many of the wretched sufferers were in this manner done to death we have no means of discovering, but it must have been easier to die in that manner than to have endured the protracted agonies of death by starvation.
John Pintard, who assisted his uncle, Lewis Pintard, Commissioner for American prisoners in New York, thus wrote of their sufferings. It must be remembered that the prisoners taken in 1776 died, for the most part, before our struggling nation was able to protect them, before Commissioners had been appointed, and when, in her feeble infancy, the Republic was powerless to aid them.
“The prisoners taken on Long Island and at Fort Washington, sick, wounded, and well, were all indiscriminately huddled together, by hundreds and thousands, large numbers of whom died by disease, and many undoubtedly poisoned by inhuman attendants, for the sake of their watches or silver buckles.”
It was on the 20th of January, 1777, that Washington proposed to Mr. Lewis Pintard, a merchant of New York, that he should accept the position as resident agent for American prisoners. In May of that year General Parsons sent to Washington a plan for making a raid upon Long Island, and bringing off the American officers, prisoners of war on parole. Washington, however, disapproved of the plan, and it was not executed.
No one sympathized with the unfortunate victims of British cruelty more deeply than the Commander-in-chief. But he keenly felt the injustice of exchanging sound, healthy, British soldiers, for starved and dying wretches, for the most part unable even to reach their homes. In a letter written by him on the 28th of May, 1777, to General Howe, he declared that a great proportion of prisoners sent out by the British were not fit subjects for exchange, and that, being made so unfit by the severity of their treatment, a deduction should be made. It is needless to say that the British General refused this proposition.
On the 10th of June, 1777, Washington, in a long letter to General Howe, states that he gave clothing to the British prisoners in his care. He also declares that he was not informed of the sufferings of the Americans in New York until too late, and that he was refused permission to establish an agency in that city to purchase what was necessary to supply the wants of the prisoners.
It was not until after the battle of Trenton that anything could be done to relieve these poor men. Washington, by his heroism, when he led his little band across the half frozen Delaware, saved the lives of the small remnant of prisoners in New York. After the battle he had so many British and Hessian prisoners in his power, that he was able to impress upon the British general the fact that American prisoners were too valuable to be murdered outright, and that it was more expedient to keep them alive for purposes of exchange.
Rivington’s _Gazette_ of Jan. 15th, 1779, contains this notice: “Privateers arriving in New York Harbor are to put their prisoners on board the Good Hope or Prince of Wales prison ships.
If the Jersey were in use at that time it must have been too crowded for further occupancy. But although there is frequent mention in the periodicals of the day of the prison ships of New York the Jersey did not become notorious until later.
On the 29th of June, 1779, Sir George Collier, in a notice in Rivington’s _Gazette_, forbids “privateers landing prisoners on Long Island to the damage and annoyance of His Majesty’s faithful servants.”
This order was no doubt issued, in fear of contagion, which fear led the British to remove their prison ships out of New York Harbor to the retired waters of Wallabout Bay, where the work of destruction could go on with less fear of producing a general pestilence.
In the issue for the 23rd of August, 1779, we read: “To be sold, The sails and rigging of the ship Good Hope. Masts, spars, and yards as good as new.”
Among the accounts of cruelty to the prisoners it is refreshing to come upon such a paragraph as this, from a New London, Conn. paper, dated August 18th, 1779. “Last week five or six hundred American prisoners were exchanged. A flag returned here with 47 American prisoners, and though taken out of the Good Hope prison ship, it must (for once) be acknowledged that all were very well and healthy. Only 150 left.”
The next quotation that we will give contains one of the first mentions of the Jersey as a prison ship, that we have been able to find.
“New London, Sept. 1st, 1779. D. Stanton testifies that he was taken June 5th and put in the Jersey prison ship. An allowance from Congress was sent on board. About three or four weeks past we were removed on board the Good Hope, where we found many sick. There is now a hospital ship provided, to which they are removed, and good attention paid.”
A Boston paper dated September 2nd, 1779, has the following: “Returned to this port Alexander Dickey, Commissary of Prisoners, from New York, with a cartel, having on board 180 American prisoners. Their countenances indicate that they have undergone every conceivable inhumanity.”
“New London, Sep. 29th 1779. A Flag arrived here from New York with 117 prisoners, chiefly from New England.”
From Rivington’s _Gazette,_ March lst, 1780. “Last Saturday afternoon the Good Hope prison ship, lying in the Wallebocht Bay was entirely consumed after having been wilfully set on fire by a Connecticut man named Woodbury, who confessed to the fact. He with others of the incendiaries are removed to the Provost. The prisoners let each other down from the port holes and decks into the water.”
So that was the end of the Good Hope. She seems to have been burned by some of the prisoners in utter desperation, probably with some hope that, in the confusion, they might be enabled to escape, though we do not learn that any of them were so fortunate, and the only consequence of the deed appears to have been that the remaining ships were crowded to suffocation.
A writer in the Connecticut _Gazette,_ whose name is not given, says: “May 25th, 1780. I am now a prisoner on board the Falmouth, a place the most dreadful; we are confined so that we have not room even to lie down all at once to sleep. It is the most horrible, cursed, hole that can be thought of. I was sick and longed for some small beer, while I lay unpitied at death’s door, with a putrid fever, and though I had money I was not permitted to send for it. I offered repeatedly a hard dollar for a pint. The wretch who went forward and backward would not oblige me. I am just able to creep about. Four prisoners have escaped from this ship. One having, as by accident, thrown his hat overboard, begged leave to go after it in a small boat, which lay alongside. Having reached the hat they secured the sentinel and made for the Jersey shore, though several armed boats pursued, and shot was fired from the shipping.”
The New Jersey _Gazette_ of June 4th, 1780, says: “Thirty-five Americans, including five officers, made their escape from the prison ship at New York and got safely off.”
“For Sale. The remains of the hospital ship Kitty, as they now lie at the Wallebocht, with launch, anchors, and cables.” Gaine’s _Mercury_, July 1st, 1780.
New Jersey _Gazette_, August 23, 1780. “Captain Grumet, who made his escape from the Scorpion prison ship, at New York, on the evening of the 15th, says more lenity is shown the prisoners. There are 200 in the Strombolo, and 120 in the Scorpion.”
It was in 1780 that the poet Freneau was a prisoner on the Scorpion, which, at that time, was anchored in the East River. In Rivington’s _Gazette_, at the end of that year, the “hulks of his Majesty’s sloops Scorpion and Hunter” are advertised for sale. Also “the Strombolo fire-ship, now lying in North River.” It appears, however, that there were no purchasers, and they remained unsold. They were still in use until the end of the year 1781. Gaine’s _Mercury_ declares that “the Strombolo, from August 21st to December 10th, 1781, had never less than 150 prisoners on board, oftener over 200.”
“Captain Cahoon with four others escaped from a prison ship to Long Island in a boat, March 8, notwithstanding they were fired on from the prison and hospital ships, and pursued by guard boats from three in the afternoon to seven in the evening. He left 200 prisoners in New York.” _Connecticut Journal_, March 22, 1781.
The _Connecticut Gazette_, in May, 1781, stated that 1100 French and American prisoners had died during the winter in the prison ships. “New London, November 17th, 1781. A Flag of truce returned here from New York with 132 prisoners, with the rest of those carried off by Arnold. They are chiefly from the prison ships, and some from the Sugar House, and are mostly sick.”
“New London, Jan. 4th, 1782. 130 prisoners landed here from New York December third, in most deplorable condition. A great part are since dead, and the survivors so debilitated that they will drag out a miserable existence. It is enough to melt the most obdurate heart to see these miserable objects landed at our wharves sick and dying, and the few rags they have on covered with vermin and their own excrements.”
THE JOURNAL OF DR. ELIAS CORNELIUS–BRITISH PRISONS IN THE SOUTH
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 Andre 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.”
A POET ON A PRISON SHIP
Philip Freneau, the poet of the Revolution, as he has been called, was of French Huguenot ancestry. The Freneaus came to New York in 1685. His mother was Agnes Watson, a resident of New York, and the poet was born on the second of January, 1752.
In the year 1780 a vessel of which he was the owner, called the Aurora, was taken by the British. Freneau was on board, though he was not the captain of the ship. The British man-of-war, Iris, made the Aurora her prize, after a fight in which the sailing master and many of the crew were killed. This was in May, 1780. The survivors were brought to New York, and confined on board the prison ship, Scorpion. Freneau has left a poem describing the horrors of his captivity in very strong language, and it is easy to conceive that his suffering must have been intense to have aroused such bitter feelings. We give a part of his poem, as it contains the best description of the indignities inflicted upon the prisoners, and their mental and physical sufferings that we have found in any work on the subject.
PART OF PHILIP FRENEAU’S POEM ON THE PRISON SHIPS
Conveyed to York we found, at length, too late, That Death was better than the prisoner’s fate There doomed to famine, shackles, and despair, Condemned to breathe a foul, infected air, In sickly hulks, devoted while we lay,– Successive funerals gloomed each dismal day
The various horrors of these hulks to tell– These prison ships where Pain and Penance dwell, Where Death in ten-fold vengeance holds his reign, And injured ghosts, yet unavenged, complain: This be my task–ungenerous Britons, you Conspire to murder whom you can’t subdue
* * * * *
So much we suffered from the tribe I hate, So near they shoved us to the brink of fate, When two long months in these dark hulks we lay, Barred down by night, and fainting all the day, In the fierce fervors of the solar beam Cooled by no breeze on Hudson’s mountain stream, That not unsung these threescore days shall fall To black oblivion that would cover all.
No masts or sails these crowded ships adorn, Dismal to view, neglected and forlorn;
Here mighty ills oppressed the imprisoned throng; Dull were our slumbers, and our nights were long. From morn to eve along the decks we lay, Scorched into fevers by the solar ray;
No friendly awning cast a welcome shade, Once was it promised, and was never made; No favors could these sons of Death bestow, ‘Twas endless vengeance, and unceasing woe. Immortal hatred doth their breasts engage, And this lost empire swells their souls with rage.
Two hulks on Hudson’s stormy bosom lie, Two, on the east, alarm the pitying eye, There, the black Scorpion at her mooring rides, And there Strombolo, swinging, yields the tides; Here bulky Jersey fills a larger space, And Hunter, to all hospitals disgrace.
Thou Scorpion, fatal to thy crowded throng, Dire theme of horror to Plutonian song, Requir’st my lay,–thy sultry decks I know, And all the torments that exist below!
The briny wave that Hudson’s bosom fills Drained through her bottom in a thousand rills; Rotten and old, replete with sighs and groans, Scarce on the water she sustained her bones:
Here, doomed to toil, or founder in the tide, At the moist pumps incessantly we plied; Here, doomed to starve, like famished dogs we tore The scant allowance that our tyrants bore. Remembrance shudders at this scene of fears, Still in my view, some tyrant chief appears, Some base-born Hessian slave walks threatening by, Some servile Scot with murder in his eye, Still haunts my sight, as vainly they bemoan Rebellions managed so unlike their own. O may I never feel the poignant pain
To live subjected to such fiends again! Stewards and mates that hostile Britain bore, Cut from the gallows on their native shore; Their ghastly looks and vengeance beaming eyes Still to my view in dismal visions rise,– O may I ne’er review these dire abodes, These piles for slaughter floating on the floods! And you that o’er the troubled ocean go Strike not your standards to this venomed foe, Better the greedy wave should swallow all, Better to meet the death-conducting ball, Better to sleep on ocean’s oozy bed,
At once destroyed and numbered with the dead, Than thus to perish in the face of day
Where twice ten thousand deaths one death delay. When to the ocean sinks the western sun, And the scorched tories fire their evening gun, “Down, rebels, down!” the angry Scotchmen cry, “Base dogs, descend, or by our broadswords die!”
Hail, dark abode! What can with thee compare? Heat, sickness, famine, death, and stagnant air,–
* * * * *
Swift from the guarded decks we rushed along, And vainly sought repose, so vast our throng. Three hundred wretches here, denied all light, In crowded quarters pass the infernal night. Some for a bed their tattered vestments join, And some on chest, and some on floors recline; Shut from the blessings of the evening air Pensive we lay with mingled corpses there: Meagre and wan, and scorched with heat below, We looked like ghosts ere death had made us so: How could we else, where heat and hunger joined Thus to debase the body and the mind?
Where cruel thirst the parching throat invades, Dries up the man and fits him for the shades? No waters laded from the bubbling spring To these dire ships these little tyrants bring– By plank and ponderous beams completely walled In vain for water, still in vain we called. No drop was granted to the midnight prayer To rebels in these regions of despair!
The loathsome cask a deadly dose contains, Its poison circles through the languid veins. “Here, generous Briton, generous, as you say, To my parched tongue one cooling drop convey– Hell has no mischief like a thirsty throat, Nor one tormentor like your David Sproat!”
Dull flew the hours till, from the East displayed, Sweet morn dispelled the horrors of the shade: On every side dire objects met the sight, And pallid forms, and murders of the night: The dead were past their pains, the living groan, Nor dare to hope another morn their own.
* * * * *
O’er distant streams appears the living green, And leafy trees on mountain tops are seen: But they no grove or grassy mountain tread, Marked for a longer journey to the dead.
Black as the clouds that shade St. Kilda’s shore, Wild as the winds that round her mountains roar, At every post some surly vagrant stands, Culled from the English, or the Scottish bands. Dispensing death triumphantly they stand, Their musquets ready to obey command;
Wounds are their sport, and ruin is their aim; On their dark souls compassion has no claim, And discord only can their spirits please, Such were our tyrants here, such foes as these.
* * * * *
But such a train of endless woes abound So many mischiefs in these hulks are found That on them all a poem to prolong
Would swell too high the horrors of our song. Hunger and thirst to work our woe combine, And mouldy bread, and flesh of rotten swine; The mangled carcase and the battered brain; The doctor’s poison, and the captain’s cane; The soldier’s musquet, and the steward’s debt: The evening shackle, and the noonday threat.
* * * * *
That charm whose virtue warms the world beside, Was by these tyrants to our use denied. While yet they deigned that healthsome balm to lade, The putrid water felt its powerful aid; But when refused, to aggravate our pains, Then fevers raged and revelled through our veins; Throughout my frame I felt its deadly heat; I felt my pulse with quicker motions beat; A pallid hue o’er every face was spread, Unusual pains attacked the fainting head: No physic here, no doctor to assist,
With oaths they placed me on the sick man’s list: Twelve wretches more the same dark symptoms took, And these were entered on the doctor’s book. The loathsome Hunter was our destined place, The Hunter, to all hospitals disgrace.
With soldiers sent to guard us on the road, Joyful we left the Scorpion’s dire abode: Some tears we shed for the remaining crew, Then cursed the hulk, and from her sides withdrew.
THE HOSPITAL PRISON SHIP
Now towards the Hunter’s gloomy decks we came, A slaughter house, yet hospital in name; For none came there till ruined with their fees, And half consumed, and dying of disease:–
But when too near, with laboring oar, we plied, The Mate, with curses, drove us from the side:– That wretch, who banished from the navy crew, Grown old in blood did here his trade renew. His rancorous tongue, when on his charge let loose, Uttered reproaches, scandal, and abuse; Gave all to hell who dared his king disown, And swore mankind were made for George alone. A thousand times, to irritate our woe,
He wished us foundered in the gulph below: A thousand times he brandished high his stick, And swore as often, that we were not sick:– And yet so pale! that we were thought by some A freight of ghosts from Death’s dominions come. But, calmed at length, for who can always rage? Or the fierce war of boundless passion wage? He pointed to the stairs that led below To damps, disease, and varied forms of woe:– Down to the gloom I took my pensive way, Along the decks the dying captives lay, Some struck with madness, some with scurvy pained, But still of putrid fevers most complained. On the hard floors the wasted objects laid There tossed and tumbled in the dismal shade: There no soft voice their bitter fate bemoaned, But Death strode stately, while his victims groaned. Of leaky decks I heard them long complain, Drowned as they were in deluges of rain: Denied the comforts of a dying bed,
And not a pillow to support the head: How could they else but pine, and grieve and sigh, Detest a wretched life, and wish to die?
Scarce had I mingled with this wretched band, When a thin victim seized me by the hand:– “And art thou come?”–death heavy on his eyes– “And art thou come to these abodes?” he cries, “Why didst thou leave the Scorpion’s dark retreat? And hither haste, a surer death to meet? Why didst thou leave thy damp, infected cell? If that was purgatory, this is hell.
We too, grown weary of that horrid shade, Petitioned early for the Doctor’s aid;
His aid denied, more deadly symptoms came, Weak and yet weaker, glowed the vital flame; And when disease had worn us down so low That few could tell if we were ghosts or no, And all asserted death would be our fate, Then to the Doctor we were sent, too late”
Ah! rest in peace, each injured, parted shade, By cruel hands in death’s dark weeds arrayed, The days to come shall to your memory raise Piles on these shores, to spread through earth your praise.
THE HESSIAN DOCTOR
From Brooklyn heights a Hessian doctor came, Nor great his skill, nor greater much his fame: Fair Science never called the wretch her son, And Art disdained the stupid man to own.
He on his charge the healing work begun With antmomial mixtures by the tun:
Ten minutes was the time he deigned to stay, The time of grace allotted once a day:
He drenched us well with bitter draughts, tis true, Nostrums from hell, and cortex from Peru: Some with his pills he sent to Pluto’s reign, And some he blistered with his flies of Spain. His Tartar doses walked their deadly round, Till the lean patient at the potion frowned, And swore that hemlock, death, or what you will, Were nonsense to the drugs that stuffed his bill. On those refusing he bestowed a kick,
Or menaced vengeance with his walking stick: Here uncontrolled he exercised his trade, And grew experienced by the deaths he made.
Knave though he was, yet candor must confess Not chief physician was this man of Hesse: One master o’er the murdering tribe was placed, By him the rest were honored or disgraced Once, and but once, by some strange fortune led, He came to see the dying and the dead.
He came, but anger so inflamed his eye, And such a faulchion glittered on his thigh, And such a gloom his visage darkened o’er, And two such pistols in his hands he bore, That, by the gods, with such a load of steel, We thought he came to murder, not to heal. Rage in his heart, and mischief in his head, He gloomed destruction, and had smote us dead Had he so dared, but fear withheld his hand, He came, blasphemed, and turned again to land
THE BENEVOLENT CAPTAIN
From this poor vessel, and her sickly crew A british seaman all his titles drew,
Captain, Esquire, Commander, too, in chief, And hence he gained his bread and hence his beef: But sir, you might have searched creation round, And such another ruffian not have found Though unprovoked an angry face he bore,– All were astonished at the oaths he swore He swore, till every prisoner stood aghast, And thought him Satan in a brimstone blast He wished us banished from the public light; He wished us shrouded in perpetual night;
* * * * *
He swore, besides, that should the ship take fire We, too, must in the pitchy flames expire– That if we wretches did not scrub the decks His staff should break our base, rebellious necks;
* * * * *
If, where he walked, a murdered carcase lay, Still dreadful was the language of the day; He called us dogs, and would have held us so, But terror checked the meditated blow
Of vengeance, from our injured nation due, To him, and all the base, unmanly crew
Such food they sent to make complete our woes It looked like carrion torn from hungry crows Such vermin vile on every joint were seen, So black, corrupted, mortified, and lean, That once we tried to move our flinty chief, And thus addressed him, holding up the beef– “See, Captain, see, what rotten bones we pick, What kills the healthy cannot cure the sick, Not dogs on such by Christian men are fed, And see, good master, see, what lousy bread!” “Your meat or bread,” this man of death replied, “Tis not my care to manage or provide
But this, base rebel dogs I’d have you know, That better than you merit we bestow–
Out of my sight!” nor more he deigned to say, But whisked about, and frowning, strode away
Each day at least six carcases we bore And scratched them graves along the sandy shore By feeble hands the shallow graves were made, No stone memorial o’er the corpses laid In barren sands and far from home they lie, No friend to shed a tear when passing by O’er the mean tombs insulting Britons tread, Spurn at the sand, and curse the rebel dead. When to your arms these fatal islands fall– For first or last, they must be conquered, all, Americans! to rites sepulchral just
With gentlest footstep press this kindred dust, And o’er the tombs, if tombs can then be found, Place the green turf, and plant the myrtle round
This poem was written in 1780, the year that Freneau was captured. He was on board the Scorpion and Hunter about two months, and was then exchanged. We fear that he has not in the least exaggerated the horrors of his situation. In fact there seem to have been many bloody pages torn from the book of history, that can never be perused. Many dark deeds were done in these foul prisons, of which we can only give hints, and the details of many crimes committed against the helpless prisoners are left to our imaginations. But enough and more than enough is known to make us fear that _inhumanity_, a species of cruelty unknown to the lower animals, is really one of the most prominent characteristics of men. History is a long and bloody record of battles, massacres, torture chambers; greed and violence; bigotry and sin. The root of all crimes is selfishness. What we call inhumanity is we fear not _inhuman_, but _human nature unrestrained_. It is true that some progress is made, and it is no longer the custom to kill all captives, at least not in civilized countries. But war will always be “_horrida bella_,” chiefly because war means license, when the unrestrained, wolfish passions of man get for the time the upper hand. Our task, however, is not that of a moralist, but of a narrator of facts, from which all who read can draw the obvious moral for themselves.
“THERE WAS A SHIP”
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, and it was feared that the inhabitants of New York would suffer from the prevailing epidemics. They were therefore placed in rotten hulks off the quiet shores of Long Island, where, secluded from the public eye, they were allowed to perish by the thousands from cruel and criminal neglect.
“The Old Jersey and the two hospital ships,” says General J. Johnson, “remained in the Wallabout until New York was evacuated by the British. The Jersey was the receiving ship: the others, truly, the ships of death!
“It has been generally thought that all the prisoners died on board the Jersey. This is not true. Many may have died on board of her who were not reported as sick, but all who were placed on the sick list were removed to the hospital ships, from which they were usually taken, sewed up in a blanket, to their graves.
“After the hospital ships were brought into the Wallabout, it was reported that the sick were attended by physicians. Few indeed were those who recovered, or came back to tell the tale of their sufferings in those horrible places. It was no uncommon sight to see five or six dead bodies brought on shore in a single morning, when a small excavation would be dug at the foot of the hill, the bodies cast into it, and then a man with a shovel would quickly cover them by shovelling sand down the hill upon them.
“Many were buried in a ravine of this hill and many on Mr. Remsen’s farm. The whole shore, from Rennie’s Point, to Mr. Remsen’s dooryard, was a place of graves; as were also the slope of the hill near the house; the shore, from Mr. Remsen’s barn along the mill-pond to Rappelye’s farm; and the sandy island between the flood-gates and the mill-dam, while a few were buried on the shore on the east side of the Wallabout.
“Thus did Death reign here, from 1776 (when the Whitby prison ship was first moored in the Wallabout) until the peace. The whole Wallabout was a sickly place during the war. The atmosphere seemed to be charged with foul air: from the prison ships; and with the effluvia of dead bodies washed out of their graves by the tides. * * * More than half of the dead buried on the outer side of the mill-pond, were washed out by the waves at high tide, during northeasterly winds.
“The bodies of the dead lay exposed along the beach, drying and bleaching in the sun, and whitening the shores, till reached by the power of a succeeding storm, as the agitated waves receded, the bones receded with them into the deep, where they remain, unseen by man, awaiting the resurrection morn, when, again joined to the spirits to which they belong, they will meet their persecuting murderers at the bar of the Supreme Judge of the quick and the dead.
“We have ourselves,” General Johnson continues, “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.”
We will quote more of this interesting account written by an eyewitness of the horrors he records, in a later chapter. At present we will endeavor to give the reader a short history of the Jersey, from the day of her launching to her degradation, when she was devoted to the foul usages of a prison ship.
She was a fourth rate ship of the line, mounting sixty guns, and carrying a crew of four hundred men. She was built in 1736, having succeeded to the name of a celebrated 50-gun ship, which was then withdrawn from the service, and with which she must not be confounded. In 1737 she was fitted for sea as one of the Channel Fleet, commanded by Sir John Norris.
In the fall of 1738 the command of the Jersey was given to Captain Edmund Williams, and in July, 1739, she was one of the vessels which were sent to the Mediterranean under Rear Admiral Chaloner Ogle, when a threatened rupture with Spain rendered it necessary to strengthen the naval force in that quarter.
The trouble in the Mediterranean having been quieted by the appearance of so strong a fleet, in 1740 the Jersey returned home; but she was again sent out, under the command of Captain Peter Lawrence, and was one of the vessels forming the fleet of Sir John Norris, when, in the fall of that year and in the spring of 1741, that gentleman made his fruitless demonstrations against the Spanish coast. Soon afterwards the Jersey, still forming one of the fleet commanded by Sir Chaloner Ogle, was sent to the West Indies, to strengthen the forces at that station, commanded by Vice-Admiral Vernon, and she was with that distinguished officer when he made his well-known, unsuccessful attack on Carthagena, and the Spanish dominions in America in that year.
In March, 1743, Captain Lawrence was succeeded m the command of the Jersey by Captain Harry Norris, youngest son of Admiral Sir John Norris: and the Jersey formed one of the fleet commanded by Sir John Norris, which was designed to watch the enemy’s Brest fleet; but having suffered severely from a storm while on that station, she was obliged to return to the Downs.
Captain Harry Norris having been promoted to a heavier ship, the command of the Jersey was given soon afterwards to Captain Charles Hardy subsequently well known as Governor of the Colony of New York; and in June, 1744, that officer having been appointed to the command of the Newfoundland Station, she sailed for North America, and bore his flag in those waters during the remainder of the year. In 1745, still under the immediate command of Captain Hardy, the Jersey was one of the ships which, under Vice-Admiral Medley, were sent to the Mediterranean, where Vice-Admiral Sir William Rowley then commanded; and as she continued on that station during the following year there is little doubt that Captain Hardy remained there, during the remainder of his term of service on that vessel.
It was while under the command of Captain Hardy in July, 1745, that the Jersey was engaged with the French ship, St. Esprit, of 74 guns, in one of the most desperate engagements on record. The action continued during two hours and a half, when the St. Esprit was compelled to bear away for Cadiz, where she was repaired and refitted for sea. At the close of Sir Charles Hardy’s term of service in 1747, the Jersey was laid up, evidently unfit for active service; and in October, 1748, she was reported among the “hulks” in port.
On the renewal of hostilities with France in 1756 the Jersey was refitted for service, and the command given to Captain John Barker, and in May, 1757, she was sent to the Mediterranean, where, under the orders of Admiral Henry Osbourne, she continued upwards of two years, having been present, on the 28th of February, 1758, when M. du Quesne made his ineffectual attempt to reinforce M. De la Clue, who was then closely confined, with the fleet under his command, in the harbor of Carthagena.
On the 18th of August, 1759, while commanded by Captain Barker, the Jersey, with the Culloden and the Conqueror, were ordered by Admiral Boscowan, the commander of the fleet, to proceed to the mouth of the harbor of Toulon, for the purpose of cutting out or destroying two French ships which were moored there under cover of the batteries with the hope of forcing the French Admiral, De la Clue, to an engagement. The three ships approached the harbour, as directed, with great firmness; but they were assailed by so heavy a fire, not only from the enemy’s ships and fortifications, but from several masked batteries, that, after an unequal but desperate contest of upwards of three hours, they were compelled to retire without having succeeded in their object; and to repair to Gibraltar to be refitted.
In the course of the year 1759 Captain Barker was succeeded in the command of the Jersey by Captain Andrew Wilkinson, under whom, forming one of the Mediterranean fleet, commanded by Sir Charles Saunders, she continued in active service until 1763.
In 1763 peace was established, and the Jersey returned to England and was laid up; but in May, 1766, she was again commissioned, and under the command of Captain William Dickson, and bearing the flag of Admiral Spry, she was ordered to her former station in the Mediterranean, where she remained three years.
In the spring of 1769, bearing the flag of Commodore Sir John Byron, the Jersey sailed for America. She seems to have returned home at the close of the summer, and her active duties appear to have been brought to an end.
She remained out of commission until 1776, when, without armament, and under the command of Captain Anthony Halstead, she was ordered to New York as a hospital ship.
Captain Halstead died on the 17th of May, 1778, and, in July following, he was succeeded by Commander David Laird, under whom, either as a hospital, or a prison ship, she remained in Wallabout bay, until she was abandoned at the close of the war, to her fate, which was to rot in the mud at her moorings, until, at last, she sank, and for many years her wretched worm-eaten old hulk could be seen at low tide, shunned by all, a sorry spectacle, the ghost of what had once been a gallant man-of-war.
This short history of the Jersey has been condensed from the account written in 1865 by Mr. Henry B. Dawson and published at Morrisania, New York, in that year.
In an oration delivered by Mr. Jonathan Russel, in Providence, R. I., on the 4th of July 1800, he thus speaks of this ill-fated vessel and of her victims: “But it was not in the ardent conflicts of the field only, that our countrymen fell; it was not the ordinary chances of war alone which they had to encounter. Happy indeed, thrice happy were Warren, Montgomery, and Mercer; happy those other gallant spirits who fell with glory in the heat of the battle, distinguished by their country and covered with her applause. Every soul sensible to honor, envies rather than compassionates their fate. It was in the dungeons of our inhuman invaders; it was in the loathsome and pestiferous prisons, that the wretchedness of our countrymen still makes the heart bleed. It was there that hunger, and thirst, and disease, and all the contumely that cold-hearted cruelty could bestow, sharpened every pang of death. Misery there wrung every fibre that could feel, before she gave the Blow of Grace which sent the sufferer to eternity. It is said that poison was employed. No, there was no such mercy there. There, nothing was employed which could blunt the susceptibility to anguish, or which, by hastening death, could rob its agonies of a single pang. On board one only of these Prison ships above 11,000 of our brave countrymen are said to have perished. She was called the Jersey. Her wreck still remains, and at low ebb, presents to the world its accursed and blighted fragments. Twice in twenty-four hours the winds of Heaven sigh through it, and repeat the groans of our expiring countrymen; and twice the ocean hides in her bosom those deadly and polluted ruins, which all her waters cannot purify. Every rain that descends washes from the unconsecrated bank the bones of those intrepid sufferers. They lie, naked on the shore, accusing the neglect of their countrymen. How long shall gratitude, and even piety deny them burial? They ought to be collected in one vast ossory, which shall stand a monument to future ages, of the two extremes of human character: of that depravity which, trampling on the rights of misfortune, perpetrated cold and calculating murder on a wretched and defenceless prisoner; and that virtue which animated this prisoner to die a willing martyr to his country. Or rather, were it possible, there ought to be raised a Colossal Column whose base sinking to Hell, should let the murderers read their infamy inscribed upon it; and whose capital of Corinthian laurel ascending to Heaven, should show the sainted Patriots that they have triumphed.
“Deep and dreadful as the coloring of this picture may appear, it is but a taint and imperfect sketch of the original. You must remember a thousand unutterable calamities; a thousand instances of domestic as well as national anxiety and distress; which mock description. You ought to remember them; you ought to hand them down in tradition to your posterity, that they may know the awful price their fathers paid for freedom.”
A DESCRIPTION OF THE JERSEY
SUGGESTED BY A VISION OF THE JERSEY PRISON SHIP
BY W P P
O Sea! in whose unfathomable gloom
A world forlorn of wreck and ruin lies, In thy avenging majesty arise,
And with a sound as of the trump of doom Whelm from all eyes for aye yon living tomb, Wherein the martyr patriots groaned for years, A prey to hunger and the bitter jeers
Of foes in whose relentless breasts no room Was ever found for pity or remorse;
But haunting anger and a savage hate, That spared not e’en their victim’s very corse, But left it, outcast, to its carrion fate Wherefore, arise, O Sea! and sternly sweep This floating dungeon to thy lowest deep
It was stated in the portion of the eloquent oration given in our last chapter that more than 11,000 prisoners perished on board the Jersey alone, during the space of three years and a half that she was moored in the waters of Wallabout Bay. This statement has never been contradicted, as far as we know, by British authority. Yet we trust that it is exaggerated. It would give an average of more than three thousand deaths a year. The whole number of names copied from the English War Records of prisoners on board the Jersey is about 8,000. This, however, is an incomplete list. You will in vain search through its pages to find the recorded names of many prisoners who have left well attested accounts of their captivity on board that fatal vessel. All that we can say now is that the number who perished there is very great.
As late as 1841 the bones of many of these victims were still to be found on the shores of Walabout Bay, in and around the Navy Yard. On the 4th of February of that year some workmen, while engaged in digging away an embankment in Jackson Street, Brooklyn, near the Navy Yard, accidentally uncovered a quantity of human bones, among which was a skeleton having a pair of iron manacles still upon the wrists. (See Thompson’s History of Long Island, Vol. 1, page 247.)
In a paper published at Fishkill on the 18th of May, 1783, is the following card: “To All Printers, of Public Newspapers:–Tell it to the world, and let it be published in every Newspaper throughout America, Europe, Asia, and Africa, to the everlasting disgrace and infamy of the British King’s commanders at New York: That during the late war it is said that 11,644 American prisoners have suffered death by their inhuman, cruel, savage, and barbarous usage on board the filthy and malignant British prison ship called the Jersey, lying at New York. Britons tremble, lest the vengeance of Heaven fall on your isle, for the blood of these unfortunate victims!
“They died, the young, the loved, the brave, The death barge came for them,
And where the seas yon black rocks lave Is heard their requiem
They buried them and threw the sand Unhallowed o’er that patriot band
The black ship like a demon sate
Upon the prowling deep,
From her came fearful sounds of hate, Till pain stilled all in sleep
It was the sleep that victims take, Tied, tortured, dying, at the stake.
Yet some the deep has now updug,
Their bones are in the sun,
Whether by sword or deadly drug
They perished, one by one,
Was it not dread for mortal eye
To see them all so strangely die?
Are there those murdered men who died For freedom and for me?
They seem to point, in martyred pride To that spot upon the sea
From whence came once the frenzied yell, From out that wreck, that prison hell”
This rough but strong old poem was written many years ago by a Mr. Whitman We have taken the liberty of retouching it to a slight degree.
It is well known that _twenty hogsheads_ of bones were collected in 1808 from the shores of the Wallabout, and buried under the auspices of the Tammany Society in a vault prepared for the purpose. These were but a small part of the remains of the victims of the prison ships. Many were, as we have seen, washed into the sea, and many more were interred on the shores of New York Harbor, before the prison ships were removed to the Wallabout. It will be better that we should give the accounts left to us by eye witnesses of the sufferings on board these prison ships, and we will therefore quote from the narrative of John Van Dyke, who was confined on board the Jersey before her removal to the Wallabout.
Captain John Van Dyke was taken prisoner in May, 1780, at which time he says: “We were put on board the prison ship Jersey, anchored off Fly Market. (New York City) This ship had been a hospital ship. When I came on board her stench was so great, and my breathing this putrid air–I thought it would kill me, but after being on board some days I got used to it, and as though all was a common smell. * * *
“On board the Jersey prison ship it was short allowance, so short a person would think it was not possible for a man to live on. They starved the American prisoners to make them enlist in their service. I will now relate a fact. Every man in a mess of six took his daily turn to get the mess’s provisions. One day I went to the galley and drew a piece of salt, boiled pork. I went to our mess to divide it. * * * I cut each one his share, and each one eat our day’s allowance in one mouthful of this salt pork and nothing else. One day called peaday I took the drawer of our doctor’s chest (Dr. Hodges of Philadelphia) and went to the galley, which was the cooking place, with my drawer for a soup dish. I held it under a large brass cock, the cook turned it. I received the allowance of my mess, and behold! Brown water, and fifteen floating peas–no peas on the bottom of my drawer, and this for six men’s allowance for 24 hours. The peas were all in the bottom of the kettle. Those left would be taken to New York and, I suppose, sold.
“One day in the week, called pudding day, we would receive three pounds of damaged flour, in it would be green lumps such as their men would not eat, and one pound of very bad raisins, one third raisin sticks. We would pick out the sticks, mash the lumps of flour, put all with some water into our drawer, mix our pudding and put it into a bag and boil it with a tally tied to it with the number of our mess. This was a day’s allowance. We, for some time, drew a half pint of rum for each man. One day Captain Lard (Laird) who commanded the ship Jersey, came on board. As soon as he was on the main deck of the ship he cried out for the boatswain. The boatswain arrived and in a very quick motion, took off his hat. There being on deck two half hogshead tubs where our allowance of rum was mixed into grog, Captain L., said, ‘Have the prisoners had their allowance of rum today?’ ‘No, sir’ answered the boatswain. Captain L. replied, ‘Damn your soul, you rascal, heave it overboard.’
“The boatswain, with help, upset the tubs of rum on the middle deck. The grog rum run out of the scuppers of the ship into the river. I saw no more grog on board. * * * Every fair day a number of British officers and sergeants would come on board, form in two ranks on the quarter deck, facing inwards, the prisoners in the after part of the quarter deck. As the boatswain would call a name, the word would be ‘Pass!’ As the prisoners passed between the ranks officers and sergeants stared them in the face. This was done to catch deserters, and if they caught nothing the sergeants would come on the middle deck and cry out ‘Five guineas bounty to any man that will enter his Majesty’s service!’
“Shortly after this party left the ship a Hessian party would come on board, and the prisoners had to go through the same routine of duty again.
“From the Jersey prison ship eighty of us were taken to the pink stern sloop-of-war Hunter, Captain Thomas Henderson, Commander. We were taken there in a large ship’s long boat, towed by a ten-oar barge, and one other barge with a guard of soldiers in the rear.
“On board the ship Hunter we drew one third allowance, and every Monday we received a loaf of wet bread, weighing seven pounds for each mess. This loaf was from Mr. John Pintard’s father, of New York, the American Commissary, and this bread, with the allowance of provisions, we found sufficient to live on.
“After we had been on board some time Mr. David Sproat, the British Commissary of prisoners, came on board; all the prisoners were ordered aft; the roll was called and as each man passed him Mr. Sproat would ask, ‘Are you a seaman?’ The answer was ‘Landsman, landsman.’ There were ten landsmen to one answer of half seaman. When the roll was finished Mr. Sproat said to our sea officers, ‘Gentlemen, how do you make out at sea, for the most part of you are landsmen?’
“Our officers answered: ‘You hear often how we make out. When we meet our force, or rather more than our force we give a good account of them.’
“Mr. Sproat asked, ‘And are not your vessels better manned than these. Our officers replied, ‘Mr Sproat, we are the best manned out of the port of Philadelphia.’ Mr. Sproat shrugged his shoulders saying, ‘I cannot see how you do it.'”
We do not understand what John Van Dyke meant by his expression “half seaman.” It is probable that the sailors among the prisoners pretended to be soldiers in order to be exchanged. There was much more difficulty in exchanging sailors than soldiers, as we shall see. David Sproat was the British Commissary for Naval Prisoners alone. In a paper published in New York in April 28th, 1780, appears the following notice:–“I do hereby direct all Captains, Commanders, Masters, and Prize Masters of ships and other vessels, who bring naval prisoners into this port, immediately to send a list of their names to this office, No. 33 Maiden Lane, where they will receive an order how to dispose of them.
“(Signed) David Sproat.”
The Jersey and some of the other prison ships often had landsmen among their prisoners, at least until the last years of the war, when they were so overcrowded with sailors, that there must have been scant room for any one else.
The next prisoner whose recollections we will consider is Captain Silas Talbot, who was confined on board the Jersey in the fall of 1780. He says: “All her port holes were closed. * * * There were about 1,100 prisoners on board. There were no berths or seats, to lie down on, not a bench to sit on. Many were almost without cloaths. The dysentery, fever, phrenzy and despair prevailed among them, and filled the place with filth, disgust and horror. The scantiness of the allowance, the bad quality of the provisions, the brutality of the guards, and the sick, pining for comforts they could not obtain, altogether furnished continually one of the greatest scenes of human distress and misery ever beheld. It was now the middle of October, the weather was cool and clear, with frosty nights, so that the number of deaths per day was _reduced to an average of ten_, and this number was considered by the survivors a small one, when compared with the terrible mortality that had prevailed for three months before. The human bones and skulls, yet bleaching on the shore of Long Island, and daily exposed, by the falling down of the high bank on which the prisoners were buried, is a shocking sight, and manifestly demonstrates that the Jersey prison ship had been as destructive as a field of battle.”
THE EXPERIENCE OF EBENEZER FOX
Ebenezer Fox, a prisoner on board the Jersey, wrote a little book about his dreadful experiences when he was a very old man. The book was written in 1838, and published by Charles Fox in Boston in 1848. Ebenezer Fox was born in the East Parish of Roxbury, Mass., in 1763. In the spring of 1775 he and another boy named Kelly ran away to sea. Fox shipped as a cabin boy in a vessel commanded by Captain Joseph Manchester.
He made several cruises and returned home. In 1779 he enlisted, going as a substitute for the barber to whom he was apprenticed. His company was commanded by Captain William Bird of Boston in a regiment under Colonel Proctor. Afterwards he signed ship’s papers and entered the naval service on a twenty gun ship called the Protector, Captain John F. Williams of Massachusetts. On the lst of April, 1780, they sailed for a six months cruise, and on the ninth of June, 1780, fought the Admiral Duff until she took fire and blew up. A short time afterwards the Protector was captured by two English ships called the Roebuck and Mayday.
Fox concealed fifteen dollars in the crown of his hat, and fifteen more in the soles of his shoes.
All the prisoners were sent into the hold. One third of the crew of the Protector were pressed into the British service. The others were sent to the Jersey. Evidently this prison ship had already become notorious, for Fox writes: “The idea of being incarcerated in this floating pandemonium filled us with horror, but the ideas we had formed of its horror fell far short of the reality. * * * The Jersey was removed from the East River, and moored with chain cables at the Wallabout in consequence of the fears entertained that the sickness which prevailed among the prisoners might spread to the shore. * * * I now found myself in a loathsome prison, among a collection of the most wretched and disgusting looking objects that I ever beheld in human form.
“Here was a motley crew, covered with rags and filth; visages pallid with disease; emaciated with hunger and anxiety; and hardly retaining a trace of their original appearance. Here were men, who had once enjoyed life while riding over the mountain wave or roaming through pleasant fields, full of health and vigor, now shrivelled by a scanty and unwholesome diet, ghastly with inhaling an impure atmosphere, exposed to contagion; in contact with disease, and surrounded with the horrors of sickness, and death. Here, thought I, must I linger out the morning of my life” (he was seventeen) “in tedious days and sleepless nights, enduring a weary and degrading captivity, till death should terminate my sufferings, and no friend will know of my departure.
“A prisoner on board the ‘Old Jersey!’ The very thought was appalling. I could hardly realize my situation.
“The first thing we found it necessary to do after our capture was to form ourselves into small parties called messes, consisting of six in each, as previous to doing this, we could obtain no food. All the prisoners were obliged to fast on the first day of their arrival, and seldom on the second could they obtain any food in season for cooking it. * * * All the prisoners fared alike; officers and sailors received the same treatment on board of this old hulk. * * * We were all ‘rebels.’ The only distinction known among us was made by the prisoners themselves, which was shown in allowing those who had been officers previous to their captivity, to congregate in the extreme afterpart of the ship, and to keep it exclusively to themselves as their place of abode. * * * The prisoners were confined in the two main decks below. The lowest dungeon was inhabited by those prisoners who were foreigners, and whose treatment was more severe than that of the Americans.
“The inhabitants of this lower region were the most miserable and disgusting looking objects that can be conceived. Daily washing in salt water, together with their extreme emaciation, caused the skin to appear like dried parchment. Many of them remained unwashed for weeks; their hair long, and matted, and filled with vermin; their beards never cut except occasionally with a pair of shears, which did not improve their comeliness, though it might add to their comfort. Their clothes were mere rags, secured to their bodies in every way that ingenuity could devise.
“Many of these men had been in this lamentable condition for two years, part of the time on board other prison ships; and having given up all hope of ever being exchanged, had become resigned to their situation. These men were foreigners whose whole lives had been one continual scene of toil, hardship, and suffering. Their feelings were blunted; their dispositions soured; they had no sympathies for the world; no home to mourn for; no friends to lament for their fate. But far different was the condition of the most numerous class of prisoners, composed mostly of young men from New England, fresh from home.
“They had reason to deplore the sudden change in their condition. * * * The thoughts of home, of parents, brothers, sisters, and friends, would crowd upon their minds, and brooding on what they had been, and what they were, their desire for home became a madness. The dismal and disgusting scene around; the wretched objects continually in sight; and ‘hope deferred which maketh the heart sick’, produced a state of melancholy that often ended in death,–the death of a broken heart.”
Fox describes the food and drink, the prison regulations, deaths, and burials, just as they were described by Captain Dring, who wrote the fullest account of the Jersey, and from whose memoirs we shall quote further on. He says of their shallow graves in the sand of the Wallabout: “This was the last resting place of many a son and a brother,–young and noble-spirited men, who had left their happy homes and kind friends to offer their lives in the service of their country. * * * Poor fellows! They suffered more than their older companions in misery. They could not endure their hopeless and wearisome captivity:–to live on from day to day, denied the power of doing anything; condemned to that most irksome and heart-sickening of all situations, utter inactivity; their restless and impetuous spirits, like caged lions, panted to be free, and the conflict was too much for endurance, enfeebled and worn out as they were with suffering and confinement. * * * The fate of many of these unhappy victims must have remained forever unknown to their friends; for in so large a number, no exact account could be kept of those who died, and they rested in a nameless grave; while those who performed the last sad rites were hurried away before their task was half completed, and forbid to express their horror and indignation at this insulting negligence towards the dead. * * *
“The regular crew of the Jersey consisted of a Captain, two Mates, a steward, a cook, and about twelve sailors. There was likewise on board a guard of about thirty soldiers, from the different regiments quartered on Long Island, who were relieved by a fresh party every week.
“The physical force of the prisoners was sufficient at any time to take possession of the ship, but the difficulty was to dispose of themselves after a successful attempt. Long Island was in possession of the British, and the inhabitants were favorable to the British cause. To leave the ship and land on the island, would be followed by almost certain detection; and the miseries of our captivity would be increased by additional cruelties heaped upon us from the vindictive feelings of our oppressors.
“Yet, small as was the chance for succeeding in the undertaking, the attempt to escape was often made, and in not a few instances with success.
“Our sufferings were so intolerable, that we felt it to be our duty to expose ourselves to almost any risk to obtain our liberty. To remain on board of the prison ship seemed to be certain death, and in its most horrid form; to be killed, while endeavoring to get away, could be no worse.
“American prisoners are proverbial for their ingenuity in devising ways and means to accomplish their plans, whether they be devised for their own comfort and benefit, or for the purpose of annoying and tormenting their keepers.
“Although we were guarded with vigilance yet there did not appear much system in the management of the prisoners; for we frequently missed a whole mess from our number, while their disappearance was not noticed by our keepers. Occasionally a few would be brought back who had been found in the woods upon Long Island, and taken up by the Tories.
“Our mess one day noticed that the mess that occupied the place next to them were among the missing. This circumstance led to much conjecture and inquiry respecting the manner in which they had effected their escape. By watching the movements of our neighbors we soon found out the process necessary to be adopted.
“Any plan which a mess had formed they kept a secret among their number, in order to insure a greater prospect of success. * * * For the convenience of the officers of the ship a closet, called the “round house”, had been constructed under the forecastle, the door of which was kept locked. This room was seldom used, there being other conveniences in the ship preferable to it.
“Some of the prisoners had contrived to pick the lock of the door; and as it was not discovered the door remained unfastened.
“After we had missed our neighbor prisoners, and had ascertained to our satisfaction their mode of operation, the members of our mess determined to seize the first opportunity that offered to attempt our escape. We selected a day, about the 15th of August, and made all the preparations in our power for ensuring us success in our undertaking. At sunset, when the usual cry from the officer of the guard, ‘Down, rebels, down!’ was heard, instead of following the multitude down the hatchways, our mess, consisting of six, all Americans, succeeded in getting into the ’round house’, except one. The round house was found too small to contain more than five; and the sixth man, whose name, I think, was Putnam of Boston, concealed himself under a large tub, which happened to be lying near the place of our confinement. The situation of the five, as closely packed in the round house as we could stand and breathe, was so uncomfortable as to make us very desirous of vacating it as soon as possible.
“We remained thus cooped up, hardly daring to breathe, for fear we should be heard by the guard. The prisoners were all below, and no noise was heard above, saving the tramp of the guard as he paced the deck. It was customary, after the prisoners were secured below, for the ship’s mate every night to search above; this, however, was considered a mere formality, and the duty was very imperfectly executed. While we were anxiously awaiting the completion of this service, an event transpired, that we little anticipated, and which led to our detection.
“One of the prisoners, an Irishman, had made his arrangements to escape the same evening, and had not communicated with any one on the subject except a countryman of his, whom he persuaded to bury him up in the coal hole, near the forecastle.
“Whether his friend covered him faithfully or not, or whether the Irishman thought that if he could not see anybody, nobody could see him, or whether, feeling uncomfortable in his position, he turned over to relieve himself, I know not; but when the mate looked in the coal hole he espied something rather whiter than the coal, which he soon ascertained to be the Irishman’s shoulder. This discovery made the officer suspicious, and induced him to make a more thorough search than usual.
“We heard the uproar that followed the discovery, and the threats of the mate that he would search every damned corner. He soon arrived at the round house, and we heard him ask a soldier for the key. Our hopes and expectations were a little raised when we heard the soldier reply, ‘There is no need of searching this place, for the door is kept constantly locked.’
“But the mate was not to be diverted from his purpose, and ordered the soldier to get the key.
“During the absence of the soldier, we had a little time to reflect upon the dangers of our situation; crowded together in a space so small as not to admit of motion; with no other protection than the thickness of a board; guarded on the outside by about twelve soldiers, armed with cutlasses, and the mate, considerably drunk, with a pistol in each hand, threatening every moment to fire through;–our feelings may be more easily conceived than described. There was but little time for deliberation; something must be immediately done. * * * In a whispered consultation of some moments, we conceived that the safest course we could pursue would be to break out with all the violence we could exercise, overcome every obstacle, and reach the quarter-deck. By this time the soldier had arrived with the key, and upon applying it, the door was found to be unlocked. We now heard our last summons from the mate, with imprecations too horrible to be repeated, and threatening us with instant destruction if we did not immediately come out.
“To remain any longer where we were would have been certain death to some of us; we therefore carried our hastily formed plan into execution. The door opened outwards, and forming ourselves into a solid body, we burst open the door, rushed out pellmell, and making a brisk use of our fists, knocked the guard heels over head in all directions, at the same time running with all possible speed for the quarter-deck. As I rushed out, being in the rear, I received a wound from a cutlass on my side, the scar of which remains to this day.
“As nearly all the guards were prostrated by our unexpected sally, we arrived at our destined place, without being pursued by anything but curses and threats.
“The mate exercised his authority to protect us from the rage of the soldiers, who were in pursuit of us, as soon as they had recovered from the prostration into which they had been thrown; and, with the assistance of the Captain’s mistress, whom the noise had brought upon deck, and whose sympathy was excited when she saw we were about to be murdered: she placed herself between us and the enraged guard, and made such an outcry as to bring the Captain” (Laird) “up, who ordered the guard to take their station at a little distance and to watch us narrowly. We were all put in irons, our feet being fastened to a long bar, a guard placed over us, and in this situation we were left to pass the night.
“During the time of the transactions related, our fellow prisoner, Putnam, remained quietly under the tub, and heard the noise from his hiding place. He was not suffered to remain long in suspense. A soldier lifted up the tub, and seeing the poor prisoner, thrust his bayonet into his body, just above his hip, and then drove him to the quarter-deck, to take his place in irons among us. The blood flowed profusely from his wound, and he was soon after sent on board the hospital ship, and we never heard anything respecting him afterwards.
“With disappointed expectations we passed a dreary night. A cold fog, followed by rain, came on; to which we were exposed, without any blankets or covering to protect us from the inclemency of the weather. Our sufferings of mind and body during that horrible night, exceeded any that I have ever experienced.
“We were chilled almost to death, and the only way we could preserve heat enough in our bodies to prevent our perishing, was to lie upon each other by turns.
“Morning at last came, and we were released from our fetters. Our limbs were so stiff that we could hardly stand. Our fellow prisoners assisted us below, and wrapping us in blankets, we were at last restored to a state of comparative comfort.
“For attempting to escape we were punished by having our miserable allowance reduced one third in quantity for a month; and we had found the whole of it hardly sufficient to sustain life. * * *
“One day a boat came alongside containing about sixty firkins of grease, which they called butter. The prisoners were always ready to assist in the performance of any labor necessary to be done on board of the ship, as it afforded some little relief to the tedious monotony of their lives. On this occasion they were ready to assist in hoisting the butter on board. The firkins were first deposited upon the deck, and then lowered down the main hatchway. Some of the prisoners, who were the most officious in giving their assistance, contrived to secrete a firkin, by rolling it forward under the forecastle, and afterwards carrying it below in their bedding.
“This was considered as quite a windfall; and being divided among a few of us, proved a considerable luxury. It helped to fill up the pores in our mouldy bread, when the worms were dislodged, and gave to the crumbling particles a little more consistency.
“Several weeks after our unsuccessful attempt to escape, another one attended with better success, was made by a number of the prisoners. At sunset the prisoners were driven below, and the main hatchway was closed. In this there was a trap-door, large enough for a man to pass through, and a sentinel was placed over it with orders to permit one prisoner at a time to come up during the night.
“The plan that had been formed was this:–one of the prisoners should ascend, and dispose of the sentinel in such a manner that he should be no obstacle in the way of those who were to follow.
“Among the soldiers was an Irishman who, in consequence of having a head of hair remarkable for its curly appearance, and withal a very crabbed disposition, had been nicknamed ‘Billy the Ram’. He was the sentinel on duty this night, for one was deemed sufficient, as the prisoners were considered secure when they were below, having no other place of egress saving the trap-door, over which the sentinel was stationed.
“Late in the night one of the prisoners, a bold, athletic fellow, ascended upon deck, and in an artful manner engaged the attention of Billy the Ram, in conversation respecting the war; lamenting that he had engaged in so unnatural a contest, expressing his intention of enlisting in the British service, and requesting Billy’s advice respecting the course necessary to be pursued to obtain the confidence of the officers.
“Billy happened to be in a mood to take some interest in his views, and showed an inclination, quite uncommon for him, to prolong the conversation. Unsuspicious of any evil design on the part of the prisoner, and while leaning carelessly on his gun, Billy received a tremendous blow from the fist of his entertainer on the back of his head, which brought him to the deck in a state of insensibility.
“As soon as he was heard to fall by those below, who were anxiously awaiting the result of the friendly conversation of their pioneer with Billy, and were satisfied that the final knock-out argument had been given, they began to ascend, and, one after another, to jump overboard, to the number of about thirty.
“The noise aroused the guard, who came upon deck, where they found Billy not sufficiently recovered from the stunning effects of the blow he had received to give any account of the transaction. A noise was heard in the water; but it was so dark that no object could be distinguished. The attention of the guard, however, was directed to certain spots which exhibited a luminous appearance, which salt water is known to assume in the night when it is agitated, and to these appearances they directed their fire, and getting out the boats, picked out about half the number that attempted to escape, many of whom were wounded, though not one was killed. The rest escaped.
“During the uproar overhead the prisoners below encouraged the fugitives, and expressed their approbation of their proceedings in three hearty cheers; for which gratification we suffered our usual punishment–a short allowance of our already short and miserable fare.
“For about a fortnight after this transaction it would have been a hazardous experiment to approach near to ‘Billy the Ram’, and it was a long time before we ventured to speak to him, and finally to obtain from him an account of the events of the evening.
“Not long after this another successful attempt to escape was made, which for its boldness is perhaps unparalleled in the history of such transactions.
“One pleasant morning about ten o’clock a boat came alongside, containing a number of gentlemen from New York, who came for the purpose of gratifying themselves with a sight of the miserable tenants of the prison-ship, influenced by the same kind of curiosity that induces some people to travel a great distance to witness an execution.
“The boat, which was a beautiful yawl, and sat like a swan upon the water, was manned by four oarsmen, with a man at the helm. Considerable attention and respect was shown the visitors, the ship’s side being manned when they showed their intention of coming on board, and the usual naval courtesies extended. The gentlemen were soon on board; and the crew of the yawl, having secured her to the forechains on the larboard side of the ship, were permitted to ascend the deck.
“A soldier as usual was pacing with a slow and measured tread the whole length of the deck, wheeling round with measured precision, when he arrived at the end of his walk; and whether upon this occasion, any one interested in his movements had secretly slipped a guinea into his hand, not to quicken but to retard his progress, was never known; but it was evident to the prisoners that he had never occupied so much time before in measuring the distance with his back to the place where the yawl was fastened.
“At this time there were sitting in the forecastle, apparently admiring the beautiful appearance of the yawl, four mates and a captain, who had been brought on board as prisoners a few days previous, taken in some vessel from a southern port.