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“The remains were huddled into blankets, and so slightly interred on the neighboring slope that scores of them, bared by the rains, were always visible to their less fortunate comrades left to pine in hopeless captivity.” – Captain Roswell Palmer
In the year 1865 a son of Captain Roswell Palmer, of Connecticut, wrote a letter to Mr. Henry Drowne, in which he narrates the story of his father’s captivity, which we will condense in these pages. He says that his father was born in Stonington, Conn., in August, 1764, and was about seventeen at the time of his capture by the British, which must have been in 1781.
Palmer had several relations in the army, and was anxious to enlist, but was rejected as too young. His uncle, however, received him as an assistant in the Commissary Department, and when the brig Pilgrim, of Stonington, was commissioned to make war on the public enemy, the rejected volunteer was warmly welcomed on board by his kinsman, Captain Humphrey Crary.
The first night after putting to sea, the Pilgrim encountered a British fleet just entering the Vineyard Sound. A chase and running fight of several hours ensued, but at length the vessel was crippled and compelled to surrender. The prize was taken into Holmes’ Hole, and the crew subsequently brought to New York. Mr. Henry Palmer thus describes the Jersey, which was his father’s destination.
“The Jersey never left her anchorage at the Wallabout, whether from decrepitude, or the intolerable burden of woes and wrongs accumulated in her wretched hulk,–but sank slowly down at last into the subjacent ooze, as if to hide her shame from human sight, and more than forty years after my father pointed out to me at low tide huge remnants of her unburied skeleton.
“On board of this dread Bastile were crowded year after year, some 1,400 prisoners, mostly Americans. The discipline was very strict, while the smallest possible attention was paid by their warders to the sufferings of the captives. Cleanliness was simply an impossibility, where the quarters were so narrow, the occupants so numerous, and little opportunity afforded for washing the person or the tatters that sought to hide its nakedness. Fortunate was the wretch who possessed a clean linen rag, for this, placed in his bosom, seemed to attract to it crowds of his crawling tormentors, whose squatter sovereignty could be disposed of by the wholesale at his pleasure.
“The food of the prisoners consisted mainly of spoiled sea biscuit, and of navy beef, which had become worthless from long voyaging in many climes years before. These biscuits were so worm-eaten that a slight pressure of the hand reduced them to dust, which rose up in little clouds of insubstantial aliment, as if in mockery of the half famished expectants. For variety a ration called ‘Burgoo,’ was prepared several times a week, consisting of mouldy oatmeal and water, boiled in two great Coppers, and served out in tubs, like swill to swine.
“By degrees they grew callous to each other’s miseries, and alert to seize any advantage over their fellow sufferers. Many played cards day and night, regardless of the scenes of woe and despair around them. * * * The remains (of those who died) were huddled into blankets, and so slightly interred on the neighboring slope that scores of them, bared by the rains, were always visible to their less fortunate comrades left to pine in hopeless captivity. * * * After having been imprisoned about a year and a half my father, one night, during a paroxysm of fever, rushed on board, and jumped overboard.
“The shock restored him to consciousness, he was soon rescued, and the next morning was taken by the Surgeon-General’s orders to his quarters in Cherry St., near Pearl, where he remained until the close of the war. The kind doctor had taken a fancy to the handsome Yankee patient, whom he treated with fatherly kindness; giving him books to read; and having him present at his operations and dissections; and finally urged him to seek his fortune in Europe, where he should receive a good surgical education free of charge.
“The temptation was very great, but the rememberance of a nearer home and dearer friends, unseen for years, was greater, and to them the long lost returned at last, as one from the dead.”
Captain Palmer commanded a merchant ship after the war, retired and bought a farm near Stockbridge, Mass. He followed the sea over forty years. In appearance he was very tall, erect, robust, and of rare physical power and endurance. He had remarkably small hands and feet, a high and fair forehead, his hair was very black, a tangle of luxuriant curls, and his eyes were clear hazel. He died in his 79th year, in 1844, leaving a large family of children. In his own memoranda he writes: “Four or five hundred Frenchmen were transferred as prisoners to the orlop deck of the Jersey. They were much better treated than we Americans on the deck above them. All, however, suffered very much for the want of water, crowding around two half hogsheads when they were brought on board, and often fighting for the first drink. On one of these occasions a Virginian near me was elbowed by a Spaniard and thrust him back. The Spaniard drew a sheath knife, when the Virginian knocked him headlong backwards, down two hatches, which had just been opened for heaving up a hogshead of stale water from the hold, for the prisoners’ drink. This water had probably been there for years, and was as ropy as molasses.
“There was a deal of trouble between the American and the French and Spanish prisoners. The latter slept in hammocks, we, on the _floor_ of the deck next above them. One night our boys went down * * * and, at a given signal, cut the hammock lashings of the French and Spanish prisoners at the head, and let them all down by the run on the dirty floor. In the midst of the row that followed this deed of darkness, the Americans stole back to their quarters, and were all fast asleep when the English guard came down.
“No lights were permitted after ten o’clock. We used, however, to hide our candles occasionally under our hats, when the order came to ‘Douse the glim!’ One night the officer of the guard discovered our disobedience, and came storming down the hatchway with a file of soldiers. Our lights were all extinguished in a moment, and we on the alert for our tyrants, whom we seized with a will, and hustled to and fro in the darkness, till their cries aroused the whole ship.”
An uncle of Roswell Palmer’s named Eliakim Palmer, a man named Thomas Hitchcock, and John Searles were prisoners on board the Scorpion, a British 74, anchored off the Battery, New York. They were about to be transferred to the Old Jersey, when Hitchcock went into the chains and dropped his hat into the water. On his return he begged for a boat to recover it, and being earnestly seconded by Lieutenant Palmer, the officer of the deck finally consented, ordering a guard to accompany the “damned rebels.” They were a long time in getting the boat off. The hat, in the mean time, floated away from the ship. They rowed very awkardly, of course got jeered at uproariously for “Yankee land lubbers,” and were presently ordered to return. Being then nearly out of musket range, Lieutenant Palmer suddenly seized and disarmed the astonished guard, while his comrades were not slow in manifesting their latent adroitness in the use of the oar, to the no less astonishment of their deriders. In a moment the Bay was alive with excitement; many shots, big and little, were fired at the audacious fugitives from all the fleet; boats put off in hot pursuit; but the Stonington boys reached the Jersey shore in safety, and escaped with their prisoner to Washington’s headquarters, where the tact and bravery they had displayed received the approval of the great commander.
Lieutenant Eliakim Palmer was again taken prisoner later in the war and again escaped. This time he was on board the Jersey. He cut away three iron bars let into an aperture on the side of the ship on the orlop deck, formerly a part of her hold. He swam ashore with his shirt and trousers tied to his head. Having lost his trousers he was obliged to make his way down Long Island for nearly its whole length, in his shirt only. He hid in ditches during the day, subsisting on berries, and the bounty of cows, milked directly into his mouth. He crawled by the sentries stationed at different parts of the island, and at length, after many days, reached Oyster Pond Point, whence he was smuggled by friends to his home in Stonington, Conn.