From 1776 to 1783, thousands of Americans were held by the British on warships anchored in Wallabout Bay, near what is now the Brooklyn Navy Yard. More Americans died here than died in battle over the course of the entire war. WNYC’s Kate Hinds recently visited Fort Greene Park to learn more about these “prison ships,” and she spoke to park ranger--and amateur historian--Anne Reid. Below is the full interview.
Photos by Kate Hinds
I’m urban park ranger Anne Reid, with the City of New York’s Department of Parks and Recreation. We are standing at the top of the hill in Fort Greene Park, looking towards the Prison Ships Martyrs Monument.
During the American Revolution, there were a lot of prisoners taken-- not just soldiers but a lot of sailors, particularly merchant marines, and what we call privateers, which is a pirate who’s on your side. And when the British took people captive, if they wouldn’t fight for the British they were put in prison. But there wasn’t enough room in prisons in Manhattan, particularly after we lost the battle of Long Island, and the British owned Manhattan and all of the surrounding areas, so they started putting them on old warships that weren’t fit to set sail anymore.
So it became: hey, we got these ships rotting in the Hudson--or then it was the North River-- they dragged them around, took every valuable bit off, boarded up the windows and started shoving them below deck. The officers got one deck, then our enlisted men, regular sailors and below were the French.
The British readily admitted-- even back then there were rules of war and holding prisoners-- that they were happy to brag about how much money they saved by not giving them the full rations they were allowed. And every day the British would say two things: One was ‘bring up your dead,’ so they’d have to clear out all the bodies, and the other one was ‘swear allegiance to the crown and you’ll be set free.’ Not even fight for the British, but just don’t fight against us. And nobody took them up on the offer that we know of.
Somewhere between 8,000 and 11,500 people died on those prison ships over the course of the seven years of the war. There are more Revolutionary War dead in this park than anywhere else in America. Approximately three times as many people died on the Prison Ships as died in battle.
These were the first people to lay down their lives, this was the Battle of Brooklyn, as we call it here. If you say The Battle of Long Island it’s confusing, because they don’t realize this is Long Island. And that was the first official battle. We declared war on July 4 1776, the battle was August 26, 1776.
They were initially buried along the shores of the East River, which is really a tidal strait, it has tides twice a day so very quickly after the war the bodies began to wash up. So the local townspeople collected them and they were put in a vault on Hudson and Sands Streets, right where the police tow pound lot is. A guy named Benjamin Romaine actually bought the plot and tried to restore the little monument, which was more or less a wooden shack that looked an awful lot like an outhouse, and when he died he was buried actually with them for taking all that effort and always talking about their memory. So, it’s kind of thought that if he hadn’t done that, somewhere in the 1800s we would have lost track of all these people.
After Benjamin Romaine’s time, the bones of the prison ship martyrs were collected from that vault and they were placed here, in 1873. By then we were already a park. So it was thought ‘if we put them on park land, we don’t have to worry about them getting forgotten.’ And we’ll have a nice monument built. And Olmstead and Vaux actually designed a very beautiful monument, it sort of looked like a façade of a church, really a cathedral, but we ran out of money. It wasn’t until 1907 that they got they money together and they hired Stanford White, who was the best architect of his time, and he designed both my building and the monument, and it was opened in 1908. Although Stanford White was murdered in between, so these are actually the last things that he ever designed that we know of.
When it was built, it was the world’s tallest Doric column, it stands about 140 feet high, with a Grecian urn on top, it’s a very tall white column with a plaque on the side commemorating the prison ship martyrs. So, if you were to walk just down the stairs to the right of the monument from where we’re standing you’ll see a door to the crypt, and inside the crypt are 20 coffins. One has just Benjamin Romaine in it, and the rest have the bits and pieces of the rest of the prison ship martyrs. And we call them martyrs because they had the option of leaving the ships but they chose not to. They chose to fight the war sort of in their own way.
I haven’t seen the bones, they’re in caskets, or coffins, they’re made out of bluestone, which is a little bit darker blue than slate, they’re actually very pretty and very long. And there’s room for more. In case during renovations in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, should any bodies turn up, there’s actually slots for more coffins.
I was raised by a guy who was in the Navy, so I was taught to respect Memorial Day, it’s not something that you should just gloss over.
Additional reporting by Jim Colgan.