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“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.” – Captain John Van Dyke
A Description Of The Jersey Sonnet
Suggested By A Vision Of The Jersey Prison Ship
BY W P P
O Sea! in whose unfathomable gloom A world forlorn of wreck and ruin lies, In thy avenging majesty arise, And with a sound as of the trump of doom Whelm from all eyes for aye yon living tomb, Wherein the martyr patriots groaned for years, A prey to hunger and the bitter jeers Of foes in whose relentless breasts no room Was ever found for pity or remorse; But haunting anger and a savage hate, That spared not e’en their victim’s very corse, But left it, outcast, to its carrion fate Wherefore, arise, O Sea! and sternly sweep This floating dungeon to thy lowest deep
It was stated in the portion of the eloquent oration given in our last chapter that more than 11,000 prisoners perished on board the 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. Yet we trust that it is exaggerated. It would give an average of more than three thousand deaths a year. The whole number of names copied from the English War Records of prisoners on board the Jersey is about 8,000. This, however, is an incomplete list. You will in vain search through its pages to find the recorded names of many prisoners who have left well attested accounts of their captivity on board that fatal vessel. All that we can say now is that the number who perished there is very great.
As late as 1841 the bones of many of these victims were still to be found on the shores of Walabout Bay, in and around the Navy Yard. On the 4th of February of that year some workmen, while engaged in digging away an embankment in Jackson Street, Brooklyn, 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. (See Thompson’s History of Long Island, Vol. 1, page 247.)
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!
“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
The black ship like a demon sate
Upon the prowling deep,
From her came fearful sounds of hate,
Till pain stilled all in sleep
It was the sleep that victims take,
Tied, tortured, dying, at the stake.
Yet some the deep has now updug,
Their bones are in the sun,
Whether by sword or deadly drug
They perished, one by one,
Was it not dread for mortal eye
To see them all so strangely die?
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”
This rough but strong old poem was written many years ago by a Mr. Whitman We have taken the liberty of retouching it to a slight degree.
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 the 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 called peaday I took the drawer of our doctor’s chest (Dr. Hodges of Philadelphia) and went to the galley, which was the cooking place, with my drawer for a soup dish. I held it under a large brass cock, the cook turned it. I received the allowance of my mess, and behold! Brown water, and fifteen floating peas–no peas on the bottom of my drawer, and this for six men’s allowance for 24 hours. The peas were all in the bottom of the kettle. Those left would be taken to New York and, I suppose, sold.
“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 raisin sticks. We would pick out the sticks, 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 Lard (Laird) who commanded the ship Jersey, came on board. As soon as he was on the main deck of the ship he 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 L., said, ‘Have the prisoners had their allowance of rum today?’ ‘No, sir’ answered the boatswain. Captain L. 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!’
“Shortly after this party left the ship a Hessian party would come on board, and the prisoners had to go through the same routine of duty again.
“From the Jersey prison ship eighty of us were taken to the pink stern sloop-of-war Hunter, Captain Thomas Henderson, Commander. We were taken there in a large ship’s long boat, towed by a ten-oar barge, and one other barge with a guard of soldiers in the rear.
“On board the ship Hunter we drew one third allowance, and every Monday we received a loaf of wet bread, weighing seven pounds for each mess. This loaf was from Mr. John Pintard’s father, of New York, the American Commissary, and this bread, with the allowance of provisions, we found sufficient to live on.
“After we had been on board some time Mr. David Sproat, the British Commissary of prisoners, came on board; all the prisoners were ordered aft; the roll was called and as each man passed him Mr. Sproat would ask, ‘Are you a seaman?’ The answer was ‘Landsman, landsman.’ There were ten landsmen to one answer of half seaman. When the roll was finished Mr. Sproat said to our sea officers, ‘Gentlemen, how do you make out at sea, for the most part of you are landsmen?’
“Our officers answered: ‘You hear often how we make out. When we meet our force, or rather more than our force we give a good account of them.’
“Mr. Sproat asked, ‘And are not your vessels better manned than these. Our officers replied, ‘Mr Sproat, we are the best manned out of the port of Philadelphia.’ Mr. Sproat shrugged his shoulders saying, ‘I cannot see how you do it.'”
We do not understand what John Van Dyke meant by his expression “half seaman.” It is probable that the sailors among the prisoners pretended to be soldiers in order to be exchanged. There was much more difficulty in exchanging sailors than soldiers, as we shall see. David Sproat was the British Commissary for Naval Prisoners alone. In a paper published in New York in April 28th, 1780, appears the following notice:–“I do hereby direct all Captains, Commanders, Masters, and Prize Masters of ships and other vessels, who bring naval prisoners into this port, immediately to send a list of their names to this office, No. 33 Maiden Lane, where they will receive an order how to dispose of them.
“(Signed) David Sproat.”
The Jersey and some of the other prison ships often had landsmen among their prisoners, at least until the last years of the war, when they were so overcrowded with sailors, that there must have been scant room for any one else.
The next 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 cloaths. 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.”