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Martyrdom of thirteen thousand American Patriots aboard the monstrous Jersey and other British prison ships in New York Harbor
Originally appearing in "New York State - The battleground of the Revolutionary War," by Hamilton Fish. LL.D. Copyright 1976, Vantage Press


A Note about British Prison Ships . . . Memorial to martyred mariners rededicated
[excerpts] Newark (NJ) Star-Ledger, August 26, 1997, by Bill Franz


Additional Sources of information on British Prison Ships:

On the website American Merchant Marine at War www.usmm.org we have a list of 8,000 men and women held prisoner on the British prison ship Jersey in Wallabout Bay. Many were privateers, but there are others. Note left in query section 05/22/2001 by Toni Horodysky.

Additional information on Merchant Mariners in the Revolutionary War


Main Article

    Certainly the truth can now be told without arousing animosity. The historian has a duty to narrate the facts, no matter how gruesome they may be. In this instance, it tells the story of unrivaled American heroism and also reveals the frightful horrors suffered by American prisoners in the disease-infested prison ships in New York harbor. While many have portrayed these ships to be as nice as the cheap hotels, that was not the case.  It was actually one of the most tragic, but little-known, events in American history.
     Actually, three times as many American Patriots were liquidated - 13,000 on the infamous British prison ships and in New York prisons-than the 4,300 killed in the American armed forces during the entire war. It is only right that the terrible fate of these early American Patriots and heroes, who preferred death to disloyalty, should be publicly known.
     If there are still Americans influenced by the Revolutionary War propaganda emanating from New England, let them pause and read impartially the story of the martyrdom of I 3,000 American prisoners in the foul, overcrowded jails, in disease-infested, rotting hulks; in the loathsome warehouses and sugar factories in New York City during our War for Independence. New England was fortunate in knowing little of such horrors and atrocities, although many of their sailors died unknown in the British hell ships.
     Last but not least were the densely crowded churches, and warehouses where Patriot American prisoners died like rats, of disease and hunger. In the summertime, they suffered from suffocation and, being without covering, froze to death or died of pneumonia in the winter. With little food and scanty water, the health of the prisoners was quickly undermined, which left them no power of resistence to the mass attack of dysentery, typhoid fever, smallpox, yellow fever, tuberculosis, and contagious diseases of all kinds. The food was not only insufficient to keep body and soul together, but was often putrid.
     There was obviously a conspiracy among Provost Marshal William Cunningham, Commissary ]oshua Loring, and Naval Commissary David Sprout, down to the lowly prison guards, to decimate the rebel prisoners. "Decimate" is not the correct word, as it means taking the death toll of only one of every ten. The proper word should be "annihilation" or "extermination," for that is what it amounted to. It was one of the most horrible and awesome tragedies in American history. There is nothing to compare with it in military history since the religious wars 400 years ago, except the butchery of the Jews by the Nazis. The Black Hole of Calcutta, in which English soldiers in overcrowded prisons were suffocated to death, is the nearest resemblance to what occurred on the terrible prison ships and in other British prisons in New York City, Charleston, and Savannah.
     Ten thousand American Patriots, mostly in their early twenties or thirties, imprisoned on board the inhuman British prison ship Jersey, were given stinking food and literally starved to death or died of disease. This extermination policy now appears to have been a deliberate conspiracy not only among the prison commissaries, but actually by the British High Command.
     These unfortunate victims of the Revolution were buried in the sands of the adjacent shore of Wallabout Bay, where the Navy Yard in Brooklyn was located. Twenty years after the war, in making walls and building sites, a vast quantity of the bones of these martyrs were dislodged and strewn over the shore. They were, however, collected by Captain John Jackson, the proprietor of the neighboring land, and re-interred at his expense. Later still, public ceremonies were held over this common grave, but even to this day these American Patriots, who preferred death at its worst rather than disloyalty to their country, are still the forgotten heroes of our War for Independence.
     The Jersey was by far the largest prison hulk, but there were others, and several so-called hospital ships which were almost equally as bad. Captain Freneau, who was confined on board both hospital and prison ships, survived by being exchanged.
     The silent acquiescence of Lord Howe and other British generals in the tragic and criminal actions of Provost Marshal Cunningham, Commissary Loring, and Naval Commissary Sprout and their evil subordinates is appalling and difficult to explain. The author has spent considerable time investigating the records of this frightful tragedy, and feels that there is no longer any reason to cover tip this mass murder of American heroes by disease, starvation, overcrowding, and the elements.
     It can be compared to a more recent and even more horrendous crime, but actually much more merciful, and that was the mass murder by shooting of 12,000 Polish officers by the Communists in Katyn Forest and in other parts of Russia. At least they did not die by degrees-a living death.
     Naturally, the British used every propaganda device when they capitulated and evacuated New York City to cover up their responsibility for these prison dens of iniquity and death and for the stinking hulks of abomination and desolation. The evidence is contained in the letters written by prisoners who survived. There is also the word of escaped and exchanged prisoners. Then there is the report made by Elias Boudinot, appointed commissioner by Congress to secure the exchange of prisoners, to provide them with clothing and food, and to investigate the situation in some of the New York prisons, by consent of the British.
     Eight years after the prison doors were opened as a result of the American victory, William Cunningham, the notorious former provost marshal, made a pre- hanging confession in writing. He was hanged in England in 1791 for forgery. Cunningham was a thoroughly vicious character. He was the son of a British soldier, brought up in Ireland. He became engaged in the illicit business of shipping indentured servants to Boston and New York under false pretenses. The last shipment was freed by the New York courts.
     From that time on, Cunningham developed an intense and bitter hatred of American Patriots. He came to New York and became a leader among a gang of "bully boys" who annoyed and picked fights with the Whigs or Patriots. On one occasion, the retaliation by the Sons of Liberty was instantaneous. Cunningham was beaten and forced to get on his knees and bellow for liberty. The chastisement by the Liberty Boys added insult to injury and increased his intense hatred of the Patriots. Later, when he became provost marshal, he brutally treated the American prisoners who came under his absolute reign of terror. He ingratiated himself with General Howe and other British authorities because of his well- known hatred of the so-called American rebels.
     General Howe, as commander in chief, cannot escape his responsibility for appointing Cunningham, a person of the lowest character, to the important office of provost marshal. The appointment of such a ruffian and scoundrel and his bloody acts of reprisals and hangings are a black mark on the record of General Howe and Sir Henry Clinton, before God and man. They not only had a direct responsibility for the acts of their agent, but they obviously knew the terrible situation in the prisons, yet kept Cunningham in office during the entire time of their command.
     Howe had a direct link also with Commissioner Loring, whom he appointed. Loring was a Boston Loyalist and a contemptible character second only to Cunningham, in greed, graft, and starvation of prisoners, besides selling his wife to Howe for the appointment. This is not just unfounded gossip, but a fact well known in New York during the Revolution, and related afterwards by the historians of that period. Later, Loring admitted he misappropriated two-thirds of the allowance for prison food, resulting in the starvation of the American prisoners which caused them in their weakened condition to die off like flies before the ravages of disease and exposure. When the American commissioner, Elias Boudinot, asked Cunningham who was responsible for the loathsome conditions of the prisons, he arrogantly replied that he was entirely responsible and that he saw no reason for any change or excuses.
     He had an assistant by the name of Sergeant O'Keefe, a cruel, brutal blackguard who treated the prisoners worse than condemned criminals. He was probably the secret hangman or at least in charge of almost 300 private, unofficial hangings ordered and directed by Cunningham without any kind of trial. The public hangings were those of spies British deserters, and condemned criminals. It is inconceivable that under British army control such bestial and lethal treatment of prisoners of war was permitted and continued almost to the end of the war.
     The confession of Cunningham deals with his early life and the reasons for his hatred of American Patriots. The fact that it was made eight years after the war when he was hung is not unusual. The famous trial of Adolph Eichman, the Nazi executioner of the Jews in the German concentration camps, was held in Israel sixteen years after the end of World War II. Memoirs by participants of that war are still flourishing. It is not surprising, however, that the British authorities did everything in their power to cover it up, and denounced Cunningham's confession as a forgery just as the Nazis tried to hide their iniquities in the concentration and extermination camps. Commissioner Loring, who admitted appropriating the money for the prisoners' food, and who was responsible for the deaths of a large number of them from starvation, escaped hanging and died shortly after the war in England.
     Both Cunningham and Loring combined did not cause one-fourth as many deaths of American Patriots as Naval Commissioner Sprout in the old death-trap prison ships. Cunningham and Loring killed off, between them, approximately 2,500 prisoners through starvation, sickness, and privation in the city prisons, warehouses, churches, and in the Provost jail, whereas 10,500 helpless prisoners died of disease and putrid food in the stinking British hulks.
    The prisoners actually rotted away until death took them out of the dismal hulks. They were virtually murdered, these 13,000, one-third of which were civilians. The lucky ones were those who escaped or were exchanged. If we estimate 1,000 were exchanged, 100 escaped, and 200 more permitted to go free through bribery or parole, the percentage of death amounted to 75 percent, as compared with Andersonville and Elmira prisons of 33 percent in our Civil War. The death rate of French and British prisoners of war in German prison camps was not more than 15 percent, and actually less for American prisoners. The estimated death rate on the Jersey was 85 percent. The author places the total American prisoner mortality at 13,000, which is 1 ,000 less than other estimates.
     The following is an extract from the Life Confession and Last Dying Words of William Cunningham, formerly the British provost marshal in the City of New York who was executed in London the 10th of August, 1791 , taken from his own mouth by the Ordinary of Newgate. The first part deals with his early life, which is unimportant. He was born in Dublin Barracks in the year 1738, the son of an English soldier, and his early life was mostly connected with the army. In 1772, at Newry, Ireland, he engaged in the business of enticing mechanics and country people to ship themselves to America on promises of great advantages. Then he artfully obtained indentures upon them, the consequence of which was that on their arrival in America they were told of it and obliged to serve a term of years for their passage. Quoting from the Confession:

                                        I embarked at Newry, in a ship Needham, for New York, and arrived at that port the fourth of August, 1774, with
                    some indentured servants I had kidnaped in Ireland. But they were liberated in New York on account of the bad
                    usage they received from me during the passage. When the war commenced, I was appointed Provost Marshal to the
                    Royal Army, which placed me in a situation to wreck my vengeance on the Americans. I shudder at the murders I
                    have been accessory to, both with and without orders from the government, especially while in New York, during
                    which time there were more than 2,000 prisoners starved in the different churches, by stopping their rations, which I
                    sold.  There were also 275 American prisoners and obnoxious persons executed; out of all this number there were
                    only about one dozen public executions, which chiefly consisted of British and Hessian deserters. The mode for
                    private executions was thus conducted. A guard was dispatched from the Provost about half after12, at night, to
                    Barrack Street and the neighborhood of Upper Barracks, to order the people to shut their window shutters, and put
                    out their lights, forbidding them not to presume to look out of their windows or doors, on pain of death; after which
                    the unfortunate prisoners were conducted, gagged, just behind the Upper Barracks, and hung without ceremony and
                    there buried by the black pioneers of the Provost.

     It is very difficult to estimate the number of American sailors captured by the British on both large and small privateers and on navy wars hips during the war. It is certainly not fewer then 9,000. A very large percentage of the captured sailors were imprisoned on the Jersey or companion prison ships, where they were virtually exterminated.
     In the History of the City of New York, Charles Burr Todd asserted that "no less than ten thousand six hundred and forty-four American prisoners perished in the Jersey during the war." But what of the other smaller ships, Whitby, Good Hope, The Prince of Wales, Falmouth, Scorpion, Strombolo, and Hunter? Two of these were so-called hospital ships. The mortality rate on these must have been far less than the Jersey because of better conditions or being less crowded. It would seem that the Good Hope was reserved for sea captains and other officers. In 1779, nine sea captains overpowered the guard and got away in one of the ship's boats.
     Historians of the American Revolution state that 900 American privateers were captured by the British. If that is the case, the average would certainly not be less than 12 per privateer and that would amount to 10,800. It is fair to assume that some escaped, some were killed, some were released, and others were exchanged for Loyalists.
     It is almost impossible for a New Yorker or American to attempt in any way to justify the brutal treatment and murder of thousands of American prisoners of war in British prisons or in the murderous prison hulks. There must be some underlying or concealed reasons for such a barbarous violation of the laws of humanity and the custom of warfare. The responsibility in a military organization rests with the top officers. Out of the 20,000 prisoners in New York, there were not more than 5,000 captured soldiers: 3,000 surrendered at Fort Washington, 1,000 at the battle of Brooklyn, a few hundred at White Plains, and in the capture of Forts Clinton and Montgomery, and the rest in skirmishes in Connecticut, New Jersey, and Westchester.
     There were about 9,000 sailors captured from the eastern seaboard. The remaining 6,000 were civilian Patriots who lived in New York City, Long Island, Staten Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Westchester. General Howe, and Sir Henry Clinton, who succeeded him, apparently for military reasons, secretly adopted a program approaching extermination because there was no place except England to send the prisoners. and probably England did not want them. New York was to some extent a besieged city and might be attacked at any time. An adequate food supply would then be necessary. Thousands of American prisoners would also have been a serious menace in case of attack.
     The author merely suggests possible reasons that may lessen, but which never can condone, the criminality for such murderous acts. It would not be fair to make such serious charges of culpable neglect or designed cruelty against the commander in chief of the British army or of a criminal thirst for riches on the part of David Sprout, without definite first-hand evidence. Sprout, a Scotsman whose face put his scarlet coat out of countenance, had two assistants: one Scottish and the other a refugee from New Jersey. The general character of the first was harshness and of the second, kindness. The responsibility or blame should not be placed solely on the prison commissaries or deputies for the cruel death of thousands of American patriots.
     The following statement is by an officer on board the U.S. Frigate Confederacy that was captured by two British frigates:
 

"Being at the time of capture sick, he was put on board one of the hulks in the Wallabout that served as a
hospital ship for convalescents, but was as soon as somewhat restored transferred to the Jersey to make room for others
more helpless." Here he experienced all the suffering, and witnessed the horrors described by the Rev. Thomas Andros
for five months. The confinement in so crowded a place, a pestilential air, the putrid and damaged food given to the
prisoners (procured by the commissaries for little or nothing, and charged to the English government at the price of the
best provisions) soon produced a fever under which this young man suffered without medicine or attendance, until
nature, too strong for even such enemies, restored him to species of health, again to be prostrated by the same causes.
He said he "never saw given to the prisoners, one ounce of wholesome food. The loathsome beef they prepared by
pressing, and then threw it, with the damaged bread, into the kettle, skimming off the previous tenants of this
poisonous food as they rose to the top of the vessel."


 On the 18th of January, 1777, George Washington wrote to Lord Howe on the subject of naval prisoners:
 
 

“that I am under the disagreeable necessity of troubling your Lordship with a letter almost wholly on the subject of the
cruel treatment which our officers and men in the Naval Department, who are unhappy enough to fall into your hands
received on board the Prison ships in the harbor of New York.
     From the opinion I entertain of your Lordship's humanity I will not suppose that you are privy of proceedings of so
cruel and unjustifiable a nature and I hope that upon making the proper inquiry you will have the matter so regulated
that the unhappy persons whose lot is captivity may not, in the future, have the misery of cold, disease and famine
added to their other misfortunes.
     You may call us Rebels, and say we deserve no better treatment, but remember, my Lord, that we still have feelings
as keen and sensible as Loyalists and will if forced to, most assuredly retaliate upon those upon whom we look as the
unjust invaders of our rights, liberties and properties.
     I should not have said this much, but injured countrymen have long called upon me to endeavor to obtain redress of
their grievances, and I should think, myself, as culpable as those who inflicted such severities, were I to continue
silent.”
The answer of Lord Howe was evasive and a general denial of the charges.

    Howe was a poor disciplinarian, and naturally lazy and indolent, who preferred the good things in life and did not want to be bothered with investigations that might take Lip his time or reflect on the British army's administration in New York. Judge Thomas Jones, an ardent Loyalist, and in exile with the British, condemned General Howe bitterly in his book on New York during the war for inefficiency and disregard even of the property, of the Loyalists, who were constantly being robbed by British troops. General Howe's relationship with the wife of Joshua Loring, whom he had appointed commissary of the prisons, was a scandal well known among the Loyalists. Loring was finally relieved of his position on charges of corruption and sent to England during the war, where he died shortly afterwards, a disgraceful and despicable character.
     Bancroft's History of the United States drew a tragic picture of the British prison ships in Charleston, South Carolina, and stated, "of more than 3,000 confined in these ships all but 700 were made away with." The situation among the American prisoners in Savannah was almost as bad. It would seem from this that there was a definite policy of extermination of so-called rebel prisoners in these horrible disease-infested British hulks.
     The British army commanders, both in Charleston and Savannah, were directly under the control of the commanding general in New York, first Sir Henry Howe, and next Sir Henry Clinton. Fortunately for the officers, many of them were exchanged, and the number of officers incarcerated in the living tombs were few. Most of them were kept in the main provost prison in New York in very cramped quarters, but their chances of exchange or survival were good.
     Early in the war, the Continental Congress commissioned Lewis Pintard of New York to try to alleviate the conditions of the prisoners held there, which he did until the funds ran out, but continued with his own money until it was exhausted.
     His nephew John Pintard wrote a description in the New York Mirror of September 10, 1831, of the treatment of American officers in the Provost Prison during the Revolution:
 

 “Cunningham roamed from cell to cell .., insulting the noblest of the land He saw them suffering from cold, and he
mocked their cry for bread. For slight offenses he thrust them into underground dungeons. . . .
The North-east chamber, turning to the left on the second floor, was appropriated to officers and prisoners of superior
rank and distinction, and was called Congress Hall. So closely were they packed that when they lay down at night to
rest, when their bones ached on the hard oak planks, and they wished to turn, it was altogether by word of command,
"right-left" being so wedged and compact as to form almost a solid mass of human bodies .........”


     Nathan Hale, just before his execution as a spy, was permitted to write a brief note to his mother and to Miss Adams, to whom he was betrothed, in which he said, "I wish to be useful and every kind of service, necessary to the public good, becomes honorable by being necessary. . If the exigencies of my country demands a pectiliar service, its claims to the performance of that service are imperious." As he ascended the ladder, he turned to his executioner and said, "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my' country." The brutal provost marshal Cunningham who was the chief of the execution, upon reading his other letters, destroyed them and exclaimed with an oath "the damned rebels shall never know they had a man who could die so bravely."
     It appears that the treatment of American prisoners became steadily worse as the war progressed. Actually, the Jersey, the monster of them all, was only used as a prison ship the last four years.
     Sometime after the war, in response to a request from our government, the British army archives furnished a partial list of the American prisoners on the Jersey to the number of 8,000. Some twenty years after the war, in 1804, the Columbian Society (Tammany Hall) undertook to collect the bones of these Patriots buried at Wallabout Bay and transferred them to a tomb in a wooden building nearby. Seventy years later, the people of Brooklyn built a permanent tomb at Fort Greene Park, and later still, in 1912, a monument was erected there to those early American Patriots who preferred death on stinking prison ships to dishonor and disloyalty to their country.
     It is estimated that ten thousand American Patriots paid the supreme sacrifice for their country, mostly in the one "living hell" ship, the Jersey, yet there were others, but not as deadly. "Abandon ye all hope who enter here" applies accurately to the infamous Jersey.
     The most outrageous of all the crimes committed by Cunningham was the hanging of 275 American prisoners of war without trial and in utter repudiation of all existing articles of war. The ignominious and undercover hanging of war prisoners was a blot on the British military government.
     All of these Patriots could have betrayed the cause of liberty and independence in exchange for their lives, but preferred death. All they had to do was to sign a document of allegiance to the Crown and receive a free pardon by enlisting in His Majesty's Army or Navy. If we were to single out any group of Americans for outstanding patriotism, it wotild be the prisoners in the British prison hulks and in the jails. These Patriot prisoners should be placed at the top of the list of sublime courage and sacrifice in support of independence and freedom. This recognition is long overdue.
 After 200 years, the America people are entitled to know the blood-curdling truth and to learn about the heroism of our Revolutionary War Patriots, even unto death.



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