“Never before or since, in the dark annals of human sufferings, has so small a space enclosed such a heavy weight of misery. No other prison has destroyed so many human beings in so short a space of time.”
Purposely brutalized by their British captors, between 11,000 and 13,000 American prisoners of war died from disease and starvation on the Jersey, seventy-five percent of the total number imprisoned. King George III considered them traitors, and as such, without rights. More Americans died in British prison ships in New York Harbor than in all the battles of the Revolutionary War.
Taken from, Dandridge, Danske, "American Prisoners of the Revolution." (Charlottesville: The Michie Company, 1911). Edited by Gary M. Bohannon.
They died, the young, the loved, the brave,
The death barge came for them,
And where the seas yon black rocks lave
Is heard their requiem.
They buried them and threw the sand
Unhallowed o'er that patriot band.
Are there those murdered men who died
For freedom and for me?
They seem to point, in martyred pride
To that spot upon the sea,
From whence came once the frenzied yell,
From out that wreck, that prison hell.
Of all the ships that were ever launched "Jersey" is the most notorious. Originally a man-o-war in the British Navy, "Jersey" was first converted to a hospital ship, and then, upon the start of the American Revolution, re-purposed to a prison ship for captured patriots. Never before or since, in the dark annals of human sufferings, has so small a space enclosed such a heavy weight of misery. No other prison has destroyed so many human beings in so short a space of time.
It is said that it was in the late spring of 1780 that "Jersey" was first moored off the coast of Long Island. It has been claimed that more than 11,000 Americans perished on board "Jersey" alone, during the space of three years and a half that she was moored in the waters of Wallabout Bay. This statement has never been contradicted, as far as we know, by British authority. As late as 1841 the bones of many of these victims were still to be found on the shores of the Bay, in and around the Navy Yard. On the 4th of February of that year some workmen, while engaged in digging away an embankment near the Navy Yard, accidentally uncovered a quantity of human bones, among which was a skeleton having a pair of iron manacles still upon the wrists.
In a paper published at Fishkill on the 18th of May, 1783, is the following card: "To All Printers, of Public Newspapers: Tell it to the world, and let it be published in every Newspaper throughout America, Europe, Asia, and Africa, to the everlasting disgrace and infamy of the British King's commanders at New York: That during the late war it is said that 11,644 American prisoners have suffered death by their inhuman, cruel, savage, and barbarous usage on board the filthy and malignant British prison ship called the Jersey, lying at New York. Britons tremble, lest the vengeance of Heaven fall on your isle, for the blood of these unfortunate victims!"
It is well known that twenty hogsheads of bones were collected in 1808 from the shores of the Wallabout, and buried under the auspices of the Tammany Society in a vault prepared for the purpose. These were but a small part of the remains of the victims of the prison ships. Many were, as we have seen, washed into the sea, and many more were interred on the shores of New York Harbor, before the prison ships were removed to the Wallabout. It will be better that we should give the accounts left to us by eye witnesses of the sufferings on board these prison ships, and we will therefore quote from the narrative of John Van Dyke, who was confined on board “Jersey” before her removal to the Wallabout.
Captain John Van Dyke was taken prisoner in May, 1780, at which time he says: "We were put on board the prison ship Jersey, anchored off Fly Market [New York City]. This ship had been a hospital ship. When I came on board her stench was so great, and my breathing this putrid air, I thought it would kill me, but after being on board some days I got used to it, and as though all was a common smell.
"On board the Jersey prison ship it was short allowance, so short a person would think it was not possible for a man to live on. They starved the American prisoners to make them enlist in their service. I will now relate a fact. Every man in a mess of six took his daily turn to get the mess's provisions. One day I went to the galley and drew a piece of salt, boiled pork. I went to our mess to divide it. . .I cut each one his share, and each one eat our day's allowance in one mouthful of this salt pork and nothing else.
"One day in the week, called ‘Pudding Day,’ we would receive three pounds of damaged flour, in it would be green lumps such as their men would not eat, and one pound of very bad raisins, one third stems. We would pick out the stems, mash the lumps of flour, put all with some water into our drawer, mix our pudding and put it into a bag and boil it with a tally tied to it with the number of our mess. This was a day's allowance.
"We, for some time, drew a half pint of rum for each man. One day Captain Laird who commanded the ship Jersey, came on board and cried out for the boatswain. The boatswain arrived and in a very quick motion, took off his hat. There being on deck two half hogshead tubs where our allowance of rum was mixed into grog, Captain Laird, said, 'Have the prisoners had their allowance of rum today?' 'No, sir' answered the boatswain. Captain Laird replied, 'Damn your soul, you rascal, heave it overboard.' The boatswain, with help, upset the tubs of rum on the middle deck. The grog rum run out of the scuppers of the ship into the river. I saw no more grog on board."
Every fair day a number of British officers and sergeants would come on board, form in two ranks on the quarter deck, facing inwards, the prisoners in the after part of the quarter deck. As the boatswain would call a name, the word would be 'Pass!' As the prisoners passed between the ranks officers and sergeants stared them in the face. This was done to catch deserters, and if they caught nothing the sergeants would come on the middle deck and cry out 'Five guineas bounty to any man that will enter his Majesty's service!"
Despite the unimaginable conditions endured, and the fact that remaining a prisoner aboard “Jersey” meant the very real probability of death by starvation or disease, rare was the man who accepted the five guineas.
Another prisoner whose recollections we will consider is Captain Silas Talbot, who was confined on board the Jersey in the fall of 1780. He says: "All her port holes were closed. . .There were about 1,100 prisoners on board. There were no berths or seats, to lie down on, not a bench to sit on. Many were almost without clothes. The dysentery, fever, phrenzy and despair prevailed among them, and filled the place with filth, disgust and horror. The scantiness of the allowance, the bad quality of the provisions, the brutality of the guards, and the sick, pining for comforts they could not obtain, altogether furnished continually one of the greatest scenes of human distress and misery ever beheld. It was now the middle of October, the weather was cool and clear, with frosty nights, so that the number of deaths per day was reduced to an average of ten, and this number was considered by the survivors a small one, when compared with the terrible mortality that had prevailed for three months before. The human bones and skulls, yet bleaching on the shore of Long Island, and daily exposed, by the falling down of the high bank on which the prisoners were buried, is a shocking sight, and manifestly demonstrates that the Jersey prison ship had been as destructive as a field of battle."
Each day at least six carcasses we bore
And scratched them graves along the sandy shore.
By feeble hands the shallow graves were made,
No stone memorial o'er the corpses laid.
In barren sands and far from home they lie,
No friend to shed a tear when passing by.
O'er the mean tombs insulting Britons tread,
Spurn at the sand, and curse the rebel dead.
When to your arms these fatal islands fall—
For first or last, they must be conquered, all,
Americans! to rites sepulchral just
With gentlest footstep press this kindred dust,
And o'er the tombs, if tombs can then be found,
Place the green turf, and plant the myrtle round.