- Historic Sites
The Revolution Remembered
Newly Discovered Eyewitness Accounts of the War for Independence
April/may 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 3
The seashore was at that time much infested by refugees, who collected in bodies and plundered and annoyed the inhabitants whenever they could. They frequently burned the private dwellings, deprived the families of their stock of provisions, drove off large stocks of cattle from the beaches; in fact, ruin and desolation marked their footsteps wherever they went. It was to protect the coast from their depredations that these lookout boats were fitted out. There were two of said boats started out together. One was commanded by Captain McGee, with a crew of sixteen men. The other was commanded by Captain Willets of Cape May with an equal number of men. To the latter boat I belonged.
We followed along the coast until we came to Barnegat Inlet. We there ran in and landed on Cranberry Beach. We there fell in with a larger body of refugees. They were far superior in number to us, and they succeeded in taking us prisoners. They handcuffed us and conveyed us onto the prison ship then laying in the North River opposite the city of New York, whose name was the Scorpion . I remained on board the Scorpion about three weeks. It being then in the month of July, I was taken sick with a camp fever, when I was removed out of the Scorpion and put on board the Huntress , also a prison ship but then converted into an hospital. I was on board the Huntress but a short time, when I was attacked with dysentery. Here I thought would be an end to my sufferings, but although death relieved some of my messmates from the horrors of that prison (Captain Willets was among the number who fell a victim to the disease), I was one among those who recovered. The water was bad and the provisions worse. Our allowance was a half pound of mutton per day, but to our surprise, when the mutton came on board, it was only the heads of sheep with the horns and wool thereon. Our bread was oatmeal, neither sifted nor bolted. Our manner of preparing it was as follows: pound up a sheep’s head until the bones were all broken, then sink the oatmeal in a bowl of water and float out the hulls; with this we would thicken the broth and thus we kept soul and body together.
I had been on board about two months, sometimes almost famished for the want of provisions, when the officers of the hospital ship made a proposal to me. In case I would keep the cabin clean, boil their tea kettle, black their boots, et cetera, I should have a hammock to sleep in, should be better fed, and should be exchanged when the rest of my company was. I accordingly accepted of the offer. The hospital ship was anchored in what is called Buttermilk Channel with their cables and anchors. The center one was a tremendous chain cable. There were but one gun kept on board said ship, and that was an English musket which the officers kept in the cabin. There were about two hundred prisoners on board said ship, with seven officers and one physician.
I had been doing my duty in the cabin about two weeks, when we laid a plan for our escape. It was as follows. One day while the officers were absent on Long Island, I took down the said musket, poured out the priming, poured water into the barrel of the gun until the load became thoroughly wet. I then wiped the pan thoroughly dry, reprimed her, and put her back in her place. One or two days had elapsed, but we could get no boat wherein to make our escape, for they universally at night chained and locked her fast.
An opportunity at length presented itself, to wit., the officers had a mind to go on shore, and it being tremendous stormy weather, they unlocked their boat from the chain, brought her up alongside, and ordered a boy to get in the boat and bail the water out of her. I had communicated the secret of the gun being out of order to some of my fellow prisoners, and there being at [the] time a heavy storm, with the wind blowing directly upon the Jersey shore together with a thick, dense fog in the air, we considered this a favorable time to make our escape. We accordingly embraced the opportunity which then offered.
Seven prisoners (beside the boy which was in the boat) sprang into the boat. We shoved off, but before we had fairly cut the boat loose, one of the officers came on deck and discovered us. He screamed out for the gun, which he readily obtained, took aim at us, but as he pulled trigger, she only flashed. He reprimed her, but as oft as he pulled trigger, she would only flash. They then abandoned their musket, all ran upon the quarterdeck, hallooed as loud as they could to give the alarm to the fleet then laying at anchor around us, but the wind was blowing so heavy, it was impossible for them to be heard at even so short a distance. They then hoisted a flag on the flagstaff on the stern of the ship as a signal of distress, but the fog being so dense, none of the fleet discovered it. By this time we were pretty nearly over to the Jersey shore, which we reached at length.