A Wonderful Deliverance

“I have since found that the whole world is but one great prison-house of guilty, sorrowful, and dying men, who live in pride, envy, and malice, hateful, and hating one another.” – Rev. Thomas Andros

There are few records of religious feeling on board the “Jersey, vulgarly called ‘Hell.’” No clergyman was ever known to set foot on board of her, although a city of churches was so near. The fear of contagion may have kept ministers of the gospel away. Visitors came, as we have seen, but not to soothe the sufferings of the prisoners, or to comfort those who were dying. It is said that a young doctor, named George Vandewater attended the sick, until he took a fatal disease and died. He was a resident of Brooklyn, and seems to have been actuated by motives of humanity, and therefore his name deserves a place in this record.

But although the rough seamen who left narratives of their experiences in that fearful place have told us little or nothing about the inner feelings of those poor sufferers, yet it must be presumed that many a silent prayer went up to the Judge and Father of all men, from the depths of that foul prison ship. There was one boy on board the Jersey, one at least, and we hope that there were many more, who trusted in God that He could deliver him, even “from the nethermost hell.”

A large proportion of the prisoners were young men in their teens, who had been attracted by the mysterious fascination of the sea; many of them had run away from good homes, and had left sorrowing parents and friends to mourn their loss. The feelings of these young men, full of eager hopes, and as yet unsoured by too rough handling in their wrestle with the world, suddenly transferred to the deck of the Jersey, has been well described by Fox and other captives, whose adventures we have transcribed in these pages.

We have now to tell the experience of a youth on the Jersey who lived to be a minister, and for many years was in charge of a church at Berkeley. This youth was sensitive, delicate, and far from strong. His faith in human nature received a shock, and his disposition was warped at the most receptive and formative period of his life, by the terrible scenes of suffering on the one hand, and relentless cruelty on the other, that he witnessed in that fatal place. He wrote, in his memoir many years after: “I have since found that the whole world is but one great prison-house of guilty, sorrowful, and dying men, who live in pride, envy, and malice, hateful, and hating one another.”

This is one of the most terrible indictments of the human race that was ever written. Let us hope that it is not wholly true.

In 1833 the Rev. Thomas Andros published his recollections under the title, “The Old Jersey Captive.” We will give an abstract of them. He begins by saying: “I was but in my seventeenth year when the struggle commenced. In the summer of 1781 the ship Hannah, a very rich prize, was captured and brought into the port of New London. It infatuated great numbers of our young men who flocked on board our private armed ships in hopes of as great a prize. * * * I entered on board a new Brig called the ‘Fair American.’ She carried sixteen guns. * * * We were captured on the 27th of August, by the Solebay frigate, and safely stowed away in the Old Jersey prison ship at New York, an old, unsightly, rotten hulk.

“Her dark and filthy appearance perfectly corresponded with the death and despair that reigned within. She was moored three quarters of a mile to the eastward of Brooklyn ferry, near a tide-mill on the Long Island shore. The nearest distance to land was about twenty rods. No other British ship ever proved the means of the destruction of so many human beings.”

Andros puts the number of men who perished on board the Jersey as 11,000, and continues: “After it was known that it was next to certain death to confine a prisoner here, the inhumanity and wickedness of doing it was about the same as if he had been taken into the city and deliberately shot on some public square. * * * Never did any Howard or angel of pity appear to inquire into or alleviate our woes. Once or twice a bag of apples was hurled into the midst of hundreds of prisoners, crowded together as thick as they could stand, and life and limbs were endangered by the scramble. This was a cruel sport. When I saw it about to commence I fled to the most distant part of the ship.”

At night, he says, the prisoners were driven down to darkness between decks, secured by iron gratings and an armed soldiery. He thus speaks of the tasks imposed upon the prisoners: “Around the well-room an armed guard were forcing up the prisoners to the winches to clear the ship of water, and prevent her sinking; and little could be heard but a roar of mutual execrations, reproaches and insults.

“Sights of woe, regions of sorrow, doleful shades; Where peace and rest can never dwell

“When I became an inmate of this abode of suffering, despair, and death, there were about 400 on board, but in a short time they were increased to 1,200.

“All the most deadly diseases were pressed into the service of the king of terrors, but his prime ministers were dysentery, small pox, and yellow fever. The healthy and the diseased were mingled together in the main ship.”

He says that the two hospital ships were soon overcrowded, and that two hundred or more of the prisoners, who soon became sick in consequence of the want of room, were lodged in the fore-part of the lower gun-deck, where all the prisoners were confined at night.

“Utter derangement was a common sympton of yellow fever, and to increase the horror of darkness which enshrouded us, for we were allowed no light, the voice of warning would be heard, ‘Take care! There’s a madman stalking through the ship with a knife in his hand!’”

Andros says that he sometimes found the man by whose side he had lain all night a corpse in the morning. There were many sick with raging fever, and their loud cries for water, which could only be obtained on the upper deck, mingled with the groans of the dying, and the execrations of the tormented sufferers. If they attempted to get water from the upper deck, the sentry would push them back with his bayonet. Andros, at one time, had a narrow escape with his life, from one of these bayonet thrusts.

“In the morning the hatches were thrown open and we were allowed to ascend. The first object we saw was a boat loaded with dead bodies conveying them to the Long Island shore, where they were very slightly covered with sand. * * * Let our disease be what it would we were abandoned to our fate. No English physician ever came near us.”

Thirteen of the crew to which Andros belonged were on the Jersey. In a short time all but three or four were dead. The healthiest died first. They were seized vith yellow fever, which was an epidemic on the ship, and died in a few hours. Andros escaped contagion longer than any of his companions, with one exception. He says that the prisoners were furnished with buckets and brushes to cleanse the ship, and vinegar to sprinkle the floors, but that most of them had fallen into a condition of apathy and despair, and that they seldom exerted themselves to improve their condition.

“The encouragement to do so was small. The whole ship was equally affected, and contained pestilence enough to desolate a world; disease and death were wrought into her very timbers. At the time I left it is to be supposed a more filthy, contagious, and deadly abode never existed among a Christianized people.

“The lower hold and the orlop deck were such a terror that no man would venture down into them. * * * Our water was good could we have had enough of it: the bread was superlatively bad. I do not recollect seeing any which was not full of living vermin, but eat it, worms and all, we must, or starve. * * * 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, 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 cut his throat. The guard rushed down and rescued him.

“I knew no one to be seduced into the British service. They tried to force one of our crew into the navy, but he chose rather to die than perform any duty, and he was again restored to the prison-ship.”

Andros declares that there was no trace of religion exhibited on board the Jersey. He also says that the prisoners made a set of rules for themselves by which they regulated their conduct towards each other. No one was allowed to tyrannize over the weak, and morality was enforced by rules, and any infraction of these regulations was severely punished.

He speaks of scenes of dreadful suffering which he witnessed:

“Which things, most worthy of pity, I myself saw, And of them was a part.”

“The prison ship is a blot which a thousand ages cannot eradicate from the name of Britian. * * * While on board almost every thought was occupied to invent some plan of escape. The time now came when I must be delivered from the ship or die. I was seized with yellow fever, and should certainly take the small-pox with it, and who does not know that I could not survive the operation of both of these diseases at once. * * * I assisted in nursing those who had the pox most violently.

“The arrival of a cartel and my being exchanged would but render my death the more sure.”

Yet he endeavored to promote his exchange by stepping up and giving in his name among the first, when a list of the prisoners was taken. Andros was not strong, and as he himself says, disease often seemed to pass over the weak and sickly, and to attack, with deadly result, the prisoners who were the healthiest and most vigorous.

“It was the policy of the English to return for sound and healthy men sent from our prisons, such Americans as had but just the breath of life in them, sure to die before they reached home. The guard would tell a man while in health, ‘You haven’t been here long enough, you are too well to be exchanged.’

“There was one more method of getting from the ship,” Andros continues, “and that was at night to steal down through a gun-port which we had managed to open unbeknown to the guard, and swim ashore.” This, he declared, was for him a forlorn hope. Already under the influence of yellow fever, and barely able to walk, he was, even when well, unable to swim ten rods. Discovery was almost certain, for the guards now kept vigilant watch to prevent any one escaping in this manner, and they shot all whom they detected in the act of escaping. Yet this poor young man trusted in God. He writes: “God, who had something more for me to do, undertook for me.” Mr. Emery, the sailing master, was going ashore for water. Andros stepped up to him and asked: “Mr. Emery, may I go on shore with you after water?”

No such favor had ever been granted a prisoner, and Andros scarcely knew what prompted him to prefer such a request. To his immense surprise, the sailing master, who must have had a heart after all, replied, “Yes, with all my heart.” He was evidently struck with compassion for the poor, apparently dying, young man.

Andros, to the astonishment of his companions, immediately descended into the boat. Some of them asked: “What is that sick man going on shore for?”

The British sailors endeavored to dissuade him, thinking that he would probably die on the excursion.

“‘So, to put them all to silence, I again ascended on board, for I had neglected to take my great-coat. But I put it on, and waited for the sailing-master. The boat was pushed off, I attempted to row, but an English sailor said, very kindly, ‘Give me the oar. You are too unwell.’ * * * I looked back to the black and unsightly old ship as to an object of the greatest horror. * * * We ascended the creek and arrived at the spring, and I proposed to the sailors to go in quest of apples.”

The sailing-master said to him, “This fresh air will be of service to you.” This emboldened him to ask leave to ascend a bank about thirty feet high, and to call at a house near the spring to ask for refreshment. “Go,” said Mr. Emery, “but take care not to be out of the way.” He replied that his state of health was such that nothing was to be feared from him on that account. He managed to get into a small orchard that belonged to the farmhouse. There he saw a sentinel, who was placed on guard over a pile of apples. He soon convinced himself that this man was indifferent to his movements, and, watching his opportunity, when the man’s back was turned, he slipped beyond the orchard, into a dense swamp, covered with a thick undergrowth of saplings and bushes. Here there was a huge prostrate log twenty feet in length, curtained with a dense tangle of green briar.

“Lifting up this covering I crept in, close by the log, and rested comfortably, defended from the northeast storm which soon commenced.”

He heard the boat’s crew making inquiries for him but no one discovered his hiding-place. One of them declared that he was safe enough, and would never live to go a mile. In the middle of the night he left his hiding place, and fell into a road which he pursued some distance. When he heard approaching footsteps he would creep off the path, roll himself up into a ball to look like a bush, and remain perfectly still until the coast was clear. He now felt that a wonderful Providence was watching over him. His forethought in returning for his overcoat was the means of saving his life, as he would undoubtedly have perished from exposure without it. Next night he hid in a high stack of hay, suffering greatly. When the storm was over he left this hiding place, and entered a deep hollow in the woods near by, where he felt secure from observation. Here he took off his clothes and spread them in the sun to dry.

Returning to the road he was proceeding on his way, when at a bend in the road, he came upon two light dragoons, evidently looking for him. What was he to do? His mind acted quickly, and, as they approached, he leisurely got over a fence into a small corn field, near a cottage by the way-side. Here he busied himself as if he were the owner of the cottage, going about the field; deliberately picking up ears of corn; righting up the cap sheaf of a stack of stalks, and examining each one. He had lost his hat, and had a handkerchief around his head, which helped to deceive the dragoons, who supposed that he had just come out of the cottage. They eyed him sharply, but passed on.

After this he dared not show himself, and wandered about, living on apples and water. He would lie concealed all day, in barns or hollows of the woods. At night he travelled as far as his weakened condition would allow He often found unfermented cider at the presses, for it was cider-making time.

After several days of this wandering life he sought refuge in a barn, where he was found by a cross old man, who refused to do anything for him. He says that in the course of his wanderings he uniformly found women kind and helpful. They gave him food and kept his secret. One night, feeling utterly spent, he came to the poor dwelling of an old man and his wife, on the east side of Long Island. These good people assisted him by every means in their power, as if he were their own son. They took off his clothes, giving him another suit until they had baked all his garments in the oven to destroy the vermin which tormented him day and night. They insisted upon his occupying a clean bed. That night he slept sweetly, rid of the intolerable torture of being eaten up alive. He managed to reach Sag Harbor, where he found two other escaped prisoners. Soon he was smuggled to Connecticut in a whale-boat, and restored to his mother. It was late in October when he reached home. He was very ill and delirious for a long time, but finally recovered, taught school for some time, and finally became a minister of the gospel.



MLA Source Citation:

Dandridge, Danske American Prisoners of the Revolution, Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, 1911, 1967. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 25 July 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/america/a-wonderful-deliverance.htm - Last updated on Jul 15th, 2011


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