“As soon as the sentry had passed these men, in his straightforward march, they, in a very quiet manner, lowered themselves down into the yawl, cut the rope, and the four mates taking in hand the oars, while the captain managed the helm, in less time than I have taken to describe it, they were under full sweep from the ship. They plied the oars with such vigor that every stroke they took seemed to take the boat out of the water. In the meantime the sentry heard nothing and saw nothing of this transaction, till he had arrived at the end of his march, when, in wheeling slowly round, he could no longer affect ignorance, or avoid seeing that the boat was several times its length from the ship. He immediately fired; but, whether he exercised his best skill as a marksman, or whether it was on account of the boat’s going ahead its whole length at every pull of the rowers, I could never exactly ascertain, but the ball fell harmlessly into the water. The report of the gun brought the whole guard out, who blazed away at the fugitives, without producing any dimunition in the rapidity of their progress.
“By this time the officers of the ship were on deck with their visitors; and while all were gazing with astonishment at the boldness and effrontery of the achievement, the guard were firing as fast as they could load their guns. When the prisoners gave three cheers to the yawl’s crew, as an expression of their joy at their success, the Captain ordered all of us to be driven below at the point of the bayonet, and there we were confined the remainder of the day.
“These five men escaped, greatly to the mortification of the captain and officers of the prison-ship. After this, as long as I remained a prisoner, whenever any visitors came on board, all the prisoners were driven below, where they were obliged to remain till the company had departed.”
THE EXPERIENCE OF EBENEZER FOX (CONTINUED)
The miseries of our condition were continually increasing. The pestilence on board spread rapidly; and every day added to our bill of mortality. The young were its most frequent victims. The number of the prisoners was constantly augmenting, notwithstanding the frequent and successful attempts to escape. When we were mustered and called upon to answer to our names, and it was ascertained that nearly two hundred had mysteriously disappeared, without leaving any information of their departure, the officers of the ship endeavored to make amends for their past remissness by increasing the rigor of our confinement, and depriving us of all hope of adopting any of the means for liberating ourselves from our cruel thralldom, so successfully practiced by many of our comrades.
“With the hope that some relief might be obtained to meliorate the wretchedness of our situation, the prisoners petitioned General Clinton, commanding the British forces in New York, for permission to send a memorial to General Washington, describing our condition, and requesting his influence in our behalf, that some exchange of prisoners might be effected.
“Permission was obtained, and the memorial was sent. * * * General Washington wrote to Congress, and also to the British Commissary of Naval prisoners, remonstrating with him, deprecating the cruel treatment of the Americans, and threatening retaliation.
“The long detention of American sailors on board of British prison-ships was to be attributed to the little pains taken by our countrymen to retain British subjects who were taken prisoner on the ocean during the war. Our privateers captured many British seamen, who, when willing to enlist in our service, as was generally the case, were received on board of our ships. Those who were brought into port were suffered to go at large; for in the impoverished condition of the country, no state or town was willing to subject itself to the expence of maintaining prisoners in a state of confinement; they were permitted to provide for themselves. In this way the number of British seamen was too small for a regular and equal exchange. Thus the British seamen, after their capture, enjoyed the blessings of liberty, the light of the sun, and the purity of the atmosphere, while the poor American sailors were compelled to drag out a miserable existence amid want and distress, famine and pestilence. As every principle of justice and humanity was disregarded by the British in their treatment of the prisoners, so likewise was every moral and legal right violated in compelling them to enter into their service.
“We had obtained some information in relation to an expected draught that would soon be made upon the prisoners to fill up a complement of men that were wanted for the service of his Majesty’s fleet.
“One day in the last part of August our fears for the dreaded event were realized. A British officer with a number of soldiers came on board. The prisoners were all ordered on deck, placed on the larboard gangway, and marched in single file round to the quarter-deck, where the officers stood to inspect them, and select such ones as suited their fancies without any reference to the rights of the prisoners. * * * We continued to march round in solemn and melancholy processsion, till they had selected from among our number about three hundred of the ablest, nearly all of whom were Americans, and they were directed to go below under a guard, to collect together whatever things they wished to take belonging to them. They were then driven into the boats, waiting alongside, and left the prison ship, not to enjoy their freedom, but to be subjected to the iron despotism, and galling slavery of a British man-of-war; to waste their lives in a foreign service; and toil for masters whom they hated. Such, however, were the horrors of our situation as prisoners, and so small was the prospect of relief, that we almost envied the lot of those who left the ship to go into the service of the enemy.
“That the reader may not think I have given an exaggerated account of our sufferings on board the Jersey, I will here introduce some facts related in the histories of the Revolutionary War. I introduce them as an apology for the course that I and many of my fellow citizens adopted to obtain temporary relief from our sufferings.
“The prisoners captured by Sir William Howe in 1776 amounted to several thousands. * * * The privates were confined in prisons, deserted churches, and other large open buildings, entirely unfit for the habitations of human beings, in severe winter weather, without any of the most ordinary comforts of life.
“To the indelible and everlasting disgrace of the British name, these unfortunate victims of a barbarity more befitting savages than gentlemen belonging to a nation boasting itself to be the most enlightened and civilized of the world,–many hundreds of them, perished from want of proper food and attention.
“The cruelty of their inhuman jailors was not terminated by the death of these wretched men, as so little care was taken to remove the corpses that seven dead bodies have been seen at one time lying in one of the buildings in the midst of their living fellow-prisoners, who were perhaps envying them their release from misery. Their food * * * was generally that which was rejected by the British ships as unfit to be eaten by the sailors, and unwholesome in the highest degree, as well as disgusting in taste and appearance.
“In December, 1776, the American board of war, after procuring such evidence as convinced them of the truth of their statements, reported that: ‘There were 900 privates and 300 officers of the American army, prisoners in the city of New York, and 500 privates and 50 officers in Philadelphia. That since the beginning of October, all these officers and privates had been confined in prisons or in the provost. That, from the best evidence the subject could admit of, the general allowance of the prisoners did not exceed four ounces of meat a day, and that often so damaged as to be uneatable. That it had been a common practice of the British to keep their prisoners four or five days without a morsel of meat and thus tempt them to enlist to save their lives.’
“Many were actually starved to death, in hope of making them enroll themselves in the British army. The American sailors when captured suffered even more than the soldiers, for they were confined on board prison ships in great numbers, and in a manner which showed that the British officers were willing to treat fellow beings, whose only crime was love of liberty, worse than the vilest animals; and indeed in every respect, with as much cruelty as is endured by the miserable inhabitants of the worst class of slave ships. * * * In the course of the war it has been asserted on good evidence, that 11,000 prisoners died on board the Jersey. * * * These unfortunate beings died in agony in the midst of their fellow sufferers, who were obliged to witness their tortures, without the power of relieving their dying countrymen, even by cooling their parched lips with a drop of cold water, or a breath of fresh air; and, when the last breath had left the emaciated body, they sometimes remained for hours in close contact with the corpse, without room to shrink from companions that Death had made so horrible, and when at last the dead were removed, they were sent in boats to the shore, and so imperfectly buried that long after the war was ended, their bones lay whitening in the sun on the beach of Long Island, a lasting memorial of British cruelty, so entirely unwarranted by all the laws of war or even common humanity.
“They could not even pretend that they were retaliating, for the Americans invariably treated their prisoners with kindness, and as though they were fellow men. All the time that these cruelties were performed those who were deprived of every comfort and necessary were constantly entreated to leave the American service, and induced to believe, while kept from all knowledge of public affairs, that the republican cause was hopeless; that all engaged in it would meet the punishment of traitors to the king, and that all their prospect of saving their lives, or escaping from an imprisonment worse than death to young and high-spirited men, as most of them were, would be in joining the British army, where they would be sure of good pay and quick promotion.
“These were the means employed by our enemies to increase their own forces, and discourage the patriots, and it is not strange they were successful in many instances. High sentiments of honor could not well exist in the poor, half-famished prisoners, who were denied even water to quench their thirst, or the privilege of breathing fresh, pure air, and cramped, day after day, in a space too small to admit of exercising their weary limbs, with the fear of wasting their lives in a captivity, which could not serve their country, nor gain honor to themselves.
“But worse than all was the mortifying consideration that, after they had suffered for the love of their country, more than sailors in active service, they might die in these horrible places, and be laid with their countrymen on the shores of Long Island, or some equally exposed spot, without the rites of burial, and their names never be heard of by those who, in future ages, would look back to the roll of patriots, who died in defence of liberty, with admiration and respect, while, on the contrary, by dissembling for a time, they might be able to regain a place in the service so dear to them, and in which they were ready to endure any hardship or encounter any danger.
“Of all the prisons, on land or water, for the confinement of the Americans, during the Revolutionary War, the Old Jersey was acknowledged to be the worst; such an accumulation of horrors was not to be found in any other one, or perhaps in all collectively.
“The very name of it struck terror into the sailor’s heart, and caused him to fight more desperately, to avoid being made a captive. Suffering as we did, day after day, with no prospect of relief, our numbers continually augmenting, * * * can it be thought strange that the younger part of the prisoners, to whom confinement seemed worse than death, should be tempted to enlist into the British service; especially when, by so doing, it was probable that some opportunity would be offered to desert? We were satisfied that death would soon put an end to our sufferings if we remained prisoners much longer, yet when we discussed the expediency of seeking a change in our condition, which we were satisfied could not be worse under any circumstances, and it was proposed that we should enter the service of King George, our minds revolted at the idea, and we abandoned the intention.
“In the midst of our distresses, perplexities, and troubles of this period, we were not a little puzzled to know how to dispose of the vermin that would accumulate upon our persons, notwithstanding all our attempts at cleanliness. To catch them was a very easy task, but to undertake to deprive each individual captive of life, as rapidly as they could have been taken, would have been a more herculean task for each individual daily, than the destruction of 3000 Philistines by Sampson of old. To throw them overboard would have been but a small relief, as they would probably add to the impurities of the boiler, by being deposited in it the first time it was filled up for cooking our unsavory mess. What then was to be done with them? A general consultation was held, and it was determined to deprive them of their liberty. This being agreed upon, the prisoners immediately went to work, for their comfort and amusement, to make a liberal contribution of those migratory creatures, who were compelled to colonize for a time within the boundaries of a large snuff box appropriated for the purpose. There they lay, snugly ensconced, of all colors, ages, and sizes, to the amount of some hundreds, waiting for orders.
“British recruiting officers frequently came on board, and held out to the prisoners tempting offers to enlist in his Majesty’s service; not to fight against their own country, but to perform garrison duty in the island of Jamaica.
“One day an Irish officer came on board for this purpose, and not meeting with much success among the prisoners who happened to be on deck, he descended below to repeat his offers. He was a remarkably tall man, and was obliged to stoop as he passed along between decks. The prisoners were disposed for a frolic, and kept the officer in their company for some time, flattering him with expectations, till he discovered their insincerity, and left them in no very pleasant humor. As he passed along, bending his body and bringing his broad shoulders to nearly a horizontal position, the idea occurred to our minds to furnish him with some recruits from the colony in the snuff box. A favorable opportunity presented, the cover of the box was removed, and the whole contents discharged upon the red-coated back of the officer. Three cheers from the prisoners followed the migration, and the officer ascended to the deck, unconscious of the number and variety of the recruits he had obtained without the formality of an enlistment. The captain of the ship, suspecting that some joke had been practised, or some mischief perpetrated, from the noise below, met the officer at the head of the gangway, and seeing the vermin crawling up his shoulders, and aiming at his head, with the instinct peculiar to them, exclaimed, ‘Hoot mon! what’s the maitter wi’ your back!’ * * * By this time many of them in their wanderings, had travelled from the rear to the front, and showed themselves, to the astonishment of the officer. He flung off his coat, in a paroxysm of rage, which was not allayed by three cheers from the prisoners on deck. Confinement below, with a short allowance, was our punishment for this gratification.
“From some information we had obtained we were in daily expectation of a visit from the British recruiting officers, and from the summary method of their procedure, no one felt safe from the danger of being forced into their service. Many of the prisoners thought it would be better to enlist voluntarily, as it was probable that afterwards they would be permitted to remain on Long Island, preparatory to their departure to the West Indies, and during that time some opportunity would be offered for their escape to the Jersey shore. * * * Soon after we had formed this desperate resolve a recruiting officer came on board to enlist men for the 88th Regiment to be stationed at Kingston, in the island of Jamaica. * * * The recruiting officer presented his papers for our signature. We hesitated, we stared at each other, and felt we were about to do a deed of which we were ashamed, and which we might regret. Again we heard the tempting offers, and again the assurance that we should not be called upon to fight against our government or country, and with the hope that we should find an opportunity to desert, of which it was our firm intention to avail ourselves when offered,–with such hopes, expectations, and motives, we signed the papers, and became soldiers in his Majesty’s service,
“How often did we afterwards lament that we had ever lived to see this hour? How often did we regret that we were not in our wretched prison ship again, or buried in the sand at the Wallabout!”
There were twelve of the prisoners who left the Jersey with Ebenezer Fox. They were at first taken to Long Island and lodged in barns, but so vigilantly were they guarded that they found it impossible to escape. They were all sent to Kingston, and Fox was allowed to resume his occupation as a barber, much patronized by the officers stationed at that post. He was soon allowed the freedom of the city, and furnished with a pass to go about it as much as he wished. At last, in company with four other Americans, he escaped, and after many adventures the party succeeded in reaching Cuba, by means of a small sailing boat which they pressed into service for that purpose. From Cuba they took passage in a small vessel for St. Domingo, and dropped anchor at Cape Francois, afterwards called Cape Henri. There they went on board the American frigate, Flora, of 32 guns, commanded by Captain Henry Johnson, of Boston.
The vessel soon sailed for France and took several prizes. It finally went up the Garonne to Bordeaux, where it remained nine months. In the harbor of Bordeaux were about six hundred vessels bearing the flags of various nations. Here they remained until peace was proclaimed, when Fox procured service on board an American brig lying at Nantes, and set sail for home in April, 1783.
At length he again reached his mother’s house at Roxbury, after an absence of about three years. His mother, at first, did not recognize him. She entertained him as a stranger, until he made himself known, and then her joy was great, for she had long mourned him as lost.
THE CASE OF CHRISTOPHER HAWKINS
Christopher Hawkins was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1764. When he was in his thirteenth year he sailed on board an American privateer as a cabin boy. The privateer was a schooner, called the Eagle, commanded by Captain Potter. Taken prisoner by the British, Hawkins was sent on board the Asia, an old transport ship, but was soon taken off this vessel, then used for the confinement of American prisoners, and sent on board a frigate, the Maidstone, to serve as a waiter to the British officers on board. He remained on board the Maidstone a year. At the end of that time he was allowed a good deal of liberty. He and another boy were sent on shore to New York with a message, managed to elude the sentinels, and escaped first to Long Island, and afterwards returned home to Providence.
About 1781 he again went on board a privateer under Captain Whipple, was again captured, and this time he was sent to the Jersey. He describes the condition of the prisoners on their way in a transport to this fearful prison ship. They were so crowded together that they could scarcely move, yet they all joined in singing a patriotic song every stanza of which ended with the words:
“For America and all her sons forever will shine!”
They were on board this transport three or four days unable to sit or lie down for want of room. When at last they reached the Jersey they found 800 prisoners on board. Many of these poor wretches would become sick in the night and die before day. Hawkins was obliged to lie down to rest only twenty feet from the gangway, and in the path of the prisoners who would run over him to get on the upper deck. He describes the condition of these men as appalling.
“Near us,” he writes, “was a guard ship and hospital ship, and along the shore a line of sentinels at regular intervals.”
Yet he determined to escape. Many did so; and many were murdered in the attempt. A mess of six had just met a dreadful fate. One of them became terrified and exclaimed as soon as he touched the water, “O Lord, I shall be drowned!” The guard turned out, and murdered five of the poor wretches. The sixth managed to hide, and held on by the flukes of the anchor with nothing but his nose above water. Early in the morning he climbed up the anchor over the bow of the ship to the forecastle, and fled below. A boy named Waterman and Hawkins determined to drop through a port-hole, and endeavor to reach Long Island by swimming. He thus describes the adventure:
“The thunder-storm was opportune to our design, for having previously obtained from the cook’s room an old axe and crow-bar from the upper deck for the purpose, we concealed them till an opportunity should offer for their use. We took advantage of the peals of thunder in a storm that came over us in the afternoon to break one of the gun ports on the lower deck, which was strongly barred with iron and bolts. * * * When a peal of thunder roared we worked with all our might with the axe and crow-bar against the bars and bolts. When the peals subsided we ceased, without our blows being heard by the British, until another peal commenced. We then went to work again, and so on, until our work was completed to our liking. The bars and bolts, after we had knocked them loose, were replaced so as not to draw the attention of our British gentry if they should happen to visit the lower deck before our departure. We also hung some old apparel over and around the shattered gunport to conceal any marks.
“Being thus and otherwise prepared for our escape, the ship was visited by our Captain Whipple the next day after we had broken the gun-port. To him we communicated our intention and contemplated means of escape. He strongly remonstrated against the design. We told him we should start the ensuing evening. Captain Whipple answered:
“‘How do you think of escaping?’
“I answered, ‘By swimming to that point,’ at the same time pointing to a place then in our view on Long Island, in a northeasterly direction from the prison ship. We must do this to avoid the sentinels who were stationed in the neighborhood of the ship.
“‘What!’ said Captain Whipple, ‘Do you think of swimming to that point?’
“‘Yes, we must, to avoid the sentinels,’ I answered.
“‘Well,’ said Captain Whipple, ‘Give it up, It is only throwing your lives away, for there is not a man on earth who can swim from this ship to that point as cold as the water is now. Why, how far do you think it is?’
“‘Why,’ I answered, ‘Waterman and myself have estimated the distance at a mile and a half.’
“‘Yes,’ said he, ‘It’s all of two and a half miles. You cannot measure across as well as I can. So you had better give it up, for I have encouragement of getting home next week, and if I do, I will make it my whole business to get you all exchanged immediately.’
“Altho’ Waterman was several years my senior in age, the conversation was carried on between Captain Whipple and myself for the reason that Captain W. was more acquainted with me than with Waterman, but Waterman was present.” (Captain Whipple was captured five times during the Revolution, each time on his own vessel.)
“His advice had great weight on our minds, but did not shake our purpose. We had not been on board the Old Jersey more than one hour before we began to plot our escape. We had been only three days on board when we left it forever. We had been on board long enough to discover the awful scenes which took place daily in this ‘floating hell.’
“Our preparations for leaving were completed by procuring a piece of rope from an old cable that was stretched under the fo’castle of the ship, * * * and wound around the cable to preserve it. We had each of us packed our wearing apparel in a knapsack for each, made on board the Old Jersey. I gave some of my apparel to the two Smiths. I stowed in my knapsack a thick woolen sailor jacket, well lined, a pair of thick pantaloons, one vest, a pair of heavy silver shoe buckles, two silk handkerchiefs, four silver dollars, not forgetting a junk bottle of rum, which we had purchased on board at a dear rate. Waterman had stowed his apparel and other articles in his knapsack. Mine was very heavy. It was fastened to my back with two very strong garters, passing over my shoulders, and under each arm, and fastened with a string to my breast, bringing my right and left garter in contact near the centre.
“Thus equipt we were ready to commit ourselves to the watery element, and to our graves, as many of our hardy fellow prisoners predicted. The evening was as good an one as we could desire at that season of the year, the weather was mild and hazy, and the night extremely dark.
“It was arranged between Waterman and myself that after leaving the ship we should be governed in our course by the lights on board the ships and the responses of the sentinels on shore, and after arriving on shore to repair near a dwelling house which we could see from the Old Jersey in the day time, and spend the balance of the night in a barn, but a few rods from the dwelling.
“Waterman was the first to leave the ship through the broken-open gun-port, and suspended to the rope by his hands, and at the end behind him (it was held) by several of our fellow prisoners whom we were leaving behind us, and with whom we affectionately parted with reciprocal good wishes. He succeeded in gaining the water and in leaving the ship without discovery from the British. It had been agreed, if detection was about to take place, that he should be received again into the ship. I had agreed to follow him in one minute in the same manner. I left and followed in half that time, and succeeded in leaving the ship without giving the least alarm to those who had held us in captivity.
“I kept along close to the side of the ship until I gained the stern, and then left the ship. This was all done very slowly, sinking my body as deep in the water as possible, without stopping my course, until I was at such a distance from her that my motions in the water would not create attention from those on board. After gaining a suitable distance from the ship, I hailed Waterman three times. He did not answer me. * * * I have never seen him since he left the Old Jersey to this day. His fate and success I have since learned from James Waterman, one of his brothers.
“In the meantime I kept on my course without thinking that any accident would befall him, as I knew him to be an excellent swimmer, and no fainthearted or timid fellow.
“I could take my course very well from the light reflected from the stern lanthorns of the prison, guards, and hospital ships, and also from the responses of the sentinels on shore; in the words, ‘All’s well.’ These responses were repeated every half hour on board the guard ship, and by the sentinels. * * * These repetitions served me to keep the time I was employed in reaching the shore;–no object occupied my mind during this time so much as my friend Waterman, if I may except my own success in getting to land in safety.
“I flattered myself I should find him on shore or at the barn we had agreed to occupy after we might gain it. After I had been swimming nearly or quite two hours my knapsack had broken loose from my back, from the wearing off of the garters under my arms, in consequence of the friction in swimming. * * * This occurrence did not please me much. I endeavored to retain my knapsack by putting it under one arm, * * * but soon found that this impeded my progress, and led me from my true course. * * * By this time I had become much chilled, and benumbed from cold, but could swim tolerably well. * * * I hesitated whether or not to retain my knapsack longer in my possession, or part from it forever, I soon determined on the latter, and sent it adrift. In this balancing state of mind and subsequent decision I was cool and self collected as perhaps at any time in my life. * * * I now soon found I was close in with the shore. * * * I swam within twelve feet of the shore before I could touch bottom, and in so doing I found I could not stand, I was so cold * * * but I moved around in shoal water until I found I could stand, then stept on shore. * * * I had not sent my clothes adrift more than twenty-five minutes or so before striking the shore. I was completely naked except for a small hat on my head which I had brought from the Old Jersey. What a situation was this, without covering to hide my naked body, in an enemy’s country, without food or means to obtain any, and among Tories more unrelenting than the devil,–more perils to encounter and nothing to aid me but the interposition of heaven! Yet I had gained an important portion of my enterprise: I had got on land, after swimming in the water two hours and a half, and a distance of perhaps two miles and a half.”
Hawkins at last found the barn and slept in it the rest of the night, but not before falling over a rock in the darkness, and bruising his naked body severely. Next morning a black girl came into the barn, apparently hunting for eggs, but he did not dare reveal himself to her. He remained there all day, and endeavored to milk the cows, but they were afraid of a naked stranger. He left the place in the night and travelled east. In a field he found some overripe water melons, but they were neither wholesome nor palatable. After wandering a long time in the rain he came to another barn, and in it he slept soundly until late the next day. Nearly famished he again wandered on and found in an orchard a few half rotten pears. Near by was a potato patch which he entered hoping to get some of them. Here a young woman, who had been stooping down digging potatoes, started up. “I was, of course,” he continues, “naked, my head excepted. She was, or appeared to be, excessively frightened, and ran towards a house, screeching and screaming at every step.” Hawkins ran in the other direction, and got safely away. At last the poor boy found another barn, and lay, that night, upon a heap of flax. After sunrise next morning he concluded to go on his way. “I could see the farmers at their labor in the fields. I then concluded to still keep on my course, and go to some of these people then in sight. I was, by this time, almost worn out with hunger. I slowly approached two tall young men who were gathering garden sauce. They soon discovered me and appeared astonished at my appearance, and began to draw away from me, but I spoke to them in the following words:–‘Don’t be afraid of me: I am a human being!’ They then made a halt and inquired of me, ‘Are you scared?’ ‘No,’ said I. They then advanced slowly towards me, and inquired, ‘How came you here naked?’
“I seated myself on the ground and told them the truth.”
One of the young men told him to conceal himself from the sight of the neighbors, and he would go and consult with his mother what had best be done. He soon returned, bringing two large pieces of bread and butter and a decent pair of pantaloons. He then told him to go to the side of the barn and wait there for his mother, but not to allow himself to be seen. The boys’ mother came out to speak to him with a shirt on her arm. As he incautiously moved around the side of the barn to meet her, she exclaimed, “For God’s sake don’t let that black woman see you!” A slave was washing clothes near the back door of the farm house. The poor woman explained to Hawkins that this negress would betray him, “For she is as big a devil as any of the king’s folks, and she will bring me out, and then we should all be put in the provost and die there, for my husband was put there more than two years ago, and rotted and died there not more than two weeks since.”
The poor woman wept as she told her story, and the escaped prisoner wept with her. This woman and her two sons were Dutch, and their house was only nine miles from Brooklyn ferry. She now directed the boy to a house at Oyster Bay where she said there was a man who would assist him to escape.
After running many risks he found the house at last, but the woman who answered his knock told him that her husband was away and when he explained who he was she became very angry, and said that it was her duty to give him up. So he ran away from her, and at last fell into the hands of a party of British, who recaptured him, and declared that they would send him immediately back to the prison ship. They were quartered in a house near Oyster Bay, and here they locked him in a room, and he was told to lie down on some straw to sleep, as it was now night. In the night the fleas troubled him so much that he was very restless. A sentinel had been placed to guard him, and when this wretch heard him moving in the dark he exclaimed, “Lie still, G–d— you,” and pricked him several times with his bayonet, so that the poor boy felt the fresh blood running down his body. He begged the sentinel to spare his life, declaring that it was hard he should be killed merely because the fleas had made him restless. He now did not dare to move, and was obliged to endure the attacks the fleas and the stiffness of his wounds in perfect silence until the sentinel was relieved. The next sentinel was kind and humane and seemed to compassionate his sufferings. He said that some men were natural brutes, and seemed to take an interest in the boy, but could do little for him. At daylight he was sent to the quarters of a Tory colonel a mile from the guard room. The colonel was a tall man of fine appearance, who examined him, and then said he must be sent back to the Jersey. The poor lad was now left in an unlocked room on the ground floor of the colonel’s house. He was given his breakfast, and a mulatto man was set to guard him. Now there was a pantry opening into this room, and a negro girl, who appeared very friendly with the mulatto, called him to eat his breakfast in this pantry. The mulatto, while eating, would look out every few minutes. Just after one of these inspections the boy got up softly, with his shoes in his hands, stepped across the room, out at the back door, and concealed himself in a patch of standing hemp. From thence he made his way into an orchard, and out into a wood lot. Here he hid himself and remained quiet for several hours, and although he heard several persons talking near him, he was not pursued. At last he stole out, walked about six miles, and at night fall entered a barn and slept there. He was in rather better case than before his recapture, for a doctor belonging to the British service had taken pity on him the night before, and had furnished him with warm clothes, shoes, and a little money.
Next morning a woman who lived in a small house near the road gave him some bread and milk. The time of the year was autumn, it was a day or two before Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. He now very fortunately met an acquaintance named Captain Daniel Havens. He was an uncle of a boy named John Sawyer, with whom young Hawkins had run away from New York some years before. Through the agency of this old friend Hawkins got on board a smuggler in the night and finally reached home in safety.
Christopher Hawkins’s account of the Old Jersey is not so reliable as that of some others who were among her inmates. He was only on board that vessel three days, but in that time he saw enough to decide him to risk death in the attempt to escape rather than remain any longer on board of her. He declares that: “The cruel and unjustifiable treatment of the prisoners by the British soon produced the most demoralizing effects upon them. Boxing was tolerated without stint…. After I left the ship an American vessel came into the port of New York as a cartel for the exchange of prisoners…. A ship’s mate was so fortunate as to be one of the exchanged. He had a large chest on board, and, as privately as he could, he put the cabin boy into the chest, locked him in, and carried him on board the cartel. A prisoner named Spicer had seen the boy put into the chest, and after he had been conveyed on board the cartel, Spicer communicated the affair to the commanding officer on board the Jersey. The cartel was immediately boarded, as she had not yet left the port, and the boy was found and brought back. Spicer paid for his treachery with his life. The prisoners knocked him down the hatchway, when they were going down for the night; they then fell upon him, cut off his ears, and mangled him in a shocking manner, so that he died in a day or two.”
This event occured after he left the ship, according to his own narrative. The same story is told in a different way by an eye witness of undoubted veracity. He says that the prisoners were so incensed against Spicer that they determined to kill him. For this purpose some of them held him, while another was about to cut his throat, when the guards, hearing the uproar, rushed down the hatchway, and rescued him.
Hawkins also says: “I one day observed a prisoner on the forecastle of the ship, with his shirt in his hands, having stripped it from his body, deliberately picking the vermin from the pleats and putting them in his mouth. * * * I stepped very near the man and commenced a conversation with him. He said he had been on board two years and a half, or eighteen months. He had completely lost count of time, was a skeleton and nearly naked. This was only one case from perhaps a hundred similar. This man appeared in tolerable health as to body, his emaciation excepted. * * * The discipline of the prisoners by the British was in many respects of the most shocking and appalling character. The roll of the prisoners, as I was informed, was called every three months, unless a large acquisiton of prisoners should render it necessary more often. The next day after our crew were put on board the roll was called, and the police regulations of the ship were read. I heard this. One of the new regulations was to the effect that every captive trying to get away should suffer instant death, and should not even be taken on board alive.”
It appears that David Laird commanded the Old Jersey from 1778 until early in the year 1781. He was then relieved of the command, and this office was given to a man named John Sporne, or Spohn, until the 9th of April, 1783, when all the prisoners remaining in her were released, and she was abandoned. The dread of contagion kept visitors aloof. She was still moored in the mud of the Wallabout by chain cables, and gradually sank lower and lower. There is a beam of her preserved as a curiosity at the Naval Museum at Brooklyn.
David Laird, the Scotchman who commanded her until the early part of 1781, returned to New York after the peace of 1783 as captain of a merchant ship, and moored his vessel at or near Peck’s Slip. A number of persons who had been prisoners on board the Jersey, and had suffered by his cruelty, assembled on the wharf to receive him, but he deemed it prudent to remain on ship-board during the short time his vessel was there.
It is in the recollections of Ebenezer Fox that we have the only mention ever made of a woman on board that dreadful place, the Old Jersey, and although she may have been and probably was an abandoned character, yet she seems to have been merciful, and unwilling to see the prisoners who were attempting to escape, butchered before her eyes. It is indeed to be hoped that no other woman ever set foot in that terrible place to suffer with the prisoners, and yet there are a few women’s names in the list of these wretched creatures given in the appendix to this book. It is most likely, however, that these were men, and that their feminine appellations were nicknames. [Footnote: One is named Nancy and one Bella, etc.]
TESTIMONY OF PRISONERS ON BOARD THE JERSEY
We must again quote from Ebenezer Fox, whose description of the provisions dealt out to the prisoners on board the prison ships shall now be given.
“The prisoners received their mess rations at nine in the morning. * * * All our food appeared to be damaged. The bread was mostly mouldy, and filled with worms. It required considerable rapping upon the deck, before these worms could be dislodged from their lurking places in a biscuit. As for the pork, we were cheated out of it more than half the time, and when it was obtained one would have judged from its motley hues, exhibiting the consistence and appearance of variegated soap, that it was the flesh of the porpoise or sea hog, and had been an inhabitant of the ocean, rather than a sty. * * * The flavor was so unsavory that it would have been rejected as unfit for the stuffing of even Bologna sausages. The provisions were generally damaged, and from the imperfect manner in which they were cooked were about as indigestible as grape shot. The flour and oatmeal was often sour, and when the suet was mixed with the flour it might be nosed half the length of the ship. The first view of the beef would excite an idea of veneration for its antiquity, * * * its color was a dark mahagony, and its solidity would have set the keenest edge of a broad axe at defiance to cut across the grain, though like oakum it could be pulled to pieces, one way, in strings, like rope yarn. * * * It was so completely saturated with salt that after having been boiled in water taken from the sea, it was found to be considerably freshened by the process. * * * Such was our food, but the quality was not all of which we had to complain. * * * The cooking was done in a great copper vessel. * * * The Jersey, from her size, and lying near the shore, was embedded in the mud, and I don’t recollect seeing her afloat the whole time I was a prisoner. All the filth that accumulated among upwards of a thousand men was daily thrown overboard, and would remain there until carried away by the tide. The impurity of the water may be easily conceived, and in that water our meat was boiled. It will be recollected, too, that the water was salt, which caused the inside of the copper to be corroded to such a degree that it was lined with a coat of verdigris. Meat thus cooked must, in some degree, be poisoned, and the effects of it were manifest in the cadaverous countenances of the emaciated beings who had remained on board for any length of time.
“* * * We passed the night amid the accumulated horrors of sighs and groans; of foul vapor; a nauseous and putrid atmosphere, in a stifling and almost suffocating heat. * * * Little sleep could be enjoyed, for the vermin were so horribly abundant that all the personal cleanliness we could practice would not protect us from their attacks.”
The public papers of the day often contained accounts of the cruelties practiced upon the prisoners on the ships. In the _Pennsylvania Packet_ of Sept. 4th, 1781, there is an extract from a letter written by a prisoner whose name is not given.
“EXTRACT FROM A LETTER DATED ON BOARD THE JERSEY (VULGARLY CALLED HELL) PRISON SHIP
“New York August 10th 1781
“There is nothing but death or entering into the British service before me. Our ship’s company is reduced by death and entering into the British service to the small number of 19. * * * I am not able to give you even the outlines of my exile; but this much I will inform you, that we bury 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11 in a day. We have 200 more sick and falling sick every day; the sickness is the yellow fever, small pox, and in short everything else that can be mentioned.”
“New London. Conn. March 3rd. 1782. Sunday last a flag ship returned from New York which brought twenty Americans who had been a long time on board a prison ship. About 1,000 of our countrymen remain in the prison ships at New York, great part of whom have been in close confinement for more than six months, and in the most deplorable condition: many of them seeing no prospect of release are entering into the British service to elude the contagion with which the ships are fraught.”
EXTRACT OF A LETTER WRITTEN ON BOARD THE PRISON SHIP JERSEY, APRIL 26TH, 1782.
“I am sorry to write you from this miserable place. I can assure you that since I have been here we have had only twenty men exchanged, although we are in number upwards of 700, exclusive of the sick in the Hospital ships, who died like sheep; therefore my intention is, if possible, to enter on board some merchant or transport vessel, as it is impossible for so many men to keep alive in one vessel.”
“Providence. May 25th 1782. Sunday last a flag of truce returned here from New York and brought a few prisoners. We learn that 1100 Americans were on board the prison and hospital ships at New York, when the flag sailed from thence, and that from six to seven were generally buried every day.”
“Salem. Mass. Extract from a letter of an officer on board the Jersey.–‘The deplorable situation I am in cannot be expressed. The captains, lieutenants, and sailing masters have gone to the Provost, but they have only gotten out of the frying pan into the fire. I am left here with about 700 miserable objects, eaten up by lice, and daily taking fevers, which carry them off fast. Nov 9th 1782.”
By repeated acts of cruelty on the part of the British the Americans were, at last, stung to attempt something like retaliation. In 1782 a prison ship, given that name, was fitted up and stationed in the Thames near New London, as we learn from the following extract:
“New London, Conn. May 24th 1782. Last Saturday the Retaliation prison ship was safely moored in the river Thames, about a mile from the ferry, for the receipt of such British prisoners as may fall into our hands, since which about 100 prisoners have been put on board.”
It is said that this ship was in use but a short time, and we have been unable to learn anything further of her history.
Thomas Philbrook, who was a prisoner on board the Jersey for several months was one of the “working-party,” whose duty it was to scrub the decks, attend to the sick, and bring up the dead. He says: “As the morning dawned there would be heard the loud, unfeeling, and horrid cry, ‘Rebels! Bring up your dead!’
“Staggering under the weight of some stark, still form, I would at length gain the upper deck, when I would be met with the salutation: ‘What! _you alive yet?_ Well, you are a tough one!'”
RECOLLECTIONS OF ANDREW SHERBURNE
Andrew Sherburne, a lad of seventeen, shipped on the Scorpion, Captain R. Salter, a small vessel, with a crew of eighteen men. This vessel was captured by the Amphion, about the middle of November, 1782. Sherburne says that the sailors plundered them of everything they possessed, and that thirteen of them were put on board the Amphion, and sent down to the cable tiers between the two decks, where they found nearly a hundred of their countrymen, who were prisoners of war.
“We were very much crowded, and having nothing but the cables to lay on, our beds were as hard and unpleasant as though they were made of cord wood, and indeed we had not sufficient room for each to stretch himself at the same time.
“After about two weeks we arrived at New York, and were put on board that wretched ship the Jersey. The New York prison ships had been the terror of American tars for years. The Old Jersey had become notorious in consequence of the unparallelled mortality on board her. * * *
“I entered the Jersey towards the last of November, I had just entered the eighteenth year of my age, and had now to commence a scene of suffering almost without a parallel. * * * A large proportion of the prisoners had been robbed of their clothing. * * * Early in the winter the British took the Chesapeake frigate of about thirty guns, and 300 hands. All were sent on board the Jersey, which so overcrowded her, that she was very sickly. This crew died exceedingly fast, for a large proportion were fresh hands, unused to the sea.”
Sherburne says that boats from the city brought provisions to sell to such of the prisoners as were so fortunate as to be possessed of money, and that most of them were able to make purchases from them. A piece of sausage from seven to nine inches long sold for sixpence.
In January, 1783, Sherburne became ill and was sent to the Frederick, a hospital ship. In this two men shared every bunk, and the conditions were wretchedly unsanitary. He was placed in a bunk with a man named Wills from Massachusetts, a very gentle and patient sufferer, who soon died.
“I have seen seven men drawn out and piled together on the lower hatchway, who had died in one night on board the Frederick.
“There were ten or twelve nurses, and about a hundred sick. Some, if not all of the nurses, were prisoners. * * * They would indulge in playing cards and drinking, while their fellows were thirsting for water and some dying. At night the hatches were shut down and locked, and the nurses lived in the steerage, and there was not the least attention paid to the sick except by the convalescent, who were so frequently called upon that, in many cases, they overdid themselves, relapsed, and died.”
Sherburne suffered extremely from the cold. “I have often,” he says “toiled the greatest part of the night, in rubbing my feet and legs to keep them from freezing. * * * In consequence of these chills I have been obliged to wear a laced stocking upon my left leg for nearly thirty years past. My bunk was directly against the ballast-port; and the port not being caulked, when there came a snow-storm the snow would blow through the seams in my bed, but in those cases there was one advantage to me, when I could not otherwise procure water to quench my thirst. The provision allowed the sick was a gill of wine, and twelve ounces of bread per day. The wine was of an ordinary quality, and the bread made of sour or musty flour, and sometimes poorly baked. There was a small sheet iron stove between decks, but the fuel was green, and not plenty, and there were some peevish and surly fellows generally about it. I never got an opportunity to sit by it, but I could generally get the favor of some one near it to lay a slice of bread upon it, to warm or toast it a little, to put into my wine and water. We sometimes failed in getting our wine for several days together; we had the promise of its being made up to us, but this promise was seldom performed. * * * Water was brought on board in casks by the working party, and when it was very cold it would freeze in the casks, and it would be difficult to get it out. * * * I was frequently under the necessity of pleading hard to get my cup filled. I could not eat my bread, but gave it to those who brought me water. I have given three days allowance to have a tin cup of water brought me. * * * A company of the good citizens of New York supplied all the sick with a pint of good Bohea tea, well sweetened with molasses a day; and this was constant. I believe this tea saved my life, and the lives of hundreds of others. * * * The physicians used to visit the sick once in several days: their stay was short, nor did they administer much medicine. Were I able to give a full description of our wretched and filthy condition I should almost question whether it would be credited. * * * It was God’s good pleasure to raise me up once more so that I could just make out to walk, and I was again returned to the Jersey prison ship.”
Here he received sad news. One of his uncles was a prisoner on board the Jersey, and had been very kind to him, giving him a share of his money with which to purchase necessaries. Now he found his uncle about to take his place in the hospital ship. A boy named Stephen Nichols also informed him of the death in his absence of the gunner of their ship, whose name was Daniel Davis. This poor man had his feet and legs frozen, from which he died.
“Nichols and myself were quite attached to each other. * * * We stalked about the decks together, lamenting our forlorn condition. In a few days there came orders to remove all the prisoners from the Jersey in order to cleanse the ship. We were removed on board of transports, and directly there came on a heavy storm. The ship on which I was was exceedingly crowded, so that there was not room enough for each man to lay down under deck, and the passing and repassing by day had made the lower deck entirely wet. Our condition was distressing. After a few days we were all put on board the Jersey again. A large number had taken violent colds, myself among the rest. The hospital ships were soon crowded, and even the Jersey herself shortly became about as much of a hospital ship as the others.”
Sherburne was again sent to a hospital ship, where he was rejoiced to find his uncle convalescing. A man who lay next him had been a nurse, but had had his feet and legs frozen, the toes and bottom of his feet fell off.
Two brothers shared a bunk near him. Their names were John and Abraham Falls. John was twenty-three, and Abraham only sixteen. Both were very sick. One night Abraham was heard imploring John not to lie on him, and the other invalids reproached him for his cruelty in thus treating his young brother. But John was deaf to their reproaches, for he was dead. Abraham was too ill to move from under him. Next day the dead brother was removed from the living one, but it was too late to save him, and the poor boy died that morning.
Sherburne says that only five of his crew of thirteen survived, and that in many instances a much larger proportion died.
“At length came news of peace. It was exceedingly trying to our feelings to see our ship mates daily leaving us, until our ship was almost deserted. We were, however, convalescent, but we gained exceedingly slowly. * * * I think there were but seven or eight left on board the hospital ship when we left it, in a small schooner sent from R. I., for the purpose of taking home some who belonged to that place, and the commander of the hospital ship had the humanity to use his influence with the master of the cartel to take us on board, and to our unspeakable joy he consented.”
When at last he reached home he says: “My brother Sam took me into another room to divest me of my filthy garments and to wash and dress me. He having taken off my clothes and seen my bones projecting here and there, was so astonished that his strength left him. He sat down on the point of fainting, and could render me no further service. I was able to wash myself and put on my clothes.”
After this he was obliged to spend twenty days in bed. Poor Mrs. Falls, the mother of the two young men who had died on the hospital ship, called on him and heard the fate of her sons. She was in an agony, and almost fainted, and kept asking if it was not a mistake that _both_ were dead.
CAPTAIN ROSWELL PALMER
In the year 1865 a son of Captain Roswell Palmer, of Connecticut, wrote a letter to Mr. Henry Drowne, in which he narrates the story of his father’s captivity, which we will condense in these pages. He says that his father was born in Stonington, Conn., in August, 1764, and was about seventeen at the time of his capture by the British, which must have been in 1781.
Palmer had several relations in the army, and was anxious to enlist, but was rejected as too young. His uncle, however, received him as an assistant in the Commissary Department, and when the brig Pilgrim, of Stonington, was commissioned to make war on the public enemy, the rejected volunteer was warmly welcomed on board by his kinsman, Captain Humphrey Crary.
The first night after putting to sea, the Pilgrim encountered a British fleet just entering the Vineyard Sound. A chase and running fight of several hours ensued, but at length the vessel was crippled and compelled to surrender. The prize was taken into Holmes’ Hole, and the crew subsequently brought to New York. Mr. Henry Palmer thus describes the Jersey, which was his father’s destination.
“The Jersey never left her anchorage at the Wallabout, whether from decrepitude, or the intolerable burden of woes and wrongs accumulated in her wretched hulk,–but sank slowly down at last into the subjacent ooze, as if to hide her shame from human sight, and more than forty years after my father pointed out to me at low tide huge remnants of her unburied skeleton.
“On board of this dread Bastile were crowded year after year, some 1,400 prisoners, mostly Americans. The discipline was very strict, while the smallest possible attention was paid by their warders to the sufferings of the captives. Cleanliness was simply an impossibility, where the quarters were so narrow, the occupants so numerous, and little opportunity afforded for washing the person or the tatters that sought to hide its nakedness. Fortunate was the wretch who possessed a clean linen rag, for this, placed in his bosom, seemed to attract to it crowds of his crawling tormentors, whose squatter sovereignty could be disposed of by the wholesale at his pleasure.
“The food of the prisoners consisted mainly of spoiled sea biscuit, and of navy beef, which had become worthless from long voyaging in many climes years before. These biscuits were so worm-eaten that a slight pressure of the hand reduced them to dust, which rose up in little clouds of insubstantial aliment, as if in mockery of the half famished expectants. For variety a ration called ‘Burgoo,’ was prepared several times a week, consisting of mouldy oatmeal and water, boiled in two great Coppers, and served out in tubs, like swill to swine.
“By degrees they grew callous to each other’s miseries, and alert to seize any advantage over their fellow sufferers. Many played cards day and night, regardless of the scenes of woe and despair around them. * * * The remains (of those who died) were huddled into blankets, and so slightly interred on the neighboring slope that scores of them, bared by the rains, were always visible to their less fortunate comrades left to pine in hopeless captivity. * * * After having been imprisoned about a year and a half my father, one night, during a paroxysm of fever, rushed on board, and jumped overboard.
“The shock restored him to consciousness, he was soon rescued, and the next morning was taken by the Surgeon-General’s orders to his quarters in Cherry St., near Pearl, where he remained until the close of the war. The kind doctor had taken a fancy to the handsome Yankee patient, whom he treated with fatherly kindness; giving him books to read; and having him present at his operations and dissections; and finally urged him to seek his fortune in Europe, where he should receive a good surgical education free of charge.
“The temptation was very great, but the rememberance of a nearer home and dearer friends, unseen for years, was greater, and to them the long lost returned at last, as one from the dead.”
Captain Palmer commanded a merchant ship after the war, retired and bought a farm near Stockbridge, Mass. He followed the sea over forty years. In appearance he was very tall, erect, robust, and of rare physical power and endurance. He had remarkably small hands and feet, a high and fair forehead, his hair was very black, a tangle of luxuriant curls, and his eyes were clear hazel. He died in his 79th year, in 1844, leaving a large family of children. In his own memoranda he writes: “Four or five hundred Frenchmen were transferred as prisoners to the orlop deck of the Jersey. They were much better treated than we Americans on the deck above them. All, however, suffered very much for the want of water, crowding around two half hogsheads when they were brought on board, and often fighting for the first drink. On one of these occasions a Virginian near me was elbowed by a Spaniard and thrust him back. The Spaniard drew a sheath knife, when the Virginian knocked him headlong backwards, down two hatches, which had just been opened for heaving up a hogshead of stale water from the hold, for the prisoners’ drink. This water had probably been there for years, and was as ropy as molasses.
“There was a deal of trouble between the American and the French and Spanish prisoners. The latter slept in hammocks, we, on the _floor_ of the deck next above them. One night our boys went down * * * and, at a given signal, cut the hammock lashings of the French and Spanish prisoners at the head, and let them all down by the run on the dirty floor. In the midst of the row that followed this deed of darkness, the Americans stole back to their quarters, and were all fast asleep when the English guard came down.
“No lights were permitted after ten o’clock. We used, however, to hide our candles occasionally under our hats, when the order came to ‘Douse the glim!’ One night the officer of the guard discovered our disobedience, and came storming down the hatchway with a file of soldiers. Our lights were all extinguished in a moment, and we on the alert for our tyrants, whom we seized with a will, and hustled to and fro in the darkness, till their cries aroused the whole ship.”
An uncle of Roswell Palmer’s named Eliakim Palmer, a man named Thomas Hitchcock, and John Searles were prisoners on board the Scorpion, a British 74, anchored off the Battery, New York. They were about to be transferred to the Old Jersey, when Hitchcock went into the chains and dropped his hat into the water. On his return he begged for a boat to recover it, and being earnestly seconded by Lieutenant Palmer, the officer of the deck finally consented, ordering a guard to accompany the “damned rebels.” They were a long time in getting the boat off. The hat, in the mean time, floated away from the ship. They rowed very awkardly, of course got jeered at uproariously for “Yankee land lubbers,” and were presently ordered to return. Being then nearly out of musket range, Lieutenant Palmer suddenly seized and disarmed the astonished guard, while his comrades were not slow in manifesting their latent adroitness in the use of the oar, to the no less astonishment of their deriders. In a moment the Bay was alive with excitement; many shots, big and little, were fired at the audacious fugitives from all the fleet; boats put off in hot pursuit; but the Stonington boys reached the Jersey shore in safety, and escaped with their prisoner to Washington’s headquarters, where the tact and bravery they had displayed received the approval of the great commander.
Lieutenant Eliakim Palmer was again taken prisoner later in the war and again escaped. This time he was on board the Jersey. He cut away three iron bars let into an aperture on the side of the ship on the orlop deck, formerly a part of her hold. He swam ashore with his shirt and trousers tied to his head. Having lost his trousers he was obliged to make his way down Long Island for nearly its whole length, in his shirt only. He hid in ditches during the day, subsisting on berries, and the bounty of cows, milked directly into his mouth. He crawled by the sentries stationed at different parts of the island, and at length, after many days, reached Oyster Pond Point, whence he was smuggled by friends to his home in Stonington, Conn.
THE NARRATIVE OF CAPTAIN ALEXANDER COFFIN
In 1807 Dr. Mitchell, of New York published a small volume entitled: “The Destructive Operation of Foul Air, Tainted Provisions, Bad Water, and Personal Filthiness, Upon Human Constitutions, Exemplified in the Unparallelled Cruelty of the British to the American Captives at New York During the Revolutionary War, on Board their Prison and Hospital ships. By Captain Alexander Coffin, Junior, One of the Surviving Sufferers. In a Communication to Dr. Mitchell, dated September 4th, 1807.”
Truly our ancestors were long-winded! A part of this narrative is as follows: “I shall furnish you with an account of the treatment that I, with other of my fellow citizens, received on board the Jersey and John prison ships, those monuments of British barbarity and infamy. I shall give you nothing but a plain simple statement of facts that cannot be controverted. And I begin my narrative from the time of my leaving the South Carolina frigate.
“In June, 1782, I left the above-mentioned frigate in the Havana, on board of which I had long served as a mid-ship-man, and made several trading voyages. I sailed early in September, from Baltimore, for the Havana, in a fleet of about forty sail, most of which were captured, and we among the rest, by the British frigate, Ceres, Captain Hawkins, a man in every sense of the word a perfect brute.
“Though our commander, Captain Hughes, was a very gentlemanly man, he was treated in the most shameful and abusive manner by said Hawkins, and ordered below to mess with the petty officers. Our officers were put into the cable tier, with the crew, and a guard placed at the hatchway to prevent more than two going on deck at a time. The provisions were of the very worst kind, and very short allowance even of them. They frequently gave us pea-soup, that is pea-water, for the pease and the soup, all but about a gallon or two, were taken for the ship’s company, and the coppers filled up with water, and brought down to us in a strap-tub. And Sir, I might have defied any person on earth, possessing the most acute olfactory powers and the most refined taste to decide, either by one or the other or both of these senses, whether it was pease and water, slush and water, or swill.
“After living and being treated in this way, subject to every insult and abuse for ten or twelve days, we fell in with the Champion, a British twenty gun ship, which was bound to New York to refit, and were all sent on board of her The Captain was a true seaman and a gentleman, and our treatment was so different from what we had experienced on board the Ceres, that it was like being removed from Purgatory to Paradise. His name, I think, was Edwards.
“We arrived about the beginning of October in New York and were immediately sent on board the prison-ship in a small schooner, called, ironically enough, the Relief, commanded by one Gardner, an Irishman.
“This schooner Relief plied between the prison ship and New York, and carried the water and provisions from that city to the ship. In fact the said schooner might emphatically be called the Relief, for the execrable water and provisions she carried relieved many of my brave but unfortunate countrymen by death, from the misery and savage treatment they daily endured.
“Before I go on to relate the treatment we experienced on board the Jersey, I will make one remark, and that is if you were to rake the infernal regions, I doubt whether you could find such another set of demons as the officers and men who had charge of the Old Jersey Prison-ship, and, Sir, I shall not be surprised if you, possessing the finer feelings which I believe to be interwoven in the composition of men, and which are not totally torn from the _piece_, till by a long and obstinate perseverance in the meanest, the basest, and cruellest of all human acts, a man becomes lost to every sense of honor, of justice, of humanity, and common honesty; I shall not be surprised, I say, if you, possessing these finer feelings, should doubt whether men could be so lost to their sacred obligations to their God; and the moral ties which ought to bind them to their duty toward their fellow men, as those men were, who had the charge, and also who had any agency in the affairs of the Jersey prison-ship.
“On my arrival on board the Old Jersey, I found there about 1,100 prisoners; many of them had been there from three to six months, but few lived over that time if they did not get away by some means or other. They were generally in the most deplorable situation, mere walking skeletons, without money, and scarcely clothes to cover their nakedness, and overrun with lice from head to feet.
“The provisions, Sir, that were served out to us, was not more than four or five ounces of meat, and about as much bread, all condemned provisions from the ships of war, which, no doubt, were supplied with new in their stead, and the new, in all probability, charged by the commissaries to the Jersey. They, however, know best about that; and however secure they may now feel, they will have to render an account of that business to a Judge who cannot be deceived. This fact, however, I can safely aver, that both the times I was confined on board the prison ships, there never were provisions served out to the prisoners that would have been eatable by men that were not literally in a starving situation.
“The water that we were forced to use was carried from the city, and I postively assert that I never after having followed the sea thirty years, had on board of any ship, (and I have been three years on some of my voyages,) water so bad as that we were obliged to use on board the Old Jersey; when there was, as it were to tantalize us, as pure water, not more than three cables length from us, at the Mill in the Wallabout, as was perhaps ever drank.
“There were hogs kept in pens on the Gun-deck for their own use; and I have seen the prisoners watch an opportunity, and with a tin pot steal the bran from the hogs’ trough, and go into the Galley and when they could get an opportunity, boil it over the fire, and eat it, as you, Sir, would eat of good soup when hungry. This I have seen more than once, and there are now living besides me, who can bear testimony to the same fact. There are many other facts equally abominable that I could mention, but the very thought of those things brings to my recollection scenes the most distressing.
“When I reflect how many hundreds of my brave and intrepid countrymen I have seen, in all the bloom of health, brought on board of that ship, and in a few days numbered with the dead, in consequence of the savage treatment they there received, I can but adore my Creator that He suffered me to escape; but I did not escape, Sir, without being brought to the very verge of the grave.
“This was the second time I was on board, which I shall mention more particularly hereafter. Those of us who had money fared much better than those who had none. I had made out to save, when taken, about twenty dollars, and with that I could buy from the bumboats, that were permitted to come alongside, bread, fruit, etc.; but, Sir, the bumboatmen were of the same kidney as the officers of the Jersey and we got nothing from them without paying through the nose for it, and I soon found the bottom of my purse; after which I fared no better than the rest. I was, however, fortunate in one respect; for after having been there about six weeks, two of my countrymen, (I am a Nantucket man) happened to come to New York to endeavor to recover a whaling sloop that had been captured, with a whaling license from Admiral Digby; and they found means to procure my release, passing me for a Quaker, to which I confess I had no pretensions further than my mother being a member of that respectable society. Thus, Sir, I returned to my friends, fit for the newest fashion, after an absence of three years.
“For my whole wardrobe I carried on my back, which consisted of a jacket, shirt, and trousers, a pair of old shoes and a handkerchief, which served me for a hat, and had more than two months, for I lost my hat the day we were taken, from the maintop-gallant yard, furling the top-gallant sail.
“My clothing, I forgot to mention, was completed laced with locomotive tinsel, and moved as by instinct, in all directions; but as my mother was not fond of such company, she furnished me with a suit of my father’s, who was absent at sea, and condemned my laced suit for the benefit of all concerned.
“Being then in the prime of youth, about eighteen years of age, and naturally of a roving disposition; I could not bear the idea of being idle at home. I therefore proceeded to Providence, R. I., and shipped on board the brig Betsy and Polly, Captain Robert Folger, bound for Virginia and Amsterdam. We sailed from Newport early in February, 1783; and were taken five days after, off the capes of Virginia, by the Fair American privateer, of those parts, mounting sixteen six-pounders, and having 85 men, commanded by one Burton, a refugee, most of whose officers were of the same stamp. We were immediately handcuffed two and two, and ordered into the hold in the cable-tier. Having been plundered of our beds and bedding, the softest bed we had was the soft side of a water cask, and the coils of a cable.
“The Fair American, after having been handsomely dressed by an United States vessel of half of her force, was obliged to put into New York, then in possession of the British army, to refit, and we arrived within the Hook about the beginning of March, and were put on board a pilot boat, and brought up to this city. The boat hauled up alongside the Crane-wharf, where we had our irons knocked off, the mark of which I carry to this day; and were put on board the same schooner, Relief, mentioned in a former part of this narrative, and sent up once more to the prison-ship.
“It was just three months from my leaving the Old Jersey to my being again a prisoner on board of her, and on my return I found but very few of the men I had left three months before. Some had made their escape; some had been exchanged; but the greater part had taken up their abode under the surface of the hill, which you can see from your windows, where their bones are mouldering to dust, mingled with mother earth; a lesson to Americans, written _in capitals, on British cruelty and injustice_.
“I found, on my return on board the Jersey, more prisoners than when I left her; and she being so crowded, they were obliged to send about 200 of us on board the John, a transport-ship of about 300 tons.
“There we were treated worse, if possible, than on board the Jersey, and our accommodations were infinitely worse, for the Jersey, being an old, condemned 64 gun ship had two tiers of ports fore and aft, air-ports, and large hatchways, which gave a pretty free circulation of air through the ship; whereas the John, being a merchant-ship, and with small hatchways, and the hatchways being laid down every night, and no man being allowed to go on deck * * * the effluvia arising from these, together with the already contaminated air, occasioned by the breath of so many people so pent up together, was enough to destroy men of the most healthy and robust constitutions. All the time I was on board this ship, not a prisoner eat his allowance, bad as it was, cooked, more than three or four times; but eat it raw as it came out of the barrel. * * * In the middle of the ship, between decks, was raised a platform of boards about two and a half feet high, for those prisoners to sleep on who had no hammocks. On this they used frequently to sit and play at cards to pass the time. One night in particular, several of us sat to see them play until about ten o’clock, and then retired to our hammocks. About one A. M, we were called and told that one Bird was dying; we turned out and went to where he lay, and found him just expiring. Thus, at 10 P. M, the young man was apparently as well as any of us, and at one A. M. had paid the debt to nature. Many others went off in the same way. It will perhaps be said that men die suddenly anywhere. True, but do they die suddenly anywhere from the same cause? After all these things it is, I think, impossible for the mind to form any other conclusion than that there was a premeditated design to destroy as many Americans as they could on board the prison-ships; the treatment of the prisoners warrants the conclusion; but it is mean, base, and cowardly, to endeavor to conquer an enemy by such infamous means, and truly characteristic of base and cowardly wretches. The truly brave will always treat their prisoners well.
“There were two or three hospital-ships near the prison-ships; and so soon as any of the prisoners complained of being sick, they were sent on board of one of them; and I verily believe that not one out of a hundred ever returned or recovered. I am sure I never knew but one to recover. Almost, and in fact I believe I may say every morning, a large boat from each of the hospital ships went loaded with dead bodies, which were all tumbled together into a hole dug for the purpose, on the hill where the national navy-yard now is.
“A singular affair happened on board of one of the hospital-ships, and no less true than singular. All the prisoners that died after the boat with the load had gone ashore were sewed up in hammocks, and left on deck till next morning. As usual, a great number had thus been disposed of. In the morning, while employed in loading the boat, one of the seamen perceived motion in one of the hammocks, just as they were about launching it down the board placel for that purpose from the gunwale of the ship into the boat, and exclaimed, ‘Damn my eyes! That fellow isn’t dead!’ and if I have been rightly informed, and I believe I have, there was quite a dispute between the man and the others about it. They swore he was dead enough, and should go into the boat; he swore he should not be launched, as they termed it, and took his knife and ripped open the hammock, and behold, the man was really alive. There had been a heavy rain during the night; and as the vital functions had not totally ceased, but were merely suspended in consequence of the main-spring being out of order, this seasonable moistening must have given tone and elasticity to the great spring, which must have communicated to the lesser ones, and put the whole machinery again into motion. You know better about this than I do, and can better judge of the cause of the re-animation of the man. * * * He was a native of Rhode Island; his name was Gavot. He went to Rhode Island in the same flag of truce as myself, about a month afterwards. I felt extremely ill, but made out to keep about until I got home. My parents then lived on the island of Nantucket. I was then taken down, and lay in my bed six weeks in the most deplorable situation; my body was swelled to a great degree, and my legs were as big round as my body now is, and affected with the most excruciating pains. What my disorder was I will not pretend to say; but Dr. Tupper, quite an eminent physician, and a noted tory, who attended me, declared to my mother that he knew of nothing that would operate in the manner that my disorder did, but poison. For the truth of that I refer to my father and brothers, and to Mr. Henry Coffin, father to Captain Peter Coffin, of the Manchester Packet of this point.
“Thus, Sir, in some haste, without much attention to order or diction, I have given you part of the history of my life and sufferings, but I endeavored to bear them as became an American. And I must mention before I close, to the everlasting honor of those unfortunate Americans who were on board the Jersey, that notwithstanding the savage treatment they received, and death staring them in the face, every attempt which was made by the British to persuade them to enter their ships of war or in their army, was treated with the utmost contempt; and I saw only one instance of defection while I was on board, and that person was hooted at and abused by the prisoners till the boat was out of hearing. Their patriotism in preferring such treatment, and even death in its most frightful shapes, to the service of the British, and fighting against their own country has seldom been equalled, certainly never excelled, and if there be no monument raised with hands to commemorate the virtue of those men, it is stamped in capitals on the heart of every American acquainted with their merit and sufferings, and will there remain as long as the blood flows from its fountains.”
We have already seen that many of the prisoners on board the Jersey were impressed into the service of British men-of-war, and that others voluntarily enlisted for garrison duty in the West Indies. It seems probable, however, that, as Captain Coffin asserts, few enlisted in the service to fight against their own countrymen, and those few were probably actuated by the hope of deserting. It is certain that thousands preferred death to such a method of escaping from prison, as is proved by the multitudes of corpses interred in the sand of the Wallabout, all of whom could, in this way, have saved their lives. Conditions changed on board the Jersey, from time to time. Thus, the water supply that was at one time brought by the schooner Relief from New York, was, at other times, procured from a beautiful spring on Long Island, as we will see in our next chapter.
Some of the prisoners speak of the foul air on board the prison ship caused by the fact that all her port holes were closed, and a few openings cut in her sides, which were insufficient to ventilate her. Coffin says there was a good passage of air through the vessel from her port holes. It is probable that the Jersey became so notorious as a death trap that at last, for very shame, some attempt was made to secure more sanitary conditions. Thus, just before peace was established, she was, for the first time, overhauled and cleaned, the wretched occupants being sent away for the purpose. The port holes were very probably opened, and this is the more likely as we read of some of the prisoners freezing to death during the last year of the war. From that calamity, at least, they were safe as long as they were deprived of outer air.
A WONDERFUL DELIVERANCE
There are few records of religious feeling on board the “Jersey, vulgarly called ‘Hell.'” No clergyman was ever known to set foot on board of her, although a city of churches was so near. The fear of contagion may have kept ministers of the gospel away. Visitors came, as we have seen, but not to soothe the sufferings of the prisoners, or to comfort those who were dying. It is said that a young doctor, named George Vandewater attended the sick, until he took a fatal disease and died. He was a resident of Brooklyn, and seems to have been actuated by motives of humanity, and therefore his name deserves a place in this record.
But although the rough seamen who left narratives of their experiences in that fearful place have told us little or nothing about the inner feelings of those poor sufferers, yet it must be presumed that many a silent prayer went up to the Judge and Father of all men, from the depths of that foul prison ship. There was one boy on board the Jersey, one at least, and we hope that there were many more, who trusted in God that He could deliver him, even “from the nethermost hell.”
A large proportion of the prisoners were young men in their teens, who had been attracted by the mysterious fascination of the sea; many of them had run away from good homes, and had left sorrowing parents and friends to mourn their loss. The feelings of these young men, full of eager hopes, and as yet unsoured by too rough handling in their wrestle with the world, suddenly transferred to the deck of the Jersey, has been well described by Fox and other captives, whose adventures we have transcribed in these pages.
We have now to tell the experience of a youth on the Jersey who lived to be a minister, and for many years was in charge of a church at Berkeley. This youth was sensitive, delicate, and far from strong. His faith in human nature received a shock, and his disposition was warped at the most receptive and formative period of his life, by the terrible scenes of suffering on the one hand, and relentless cruelty on the other, that he witnessed in that fatal place. He wrote, in his memoir many years after: _”I have since found that the whole world is but one great prison-house of guilty, sorrowful, and dying men, who live in pride, envy, and malice, hateful, and hating one another.”_
This is one of the most terrible indictments of the human race that was ever written. Let us hope that it is not wholly true.
In 1833 the Rev. Thomas Andros published his recollections under the title, “The Old Jersey Captive.” We will give an abstract of them. He begins by saying: “I was but in my seventeenth year when the struggle commenced. In the summer of 1781 the ship Hannah, a very rich prize, was captured and brought into the port of New London. It infatuated great numbers of our young men who flocked on board our private armed ships in hopes of as great a prize. * * * I entered on board a new Brig called the ‘Fair American.’ She carried sixteen guns. * * * We were captured on the 27th of August, by the Solebay frigate, and safely stowed away in the Old Jersey prison ship at New York, an old, unsightly, rotten hulk.
“Her dark and filthy appearance perfectly corresponded with the death and despair that reigned within. She was moored three quarters of a mile to the eastward of Brooklyn ferry, near a tide-mill on the Long Island shore. The nearest distance to land was about twenty rods. No other British ship ever proved the means of the destruction of so many human beings.”
Andros puts the number of men who perished on board the Jersey as 11,000, and continues: “After it was known that it was next to certain death to confine a prisoner here, the inhumanity and wickedness of doing it was about the same as if he had been taken into the city and deliberately shot on some public square. * * * Never did any Howard or angel of pity appear to inquire into or alleviate our woes. Once or twice a bag of apples was hurled into the midst of hundreds of prisoners, crowded together as thick as they could stand, and life and limbs were endangered by the scramble. This was a cruel sport. When I saw it about to commence I fled to the most distant part of the ship.”
At night, he says, the prisoners were driven down to darkness between decks, secured by iron gratings and an armed soldiery. He thus speaks of the tasks imposed upon the prisoners: “Around the well-room an armed guard were forcing up the prisoners to the winches to clear the ship of water, and prevent her sinking; and little could be heard but a roar of mutual execrations, reproaches and insults.
“Sights of woe, regions of sorrow, doleful shades; Where peace and rest can never dwell
“When I became an inmate of this abode of suffering, despair, and death, there were about 400 on board, but in a short time they were increased to 1,200.
“All the most deadly diseases were pressed into the service of the king of terrors, but his prime ministers were dysentery, small pox, and yellow fever. The healthy and the diseased were mingled together in the main ship.”
He says that the two hospital ships were soon overcrowded, and that two hundred or more of the prisoners, who soon became sick in consequence of the want of room, were lodged in the fore-part of the lower gun-deck, where all the prisoners were confined at night.
“Utter derangement was a common sympton of yellow fever, and to increase the horror of darkness which enshrouded us, for we were allowed no light, the voice of warning would be heard, ‘Take care! There’s a madman stalking through the ship with a knife in his hand!'”
Andros says that he sometimes found the man by whose side he had lain all night a corpse in the morning. There were many sick with raging fever, and their loud cries for water, which could only be obtained on the upper deck, mingled with the groans of the dying, and the execrations of the tormented sufferers. If they attempted to get water from the upper deck, the sentry would push them back with his bayonet. Andros, at one time, had a narrow escape with his life, from one of these bayonet thrusts.
“In the morning the hatches were thrown open and we were allowed to ascend. The first object we saw was a boat loaded with dead bodies conveying them to the Long Island shore, where they were very slightly covered with sand. * * * Let our disease be what it would we were abandoned to our fate. No English physician ever came near us.”
Thirteen of the crew to which Andros belonged were on the Jersey. In a short time all but three or four were dead. The healthiest died first. They were seized vith yellow fever, which was an epidemic on the ship, and died in a few hours. Andros escaped contagion longer than any of his companions, with one exception. He says that the prisoners were furnished with buckets and brushes to cleanse the ship, and vinegar to sprinkle the floors, but that most of them had fallen into a condition of apathy and despair, and that they seldom exerted themselves to improve their condition.
“The encouragement to do so was small. The whole ship was equally affected, and contained pestilence enough to desolate a world; disease and death were wrought into her very timbers. At the time I left it is to be supposed a more filthy, contagious, and deadly abode never existed among a Christianized people.
“The lower hold and the orlop deck were such a terror that no man would venture down into them. * * * Our water was good could we have had enough of it: the bread was superlatively bad. I do not recollect seeing any which was not full of living vermin, but eat it, worms and all, we must, or starve. * * * A secret, prejudicial to a prisoner, revealed to the guard, was death. Captain Young of Boston concealed himself in a large chest belonging to a sailor going to be exchanged, and was carried on board the cartel, and we considered his escape as certain, but the secret leaked out, and he was brought back and one Spicer of Providence being suspected as the traitor the enraged prisoners were about to cut his throat. The guard rushed down and rescued him.
“I knew no one to be seduced into the British service. They tried to force one of our crew into the navy, but he chose rather to die than perform any duty, and he was again restored to the prison-ship.”
Andros declares that there was no trace of religion exhibited on board the Jersey. He also says that the prisoners made a set of rules for themselves by which they regulated their conduct towards each other. No one was allowed to tyrannize over the weak, and morality was enforced by rules, and any infraction of these regulations was severely punished.
He speaks of scenes of dreadful suffering which he witnessed:
“Which things, most worthy of pity, I myself saw, And of them was a part.”
“The prison ship is a blot which a thousand ages cannot eradicate from the name of Britian. * * * While on board almost every thought was occupied to invent some plan of escape. The time now came when I must be delivered from the ship or die. I was seized with yellow fever, and should certainly take the small-pox with it, and who does not know that I could not survive the operation of both of these diseases at once. * * * I assisted in nursing those who had the pox most violently.
“The arrival of a cartel and my being exchanged would but render my death the more sure.”
Yet he endeavored to promote his exchange by stepping up and giving in his name among the first, when a list of the prisoners was taken. Andros was not strong, and as he himself says, disease often seemed to pass over the weak and sickly, and to attack, with deadly result, the prisoners who were the healthiest and most vigorous.
“It was the policy of the English to return for sound and healthy men sent from our prisons, such Americans as had but just the breath of life in them, sure to die before they reached home. The guard would tell a man while in health, ‘You haven’t been here long enough, you are too well to be exchanged.’
“There was one more method of getting from the ship,” Andros continues, “and that was at night to steal down through a gun-port which we had managed to open unbeknown to the guard, and swim ashore.” This, he declared, was for him a forlorn hope. Already under the influence of yellow fever, and barely able to walk, he was, even when well, unable to swim ten rods. Discovery was almost certain, for the guards now kept vigilant watch to prevent any one escaping in this manner, and they shot all whom they detected in the act of escaping. Yet this poor young man trusted in God. He writes: “God, who had something more for me to do, undertook for me.” Mr. Emery, the sailing master, was going ashore for water. Andros stepped up to him and asked: “Mr. Emery, may I go on shore with you after water?”
No such favor had ever been granted a prisoner, and Andros scarcely knew what prompted him to prefer such a request. To his immense surprise, the sailing master, who must have had a heart after all, replied, “Yes, with all my heart.” He was evidently struck with compassion for the poor, apparently dying, young man.
Andros, to the astonishment of his companions, immediately descended into the boat. Some of them asked: “What is that sick man going on shore for?”
The British sailors endeavored to dissuade him, thinking that he would probably die on the excursion.
“‘So, to put them all to silence, I again ascended on board, for I had neglected to take my great-coat. But I put it on, and waited for the sailing-master. The boat was pushed off, I attempted to row, but an English sailor said, very kindly, ‘Give me the oar. You are too unwell.’ * * * I looked back to the black and unsightly old ship as to an object of the greatest horror. * * * We ascended the creek and arrived at the spring, and I proposed to the sailors to go in quest of apples.”
The sailing-master said to him, “This fresh air will be of service to you.” This emboldened him to ask leave to ascend a bank about thirty feet high, and to call at a house near the spring to ask for refreshment. “Go,” said Mr. Emery, “but take care not to be out of the way.” He replied that his state of health was such that nothing was to be feared from him on that account. He managed to get into a small orchard that belonged to the farmhouse. There he saw a sentinel, who was placed on guard over a pile of apples. He soon convinced himself that this man was indifferent to his movements, and, watching his opportunity, when the man’s back was turned, he slipped beyond the orchard, into a dense swamp, covered with a thick undergrowth of saplings and bushes. Here there was a huge prostrate log twenty feet in length, curtained with a dense tangle of green briar.
“Lifting up this covering I crept in, close by the log, and rested comfortably, defended from the northeast storm which soon commenced.”
He heard the boat’s crew making inquiries for him but no one discovered his hiding-place. One of them declared that he was safe enough, and would never live to go a mile. In the middle of the night he left his hiding place, and fell into a road which he pursued some distance. When he heard approaching footsteps he would creep off the path, roll himself up into a ball to look like a bush, and remain perfectly still until the coast was clear. He now felt that a wonderful Providence was watching over him. His forethought in returning for his overcoat was the means of saving his life, as he would undoubtedly have perished from exposure without it. Next night he hid in a high stack of hay, suffering greatly. When the storm was over he left this hiding place, and entered a deep hollow in the woods near by, where he felt secure from observation. Here he took off his clothes and spread them in the sun to dry.
Returning to the road he was proceeding on his way, when at a bend in the road, he came upon two light dragoons, evidently looking for him. What was he to do? His mind acted quickly, and, as they approached, he leisurely got over a fence into a small corn field, near a cottage by the way-side. Here he busied himself as if he were the owner of the cottage, going about the field; deliberately picking up ears of corn; righting up the cap sheaf of a stack of stalks, and examining each one. He had lost his hat, and had a handkerchief around his head, which helped to deceive the dragoons, who supposed that he had just come out of the cottage. They eyed him sharply, but passed on.
After this he dared not show himself, and wandered about, living on apples and water. He would lie concealed all day, in barns or hollows of the woods. At night he travelled as far as his weakened condition would allow He often found unfermented cider at the presses, for it was cider-making time.
After several days of this wandering life he sought refuge in a barn, where he was found by a cross old man, who refused to do anything for him. He says that in the course of his wanderings he uniformly found women kind and helpful. They gave him food and kept his secret. One night, feeling utterly spent, he came to the poor dwelling of an old man and his wife, on the east side of Long Island. These good people assisted him by every means in their power, as if he were their own son. They took off his clothes, giving him another suit until they had baked all his garments in the oven to destroy the vermin which tormented him day and night. They insisted upon his occupying a clean bed. That night he slept sweetly, rid of the intolerable torture of being eaten up alive. He managed to reach Sag Harbor, where he found two other escaped prisoners. Soon he was smuggled to Connecticut in a whale-boat, and restored to his mother. It was late in October when he reached home. He was very ill and delirious for a long time, but finally recovered, taught school for some time, and finally became a minister of the gospel.
THE NARRATIVE OF CAPTAIN DRING
By far the most complete account of life on board the Old Jersey is contained in Captain Dring’s Recollections. His nature was hopeful, and his constitution strong and enduring. He attempted to make the best of his situation, and succeeded in leading as nearly a tolerable life on board the prison-ship as was possible. His book is too long for insertion in these pages, but we will endeavor to give the reader an abstract of it.
This book was published in 1865, having been prepared for the press and annotated by Mr. Albert G. Greene, who speaks of Captain Dring as “a frank, outspoken, and honest seaman.” His original manuscript was first published in 1829.
Dring describes the prison ships as leaky old hulks, condemned as unfit for hospitals or store ships, but considered good enough for prisoners doomed to speedy annihilation. He says:
“There is little doubt that the superior officers of the Royal Navy under whose exclusive jurisdiction were these ships, intended to insure, as far as possible, the good health of those who were confined on board of them; there is just as little doubt, however, that the inferior officers, under whose control those prisoners were more immediately placed, * * * too often frustrated the purposes of their superior officers, and too often disgraced humanity, by their wilful disregard of the policy of their Government, and of the orders of their superiors, by the uncalled-for severity of their treatment of those who were placed in their custody, and by their shameless malappropriation of the means of support which were placed in their hands for the sustenance of the prisoners.”
However that may be, the superior officers must have known that the prison ships were unfit for human habitation; that they were fearfully overcrowded; and that the mortality on board of them was unprecedented in the annals of prison life.
The introduction to Captain Drings’s recollections declares, what is well known, that General Washington possessed but limited authority; he was the Commander-in-Chief of the army, but had nothing to do with the American Navy, and still less with the crews of privateers, who made up a very large portion of the men on board the Jersey. Yet he did all he could, actuated, as he always was, by the purest motives of benevolence and humanity.
“The authority to exchange naval prisoners,” to quote from this introduction, “was not invested in Washington, but in the Financier, and as the prisoners on the Jersey freely set forth in their petition, the former was comparatively helpless in the premises, although he earnestly desired to relieve them from their sufferings.
“It will be seen from these circumstances that no blame could properly attach to General Washington, or the Continental Congress, or the Commissary of Prisoners; the blame belonged to those who were engaged in privateering, all of whom had been accustomed to release, without parole, the crews of the vessels which they captured, or enlist them on other privateers; in both cases removing the very means by which alone the release of their captive fellow seamen could be properly and safely effected.
“From the careful perusal of all the information we possess on this interesting subject, the reader will arise with the conviction that, by unwarrantable abuses of authority; and unprincipled disregard of the purposes of the British Government in some of its agents, great numbers of helpless American prisoners were wantonly plunged into the deepest distress; exposed to the most severe sufferings, and carried to unhonored graves. * * * Enough will remain uncontradicted by competent testimony to brand with everlasting infamy all who were immediately concerned in the business; and to bring a blush of shame on the cheek of every one who feels the least interest in the memory of any one who, no matter how remotely, was a party to so mean and yet so horrible an outrage. * * * The authors and abettors of the outrages to which reference has been made will stand convicted not only of the most heartless criminality against the laws of humanity and the laws of God, but of the most flagrant violation of the Laws of Nations, and the Law of the Land.”
These extracts are all taken from the Introduction to Captain Dring’s Recollections, written by Mr. H. B. Dawson, in June, 1865.
Captain Dring was born in Newport, R. I., on the third of August, 1758. He died in August, 1825, in Providence, R. I., and was about 67 years of age at the time of his death. He was many years in the merchant service, and wrote his recollections in 1824.
“I was first confined on the Good Hope, in the year 1779, then lying in the North River opposite the city of New York, but after a confinement of more than four months, I succeeded in making my escape to the Jersey shore.”
Captain Dring is said to have been one of the party who escaped from the Good Hope in October, 1779. The New Jersey papers thus described the escape.
“Chatham, N. J. Last Wednesday morning about one o’clock made their escape from the Good Hope prison ship in the North River, nine Captains and two privates. Among the number was Captain James Prince, who has been confined four months, and having no prospect of being exchanged, concerted a plan in conjunction with the other gentlemen to make their escape, which they effected in the following manner: They confined the Mate, disarmed the sentinels, and hoisted out the boat which was on deck; they brought off nine stands of arms, one pair of pistols, and a sufficient quantity of ammunition, being determined not to be taken alive. They had scarce got clear of the ship before the alarm was given, when they were fired on by three different ships, but fortunately no person was hurt. Captain Prince speaks in the highest terms of Captain Charles Nelson, who commanded the prison-ship, using the prisoners with a great deal of humanity, particularly himself.
“I was again captured in 1782,” Dring continues, “and conveyed on board the Jersey, where * * * I was a witness and partaker of the unspeakable sufferings of that wretched class of American prisoners who were there taught the utmost extreme of human misery. I am now far advanced in years, and am the only survivor, with the exception of two, of a crew of 65 men. I often pass the descendant of one of my old companions in captivity, and the recollection comes fresh to my mind that his father was my comrade and fellow sufferer in prison; that I saw him breathe his last upon the deck of the Jersey, and assisted at his interment at the Waleboght; * * *
“In May, 1782, I sailed from Providence, R. I., as Master’s-mate, on board a privateer called the Chance, commanded by Captain Daniel Aborn, mounting 12 six-pound cannon, and having a crew of 65 men.”
This vessel was captured in a few days by the Belisarius, of 26 guns, commanded by Captain Graves. The prisoners were brought to New York and the Belisarius dropped her anchor abreast of the city. A large gondola soon came alongside, in which was seated David Sproat, the much-hated British Commissary of Naval Prisoners. He was an American refugee, universally detested for the insolence of his manners, and the cruelty of his conduct. The prisoners were ordered into the boats, and told to apply themselves to the oars, but declined to exert themselves in that manner, whereupon he scowled at them and remarked, “I’ll soon fix you, my lads!”
David Sproat found America too hot for him after the war and died at Kirkcudbright, Scotland, in 1799.
Dring says: “My station in the boat as we hauled alongside, was exactly opposite one of the air-ports in the side of the ship. From this aperture proceeded a strong current of foul vapor of a kind to which I had been before accustomed while confined on board the Good Hope, the peculiar disgusting smell of which I then recollected, after a lapse of three years. This was, however, far more foul and loathsome than anything which I had ever met with on board that ship, and it produced a sensation of nausea far beyond my powers of description.
“Here, while waiting for orders to ascend on board, we were addressed by some of the prisoners from the air-ports * * * after some questions whence we came, and respecting the manner of our capture, one of the prisoners said that it was a lamentable thing to see so many young men in the prime of health and vigor condemned to a living grave.” He went on to say that Death passed over such human skeletons as himself as unworthy of his powers, but that he delighted in making the strong, the youthful, and the vigorous, his prey.
After the prisoners had been made to descend the hatchways, these were then fastened down for the night. Dring says it was impossible for him to find one of his companions in the darkness.
“Surrounded by I knew not whom, except that they were beings as wretched as myself; with dismal sounds meeting my ears from every direction; a nauseous and putrid atmosphere filling my lungs at every breath; and a stifling and suffocating heat which almost deprived me of sense, even of life. Previous to leaving the boat I had put on several articles of clothing, for the purpose of security, but I was soon compelled to disencumber myself of these. * * * Thoughts of sleep did not enter into my mind.”
He discovered a gleam of light from one of the port-holes and keeping hold of his bag endeavored to make his way to it, but was greeted by curses and imprecations from those who were lying on the deck, and whom he disturbed. At length he arrived at the desired spot, but found it occupied. In the morning he saw himself surrounded by a crowd of forms, with the hues of death and famine upon their faces. At eight o’clock they were permitted to ascend on deck, and he found some of his friends.
“Pale and meagre, the throng came on deck, to view for a few moments the morning sun, and then to descend again, to pass another day of misery and wretchedness. I found myself surrounded by a motley crew of wretches, with tattered garments and pallid visages. * * * Among them I saw one ruddy and heathful countenance, and recognized the features of one of my late companions on the Belisarius. But how different did he appear from the group around him * * * men who, now shrunken and decayed, had but a short time before been as strong, as healthful, and as vigorous as himself. * * * During the night I had, in addition to my other sufferings, been tormented with what I supposed to be vermin, and on coming upon deck, I found that a black silk handkerchief, which I wore around my neck, was completely spotted with them. Although this had often been mentioned as one of the nuisances of the place, yet as I had never before been in a situation to witness anything of the kind, the sight made me shudder, as I knew at once that as long as I should remain on board, these loathsome creatures would be my constant companions and unceasing tormentors.
“The next disgusting object which met my sight was a man suffering from small-pox, and in a few minutes I found myself surrounded by many others laboring under the same disease in every stage of its progress.”
Dring was obliged to inoculate himself, as that was thought to be the safest way of taking the disease. He borrowed some virus from a sufferer, and scarified the skin of his hand with a pin. He then bound up his hand. Next morning he found that it had festered. He took the disease lightly, and soon recovered, while a very large proportion of those who contracted smallpox in the natural manner died of it.
All the prisoners from the Belisarius were obliged to fast for twenty-four hours. Dring had some ship biscuit with him, in his bag. These he distributed to his companions. They then formed themselves into messes of six each, and next morning drew their scanty pittance of food.
We have said that Dring and the other officers on board solved the problem of living with _comparative_ comfort on board the Jersey. As they were officers, the gun-room was given up to their use, and they were not so terribly crowded as the common sailors. Also the officers had money to supply many of their wants, but all this will appear in the course of the narrative.
He says that, even on the second day of their confinement, they could not obtain their allowance of food in time to cook it. No distinction of rank was made by the jailors on the Jersey, but the prisoners themselves agreed to allow the officers to occupy the extreme afterpart of the ship, between decks, called the gun-room. Dring soon became an inmate of this place, in company with the other officers who were already in possession, and these tendered him all the little services in their power.
The different messes were all numbered. At nine o’clock the steward and his assistants would take their places at the window in the bulk head in the steward’s room, and ring a bell. A man from each mess stood ready to be in time to answer when his number was called. The rations were all prepared ready for delivery. They were on two-thirds allowance. This is the full allowance for a British seaman:
Sunday–1 lb. biscuit, 1 lb. pork, and half a pint of peas. Monday–1 lb. biscuit, 1 pint oatmeal, 2 oz. butter. Tuesday-1 lb. biscuit, and 2 lbs. beef. Wednesday–1-1/2 lbs. flour, and 2 ounces suet. Thursday–Same as Sunday.
Friday–Same as Monday.
Saturday–Same as Tuesday.
Two thirds of this allowance for each man would have been sufficient to sustain life, had it been of moderately good quality. They never received butter, but a rancid and ill-smelling substance called sweet oil. “The smell of it, accustomed as we were to everything foul and nauseous, was more than we could endure. We, however, always received it, and gave it to the poor, half-starved Frenchmen who were on board, who took it gratefully, and swallowed it with a little salt and their