“We have ourselves examined many of the skulls lying on the shore. From the teeth they appeared to be the remains of men in the prime of life.” – General Johnson
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Of all the ships that were ever launched the “Old Jersey” is the most notorious. 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. And yet the Jersey was once as staunch and beautiful a vessel as ever formed a part of the Royal Navy of one of the proudest nations of the world. How little did her builders imagine that she would go down to history accompanied by the execrations of all who are acquainted with her terrible record!
It is said that it was in the late spring of 1780 that the Old Jersey, as she was then called, was first moored in Wallabout Bay, off the coast of Long Island. We can find no record to prove that she was used as a prison ship until the winter of that year. She was, at first, a hospital ship for British soldiers.
The reason for the removal of the unfortunate prisoners from the ships in New York Harbor was that pestilential sickness was fast destroying them, and it was feared that the inhabitants of New York would suffer from the prevailing epidemics. They were therefore placed in rotten hulks off the quiet shores of Long Island, where, secluded from the public eye, they were allowed to perish by the thousands from cruel and criminal neglect.
“The Old Jersey and the two hospital ships,” says General J. Johnson, “remained in the Wallabout until New York was evacuated by the British. The Jersey was the receiving ship: the others, truly, the ships of death!
“It has been generally thought that all the prisoners died on board the Jersey. This is not true. Many may have died on board of her who were not reported as sick, but all who were placed on the sick list were removed to the hospital ships, from which they were usually taken, sewed up in a blanket, to their graves.
“After the hospital ships were brought into the Wallabout, it was reported that the sick were attended by physicians. Few indeed were those who recovered, or came back to tell the tale of their sufferings in those horrible places. It was no uncommon sight to see five or six dead bodies brought on shore in a single morning, when a small excavation would be dug at the foot of the hill, the bodies cast into it, and then a man with a shovel would quickly cover them by shoveling sand down the hill upon them.
“Many were buried in a ravine of this hill and many on Mr. Remsen’s farm. The whole shore, from Rennie’s Point, to Mr. Remsen’s dooryard, was a place of graves; as were also the slope of the hill near the house; the shore, from Mr. Remsen’s barn along the mill-pond to Rappelye’s farm; and the sandy island between the flood-gates and the mill-dam, while a few were buried on the shore on the east side of the Wallabout.
“Thus did Death reign here, from 1776 (when the Whitby prison ship was first moored in the Wallabout) until the peace. The whole Wallabout was a sickly place during the war. The atmosphere seemed to be charged with foul air: from the prison ships; and with the effluvia of dead bodies washed out of their graves by the tides. * * * More than half of the dead buried on the outer side of the mill-pond, were washed out by the waves at high tide, during northeasterly winds.
“The bodies of the dead lay exposed along the beach, drying and bleaching in the sun, and whitening the shores, till reached by the power of a succeeding storm, as the agitated waves receded, the bones receded with them into the deep, where they remain, unseen by man, awaiting the resurrection morn, when, again joined to the spirits to which they belong, they will meet their persecuting murderers at the bar of the Supreme Judge of the quick and the dead.
“We have ourselves,” General Johnson continues, “examined many of the skulls lying on the shore. From the teeth they appeared to be the remains of men in the prime of life.”
We will quote more of this interesting account written by an eyewitness of the horrors he records, in a later chapter. At present we will endeavor to give the reader a short history of the Jersey, from the day of her launching to her degradation, when she was devoted to the foul usages of a prison ship.
She was a fourth rate ship of the line, mounting sixty guns, and carrying a crew of four hundred men. She was built in 1736, having succeeded to the name of a celebrated 50-gun ship, which was then withdrawn from the service, and with which she must not be confounded. In 1737 she was fitted for sea as one of the Channel Fleet, commanded by Sir John Norris.
In the fall of 1738 the command of the Jersey was given to Captain Edmund Williams, and in July, 1739, she was one of the vessels which were sent to the Mediterranean under Rear Admiral Chaloner Ogle, when a threatened rupture with Spain rendered it necessary to strengthen the naval force in that quarter.
The trouble in the Mediterranean having been quieted by the appearance of so strong a fleet, in 1740 the Jersey returned home; but she was again sent out, under the command of Captain Peter Lawrence, and was one of the vessels forming the fleet of Sir John Norris, when, in the fall of that year and in the spring of 1741, that gentleman made his fruitless demonstrations against the Spanish coast. Soon afterwards the Jersey, still forming one of the fleet commanded by Sir Chaloner Ogle, was sent to the West Indies, to strengthen the forces at that station, commanded by Vice-Admiral Vernon, and she was with that distinguished officer when he made his well-known, unsuccessful attack on Carthagena, and the Spanish dominions in America in that year.
In March, 1743, Captain Lawrence was succeeded m the command of the Jersey by Captain Harry Norris, youngest son of Admiral Sir John Norris: and the Jersey formed one of the fleet commanded by Sir John Norris, which was designed to watch the enemy’s Brest fleet; but having suffered severely from a storm while on that station, she was obliged to return to the Downs.
Captain Harry Norris having been promoted to a heavier ship, the command of the Jersey was given soon afterwards to Captain Charles Hardy subsequently well known as Governor of the Colony of New York; and in June, 1744, that officer having been appointed to the command of the Newfoundland Station, she sailed for North America, and bore his flag in those waters during the remainder of the year. In 1745, still under the immediate command of Captain Hardy, the Jersey was one of the ships which, under Vice-Admiral Medley, were sent to the Mediterranean, where Vice-Admiral Sir William Rowley then commanded; and as she continued on that station during the following year there is little doubt that Captain Hardy remained there, during the remainder of his term of service on that vessel.
It was while under the command of Captain Hardy in July, 1745, that the Jersey was engaged with the French ship, St. Esprit, of 74 guns, in one of the most desperate engagements on record. The action continued during two hours and a half, when the St. Esprit was compelled to bear away for Cadiz, where she was repaired and refitted for sea. At the close of Sir Charles Hardy’s term of service in 1747, the Jersey was laid up, evidently unfit for active service; and in October, 1748, she was reported among the “hulks” in port.
On the renewal of hostilities with France in 1756 the Jersey was refitted for service, and the command given to Captain John Barker, and in May, 1757, she was sent to the Mediterranean, where, under the orders of Admiral Henry Osbourne, she continued upwards of two years, having been present, on the 28th of February, 1758, when M. du Quesne made his ineffectual attempt to reinforce M. De la Clue, who was then closely confined, with the fleet under his command, in the harbor of Carthagena.
On the 18th of August, 1759, while commanded by Captain Barker, the Jersey, with the Culloden and the Conqueror, were ordered by Admiral Boscowan, the commander of the fleet, to proceed to the mouth of the harbor of Toulon, for the purpose of cutting out or destroying two French ships which were moored there under cover of the batteries with the hope of forcing the French Admiral, De la Clue, to an engagement. The three ships approached the harbour, as directed, with great firmness; but they were assailed by so heavy a fire, not only from the enemy’s ships and fortifications, but from several masked batteries, that, after an unequal but desperate contest of upwards of three hours, they were compelled to retire without having succeeded in their object; and to repair to Gibraltar to be refitted.
In the course of the year 1759 Captain Barker was succeeded in the command of the Jersey by Captain Andrew Wilkinson, under whom, forming one of the Mediterranean fleet, commanded by Sir Charles Saunders, she continued in active service until 1763.
In 1763 peace was established, and the Jersey returned to England and was laid up; but in May, 1766, she was again commissioned, and under the command of Captain William Dickson, and bearing the flag of Admiral Spry, she was ordered to her former station in the Mediterranean, where she remained three years.
In the spring of 1769, bearing the flag of Commodore Sir John Byron, the Jersey sailed for America. She seems to have returned home at the close of the summer, and her active duties appear to have been brought to an end.
She remained out of commission until 1776, when, without armament, and under the command of Captain Anthony Halstead, she was ordered to New York as a hospital ship.
Captain Halstead died on the 17th of May, 1778, and, in July following, he was succeeded by Commander David Laird, under whom, either as a hospital, or a prison ship, she remained in Wallabout bay, until she was abandoned at the close of the war, to her fate, which was to rot in the mud at her moorings, until, at last, she sank, and for many years her wretched worm-eaten old hulk could be seen at low tide, shunned by all, a sorry spectacle, the ghost of what had once been a gallant man-of-war.
This short history of the Jersey has been condensed from the account written in 1865 by Mr. Henry B. Dawson and published at Morrisania, New York, in that year.
In an oration delivered by Mr. Jonathan Russel, in Providence, R. I., on the 4th of July 1800, he thus speaks of this ill-fated vessel and of her victims: “But it was not in the ardent conflicts of the field only, that our countrymen fell; it was not the ordinary chances of war alone which they had to encounter. Happy indeed, thrice happy were Warren, Montgomery, and Mercer; happy those other gallant spirits who fell with glory in the heat of the battle, distinguished by their country and covered with her applause. Every soul sensible to honor, envies rather than compassionates their fate. It was in the dungeons of our inhuman invaders; it was in the loathsome and pestiferous prisons, that the wretchedness of our countrymen still makes the heart bleed. It was there that hunger, and thirst, and disease, and all the contumely that cold-hearted cruelty could bestow, sharpened every pang of death. Misery there wrung every fibre that could feel, before she gave the Blow of Grace which sent the sufferer to eternity. It is said that poison was employed. No, there was no such mercy there. There, nothing was employed which could blunt the susceptibility to anguish, or which, by hastening death, could rob its agonies of a single pang. On board one only of these Prison ships above 11,000 of our brave countrymen are said to have perished. She was called the Jersey. Her wreck still remains, and at low ebb, presents to the world its accursed and blighted fragments. Twice in twenty-four hours the winds of Heaven sigh through it, and repeat the groans of our expiring countrymen; and twice the ocean hides in her bosom those deadly and polluted ruins, which all her waters cannot purify. Every rain that descends washes from the unconsecrated bank the bones of those intrepid sufferers. They lie, naked on the shore, accusing the neglect of their countrymen. How long shall gratitude, and even piety deny them burial? They ought to be collected in one vast ossory, which shall stand a monument to future ages, of the two extremes of human character: of that depravity which, trampling on the rights of misfortune, perpetrated cold and calculating murder on a wretched and defenceless prisoner; and that virtue which animated this prisoner to die a willing martyr to his country. Or rather, were it possible, there ought to be raised a Colossal Column whose base sinking to Hell, should let the murderers read their infamy inscribed upon it; and whose capital of Corinthian laurel ascending to Heaven, should show the sainted Patriots that they have triumphed.
“Deep and dreadful as the coloring of this picture may appear, it is but a taint and imperfect sketch of the original. You must remember a thousand unutterable calamities; a thousand instances of domestic as well as national anxiety and distress; which mock description. You ought to remember them; you ought to hand them down in tradition to your posterity, that they may know the awful price their fathers paid for freedom.”