The Memorial To General Washington
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“The body maddened by the spirit’s pain; The wild, wild working of the breast and brain; The haggard eye, that, horror widened, sees Death take the start of hunger and disease. Here, such were seen and heard;–so close at hand, A cable’s length had reached them from the land; Yet farther off than ocean ever bore;–Eternity between them and the shore!” –W. Read.
“Notwithstanding the destroying pestilence which was now raging to a degree hitherto unknown on board, new companies of victims were continually arriving; so that, although the mortality was very great, our numbers were increasing daily. Thus situated, and seeing no prospect of our liberty by exchange, we began to despair, and to believe that our certain fate was rapidly approaching.
“One expedient was at length proposed among us and adopted. We petitioned General Clinton, who was then in command of the British forces at New York, for leave to transmit a Memorial to General Washington, describing our deplorable situation, and requesting his interference in our behalf. We further desired that our Memorial might be examined by the British General, and, if approved by him, that it might be carried by one of our own number to General Washington. Our petition was laid before the British commander and was granted by the Commissary of Prisoners. We received permission to choose three from our number, to whom was promised a pass-port, with leave to proceed immediately on their embassy.
“Our choice was accordingly made, and I had the satisfaction to find that two of those elected were from among the former officers of the Chance, Captain Aborn and our Surgeon, Mr. Joseph Bowen.
“The Memorial was soon completed and signed in the name of all the prisoners, by a Committee appointed for that purpose. It contained an account of the extreme wretchedness of our condition, and stated that although we were sensible that the subject was one over which General Washington had no direct control, as it was not usual for soldiers to be exchanged for seamen, and his authority not extending to the Marine Department of the American service; yet still, although it might not be in his power to effect an exchange, we hoped he would be able to devise some means to lighten or relieve our sufferings.
“Our messengers were further charged with a verbal commission to General Washington, which, for obvious reasons, was not included in the written Memorial. They were directed to state, in a manner more circumstantial than we had dared to write, the peculiar horrors of our situation; to discover the miserable food and putrid water on which we were doomed to subsist; and finally to assure the General that in case he could effect our release, we would agree to enter the American service as soldiers, and remain during the war. Thus instructed our messengers departed.
“We waited in alternate hope and fear, the event of their mission. Most of our number, who were natives of the Eastern States, were strongly impressed with the idea that some means would be devised for our relief, after such a representation of our condition should be made. This class of the prisoners, indeed, felt most interested in the success of the application; for many of the sufferers appeared to give themselves but little trouble respecting it, and some among the foreigners did not commonly know that such an appeal had been made, or that it had even been in contemplation. The long endurance of their privations had rendered them almost indifferent to their fate, and they appeared to look forward to death as the only probable termination of their captivity.
“In a few days our messengers returned to New York, with a letter from General Washington, addressed to the Committee of Prisoners who had signed the Memorial. The prisoners were all summoned to the Spar-deck where this letter was read. Its purport was as follows:–That he had perused our communication, and had received, with due consideration, the account which our messengers had laid before him; that he viewed our situation with a high degree of interest, and that although our application, as we had stated, was made in relation to a subject over which he had no direct control, yet that it was his intention to lay our Memorial before Congress; and that, in the mean time, we might be assured that no exertions on his part should be spared which could tend to a mitigation of our sufferings.
“He observed to our messengers, during their interview, that our long detention in confinement was owing to a combination of circumstances, against which it was very difficult, if not impossible, to provide. That, in the first place, but little exertion was made on the part of our countrymen to secure and detain their British prisoners for the sake of exchange, many of the British seamen being captured by privateers, on board which, he understood, it was a common practice for them to enter as seamen; and that when this was not the case, they were usually set at liberty as soon as the privateers arrived in port; as neither the owners, nor the town or State where they were landed, would be at the expense of their confinement and maintenance; and that the officers of the General Government only took charge of those seamen who were captured by the vessels in public service. All which circumstances combined to render the number of prisoners, at all times, by far too small for a regular and equal exchange.
“General Washington also transmitted to our Committee copies of letters which he had sent to General Clinton and to the Commissary of Prisoners, which were also read to us. He therein expressed an ardent desire that a general exchange of prisoners might be effected; and if this could not be accomplished, he wished that something might be done to lessen the weight of our sufferings, that, if it was absolutely necessary that we should be confined on the water, he desired that we might at least be removed to clean ships. He added if the Americans should be driven to the necessity of placing the British prisoners in situations similar to our own, similar effects must be the inevitable results; and that he therefore hoped they would afford us better treatment from motives of humanity. He concluded by saying, that as a correspondence on the subject had thus begun between them, he ardently wished it might eventually result in the liberation of the unfortunate men whose situation had called for its commencement.
“Our three messengers did not return on board as prisoners, but were all to remain on parole at Flatbush, on Long Island.
“We soon found an improvement in our fare. The bread which we received was of a better quality, and we were furnished with butter, instead of rancid oil. An awning was provided, and a wind-sail furnished to conduct fresh air between the decks during the day. But of this we were always deprived at night, when we most needed it, as the gratings must always be fastened over the hatchway and I presume that our keepers were fearful if it was allowed to run, we might use it as a means of escape.
“We were, however, obliged to submit to all our privations, consoling ourselves only with the faint hope that the favorable change in our situation, which we had observed for the last few days, might lead to something still more beneficial, although we saw little prospect of escape from the raging pestilence, except through the immediate interposition of divine Providence, or by a removal from the scene of contagion.”
_Note_. From the _New Jersey Gazette_, July 24th, 1782. “New London. July 21st. We are informed that Sir Guy Carleton has visited all the prison ships at New York, minutely examined into the situation of the prisoners, and expressed his intention of having them better provided for. That they were to be landed on Blackwell’s Island, in New York harbour, in the daytime, during the hot season.”