Collection: American Prisoners Of The Revolution

Old Jersey Ship

“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 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,...

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Fourth Of July On The Jersey

“The poor, helpless prisoners retreated from the hatchways, as far as their crowded situation would permit, while their cowardly assailants followed as far as they dared, cutting and wounding every one within reach, and then ascended to the upper deck, exulting in the gratification of their revenge.” – Captain Dring A few days before the fourth of July we had made such preparations as our circumstances would admit for an observance of the anniversary of American Independence. We had procured some supplies with which to make ourselves merry on the occasion, and intended to spend the day in such innocent pastimes as our situation would afford, not dreaming that our proceeding would give umbrage to our keepers, as it was far from our intention to trouble or insult them. We thought that, though prisoners, we had a right, on that day at least, to sing and be merry. As soon as we were permitted to go on deck in the morning thirteen little national flags were displayed in a row on the boom. We were soon ordered by the guards to take them away; and as we neglected to obey the command, they triumphantly demolished, and trampled them under foot. Unfortunately for us our guards at that time were Scotch, who, next to the Refugees, were the objects of our greatest hatred; but their destruction of our flags was...

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An Attempt To Escape

“In a few minutes we were startled by the report of a gun, which was instantly succeeded by a quick and scattering fire of musketry. In the darkness of the night, we could not see the unfortunate victims, but could distinctly hear their shrieks and cries for mercy.” – Captain Dring It had been for some time in contemplation among a few inmates of the Gun-room to make a desperate attempt to escape, by cutting a hole through the stern or counter of the ship. In order that their operations might proceed with even the least probability of success, it was absolutely necessary that but few of the prisoners should be admitted to the secret. At the same time it was impossible for them to make any progress in their labor unless they first confided their plan to all the other occupants of the Gun-room, which was accordingly done. In this part of the ship each mess was on terms of more or less intimacy with those whose little sleeping enclosures were immediately adjacent to their own, and the members of each mess frequently interchanged good offices with those in their vicinity, and borrowed or lent such little articles as they possessed, like the good housewives of a sociable neighborhood. I never knew any contention in this apartment, during the whole period of my confinement. Each individual in the...

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The Memorial To General Washington

“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...

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Captain Roswell Palmer

“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...

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The Narrative Of Captain Alexander Coffin

“There were two or three hospital-ships near the prison-ships; and so soon as any of the prisoners complained of being sick, they were sent on board of one of them; and I verily believe that not one out of a hundred ever returned or recovered.” – Captain Alexander Coffin In 1807 Dr. Mitchell, of New York published a small volume entitled: “The Destructive Operation of Foul Air, Tainted Provisions, Bad Water, and Personal Filthiness, Upon Human Constitutions, Exemplified in the Unparallelled Cruelty of the British to the American Captives at New York During the Revolutionary War, on Board their Prison and Hospital ships. By Captain Alexander Coffin, Junior, One of the Surviving Sufferers. In a Communication to Dr. Mitchell, dated September 4th, 1807.” Truly our ancestors were long-winded! A part of this narrative is as follows: “I shall furnish you with an account of the treatment that I, with other of my fellow citizens, received on board the Jersey and John prison ships, those monuments of British barbarity and infamy. I shall give you nothing but a plain simple statement of facts that cannot be controverted. And I begin my narrative from the time of my leaving the South Carolina frigate. “In June, 1782, I left the above-mentioned frigate in the Havana, on board of which I had long served as a mid-ship-man, and made several trading voyages. I...

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A Wonderful Deliverance

“I have since found that the whole world is but one great prison-house of guilty, sorrowful, and dying men, who live in pride, envy, and malice, hateful, and hating one another.” – Rev. Thomas Andros There are few records of religious feeling on board the “Jersey, vulgarly called ‘Hell.'” No clergyman was ever known to set foot on board of her, although a city of churches was so near. The fear of contagion may have kept ministers of the gospel away. Visitors came, as we have seen, but not to soothe the sufferings of the prisoners, or to comfort those who were dying. It is said that a young doctor, named George Vandewater attended the sick, until he took a fatal disease and died. He was a resident of Brooklyn, and seems to have been actuated by motives of humanity, and therefore his name deserves a place in this record. But although the rough seamen who left narratives of their experiences in that fearful place have told us little or nothing about the inner feelings of those poor sufferers, yet it must be presumed that many a silent prayer went up to the Judge and Father of all men, from the depths of that foul prison ship. There was one boy on board the Jersey, one at least, and we hope that there were many more, who trusted in...

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The Narrative Of Captain Dring

“Memory still brings before me those emaciated beings, moving from the Galley with their wretched pittance of meat; each creeping to the spot where his mess was assembled, to divide it with a group of haggard and sickly creatures, their garments hanging in tatters round their meagre limbs, and the hue of death upon their careworn faces.” – Captain Dring By far the most complete account of life on board the Old Jersey is contained in Captain Dring’s Recollections. His nature was hopeful, and his constitution strong and enduring. He attempted to make the best of his situation, and succeeded in leading as nearly a tolerable life on board the prison-ship as was possible. His book is too long for insertion in these pages, but we will endeavor to give the reader an abstract of it. This book was published in 1865, having been prepared for the press and annotated by Mr. Albert G. Greene, who speaks of Captain Dring as “a frank, outspoken, and honest seaman.” His original manuscript was first published in 1829. Dring describes the prison ships as leaky old hulks, condemned as unfit for hospitals or store ships, but considered good enough for prisoners doomed to speedy annihilation. He says: “There is little doubt that the superior officers of the Royal Navy under whose exclusive jurisdiction were these ships, intended to insure, as far as...

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The Interment Of The Dead

“The first of the crew of the Chance to die was a lad named Palmer, about twelve years of age, and the youngest of our crew.” – Captain Dring Captain Dring continues his narrative by describing the manner in which the dead were interred in the sand of the Wallabout. Every morning, he says, the dead bodies were carried to the upper deck and there laid upon the gratings. Any person who could procure, and chose to furnish, a blanket, was allowed to sew it around the remains of his departed companion. “The signal being made, a boat was soon seen approaching from the Hunter, and if there were any dead on board the other ships, the boat received them, on her way to the Jersey. “The corpse was laid upon a board, to which some ropes were attached as straps; as it was often the case that bodies were sent on shore for interment before they had become sufficiently stiff to be lowered into the boat by a single strap. Thus prepared a tackle was attached to the board, and the remains were hoisted over the side of the ship into the boat, without further ceremony. If several bodies were waiting for interment, but one of them was lowered into the boat at a time, for the sake of decency. The prisoners were always very anxious to be...

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Dame Grant And Her Boat

“One indulgence was allowed us by our keepers, if indulgence it can be called. They had given permission for a boat to come alongside the ship, with a supply of a few necessary articles, to be sold to such of the prisoners as possessed the means of paying for them. This trade was carried on by a very corpulent old woman, known among us by the name of Dame Grant. Her visits, which were made every other day, were of much benefit to us, and, I presume, a source of profit to herself. She brought us soft bread and fruit, with various other articles, such as tea, sugar, etc., all of which she previously put up into small paper parcels, from one ounce to a pound in weight, with the price affixed to each, from which she would never deviate. The bulk of the old lady completely filled the stern sheets of the boat, where she sat, with her box of goods before her, from which she supplied us very expeditiously. Her boat was rowed by two boys, who delivered to us the articles we had purchased, the price of which we were required first to put into their hands. “When our guard was not composed of Refugees, we were usually permitted to descend to the foot of the Accommodation-ladder, in order to select from the boat such articles...

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The Supplies For The Prisoners

“As the disgust at swallowing any food which had been cooked in the Great Copper was universal, each person used every exertion to procure as much wood as possible.” – Captain Dring “After the death of Dame Grant, we were under the necessity of purchasing from the Sutler such small supplies as we needed. This man was one of the Mates of the ship, and occupied one of the apartments under the quarter-deck, through the bulkhead of which an opening had been cut, from which he delivered his goods. He here kept for sale a variety of articles, among which was usually a supply of ardent spirits, which was not allowed to be brought alongside the ship, for sale. It could, therefore, only be procured from the Sutler, whose price was two dollars per gallon. Except in relation to this article, no regular price was fixed for what he sold us. We were first obliged to hand him the money, and he then gave us such a quantity as he pleased of the article which we needed; there was on our part no bargain to be made, but to be supplied even in this manner was, to those of us who had means of payment, a great convenience. “Our own people afforded us no relief. O my country! Why were we thus neglected in this hour of our misery,...

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Extracts From Newspapers Concerning Prison Ships

“This is the just punishment of your rebellion. Nay, you are treated too well for rebels; you have not received half you deserve or half you shall receive. But if you will enlist into his Majesty’s service, you shall have victuals and clothes enough.” At the risk of repetition of some facts that have already been given, we must again refer the reader to some extracts from the newspapers of the day. In this instance the truth can best be established by the mouths of many witnesses, and we do not hesitate to give the English side whenever we have been able to discover anything bearing on the subject in the so-called loyal periodicals of the time. From Freeman’s “Journal,” date of Jan. 19th, 1777, we take the following: “General Howe has discharged all the privates who were prisoners in New York. Half he sent to the world of spirits for want of food: the others he hath sent to warn their countrymen of the danger of falling into his hands, and to convince them by ocular demonstration, that it is infinitely better to be slain in battle, than to be taken prisoner by British brutes, whose tender mercies are cruelties.” In the “Connecticut Journal” of Jan. 30th, 1777, is the following: “This account of the sufferings of these unfortunate men was obtained from the prisoners themselves. As soon...

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William Cunningham, The Provost Marshal

“His hatred of the Americans found vent in torture by searing irons and secret scourges to those who fell under the ban of his displeasure. The prisoners were crowded together so closely that many fell ill from partial asphyxiation, and starved to death for want of the food which he sold to enrich himself.” – The Old Martyrs’ Prison pamphlet We will condense all that we have to say of this man, whose cruelty and wickedness are almost inconceivable, into one chapter, and have done with the dreadful subject. As far as we have been able to learn, the facts about his life are the following. William Cunningham was an Irishman, born in Dublin Barracks in 1738. His father was a trumpeter in the Blue Dragoons. When he was sixteen he became an assistant to the riding-master of the troop. In 1761 he was made a sergeant of dragoons, but peace having been proclaimed the following year, the company to which he belonged was disbanded. He afterwards commenced the business of a scaw-banker, which means that he went about the country enticing mechanics and rustics to ship to America, on promise of having their fortunes made in that country; and then by artful practices, produced their indentures as servants, in consequence of which on their arrival in America they were sold, or at least obliged to serve a term...

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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...

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