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“As the morning dawned there would be heard the loud, unfeeling, and horrid cry, ‘Rebels! Bring up your dead!’” – Thomas Philbrook
We must again quote from Ebenezer Fox, whose description of the provisions dealt out to the prisoners on board the prison ships shall now be given.
“The prisoners received their mess rations at nine in the morning. * * * All our food appeared to be damaged. The bread was mostly mouldy, and filled with worms. It required considerable rapping upon the deck, before these worms could be dislodged from their lurking places in a biscuit. As for the pork, we were cheated out of it more than half the time, and when it was obtained one would have judged from its motley hues, exhibiting the consistence and appearance of variegated soap, that it was the flesh of the porpoise or sea hog, and had been an inhabitant of the ocean, rather than a sty. * * * The flavor was so unsavory that it would have been rejected as unfit for the stuffing of even Bologna sausages. The provisions were generally damaged, and from the imperfect manner in which they were cooked were about as indigestible as grape shot. The flour and oatmeal was often sour, and when the suet was mixed with the flour it might be nosed half the length of the ship. The first view of the beef would excite an idea of veneration for its antiquity, * * * its color was a dark mahagony, and its solidity would have set the keenest edge of a broad axe at defiance to cut across the grain, though like oakum it could be pulled to pieces, one way, in strings, like rope yarn. * * * It was so completely saturated with salt that after having been boiled in water taken from the sea, it was found to be considerably freshened by the process. * * * Such was our food, but the quality was not all of which we had to complain. * * * The cooking was done in a great copper vessel. * * * The Jersey, from her size, and lying near the shore, was embedded in the mud, and I don’t recollect seeing her afloat the whole time I was a prisoner. All the filth that accumulated among upwards of a thousand men was daily thrown overboard, and would remain there until carried away by the tide. The impurity of the water may be easily conceived, and in that water our meat was boiled. It will be recollected, too, that the water was salt, which caused the inside of the copper to be corroded to such a degree that it was lined with a coat of verdigris. Meat thus cooked must, in some degree, be poisoned, and the effects of it were manifest in the cadaverous countenances of the emaciated beings who had remained on board for any length of time.
“* * * We passed the night amid the accumulated horrors of sighs and groans; of foul vapor; a nauseous and putrid atmosphere, in a stifling and almost suffocating heat. * * * Little sleep could be enjoyed, for the vermin were so horribly abundant that all the personal cleanliness we could practice would not protect us from their attacks.”
The public papers of the day often contained accounts of the cruelties practiced upon the prisoners on the ships. In the “Pennsylvania Packet” of Sept. 4th, 1781, there is an extract from a letter written by a prisoner whose name is not given.
“EXTRACT FROM A LETTER DATED ON BOARD THE JERSEY (VULGARLY CALLED HELL) PRISON SHIP
“New York August 10th 1781
“There is nothing but death or entering into the British service before me. Our ship’s company is reduced by death and entering into the British service to the small number of 19. * * * I am not able to give you even the outlines of my exile; but this much I will inform you, that we bury 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11 in a day. We have 200 more sick and falling sick every day; the sickness is the yellow fever, small pox, and in short everything else that can be mentioned.”
“New London. Conn. March 3rd. 1782. Sunday last a flag ship returned from New York which brought twenty Americans who had been a long time on board a prison ship. About 1,000 of our countrymen remain in the prison ships at New York, great part of whom have been in close confinement for more than six months, and in the most deplorable condition: many of them seeing no prospect of release are entering into the British service to elude the contagion with which the ships are fraught.”
EXTRACT OF A LETTER WRITTEN ON BOARD THE PRISON SHIP JERSEY, APRIL 26TH, 1782.
“I am sorry to write you from this miserable place. I can assure you that since I have been here we have had only twenty men exchanged, although we are in number upwards of 700, exclusive of the sick in the Hospital ships, who died like sheep; therefore my intention is, if possible, to enter on board some merchant or transport vessel, as it is impossible for so many men to keep alive in one vessel.”
“Providence. May 25th 1782. Sunday last a flag of truce returned here from New York and brought a few prisoners. We learn that 1100 Americans were on board the prison and hospital ships at New York, when the flag sailed from thence, and that from six to seven were generally buried every day.”
“Salem. Mass. Extract from a letter of an officer on board the Jersey.–’The deplorable situation I am in cannot be expressed. The captains, lieutenants, and sailing masters have gone to the Provost, but they have only gotten out of the frying pan into the fire. I am left here with about 700 miserable objects, eaten up by lice, and daily taking fevers, which carry them off fast. Nov 9th 1782.”
By repeated acts of cruelty on the part of the British the Americans were, at last, stung to attempt something like retaliation. In 1782 a prison ship, given that name, was fitted up and stationed in the Thames near New London, as we learn from the following extract:
“New London, Conn. May 24th 1782. Last Saturday the Retaliation prison ship was safely moored in the river Thames, about a mile from the ferry, for the receipt of such British prisoners as may fall into our hands, since which about 100 prisoners have been put on board.”
It is said that this ship was in use but a short time, and we have been unable to learn anything further of her history.
Thomas Philbrook, who was a prisoner on board the Jersey for several months was one of the “working-party,” whose duty it was to scrub the decks, attend to the sick, and bring up the dead. He says: “As the morning dawned there would be heard the loud, unfeeling, and horrid cry, ‘Rebels! Bring up your dead!’
“Staggering under the weight of some stark, still form, I would at length gain the upper deck, when I would be met with the salutation: ‘What! “you alive yet?” Well, you are a tough one!’”