August 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 5
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.”
Once they were aboard, neither the stark surroundings nor the routine and deprivations to which they were subjected gave Fox, Dring, and their fellow prisoners any reassurance. Nor were they meant to do so. Although the weapons of war in the eighteenth century were less devastating than those of today, life at sea was raw, cruel, and violent—in war and in peacetime. Beatings, keelhaulings, iron shackles, and starvation rations were accepted instruments of enforcing discipline. Despite the understandably angry indictments of a score or more survivors who left long memoirs of the miseries they suffered aboard H.M.S. Jersey , the British were neither more nor less severe as captors than any civilized nation of that era.
In the case of the maritime prisoners of the Revolution, there was also calculation rather than malice behind the rough treatment. The most valued commodity to the British Navy was manpower for its great fleet of ships. Navy service was not very appealing. Voyages lasted months on end, and shipboard life was demanding, cramped, and sustained with little more than a bare survival diet. Death and disappearance were commonplace, and the records of every maritime family abounded with the sad notation, “Lost at sea.” Efforts to recruit a ship’s crew ranged from boisterous parties, staged primarily to get prospects sufficiently drunk so that when they woke up they were well out to sea, to actual impressment, a euphemism for outright kidnapping at the point of a pistol or the edge of a cutlass.
Under these circumstances tempting sources of manpower for British ships were the crews of captured Yankee vessels. They were, on the whole, well-trained, experienced seamen. They spoke English. And as far as the British were concerned, they were, though in rebellion, still British subjects. Furthermore, since the colonists assigned a major burden of their naval activities to privateers, few of the American captives were technically prisoners of war, and the British felt that they should be treated merely as private seamen committing crimes on the high seas. It was their hope that the prisoners would find life aboard the prison ships so intolerable that they would gladly enlist in His Majesty’s service. Some did, planning, in many cases, to desert the enemy’s forces later.
Far more often, however, whether from loyalty to the American cause or from sheer stubbornness, the prisoners endured the harrowing routine of boredom, hunger, disease, bitter cold or sweltering heat, and imminence of death that constituted life aboard Jersey . More than eleven hundred men were crammed between decks at night without cots or hammocks, and so crowded was her spar deck by day that they had to take turns walking in platoons along narrow aisles kept open for that purpose. Night was the most horrible time. At sundown the guards bellowed, “Down, rebels, down!” and the halfnaked, emaciated men descended through narrow hatchways, each of which was guarded by a solitary sentry once the grating covers were in place. The only concession to naval amenities was made by the prisoners themselves, who agreed that their officers should have the former gun room, aft on the middle deck, to themselves.
The dreaded nightly routine on Jersey was graphically recalled by Christopher Hawkins, who was captured in 1781 when the Providence brig Mariamne , five days out of Newport, was taken by two British frigates: We were all put between decks ev’ry night before dark, the number being great our situation was here extremely unpleasant. … Although the british had an hospital ship near us for the accommodation of the sick yet we had a great deal of sickness on board the Jersey , and many died on board her. The sickness seemed to be epidemic and which we called the bloody flux or dyssenterry. After the prisoners had been driven below at dusk of the evening and the boat had ceased conveying the sick to the hospital ship, many of the prisoners would become sick the fore part of the evening and before morning their suffering would be ended by death—such was the malignancy of the disease. My situation amongst others after being stowed away for the night was on the larboard side of the ship with our heads near the wall or side, and the two boys before mentioned [brothers who had been cooks on Mariamne] by the side of me. Thus situated, but one gangway to the upper deck was open, from which my place of rest was about 20 feet, and only two prisoners were allowed to visit the upper deck at the same time in the night let the calls of nature be never so violent, and there was no place between decks provided us to satisfy those calls. This induced an almost constant running over me by the sick, who would besmear myself and others with their bloody and loathsome filth.
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.
With food so scarce, the prisoners naturally took a very stern view of anyone among them who cheated in the distribution system. As Christopher Hawkins reported: A prisoner had pilfered food from a mess, who complained of him to the chief british officer on board. This officer decided that the delinquent should be punished by all the members of the mess who had suffered by his pillage. The accused was tied across a water butt [cask] on the upper deck—his posteriors were laid bare, and a wooden instrument six feet long, one end expanded and shaped much in the form of an oar [was brought out]… The mess-mates who had suffered by his pilfering, and six in number were arranged around him … Next, one of the mess took the instrument in hand (it was very heavy, and as much so as one man could conveniently wield)—and inflicted six strokes with the ponderous weapon, apparently with all his might—the sufferer groaning at every stroke—blood appeared before the first six were administered—a second man took the instrument and with no less mercy than the first inflicted six more strokes—the blood and flesh flying ten feet at ev’ry stroke—during this period the defaulter fainted, but was resuscitated by administering water to him—a third man took the instrument in hand and inflicted six more strokes though not as severe as the first—The officer before mentioned then interposed and observed to the enraged mess-mates that they were too severe with their fellow. He had again fainted. No more blows were given and the horrible looking man was untied and fell down on the deck. He was again resuscitated but still lay prostrated on the deck, not being able to rise. Beef brine was thrown upon his wounds but he appeared to be senseless. … The sufferer died in two or three days after his punishment. …
The code of the prisoners was obviously tough and uncompromising but, when weighed against their common plight, not unjust. Nor was it, at a time when the cat-o’-nine-tails was often applied for very simple shipboard offences, exceptionally harsh or sadistic. The men who took to the sea were hard men, whose conduct was based on simplistic copybook maxims; if they were relentless in their application of these, they were also consistent and knew what to expect of one another. In the primitive conditions aboard a prison ship such elemental standards of honor were important. Escape, for example, was—next to death—the most common method of a prisoner’s leaving Jersey . Yet the realities of confinement made it virtually impossible for a man to plot or execute an escape without his shipmates knowing about it. Moreover, once ashore, he had to get through the British-held stretches of Long Island—all of it Tory country, where the American hatred of rebels equalled the British —and thence across the Sound to the mainland well beyond the British outposts of New York City.
To reduce risks and to furnish mutual help, most escapes from Jersey were group ventures. For this reason informers were treated with thorough contempt and deadly retaliation. As Thomas Andros, who was interned on Jersey in 1781, recalled: A secret, prejudicial to a prisoner, revealed to the guard, was death. Captain Young of Boston, concealed himself in a large chest belonging to a sailor going to be exchanged, and was carried on board the cartel [a ship sailing under safe conduct for such purposes as to convey messages between belligerents or to exchange prisoners], and we considered his escape as certain; but the secret leaked out and he was brought back, and one Spicer of Providence, being suspected as the traitor, the enraged prisoners were about to take his life. His head was drawn back, and the knife raised to cut his throat, but having obtained a hint of what was going on below, the guard at this instant, rushed down and rescued the man.
If Christopher Hawkins is to be believed, Spicer, a sailing master’s mate, was incorrigible. Hawkins reported that a cabin boy was smuggled onto an exchange ship in a sea chest and “the treacherous Spicer communicated the affair to the commanding officer of the prison ship. The cartel was immediately boarded, as she had not yet left the port, although ready to leave, and the boy found and brought back. Spicer paid for his treachery with the forfeit of his life—When evening was coming on, and the prisoners were going below for the night, he was knocked down the hatchway to the bottom of the steps below among those who had been awaiting his fall, and who fell upon him, cut off his ears and mangled his body in the most shocking manner, and to such a degree that he died of his wounds in a day or two after.”
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.
There is little reason, however, to believe that enlistments in the British service were frequent among Jersey prisoners. When the war ended in 1783, the persuasive evidence to the contrary was a shipload of fourteen hundred gaunt prisoners to be released and the bones of eleven thousand spread across the sands of Remsen’s beach. Twenty-five years later the Jersey survivors were writing ineradicable memoirs of their ordeal. The bleached bones of the dead were gathered for ceremonial burial by members of the Columbian Order, a patriotic society later to become somewhat less specialized as Tammany Hall. Jersey herself slowly rotted away at her Brooklyn anchorage, finally consumed by the sea.