naval or privateer prisoners, but in any case he opposed exchanging American seamen, particularly privateersmen, for British soldiers because, as he wrote the President of the Continental Congress, it “will immediately give the enemy a very considerable re-enforcement, and will be a constant draft hereafter upon the prisoners of war in our hands. It ought also to be considered that few or none of the naval prisoners in New York or elsewhere belong to the Continental service.” The Jersey prisoners were understandably in no mood to listen to such technicalities. After failing, through addresses to Washington and to Congress, to get any promise of either exchange or relief, they addressed an open appeal to their countrymen, which appeared in the New York Gazette on June 17, 1782: You may bid a final adieu to all your friends and relatives who are now on board the Jersey prison ships [sic] at New York, unless you rouse the government to comply with just and honorable proposals. … What is to be done? Are we to lie here and share the fate of our unhappy brothers who are dying daily? No, unless you relieve us immediately, we shall be under the necessity of leaving our country, in preservation of our lives.
The prisoners’ threat to desert to the enemy was not wholly rhetoric. Although Dring said flatly, “During the whole period of my confinement, I never knew a single instance of enlistment from among the prisoners of the Jersey ,” Washington wfote in 1781 that, “conceiving themselves neglected, and seeing no prospect of relief, many of them entered into the enemy’s service.” Among the defectors was Ebenezer Fox. British recruiting officers made periodic visits to Jersey , and they caught Ebenezer at a suggestible moment. “We had just been trying to satisfy our hunger upon a piece of beef, which was so tough that no teeth could make an impression on it,” he later explained, “when the officer descended between decks. …” Ebenezer and eleven of his shipmates were very shortly marching under British escort—not guard—to lodgings on Long Island and thence to duty in His Majesty’s service in the West Indies, from which they subsequently escaped.