The Journal Of Dr. Elias Cornelius
“Go to your dungeons in the prison ships, where you shall perish and rot, but first let me tell you that the rations which have been hitherto allowed for your wives and children shall, from this moment, cease forever; and you shall die assured that they are starving in the public streets, and that you are the authors of their fate.” – A British Officer Named Fraser
We must now conduct our readers back to the Provost Prison in New York, where, for some time, Colonel Ethan Allen was incarcerated. Dr. Elias Cornelius, a surgeon’s mate, was taken prisoner by the British on the 22nd of August, 1777. On that day he had ridden to the enemy’s advanced post to make observations, voluntarily accompanying a scouting party. On his way back he was surprised, over-powered, and captured by a party of British soldiers.
This was at East Chester. He seems to have lagged behind the rest of the party, and thus describes the occurrence: “On riding into town (East Chester) four men started from behind a shed and took me prisoner. They immediately began robbing me of everything I had, horse and harness, pistols, Great Coat, shoe-buckles, pocket book, which contained over thirty pounds, and other things. The leader of the guard abused me very much. * * * When we arrived at King’s Bridge I was put under the Provost Guard, with a man named Prichard and several other prisoners.” They were kept at the guard house there for some time, and regaled with mouldy bread, rum and water, and sour apples, which were thrown down for them to scramble for, as if they were so many pigs. They were at last marched to New York. Just before reaching that city they were carried before a Hessian general to be “made a show of.” The Hessians mocked them, told them they were all to be hung, and even went so far as to draw their swords across their throats. But a Hessian surgeon’s mate took pity on Cornelius, and gave him a glass of wine.
On the march to New York in the hot summer afternoon they were not allowed to stop even for a drink of water. Cornelius was in a fainting condition, when a poor woman, compassionating his sad plight, asked to be allowed to give them some water. They were then about four miles from New York. She ran into her house and brought out several pails of beer, three or four loaves of bread, two or three pounds of cheese, and besides all this, she gave money to some of the prisoners. Her name was Mrs. Clemons. She was from Boston and kept a small store along the road to New York.
Cornelius says: “We marched till we come to the Bowery, three quarters of a mile from New York. * * * As we come into town, Hessians, Negroes, and children insulted, stoned, and abused us. * * * In this way we were led through half the streets as a show. * * * At last we were ordered to the Sugar House, which formerly went by the name of Livingstone’s Sugar House. Here one Walley, a Sergeant of the 20th Regiment of Irish traitors in the British service, had the charge of the prisoners. This man was the most barbarous, cruel man that ever I saw. He drove us into the yard like so many hogs. From there he ordered us into the Sugar House, which was the dirtiest and most disagreeable place that I ever saw, and the water in the pump was not better than that in the docks. The top of the house was open * * * to the weather, so that when it rained the water ran through every floor, and it was impossible for us to keep dry. Mr. Walley gave thirteen of us four pounds of mouldy bread and four pounds of poor Irish pork for four days. I asked Mr Walley if I was not to have my parole. He answered ‘No!’ When I asked for pen and ink to write a few lines to my father, he struck me across the face with a staff which I have seen him beat the prisoners.” (with)
On the next morning Cornelius was conveyed to the Provost Guard. “I was then taken down to a Dungeon. The provost marshal was Sergeant Keith” (Cunningham appears to have been, at this time, murdering the unfortunate prisoners in his power at Philadelphia).
“There was in this place a Captain Travis of Virginia, and Captain of a sloop of war. There were also in this dismal place nine thieves, murderers, etc. A Captain Chatham was taken sick with nervous fever. I requested the Sergeant to suffer me to send for some medicine, or I believed he might die, to which he replied he might die, and if he did he would bury him.
“All the provisions each man had was but two pounds meat and two pounds bread for a week, always one and sometimes both was not fit to eat. * * * I had no change of linen from the 25th of August to the 12th of September.”
It seems that the father of Cornelius, who lived on Long Island, was an ardent Tory. Cornelius asked Sergeant O’Keefe to be allowed to send to his father for money and clothing. But this was refused. “In this hideous place,” he continues, “I was kept until the 20th of September; when Sergeant Keath took Captains C., and Travis, and myself, and led us to the upper part of the prison, where were Ethan Allen, Major Williams, Paine and Wells and others. Major Williams belonged at Maryland and was taken prisoner at Fort Washington. * * *
“While at this place we were not allowed to speak to any friend, not even out of the window. I have frequently seen women beaten with canes and ram-rods who have come to the prisons’ windows to speak to their Husbands, Sons, or Brothers, and officers put in the dungeon just for asking for cold water.”
Dried peas were given out to the prisoners, without the means of cooking them.
When Fort Montgomery was taken by the British the American officers who had been in command at that post were brought to the Provost and put into two small rooms on the lower floor. Some of them were badly wounded, but no surgeon was allowed to dress their wounds. Cornelius asked permission to do so, but this was refused. “All of us in the upper prison,” he continues, “were sometimes allowed to go on top of the house. I took this opportunity to throw some Ointment and Lint down the chimney to the wounded in the lower rooms with directions how to use it. I knew only one of them–Lt. Col. Livingstone.”
At the time of Burgoyne’s surrender a rumor of the event reached the prisoners, and women passing along the street made signs to assure them that that general was really a captive. Colonel Livingstone received a letter from his father giving an account of Burgoyne’s surrender. “Soon we heard hollooing and other expressions of joy from him and others in the (lower) rooms. * * * He put the letter up through a crack in the floor for us to read. * * * The whole prison was filled with joy inexpressible. * * * From this time we were better treated, although the provision was bad, but we drew rather larger quantities of it. Some butter, and about a gill of rice and some cole were dealt out to us, which we never drew before.
“About this time my father came to see me. I was called down to the grates. My heart at first was troubled within me; I burst into tears, and did not speak for some minutes. I put my hand through the grates, and took my father’s and held it fast. The poor old gentleman shed many tears, and seemed much troubled to see me in so woeful a place. * * * He asked me what I thought of myself now, and why I could not have been ruled by him. * * * Soon the Provost Marshal came and said he could not allow my father to stay longer.
“* * * Toward the latter part of December we had Continental bread and beef sent us, and as much wood as we wished to burn. A friend gave me some money which was very useful.
“Jan. 9th, 1778. This day Mr. Walley came and took from the prison myself and six others under guard to the Sugar House. * * * At this time my health was bad, being troubled with the scurvy, and my prospects for the winter were dark.”
He describes the Sugar House as a dreadful place of torment, and says that thirty disorderly men were allowed to steal from the other prisoners the few comforts they possessed. They would even take the sick out of their beds, steal their bedding, and beat and kick the wretched sufferers. The articles thus procured they would sell to Mr. Walley (or Woolley) for rum.
On the 13th of January Cornelius was sent to the hospital. The Brick Meeting House was used for the sick among the prisoners.
“Here,” he continues, “I stayed until the 16th. I was not much better than I was in the Sugar House, no medicine was given me, though I had a cough and a fever. The Surgeon wished me as soon as I got better to take the care of the sick, provided I could get my parole.
“Jan. 16th. On coming next morning he (the surgeon) said he could get my parole. I was now determined to make my escape, though hardly able to undertake it. Just at dusk, having made the Sentinel intoxicated, I with others, went out into the backyard to endeavor to escape over the fence. The others being backward about going first, I climbed upon a tombstone and gave a spring, and went over safe, and then gave orders for the others to do so also. A little Irish lad undertook to leap over, and caught his clothes in the spikes on the wall, and made something of a noise. The sentinel being aroused called out ‘Rouse!’ which is the same as to command the guards to turn out. They were soon out and surrounded the prison. In the mean time I had made my way to St. Paul’s Church, which was the wrong way to get out of town.
“The guards, expecting that I had gone towards North River, went in that direction. On arriving at the Church I turned into the street to go by the College and thus go out of town by the side of the river. Soon after I was out of town I heard the eight o’clock gun, which * * * was the signal for the sentinels to hail every man that came by. I wished much to cross the river, but could not find any boat suitable. While going along up the side of the river at 9 P.M., I was challenged by a sentinel with the usual word (Burdon), upon which I answered nothing, and on being challenged the second time I answered ‘Friend.’ He bade me advance and give the countersign, upon which I fancied (pretended) I was drunk, and advanced in a staggering manner, and after falling to the ground he asked me where I was going. I told him ‘Home,’ but that I had got lost, and having been to New York had taken rather too much liquor, and become somewhat intoxicated. He then asked me my name which I told him was Matthew Hoppen. Mr. Hoppen lived not far distant. I solicited him to put me in the right direction, but he told me I must not go until the Sergeant of the guard dismissed me from him, unless I could give him the countersign. I still entreated him to let me go. Soon he consented and directed my course, which I thanked him for. Soon the moon arose and made it very light, and there being snow on the ground, crusted over, and no wind, therefore a person walking could be heard a great distance.
“At this time the tumor in my lungs broke, and being afraid to cough for fear of being heard, prevented me from relieving myself of the pus that was lodged there.
“I had now to cross lots that were cleared and covered with snow, the houses being thick on the road which I was to cross, and for fear of being heard I lay myself flat on my stomach and crept along on the frozen snow. When I come to the fence I climbed over, and walked down the road, near a house where there was music and dancing. At this time one of the guards came out. I immediately fell down upon my face. Soon the man went into the house. I rose again, and crossed the fence into the field, and proceeded towards the river. There being no trees or rocks to prevent my being seen, and not being able to walk without being heard, and the dogs beginning to bark, I lay myself down flat again, and crept across the field, which took me half an hour. I at length reached the river and walked by the side of it some distance, and saw a small creek which ran up into the island, and by the side of it a small house, and two Sentinels one on each side of it. Not knowing what to do I crept into a hole in the bank which led in between two rocks. Here I heard them talk. I concluded to endeavor to go around the head of the creek, which was about half a mile, but on getting out of the hole I took hold of the limb of a tree which gave way, and made a great noise. The sentinel, on hearing it said, ‘Did you not hear a person on the creek?’
“I waited some minutes and then went around the head of the creek and came down the river on the other side to see if I could not find a boat to cross to Long Island. But on finding sentinels near by I retreated a short distance back, and went up the river. I had not gone more than thirty rods when I saw another sentinel posted on the bank of the river where I must pass. * * * I stood some time thinking what course to pursue, but on looking at the man found he did not move and was leaning on his gun. I succeeded in passing by without waking him up. After this I found a Sentinel every fifteen or twenty rods until I came within two miles of Hell Gate. Here I stayed until my feet began to freeze, and having nothing to eat I went a mile further up the river. It now being late I crept into the bushes and lay down to think what to do next. I concluded to remain where I was during the night, and early in the morning to go down to New York and endeavor to find some house to conceal myself in.
“In the morning as soon as the Revelry Beating commenced I went on my way to New York which was eight miles from this place. After proceeding awhile I heard the morning guns fired from New York, though I was four miles from it. I passed the sentinels unmolested down the middle of the road, and arrived there before many were up. I met many British and Hessian soldiers whom I knew very well, but they did not know me.
“I went to a house, and found them friends of America, and was kindly received of them, and (they) promised to keep me a few days.
“I had not been here but three quarters of an hour when I was obliged to call for a bed. After being in bed two or three hours I was taken with a stoppage in my breast, and made my resperation difficult, and still being afraid to cough loud for fear of being heard. The good lady of the house gave me some medicine of my own prescribing, which soon gave me relief. Soon after a rumor spread about town among the friends of America of my confinement, and expecting soon to be retaken, they took measures to have me conveyed to Long Island, which was accordingly done.
“Feb. 18th, 1778. The same day I was landed I walked nine miles, and put up at a friend’s house, during my walk I passed my Grandfather’s house, and dare not go in for fear he would deliver me up to the British. Next morning I started on my journey again, and reached the place I intended at 12 o’clock, and put up with two friends. The next morning I and two companions started from our friends with four days provisions, and shovels and axes to build us a hut in the woods. We each of us had a musket, powder, and balls. After going two miles in the woods we dug away the snow and made us a fire. After warming ourselves we set to work to build ourselves a hut; and got one side of it done the first day, and the next we finished it. It was tolerably comfortable. We kept large fires, and cooked our meat on the coals. In eight or ten days we had some provisions brought us by our friends. At this time we heard that Captain Rogers was cast away on Long Island, and concealed by some of his friends. We went to see him, and found him. We attempted to stay in the house in a back room. At about ten A. M. there came in a Tory, he knowing some of us seemed much troubled. We made him promise that he would not make known our escape. The next day our two comrades went back to their old quarters, and Captain Rogers and myself and a friend went into the woods and built us a hut, about ten miles from my former companions, with whom we kept up a constant correspondence. Soon a man was brought to us by our friends, whom we found to be John Rolston, a man who was confined in the Provost Jail with us, and was carried to the Hospital about three weeks after I was, and made his escape the same way, and by friends was brought to Long Island.
“March 19th, 1778. About 5 o’clock a friend came to us and and said we had an opportunity to go over to New England in a boat that had just landed with four Tories, that had stolen the boat at Fairfield, Conn. We immediately sent word to our two friends with whom I first helped to build a hut, but they could not be found. At sunset those that came in the boat went off, and some of our friends guided us through the woods to the boat, taking two oars with us, for fear we should not find any in the boat. On arrival at the place our kind friends helped us off. We rowed very fast till we were a great distance from land. The moon rose soon, and the wind being fair we arrived we knew not where, about a half hour before day. We went on shore, and soon found it was Norwalk, Conn. We had bade farewell to Long Island, for the present, upon which I composed the following lines:–
“O fair you well, once happy land, Where peace and plenty dwelt, But now oppressed by tyrants’ hands, Where naught but fury’s felt
“Behold I leave you for awhile, To mourn for all your sons, Who daily bleed that you may smile When we’ve your freedom won
“After being rested, just as the day began to dawn, we walked to a place called the Old Mill, where we found a guard (American) who hailed us at a distance, and on coming up to him kindly received us, and invited us to his house to warm us. This being done we went home with Captain Rodgers, for he lived in Norwalk. Here we went to bed at sunrise, and stayed till 10 o’clock. After dinner we took leave of Captain Rodgers and started for head-quarters in Pennsylvania, where the grand Army was at that time. In seven days we arrived at Valley Forge.
This portion of the journal of Dr. Cornelius was published in the “Putnam County Republican”, in 1895, with a short account of the author.
Dr. Cornelius was born on Long Island in 1758, and was just twenty at the time of his capture. His ancestors came from Holland. They were of good birth, and brought a seal bearing their coat of arms to this country. On the 15th of April, 1777, he was appointed surgeon’s mate to the Second Regiment of Rhode Island troops under Colonel Israel Angell.
The article in the “Republican” gives a description of Cunningham and the Provost which we do not quote in full, as it contains little that is new. It says, however that “While Cunningham’s victims were dying off from cold and starvation like cattle, he is said to have actually mingled an arsenical preparation with the food to make them die the quicker. It is recorded that he boasted that he had killed more rebels with his own hand than had been slain by all the King’s forces in America.”
Cornelius continued in the Continental service until January 1st, 1781, and received an honorable discharge. After the war he settled at Yorktown, Westchester County, and came to be known as the “beloved physician.” He was very gentle and kind, and a great Presbyterian. He died in 1823, and left descendants, one of whom is Judge C. M. Tompkins, of Washington, D. C.
As we have seen, Cunningham was not always in charge of the Provost. It appears that, during his absence in Philadelphia and other places, where he spread death and destruction, he left Sergeant O’Keefe, almost as great a villian as himself, in charge of the hapless prisoners in New York. It is to be hoped that his boast that he had killed more Americans than all the King’s forces is an exaggeration. It may, however, be true that in the years 1776 and 1777 he destroyed more American soldiers than had, at that time, fallen on the field of battle.
When an old building that had been used as a prison near the City Hall was torn down a few years ago to make way for the Subway Station of the Brooklyn Bridge, a great number of skeletons were found “in its cellars”. That these men starved to death or came to their end by violence cannot be doubted. New York, at the time of the Revolution, extended to about three-quarters of a mile from the Battery, its suburbs lying around what is now Fulton Street. Cornelius speaks of the Bowery as about three-quarters of a mile from New York! “St. Paul’s Church,” says Mr. Haltigan, in his very readable book called “The Irish in the American Revolution,” “where Washington attended divine service, is now the only building standing that existed in those days, and that is a veritable monument to Irish and American patriotism. * * * On the Boston Post Road, where it crossed a brook in the vicinity of Fifty-Second street and Second avenue, then called Beekman’s Hill, William Beekman had an extensive country house. During the Revolution this house was the British headquarters, and residence of Sir William Howe, where Nathan Hale was condemned to death, and where Major Andrè received his last instructions before going on his ill-fated mission to the traitor Arnold.”
Lossing tells us of the imprisonment of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, in the following language: “Suffering and woe held terrible sway after Cornwallis and his army swept over the plains of New Jersey. Like others of the signers of the great Declaration, Richard Stockton was marked for peculiar vengeance by the enemy. So suddenly did the flying Americans pass by in the autumn of 1776, and so soon were the Hessian vultures and their British companions on the trail, that he had barely time to remove his family to a place of safety before his beautiful mansion was filled with rude soldiery. The house was pillaged, the horses and stock were driven away, the furniture was converted into fuel, the choice old wines in the cellar were drunk, the valuable library, and all the papers of Mr. Stockton were committed to the flames, and the estate was laid waste. Mr. Stockton’s place of concealment was discovered by a party of loyalists, who entered the house at night, dragged him from his bed, and treating him with every indignity that malice could invent, hurried him to New York, where he was confined in the loathsome Provost Jail and treated with the utmost cruelty. When, through the interposition of Congress he was released, his constitution was hopelessly shattered, and he did not live to see the independence of his country achieved. He died at his home at Princeton, in February, 1781, blessed to the last with the tender and affectionate attentions of his noble wife.”
We have gathered very little information about the British prisons in the south, but that little shall be laid before the reader. It repeats the same sad story of suffering and death of hundreds of martyrs to the cause of liberty, and of terrible cruelty on the part of the English as long as they were victorious.
Mr. Haltigan tells of the “tender mercies” of Cornwallis at the south in the following words: “Cornwallis was even more cruel than Clinton, and more flagrant in his violations of the conditions of capitulation. After the fall of Charleston the real misery of the inhabitants began. Every stipulation made by Sir Henry Clinton for their welfare was not only grossly violated, but he sent out expeditions in various sections to plunder and kill the inhabitants, and scourge the country generally. One of these under Tarleton surprised Colonel Buford and his Virginia regiment at Waxhaw, N. C., and while negotiations were pending for a surrender, the Americans, without notice, were suddenly attacked and massacred in cold blood. Colonel Buford and one hundred of his men saved themselves only by flight. Though the rest sued for quarter, one hundred and thirteen of them were killed on the spot, and one hundred and fifty more were so badly hacked by Tarleton’s dragoons that they could not be removed. Only fifty-three out of the entire regiment were spared and taken prisoners. ‘Tarleton’s quarter’ thereafter became the synonym for barbarity. * * * Feeling the silent influence of the eminent citizens under parole in Charleston, Cornwallis resolved to expatriate them to Florida.
“Lieutenant Governor Gadsden and seventy-seven other public and influential men were taken from their beds by armed parties, before dawn on the morning of the 27th of August, 1780, hurried on board the Sandwich prison ship, without being allowed to bid adieu to their families, and were conveyed to St. Augustine.
“The pretence for this measure, by which the British authorities attempted to justify it, was the false accusation that these men were concerting a scheme for burning the town and massacring the loyal inhabitants. Nobody believed the tale, and the act was made more flagrant by this wicked calumny. Arrived at St. Augustine the prisoners were offered paroles to enjoy liberty within the precincts of the town. Gadsden, the sturdy patriot, refused acquiescence, for he disdained making further terms with a power that did not regard the sanctity of a solemn treaty. He was determined not to be deceived the second time.
“‘Had the British commanders,’ he said, ‘regarded the terms of capitulation at Charleston I might now, although a prisoner, enjoy the smiles and consolations of my family under my own roof; but even without a shadow of accusation preferred against me, for any act inconsistent with my plighted faith, I am torn from them, and here, in a distant land, invited to enter into new engagements. I will give no parole.’
“‘Think better of it,’ said Governor Tonyn, who was in command, ‘a second refusal of it will fix your destiny,–a dungeon will be your future habitation.’
“‘Prepare it then,’ replied the inflexible patriot, ‘I will give no parole, so help me God!’
“And the petty tyrant did prepare it, and for forty-two weeks that patriot, of almost threescore years of age, never saw the light of the blessed sun, but lay incarcerated in the dungeon of the castle of St Augustine. All the other prisoners accepted paroles, but they were exposed to indignities more harrowing to the sensitive soul than close confinement. When they were exchanged, in June, 1781, they were not allowed even to touch at Charleston, but were sent to Philadelphia, whither their families had been banished when the prisoners were taken to the Sandwich. More than a thousand persons were thus exiled, and husbands and wives, fathers and children, first met in a distant State after a separation of ten months.
“Nearly all the soldiers taken prisoners at Charleston were confined in prison ships in the harbor, where foul air, bad food, filth, and disease killed hundreds of them. Those confined at Haddrell’s Point also suffered terribly. Many of them had been nurtured in affluence; now far from friends and entirely without means, they were reduced to the greatest straits. They were not even allowed to fish for their support, but were obliged to perform the most menial services. After thirteen months captivity, Cornwallis ordered them to be sent to the West Indies, and this cruel order would have been carried out, but for the general exchange of prisoners which took place soon afterwards.
“Governor Rutledge, in speaking before the South Carolina Assembly at Jacksonboro, thus eloquently referred to the rigorous and unjustifiable conduct of the British authorities:
“‘Regardless of the sacred ties of honor, destitute of the feelings of humanity, and determined to extinguish, if possible, every spark of freedom in this country, the enemy, with the insolent pride of conquerors, gave unbounded scope to the exercise of their tyrannical disposition, infringed their public engagements, and violated their most solemn treaties. Many of our worthiest citizens, without cause, were long and closely confined, some on board prison ships, and others in the town and castle of St. Augustine. Their properties were disposed of at the will and caprice of the enemy, and their families sent to a different and distant part of the continent without the means of support. Many who had surrendered prisoners of war were killed in cold blood. Several suffered death in the most ignominious manner, and others were delivered up to savages and put to tortures, under which they expired. Thus the lives, liberties, and properties of the people were dependent solely on the pleasure of the British officers, who deprived them of either or all on the most frivolous pretenses. Indians, slaves, and a desperate banditti of the most profligate characters were caressed and employed by the enemy to execute their infamous purposes. Devastation and ruin marked their progress and that of their adherents; nor were their violences restrained by the charms or influence of beauty and innocence; even the fair sex, whom it is the duty of all, and the pleasure and pride of the brave to protect, they and their tender offspring, were victims to the inveterate malice of an unrelenting foe. Neither the tears of mothers, nor the cries of infants could excite pity or compassion. Not only the peaceful habitation of the widow, the aged and the infirm, but the holy temples of the Most High were consumed in flames, kindled by their sacrilegious hands. They have tarnished the glory of the British army, disgraced the profession of a British soldiery, and fixed indelible stigmas of rapine, cruelty and peridy, and profaneness on the British name.'”
When in 1808 the Tammany Society of New York laid the cornerstone of a vault in which the bones of many of the prison ship martyrs were laid Joseph D. Fay, Esq., made an oration in which he said:
“But the suffering of those unfortunate Americans whom the dreadful chances of war had destined for the prison-ships, were far greater than any which have been told. In that deadly season of the year, when the dog-star rages with relentless fury, when a pure air is especially necessary to health, the British locked their prisoner, after long marches, in the dungeons of ships affected with contagion, and reeking with the filth of crowded captives, dead and dying. * * * No reasoning, no praying could obtain from his stern tyrants the smallest alleviation of his fate.
“In South Carolina the British officer called Fraser, after trying in every manner to induce the prisoners to enlist, said to them: ‘Go to your dungeons in the prison ships, where you shall perish and rot, but first let me tell you that the rations which have been hitherto allowed for your wives and children shall, from this moment, cease forever; and you shall die assured that they are starving in the public streets, and that “you” are the authors of their fate.’
“A sentence so terribly awful appalled the firm soul of every listening hero. A solemn silence followed the declaration; they cast their wondering eyes one upon the other, and valor, for a moment, hung suspended between love of family, and love of country. Love of country at length rose superior to every other consideration, and moved by one impulse, this glorious band of patriots thundered into the astonished ears of their persecutors, ‘The prison-ships and Death, or Washington and our country!’
“Meagre famine shook hands with haggard pestilence, joining a league to appall, conquer, and destroy the glorious spirit of liberty.”