Oil had been dealt out to the prisoners on the Good Hope, but there it was hoarded carefully, for they were allowed lights until nine P.M., so they used it in their lamps. But on the Jersey, Dring declares that neither light nor fire was ever allowed.
Often their provisions were not dealt out in time to be cooked that day, and then they had to fast or eat them raw. The cooking was done in the “Great Copper” under the forecastle. This was a boiler enclosed in brick-work about eight feet square. It was large enough to contain two or three hogsheads of water. It was square, and divided into two portions. In one side peas and oatmeal were boiled in fresh water. On the other side the meat was boiled in salt water, and as we have already stated the food was poisoned by copperas. This was the cause, it is believed, of many deaths, especially as the water was obtained from alongside the ship, and was extremely unwholesome.
The portion of each mess was designated by a tally fastened to it by a string. Hundreds of tallies were to be seen hanging over the sides of the brick-work by their strings, each eagerly watched by some member of the mess, who waited to receive it.
The meat was suffered to remain in the boiler a certain time, then the cook’s bell was rung, and the pittance of food must be immediately removed, whether sufficiently cooked or not. The proportion of peas and oatmeal belonging to each mess was measured out of the copper after it was boiled.
The cook alone seemed to have much flesh on his bones. He had been a prisoner, but seeing no prospect of ever being liberated he had offered his services, and his mates and scullions were also prisoners who had followed his example. The cook was not ill-natured, and although often cursed by the prisoners when out of hearing, he really displayed fortitude and forbearance far beyond what most men would have been capable of showing. “At times, when his patience was exhausted, he did, indeed, make the hot water fly among us, but a reconciliation was usually effected with little difficulty.
“Many of the different messes had obtained leave from His Majesty the Cook to prepare their own rations, separate from the general mess in the great boiler. For this purpose a great many spikes and hooks had been driven into the brick-work by which the boiler was enclosed, on which to suspend their tin kettles. As soon as we were permitted to go on deck in the morning, some one took the tin kettle belonging to the mess, with as much water and as many splinters of wood as we had been able to procure during the previous day, and carried them to the Galley; and there having suspended his kettle on one of the hooks or spikes stood ready to kindle his little fire as soon as the Cook or his mates would permit. It required but little fire to boil our food in these kettles, for their bottoms were made concave, and the fire was applied directly in the centre, and let the remaining brands be ever so small they were all carefully quenched; and having been conveyed below were kept for use on a future occasion.
“Much contention often arose through our endeavors to obtain places around the brick-work, but these disputes were always promptly decided by the Cook, from whose mandate there was no appeal. No sooner had one prisoner completed the cooking for his mess, than another supplicant stood ready to take his place; and they thus continued to throng the galley, during the whole time that the fire was allowed to remain under the Great Copper, unless it happened to be the pleasure of the Cook to drive them away. *[…] Each man in the mess procured and saved as much water as possible during the previous day; as no person was ever allowed to take more than a pint at a time from the scuttle-cask in which it was kept. Every individual was therefor obliged each day to save a little for the common use of the mess on the next morning. By this arrangement the mess to which I belonged had always a small quantity of fresh water in store, which we carefully kept, with a few other necessaries, in a chest which we used in common.
“During the whole period of my confinement I never partook of any food which had been prepared in the Great Copper. It is to this fact that I have always attributed, under Divine Providence, the degree of health which I preserved on board. I was thereby also, at times, enabled to procure several necessary and comfortable things, such as tea, sugar, etc. so that, wretchedly as I was situated, my condition was far preferable to that of most of my fellow sufferers, which has ever been to me a theme of sincere and lasting gratitude to Heaven.
“But terrible indeed was the condition of most of my fellow captives. Memory still brings before me those emaciated beings, moving from the Galley with their wretched pittance of meat; each creeping to the spot where his mess was assembled, to divide it with a group of haggard and sickly creatures, their garments hanging in tatters round their meagre limbs, and the hue of death upon their careworn faces. By these it was consumed with the scanty remnants of bread, which was often mouldy and filled with worms. And even from this vile fare they would rise up in torments from the cravings of unsatisfied hunger and thirst.
“No vegetables of any description were ever afforded us by our inhuman keepers. Good Heaven! what a luxury to us would then have been even a few potatoes!–if but the very leavings of swine. * * *
“Oh my heart sinks, my pitying eyes o’erflow, When memory paints the picture of their woe Where my poor countrymen in bondage wait The slow enfranchisement of lingering fate, Greeting with groans the unwelcome night’s return, While rage and shame their gloomy bosoms burn, And chiding, every hour, the slow-paced sun, Endure their woes till all his race was run No one to mark the sufferers with a tear No friend to comfort, and no hope to cheer, And like the dull, unpitied brutes repair To stalls as wretched, and as coarse a fare; Thank Heaven one day of misery was o’er, And sink to sleep, and wish to wake no more.”
THE NARRATIVE OF CAPTAIN DRING (CONTINUED)
“The quarter-deck of the Jersey covered about one-fourth of the upper deck, and the forecastle extended from the stern, about one-eighth part of the length of the upper deck. Sentinels were stationed on the gangways on each side of the upper deck, leading from the quarter-deck to the forecastle. These gangways were about five feet wide; and here the prisoners were allowed to pass and repass. The intermediate space from the bulkhead of the quarter-deck to the forecastle was filled with long spars and booms, and called the spar-deck. The temporary covering afforded by the spar-deck was of the greatest benefit to the prisoners, as it served to shield us from the rain and the scorching rays of the sun. It was here, therefore, that our movables were placed when we were engaged in cleaning the lower decks. The spar-deck was also the only place where we were allowed to walk, and was crowded through the day by the prisoners on deck. Owing to the great number of prisoners, and the small space allowed us by the spar-deck, it was our custom to walk in platoons, each facing the same way, and turning at the same time. The Derrick for taking in wood, water, etc., stood on the starboard side of the spar-deck. On the larboard side of the ship was placed the accommodation ladder, leading from the gangway to the water. At the head of the ladder a sentinel was also stationed.
“The head of the accommodation ladder was near the door of the barricade, which extended across the front of the quarter-deck, and projected a few feet beyond the sides of the ship. The barricade was about ten feet high, and was pierced with loop-holes for musketry in order that the prisoners might be fired on from behind it, if occasion should require.
“The regular crew of the ship consisted of a Captain, two Mates, a Steward, a Corporal, and about 12 sailors. The crew of the ship had no communication whatever with the prisoners. No person was ever permitted to pass through the barricade door, except when it was required that the messes should be examined and regulated, in which case each man had to pass through, and go between decks, and there remain until the examination was completed. None of the guard or of the ship’s crew ever came among the prisoners while I was on board. I never saw one of her officers or men except when there were passengers going in the boat, to or from the stern-ladder.
“On the two decks below, where we were confined at night, our chests, boxes, and bags were arranged in two lines along the decks, about ten feet distant from the sides of the ship; thus leaving as wide a space unencumbered in the middle of each deck, fore and aft, as our crowded situation would admit. Between these tiers of chests, etc., and the sides of the ship, was the place where the different messes assembled; and some of the messes were also separated from their neighbors by a temporary partition of chests, etc. Some individuals of the different messes usually slept on the chests, in order to preserve their contents from being plundered in the night.
“At night the spaces in the middle of the decks were much encumbered with hammocks, but these were always removed in the morning. * * * My usual place of abode being in the Gunroom, I was never under the necessity of descending to the lower dungeon; and during my confinement I had no disposition to visit it. It was inhabited by the most wretched in appearance of all our miserable company. From the disgusting and squalid appearance of the groups which I saw ascending the stairs which led to it, it must have been more dismal, if possible, than that part of the hulk where I resided. Its occupants appeared to be mostly foreigners, who had seen and survived every variety of human suffering. The faces of many of them were covered with dirt and filth; their long hair and beards matted and foul; clothed in rags, and with scarcely a sufficient supply of these to cover their disgusting bodies. Many among them possessed no clothing except the remnant of those garments which they wore when first brought on board; and were unable to procure even any material for patching these together, when they had been worn to tatters by constant use. * * * Some, and indeed many of them, had not the means of procuring a razor, or an ounce of soap.
“Their beards were occasionally reduced by each other with a pair of shears or scissors. * * * Their skins were discoloured by continual washing in salt water, added to the circumstance that it was impossible for them to wash their linen in any other manner than by laying it on the deck and stamping on it with their feet, after it had been immersed in salt water, their bodies remaining naked during the process.
“To men in this situation everything like ordinary cleanliness was impossible. Much that was disgusting in their appearance undoubtedly originated from neglect, which long confinement had rendered habitual, until it created a confirmed indifference to personal appearance.
“As soon as the gratings had been fastened over the hatchways for the night, we usually went to our sleeping places. It was, of course, always desirable to obtain a station as near as possible to the side of the ship, and, if practicable, in the immediate vicinity of one of the air-ports, as this not only afforded us a better air, but also rendered us less liable to be trodden upon by those who were moving about the decks during the night.
“But silence was a stranger to our dark abode. There were continual noises during the night. The groans of the sick and the dying; the curses poured out by the weary and exhausted upon our inhuman keepers; the restlessness caused by the suffocating heat, and the confined and poisonous air, mingled with the wild and incoherent ravings of delirium, were the sounds which every night were raised around us in every direction. Such was our ordinary situation, but at times the consequences of our crowded condition were still more terrible, and proved fatal to many of our number in a single night.
“But, strange as it may appear, notwithstanding all the * * * suffering which was there endured I knew many who had been inmates of that abode for two years, who were apparently perfectly well. They had, as they expressed it, ‘been through the furnace and become seasoned.’ Most of these, however, were foreigners, who appeared to have abandoned all hope of ever being exchanged, and had become quite indifferent with regard to the place of their abode.
“But far different was the condition of that portion of our number who were natives of the United States. These formed by far the most numerous class of the prisoners. Most of these were young men, * * * who had been captured soon after leaving their homes, and during their first voyage. After they had been here immured the sudden change in their situation was like a sentence of death. Many a one was crushed down beneath the sickness of the heart, so well described by the poet:–
“‘Night and day,
Brooding on what he had been, what he was, ‘Twas more than he could bear, his longing fits Thickened upon him. _His desire for Home Became a madness_’
“These poor creatures had, in many instances, been plundered of their wearing apparel by their captors, and here, the dismal and disgusting objects by which they were surrounded, the vermin which infested them, the vile and loathsome food, and what with _them_ was far from being the lightest of their trials, their ceaseless longing after their _homes_, * * * all combined, had a wonderful effect on them. Dejection and anguish were soon visible on their countenances. They became dismayed and terror-stricken; and many of them absolutely died that most awful of all human deaths, the effects of a _broken heart_.
“A custom had long been established that certain labor which it was necessary should be performed daily, should be done by a company, usually called the ‘Working party.’ This consisted of about twenty able-bodied men chosen from among the prisoners, and was commanded, in daily rotation, by those of our number who had formerly been officers of vessels. The commander of the party for the day bore the title of Boatswain. The members of the Working-party received, as a compensation for their services, a full allowance of provisions, and half a pint of rum each, with the privilege of going on deck early in the morning, to breathe the pure air.
“This privilege alone was a sufficient compensation for all the duty which was required of them.
“Their routine of service was to wash down that part of the upper deck and gangways where the prisoners were permitted to walk; to spread the awning, or to hoist on board the wood, water, and other supplies, from the boats in which the same were brought alongside the ship.
“When the prisoners ascended to the upper deck in the morning, if the day was fair, each carried up his hammock and bedding, which were all placed upon the spar-deck, or booms. The Working-party then took the sick and disabled who remained below, and placed them in the bunks prepared for them upon the centre-deck; they then, if any of the prisoners had died during the night, carried up the dead bodies, and laid them upon the booms; after which it was their duty to wash down the main decks below; during which operation the prisoners remained on the upper deck, except such as chose to go below and volunteer their services in the performance of this duty.
“Around the railing of the hatchway leading from the centre to the lower decks, were placed a number of large tubs for the occasional use of the prisoners during the night, and as general receptacles of filth. Although these were indispensably necessary to us, yet they were highly offensive. It was a part of the duty of the Working-party to carry these on deck, at the time when the prisoners ascended in the morning, and to return them between decks in the afternoon.
“Our beds and clothing were kept on deck until nearly the hour when we were to be ordered below for the night. During this interval * * * the decks washed and cleared of all incumbrance, except the poor wretches who lay in the bunks, it was quite refreshing after the suffocating heat and foul vapors of the night to walk between decks. There was then some circulation of air through the ship, and, for a few hours, our existence was, in some degree, tolerable.
“About two hours before sunset the order was usually issued for the prisoners to carry their hammocks, etc., below. After this had been done we were all either to retire between decks, or to remain above until sunset according to our own pleasure. Everything which we could do conducive to cleanliness having then been performed, if we ever felt anything like enjoyment in this wretched abode, it was during this brief interval, when we breathed the cool air of the approaching night, and felt the luxury of our evening pipe. But short indeed was this interval of repose. The Working-party was soon ordered to carry the tubs below, and we prepared to descend to our gloomy and crowded dungeons. This was no sooner done than the gratings were closed over the hatchways, the sentinels stationed, and we left to sicken and pine beneath our accumulated torments; with our guards above crying aloud, through the long night, ‘All’s well!”‘
Captain Dring says that at that time the Jersey was used for seamen alone. The average number on board was one thousand. It consisted of the crews of vessels of all the nations with which the English were at war. But the greater number had been captured on board American vessels.
There were three hospital ships in the Wallabout; the Stromboli, the Hunter, and the Scorpion. [Footnote: At one time as we have seen, the Scorpion was a prison ship, from which Freneau was sent to the Hunter hospital ship.] There was not room enough on board these ships for all the sick, and a part of the upper deck of the Jersey was therefore prepared for their accommodation. These were on the after part of the upper deck, on the larboard side, where those who felt the symptoms of approaching sickness could lie down, in order to be found by the nurses as soon as possible.
Few ever returned from the hospital ships to the Jersey. Dring knew but three such instances during his imprisonment. He says that “the outward appearance of these hospitals was disgusting in the highest degree. The sight of them was terrible to us. Their appearance was even more shocking than that of our own miserable hulk.
“On board the Jersey among the prisoners were about half a dozen men known by the appellation of nurses. I never learned by whom they were appointed, or whether they had any regular appointment at all. But one fact I knew well; they were all thieves. They were, however, sometimes useful in assisting the sick to ascend from below to the gangway on the upper deck, to be examined by the visiting Surgeon who attended from the Hunter every day, when the weather was good. If a sick man was pronounced by the Surgeon to be a proper subject for one of the hospital ships, he was put into the boat waiting alongside; but not without the loss or detention of his effects, if he had any, as these were at once taken by the nurses, as their own property. * * * I had found Mr. Robert Carver, our Gunner while on board the Chance, sick in one of the bunks where those retired who wished to be removed. He was without a bed or pillow, and had put on all the wearing apparel which he possessed, wishing to preserve it, and being sensible of his situation. I found him sitting upright in the bunk, with his great-coat on over the rest of his garments, and his hat between his knees. The weather was excessively hot, and, in the place where he lay, the heat was overpowering. I at once saw that he was delirious, a sure presage that the end was near. I took off his great-coat, and having folded and placed it under his head for a pillow, I laid him upon it, and went immediately to prepare him some tea. I was absent but a few minutes, and, on returning, met one of the thievish Nurses with Carver’s great-coat in his hand. On ordering him to return it his reply was that it was a perquisite of the Nurses, and the only one they had; that the man was dying, and the great-coat could be of no further use to him. I however, took possession of the coat, and on my liberation, returned it to the family of the owner. Mr Carver soon after expired where he lay. We procured a blanket in which to wrap his body, which was thus prepared for interment. Others of the crew of the Chance had died before that time. Mr Carver was a man of strong and robust constitution. Such men were subject to the most violent attacks of the fever, and were also its most certain victims.”
THE INTERMENT OF THE DEAD
Captain Dring continues his narrative by describing the manner in which the dead were interred in the sand of the Wallabout. Every morning, he says, the dead bodies were carried to the upper deck and there laid upon the gratings. Any person who could procure, and chose to furnish, a blanket, was allowed to sew it around the remains of his departed companion.
“The signal being made, a boat was soon seen approaching from the Hunter, and if there were any dead on board the other ships, the boat received them, on her way to the Jersey.
“The corpse was laid upon a board, to which some ropes were attached as straps; as it was often the case that bodies were sent on shore for interment before they had become sufficiently stiff to be lowered into the boat by a single strap. Thus prepared a tackle was attached to the board, and the remains * * * were hoisted over the side of the ship into the boat, without further ceremony. If several bodies were waiting for interment, but one of them was lowered into the boat at a time, for the sake of decency. The prisoners were always very anxious to be engaged in the duty of interment, not so much from a feeling of humanity, or from a wish to pay respect to the remains of the dead, for to these feelings they had almost become strangers, as from the desire of once more placing their feet on the land, if but for a few minutes. A sufficient number of prisoners having received permission to assist in this duty, they entered the boat accompanied by a guard of soldiers, and put off from the ship.
“I obtained leave to assist in the burial of the body of Mr. Carver, * * * and after landing at a low wharf which had been built from the shore, we first went to a small hut, which stood near the wharf, and was used as a place of deposit for the handbarrows and shovels provided for these occasions. Having placed the corpses on the barrows, and received our hoes and shovels, we proceeded to the side of the bank near the Waleboght. Here a vacant space having been selected, we were directed to dig a trench in the sand, of a proper length for the reception of the bodies. We continued our labor until the guards considered that a sufficient space had been excavated. The corpses were then laid in the trench without ceremony, and we threw the sand over them. The whole appeared to produce no more effect upon our guards than if they were burying the bodies of dead animals, instead of men. They scarcely allowed us time to look about us; for no sooner had we heaped the earth upon the trench, than we were ordered to march. But a single glance was sufficient to show us parts of many bodies which were exposed to view, although they had probably been placed there with the same mockery of interment but a few days before.
“Having thus performed, as well as we were permitted to do it, the last duty to the dead, and the guards having stationed themselves on each side of us, we began reluctantly to retrace our steps to the boat. We had enjoyed the pleasure of breathing for a few minutes the air of our native soil; and the thought of return to the crowded prison-ship was terrible in the extreme. As we passed by the waterside we implored our guards to allow us to bathe, or even to wash ourselves for a few minutes, but this was refused us.
“I was the only person of our party who wore a pair of shoes, and well recollect that I took them off for the pleasure of feeling the earth, or rather the sand, as we went along. * * * We went by a small patch of turf, some pieces of which we tore up from the earth, and obtained permission to carry them on board for our comrades to smell them. Circumstances like these may appear trifling to the careless reader; but let him be assured that they were far from being trifles to men situated as we had been. The inflictions which we had endured; the duty which we had just performed; the feeling that we must, in a few minutes, re-enter the place of suffering, from which, in all probability, we should never return alive; all tended to render everything connected with the firm land beneath, and the sweet air above us, objects of deep and thrilling interest.
“Having arrived at the hut we there deposited our implements, and walked to the landing-place, where we prevailed on our guards, who were Hessians, to allow us the gratification of remaining nearly half an hour before we returned to the boat.
“Near us stood a house occupied by a miller, and we had been told that a tide-mill which he attended was in the immediate vicinity, as a landing-place for which the wharf where we stood had been erected. * * * It was designated by the prisoners by the appellation of the ‘Old Dutchman’s,’ and its very walls were viewed by us with feelings of veneration, as we had been told that the amiable daughter of its owner had kept an accurate account of the number of bodies that had been brought on shore for interment from the Jersey and hospital ships. This could easily be done in the house, as its windows commanded a fair view of the landing place. We were not, however, gratified by a sight of herself, or of any other inmate of the house.
“Sadly did we approach and re-enter our foul and disgusting place of confinement. The pieces of turf which we carried on board were sought for by our fellow prisoners, with the greatest avidity, every fragment being passed by them from hand to hand, and its smell inhaled as if it had been a fragrant rose. * * * The first of the crew of the Chance to die was a lad named Palmer, about twelve years of age, and the youngest of our crew. When on board the Chance he was a waiter to the officers, and he continued in this duty after we were placed on board the Jersey. He had, with many others of our crew, been inoculated for the small-pox, immediately after our arrival on board. The usual symptoms appeared at the proper time, and we supposed the appearance of his disorder favorable, but these soon changed, and the yellow hue of his features declared the approach of death. * * * The night he died was truly a wretched one for me. I spent most of it in total darkness, holding him during his convulsions. * * * I had done everything in my power for this poor boy, during his sickness, and could render him but one more kind office (after his death). I assisted to sew a blanket around his body, which was, with others who had died, during the night, conveyed upon deck in the morning, to be at the usual hour hurried to the bank at the Walebocht. I regretted that I could not assist at his interment, as I was then suffering with the small-pox myself, neither am I certain that permission would have been granted me, if I had sought it. Our keepers appeared to have no idea that the prisoners could feel any regard for each other, but appeared to think us as cold-hearted as themselves. If anything like sympathy was ever shown us by any of them it was done by the Hessians. * * * The next deaths among our company were those of Thomas Mitchell and his son-in-law, Thomas Sturmey. It is a singular fact that both of these men died at the same time.”
THE GUARDS ON BOARD THE JERSEY
“In addition to the regular officers and seamen of the Jersey, there were stationed on board about a dozen old invalid Marines, but our actual guard was composed of soldiers from the different regiments quartered on Long Island. The number usually on duty on board was about thirty. Each week they were relieved by a fresh party. They were English, Hessian, and Refugees. We always preferred the Hessians, from whom we received better treatment than from the others. As to the English, we did not complain, being aware that they merely obeyed their orders, in regard to us; but the Refugees * * * were viewed by us with scorn and hatred. I do not recollect, however, that a guard of these miscreants was placed over us more than three times, during which their presence occasioned much tumult and confusion; for the prisoners could not endure the sight of these men, and occasionally assailed them with abusive language, while they, in turn, treated us with all the severity in their power. We dared not approach near them, for fear of their bayonets, and of course could not pass along the gangways where they were stationed; but were obliged to crawl along upon the booms, in order to get fore and aft, or to go up and down the hatchways. They never answered any of our remarks respecting them, but would merely point to their uniforms, as much as to say, ‘We are clothed by our Sovereign, while you are naked.’ They were as much gratified by the idea of leaving us as we were at seeing them depart.
“Many provoking gestures were made by the prisoners as they left the ship, and our curses followed them as far as we could make ourselves heard.
“A regiment of Refugees, with a green uniform, were then quartered at Brooklyn. We were invited to join this Royal band, and to partake of his Majesty’s pardon and bounty. But the prisoners, in the midst of their unbounded sufferings, of their dreadful privations, and consuming anguish, spurned the insulting offer. They preferred to linger and to die rather than desert their country’s cause. During the whole period of my confinement I never knew a single instance of enlistment among the prisoners of the Jersey.
“The only duty, to my knowledge, ever performed by the old Marines was to guard the water-butt, near which one of them was stationed with a drawn cutlass. They were ordered to allow no prisoner to carry away more than one pint at once, but we were allowed to drink at the butt as much as we pleased, for which purpose two or three copper ladles were chained to the cask. Having been long on board and regular in performance of this duty, they had become familiar with the faces of the prisoners, and could, in many instances, detect the frauds which we practiced upon them in order to obtain more fresh water for our cooking than was allowed us by the regulations of the ship. Over the water the sailors had no control. The daily consumption of water on board was at least equal to 700 gallons. I know not whence it was brought, but presume it was from Brooklyn. One large gondola, or boat, was kept in constant employment to furnish the necessary supply.
“So much of the water as was not required on deck for immediate use was conducted into butts, placed in the lower hold of the hulk, through a leather hose, passing through her side, near the bends. To this water we had recourse, when we could procure no other.
“When water in any degree fit for use was brought on board, it is impossible to describe the struggle which ensued, in consequence of our haste and exertions to procure a draught of it. The best which was ever afforded us was very brackish, but that from the ship’s hold was nauseous in the highest degree. This must be evident when the fact is stated that the butts for receiving it had never been cleaned since they were put in the hold. The quantity of foul sediment which they contained was therefore very great, and was disturbed and mixed with the water as often as a new supply was poured into them, thereby rendering their whole contents a substance of the most disgusting and poisonous nature. I have not the least doubt that the use of this vile compound caused the death of hundreds of the prisoners, when, to allay their tormenting thirst, they were driven by desperation to drink this liquid poison, and to abide the consequences.”
DAME GRANT AND HER BOAT
“One indulgence was allowed us by our keepers, if indulgence it can be called. They had given permission for a boat to come alongside the ship, with a supply of a few necessary articles, to be sold to such of the prisoners as possessed the means of paying for them. This trade was carried on by a very corpulent old woman, known among us by the name of Dame Grant. Her visits, which were made every other day, were of much benefit to us, and, I presume, a source of profit to herself. She brought us soft bread and fruit, with various other articles, such as tea, sugar, etc., all of which she previously put up into small paper parcels, from one ounce to a pound in weight, with the price affixed to each, from which she would never deviate. The bulk of the old lady completely filled the stern sheets of the boat, where she sat, with her box of goods before her, from which she supplied us very expeditiously. Her boat was rowed by two boys, who delivered to us the articles we had purchased, the price of which we were required first to put into their hands.
“When our guard was not composed of Refugees, we were usually permitted to descend to the foot of the Accommodation-ladder, in order to select from the boat such articles as we wished. While standing there it was distressing to see the faces of hundreds of half-famished wretches, looking over the side of the ship into the boat, without the means of purchasing the most trifling article before their sight, not even so much as a morsel of wholesome bread. None of us possessed the means of generosity, nor had any power to afford them relief. Whenever I bought any articles from the boat I never enjoyed them; for it was impossible to do so in the presence of so many needy wretches, eagerly gazing at my purchase, and almost dying for want of it.
“We frequently furnished Dame Grant with a memorandum of such articles as we wished her to procure for us, such as pipes, tobacco, needles, thread, and combs. These she always faithfully procured and brought to us, never omitting the assurance that she afforded them exactly at cost.
“Her arrival was always a subject of interest to us; but at length she did not make her appearance for several days, and her appearance was awaited in extreme anxiety. But, alas! we were no longer to enjoy this little gratification. Her traffic was ended. She had taken the fever from the hulk, and died * * * leaving a void which was never afterwards filled up.”
THE SUPPLIES FOR THE PRISONERS
“After the death of Dame Grant, we were under the necessity of puchasing from the Sutler such small supplies as we needed. This man was one of the Mates of the ship, and occupied one of the apartments under the quarter-deck, through the bulkhead of which an opening had been cut, from which he delivered his goods. He here kept for sale a variety of articles, among which was usually a supply of ardent spirits, which was not allowed to be brought alongside the ship, for sale. It could, therefore, only be procured from the Sutler, whose price was two dollars per gallon. Except in relation to this article, no regular price was fixed for what he sold us. We were first obliged to hand him the money, and he then gave us such a quantity as he pleased of the article which we needed; there was on our part no bargain to be made, but to be supplied even in this manner was, to those of us who had means of payment, a great convenience. * * *
“Our own people afforded us no relief. O my country! Why were we thus neglected in this hour of our misery, why was not a little food and raiment given to the dying martyrs of thy cause?
“Although the supplies which some of us were enabled to procure from the Sutler were highly conducive to our comfort, yet one most necessary article neither himself nor any other person could furnish. This was wood for our daily cooking, to procure a sufficient quantity of which was to us a source of continual trouble and anxiety. The Cooks would indeed steal small quantities, and sell them to us at the hazard of certain punishment if detected; but it was not in their power to embezzle a sufficient quantity to meet our daily necessities. As the disgust at swallowing any food which had been cooked in the Great Copper was universal, each person used every exertion to procure as much wood as possible, for the private cooking of his own mess.
“During my excursion to the shore to assist in the interment of Mr. Carver, it was my good fortune to find a hogshead stave floating in the water. This was truly a prize I conveyed the treasure on board, and in the economical manner in which it was used, it furnished the mess to which I belonged with a supply of fuel for a considerable time.
“I was also truly fortunate on another occasion. I had, one day, commanded the Working-party, which was then employed in taking on board a sloop-load of wood for the sailors’ use. This was carefully conveyed below, under a guard, to prevent embezzlement. I nevertheless found means, with the assistance of my associates, to convey a cleft of it into the Gunroom, where it was immediately secreted. Our mess was thereby supplied with a sufficient quantity for a long time, and its members were considered by far the most wealthy persons in all this republic of misery. We had enough for our own use, and were enabled, occasionally, to supply our neighbors with a few splinters.
“Our mode of preparing the wood was to cut it with a jack-knife into pieces about four inches long. This labor occupied much of our time, and was performed by the different members of our mess in rotation, which employment was to us a source of no little pleasure.
“After a sufficient quantity had been thus prepared for the next day’s use, it was deposited in the chest. The main stock was guarded by day and night, with the most scrupulous and anxious care. We kept it at night within our enclosure, and by day it was always watched by some one of its proprietors. So highly did we value it that we went into mathematical calculation to ascertain how long it would supply us, if a given quantity was each day consumed.”
“Soon after the Jersey was first used as a place of confinement a code of by-laws had been established by the prisoners, for their own regulation and government; to which a willing submission was paid, so far as circumstances would permit. I much regret my inability to give these rules verbatim, but I cannot at this distant period of time recollect them with a sufficient degree of distinctness. They were chiefly directed to the preservation of personal cleanliness, and the prevention of immorality. For a refusal to comply with any of them, the refractory person was subjected to a stated punishment. It is an astonishing fact that any rules, thus made, should have so long existed and been enforced among a multitude of men situated as we were, so numerous and composed of that class of human beings who are not easily controlled, and usually not the most ardent supporters of good order. There were many foreigners among our number, over whom we had no control, except so far as they chose, voluntarily, to submit to our regulations, which they cheerfully did, in almost every instance, so far as their condition would allow. Among our rules were the following. That personal cleanliness should be preserved, as far as was practicable; that profane language should be avoided; that drunkenness should not be allowed; that theft should be severely punished, and that no smoking should be permitted between decks, by day or night, on account of the annoyance which it caused the sick.
“A due observance of the Sabbath was also strongly enjoined; and it was recommended to every individual to appear cleanly shaved on Sunday morning, and to refrain from all recreation during the day.
“This rule was particularly recommended to the attention of the officers, and the remainder of the prisoners were desired to follow their example.
“Our By-laws were occasionally read to the assembled prisoners, and always whenever any person was to be punished for their violation. Theft or fraud upon the allowance of a fellow prisoner was always punished, and the infliction was always approved by the whole company. On these occasions the oldest officer among the prisoners presided as Judge. It required much exertion for many of us to comply with the law prohibiting smoking between decks. Being myself much addicted to the habit of smoking, it would have been a great privilege to have enjoyed the liberty of thus indulging it, particularly during the night, while sitting by one of the air-ports; but as this was inadmissible, I of course submitted to the prohibition. * * * We were not allowed means of striking a fire, and were obliged to procure it from the Cook employed for the ship’s officers, through a small window in the bulkhead, near the caboose. After one had thus procured fire the rest were also soon supplied, and our pipes were all in full operation in the course of a few minutes. The smoke which rose around us appeared to purify the pestilent air by which we were surrounded; and I attribute the preservation of my health, in a great degree, to the exercise of this habit. Our greatest difficulty was to procure tobacco. This, to some of the prisoners, was impossible, and it must have been an aggravation to their sufferings to see us apparently puffing away our sorrows, while they had no means of procuring the enjoyment of a similar gratification.
“We dared not often apply at this Cook’s caboose for fire, and the surly wretch would not willingly repeat the supply. One morning I went to the window of his den, and requested leave to light my pipe, and the miscreant, without making any reply, threw a shovel full of burning cinders in my face. I was almost blinded by the pain; and several days elapsed before I fully regained my sight. My feelings on this occasion may be imagined, but redress was impossible, as we were allowed no means of even seeking it. I mention this occurrence to show to what a wretched condition we were reduced.”
THE ORATOR OF THE JERSEY
“During the period of my confinement the Jersey was never visited by any regular clergyman, nor was Divine service ever performed on board, and among the whole multitude of prisoners there was but one individual who ever attempted to deliver a set speech, or to exhort his fellow sufferers. This individual was a young man named Cooper, whose station in life was apparently that of a common sailor. He evidently possessed talents of a very high order. His manners were pleasing, and he had every appearance of having received an excellent education. He was a Virginian; but I never learned the exact place of his nativity. He told us that he had been a very unmanageable youth, and that he had left his family, contrary to their wishes and advice; that he had been often assured by them that the Old Jersey would bring him up at last, and the Waleboght be his place of burial. ‘The first of these predictions,’ said he, ‘has been verified; and I care not how soon the second proves equally true, for I am prepared for the event. Death, for me, has lost its terrors, for with them I have been too long familiar.’
“On several Sunday mornings Cooper harangued the prisoners in a very forcible yet pleasing manner, which, together with his language, made a lasting impression upon my memory. On one of these occasions, having mounted upon a temporary elevation upon the Spar-deck, he, in an audible voice, requested the attention of the prisoners, who having immediately gathered around him in silence, he commenced his discourse.
“He began by saying that he hoped no one would suppose he had taken that station by way of derision or mockery of the holy day, for that such was not his object; on the contrary he was pleased to find that the good regulations established by the former prisoners, obliged us to refrain even from recreation on the Sabbath; that his object, however, was not to preach to us, nor to discourse upon any sacred subject; he wished to read us our By-laws, a copy of which he held in his hand, the framers of which were then, in all probability, sleeping in death, beneath the sand of the shore before our eyes. That these laws had been framed in wisdom, and were well fitted to preserve order and decorum in a community like ours: that his present object was to impress upon our minds the absolute necessity of a strict adherence to those wholesome regulations; that he should briefly comment upon each article, which might be thus considered as the particular text of that part of his discourse.
“He proceeded to point out the extreme necessity of a full observance of these Rules of Conduct, and portrayed the evil consequences which would inevitably result to us if we neglected or suffered them to fall into disuse. He enforced the necessity of our unremitting attention to personal cleanliness, and to the duties of morality; he dwelt upon the degradation and sin of drunkeness; described the meanness and atrocity of theft; and the high degree of caution against temptation necessary for men who were perhaps standing on the very brink of the grave; and added that, in his opinion, even sailors might as well refrain from profane language, while they were actually suffering in Purgatory.
“He said that our present torments, in that abode of misery, were a proper retribution for our former sins and transgressions; that Satan had been permitted to send out his messengers and inferior demons in every direction to collect us together, and that among the most active of these infernal agents was David Sproat, Commissary of Prisoners.
“He then made some just and suitable observations on the fortitude with which we had sustained the weight of our accumulated miseries; of our firmness in refusing to accept the bribes of our invaders, and desert the banners of our country. During this part of his discourse the sentinels on the gangways occasionally stopped and listened attentively. We much feared that by some imprudent remark, he might expose himself to their resentment, and cautioned him not to proceed too far. He replied our keepers could do nothing more, unless they should put him to the torture, and that he should proceed.
“He touched on the fact that no clergyman had ever visited us; that this was probably owing to the fear of contagion; but it was much to be regretted that no one had ever come to afford a ray of hope, or to administer the Word of Life in that terrific abode; that if any Minister of the Gospel desired to do so, there could be no obstacles in the way, for that even David Sproat himself, bad as he was, would not dare to oppose it.
“He closed with a merited tribute to the memory of our fellow-sufferers, who had already passed away. ‘The time,’ said he, ‘will come when their bones will be collected, when their rites of sepulchre will be performed, and a monument erected over the remains of those who have here suffered, the victims of barbarity, and who have died in vindication of the rights of man.’
“The remarks of our Orator were well adapted to our situation, and produced much effect on the prisoners, who at length began to accost him as Elder or Parson Cooper. But this he would not allow; and told us, if we would insist on giving him a title, we might call him Doctor, by which name he was ever afterwards saluted, so long as he remained among us.
“He had been a prisoner for about the period of three months when one day the Commissary of Prisoners came on board, accompanied by a stranger, and inquired for Cooper, who having made his appearance, a letter was put in his hand, which he perused, and immediately after left the ship, without even going below for his clothing. While in the boat he waived his hand, and bade us be of good cheer. We could only return a mute farewell; and in a few minutes the boat had left the ship, and was on its way to New York.
“Thus we lost our Orator, for whom I had a very high regard, at the time, and whose character and manners have, ever since, been to me a subject of pleasing recollection.
“Various were the conjectures which the sudden manner of his departure caused on board. Some asserted that poor Cooper had drawn upon himself the vengeance of old Sproat, and that he had been carried on shore to be punished. No certain information was ever received respecting him, but I have always thought that he was a member of some highly influential and respectable family, and that his release had been effected through the agency of his friends. This was often done by the influence of the Royalists or Refugees of New York, who were sometimes the connections or personal friends of those who applied for their assistance in procuring the liberation of a son or a brother from captivity. Such kind offices were thus frequently rendered to those who had chosen opposite sides in the great revolutionary contest, and to whom, though directly opposed to themselves in political proceedings, they were willing to render every personal service in their power.”
FOURTH OF JULY ON THE JERSEY
A few days before the fourth of July we had made such preparations as our circumstances would admit for an observance of the anniversary of American Independence. We had procured some supplies with which to make ourselves merry on the occasion, and intended to spend the day in such innocent pastimes as our situation would afford, not dreaming that our proceeding would give umbrage to our keepers, as it was far from our intention to trouble or insult them. We thought that, though prisoners, we had a right, on that day at least, to sing and be merry. As soon as we were permitted to go on deck in the morning thirteen little national flags were displayed in a row on the boom. We were soon ordered by the guards to take them away; and as we neglected to obey the command, they triumphantly demolished, and trampled them under foot. Unfortunately for us our guards at that time were Scotch, who, next to the Refugees, were the objects of our greatest hatred; but their destruction of our flags was merely viewed in silence, with the contempt which it merited.
“During the time we remained on deck several patriotic songs were sung, and choruses repeated; but not a word was intentionally spoken to give offence to our guards. They were, nevertheless, evidently dissatisfied with our proceedings, as will soon appear. Their moroseness was a prelude to what was to follow. We were, in a short time, forbidden to pass along the common gangway, and every attempt to do so was repelled by the bayonet. Although thus incommoded our mirth still continued. Songs were still sung, accompanied by occasional cheers. Things thus proceeded until about four o’clock; when the guards were ordered out, and we received orders to descend between decks, where we were immediately driven, at the point of the bayonet.
“After being thus sent below in the greatest confusion, at that early and unusual hour, and having heard the gratings closed and fastened above us, we supposed that the barbarous resentment of our guards was fully satisfied; but we were mistaken, for they had further vengeance in store, and merely waited for an opportunity to make us feel its weight.
“The prisoners continued their singing between decks, and were, of course, more noisy than usual, but forbore even under their existing temptations, to utter any insulting or aggravating expressions. At least, I heard nothing of the kind, unless our patriotic songs could be thus constructed. In the course of the evening we were ordered to desist from making any further noise. This order not being fully complied with, at about nine o’clock the gratings were removed, and the guards descended among us, with lanterns and drawn cutlasses in their hands. The poor, helpless prisoners retreated from the hatchways, as far as their crowded situation would permit, while their cowardly assailants followed as far as they dared, cutting and wounding every one within reach, and then ascended to the upper deck, exulting in the gratification of their revenge.
“Many of the prisoners were wounded, but from the total darkness, neither their number, nor their situation could be ascertained; and, if this had been possible, it was not in the power of their compatriots to afford them the least relief. During the whole of that tragic night, their groans and lamentations were dreadful in the extreme. Being in the Gun-room I was at some distance from the immediate scene of this bloody outrage, but the distance was by no means far enough to prevent my hearing their continual cries from the extremity of pain, their appeals for assistance, and their curses upon the heads of their brutal assailants.
“It had been the usual custom for each person to carry below, when he descended at sunset, a pint of water, to quench his thirst during the night. But, on this occasion, we had thus been driven to our dungeon three hours before the setting of the sun, and without our usual supply of water.
“Of this night I cannot describe the horror. The day had been sultry, and the heat was extreme throughout the ship. The unusual number of hours during which we had been crowded together between decks; the foul atmosphere and sickening heat; the additional excitement and restlessness caused by the unwonted wanton attack which had been made; above all, the want of water, not a drop of which could be obtained during the whole night, to cool our parched lips; the imprecations of those who were half distracted with their burning thirst; the shrieks and wails of the wounded; the struggles and groans of the dying; together formed a combination of horrors which no pen can describe.
“In the agonies of their sufferings the prisoners invited, and even challenged their inhuman guards to descend once more among them, but this they were prudent enough not to attempt.
“Their cries and supplications for water were terrible, and were of themselves sufficient to render sleep impossible. Oppressed with the heat, I found my way to the grating of the main hatchway, where on former nights I had frequently passed some time, for the benefit of the little current of air which circulated through the bars. I obtained a place on the larboard side of the hatchway, where I stood facing the East, and endeavored, as much as possible, to withdraw my attention from the terrible sounds below me, by watching, through the grating, the progress of the stars. I there spent hour after hour, in following with my eyes the motion of a particular star, as it rose and ascended until it passed over beyond my sight.
“How I longed for the day to dawn! At length the morning light began to appear, but still our torments were increasing every moment. As the usual hour for us to ascend to the upper deck approached, the Working-party were mustered near the hatchway, and we were all anxiously waiting for the opportunity to cool our weary frames, to breathe for awhile the pure air, and, above all, to procure water to quench our intolerable thirst. The time arrived, but still the gratings were not removed. Hour after hour passed on, and still we were not released. Our minds were at length seized with horror, suspicious that our tyrants had determined to make a finishing stroke of their cruelty, and rid themselves of us altogether.
“It was not until ten o’clock in the forenoon that the gratings were at last removed. We hurried on deck and thronged to the water cask, which was completely exhausted before our thirst was allayed. So great was the struggle around the cask that the guards were again turned out to disperse the crowd.
“In a few hours, however, we received a new supply of water, but it seemed impossible to allay our thirst, and the applications at the cask were incessant until sunset. Our rations were delivered to us, but of course long after the usual hour. During the whole day, however, no fire was kindled for cooking in the galley. All the food which we consumed that day we were obliged to swallow raw. Everything, indeed, had been entirely deranged by the events of the past night, and several days elapsed before order was restored. This was at last obtained by a change of the guard, who, to our great joy, were relieved by a party of Hessians. The average number who died during a period of 24 hours on board the Jersey was about six, [Footnote: This was in 1782. The mortality had been much greater in former years.] but on the morning of the fifth of July eight or ten corpses were found below. Many had been badly wounded, to whom, in the total darkness of the night, it was impossible for their companions to render any assistance; and even during the next day they received no attention, except that which was afforded by their fellow prisoners, who had nothing to administer to their companions, not even bandages for their wounds. I was not personally acquainted with any of those who died or were wounded on that night. No equal number had ever died in the same period of time since my confinement. This unusual mortality was of course caused by the increased sufferings of the night. Since that time I have often, while standing on the deck of a good ship under my command, and viewing the rising stars, thought upon the horrors of that night, when I stood watching their progress through the gratings of the Old Jersey, and when I now contrast my former wretchedness with my present situation, in the full enjoyment of liberty, health, and every earthly comfort, I cannot but muse upon the contrast, and bless the good and great Being from whom my comforts have been derived. I do not now regret my capture nor my sufferings, for the recollection of them has ever taught me how to enjoy my after life with a greater degree of contentment than I should, perhaps, have otherwise ever experienced.”
AN ATTEMPT TO ESCAPE
It had been for some time in contemplation among a few inmates of the Gun-room to make a desperate attempt to escape, by cutting a hole through the stern or counter of the ship. In order that their operations might proceed with even the least probability of success, it was absolutely necessary that but few of the prisoners should be admitted to the secret. At the same time it was impossible for them to make any progress in their labor unless they first confided their plan to all the other occupants of the Gun-room, which was accordingly done. In this part of the ship each mess was on terms of more or less intimacy with those whose little sleeping enclosures were immediately adjacent to their own, and the members of each mess frequently interchanged good offices with those in their vicinity, and borrowed or lent such little articles as they possessed, like the good housewives of a sociable neighborhood. I never knew any contention in this apartment, during the whole period of my confinement. Each individual in the Gun-room therefore was willing to assist his comrades, as far as he had the power to do so. When the proposed plan for escape was laid before us, although it met the disapprobation of by far the greater number, still we were all perfectly ready to assist those who thought it practicable. We, however, described to them the difficulties and dangers which must unavoidably attend their undertaking; the prospect of detection while making the aperture in the immediate vicinity of such a multitude of idle men, crowded together, a large proportion of whom were always kept awake by their restlessness and sufferings during the night; the little probability that they would be able to travel, undiscovered, on Long Island, even should they succeed in reaching the shore in safety; and above all, the almost absolute impossibility of obtaining food for their subsistence, as an application for that to our keepers would certainly lead to detection. But, notwithstanding all our arguments, a few of them remained determined to make the attempt. Their only reply to our reasoning was, that they must die if they remained, and that nothing worse could befall them if they failed in their undertaking.
“One of the most sanguine among the adventurers was a young man named Lawrence, the mate of a ship from Philadelphia. He was a member of the mess next to my own, and I had formed with him a very intimate acquaintance. He frequently explained his plans to me; and dwelt much on his hopes. But ardently as I desired to obtain my liberty, and great as were the exertions I could have made, had I seen any probability of gaining it, yet it was not my intention to join in this attempt. I nevertheless agreed to assist in the labor of cutting through the planks, and heartily wished, although I had no hope, that the enterprise might prove successful.
“The work was accordingly commenced, and the laborers concealed, by placing a blanket between them and the prisoners without. The counter of the ship was covered with hard oak plank, four inches thick; and through this we undertook to cut an opening sufficiently large for a man to descend; and to do this with no other tools than our jack knives and a single gimlet. All the occupants of the Gun-room assisted in this labor in rotation; some in confidence that the plan was practicable, and the rest for amusement, or for the sake of being employed. Some one of our number was constantly at work, and we thus continued, wearing a hole through the hard planks, from seam to seam, until at length the solid oak was worn away piecemeal, and nothing remained but a thin sheathing on the outside which could be cut away at any time in a few minutes, whenever a suitable opportunity should occur for making the bold attempt to leave the ship.
“It had been previously agreed that those who should descend through the aperture should drop into the water, and there remain until all those among the inmates of the Gun-room who chose to make the attempt could join them; and that the whole band of adventurers should then swim together to the shore, which was about a quarter of a mile from the ship.
“A proper time at length arrived. On a very dark and rainy night, the exterior sheathing was cut away; and at midnight four of our number having disencumbered themselves of their clothes and tied them across their shoulders, were assisted through the opening, and dropped one after another into the water.
“Ill-fated men! Our guards had long been acquainted with the enterprise. But instead of taking any measures to prevent it, they had permitted us to go on with our labor, keeping a vigilant watch for the moment of our projected escape, in order to gratify their bloodthirsty wishes. No other motive than this could have prompted them to the course which they pursued. A boat was in waiting under the ship’s quarter, manned with rowers and a party of the guards. They maintained a profound silence after hearing the prisoners drop from the opening, until having ascertained that no more would probably descend, they pursued the swimmers, whose course they could easily follow by the sparkling of the water,–an effect always produced by the agitation of the waves in a stormy night.
“We were all profoundly silent in the Gun-room, after the departure of our companions, and in anxious suspense as to the issue of the adventure. In a few minutes we were startled by the report of a gun, which was instantly succeeded by a quick and scattering fire of musketry. In the darkness of the night, we could not see the unfortunate victims, but could distinctly hear their shrieks and cries for mercy.
“The noise of the firing had alarmed the prisoners generally, and the report of the attempted escape and its defeat ran like wildfire through the gloomy and crowded dungeons of the hulk, and produced much commotion among the whole body of prisoners. In a few moments, the gratings were raised, and the guards descended, bearing a naked and bleeding man, whom they placed in one of the bunks, and having left a piece of burning candle by his side, they again ascended to the deck, and secured the gratings.
“Information of this circumstance soon reached the Gun-room; and myself, with several others of our number, succeeded in making our way through the crowd to the bunks. The wounded man was my friend, Lawrence. He was severely injured in many places, and one of his arms had been nearly severed from his body by the stroke of a cutlass. This, he said, was done in wanton barbarity, while he was crying for mercy, with his hand on the gunwale of the boat. He was too much exhausted to answer any of our questions; and uttered nothing further, except a single inquiry respecting the fate of Nelson, one of his fellow adventurers. This we could not answer. Indeed, what became of the rest we never knew. They were probably all murdered in the water. This was the first time that I had ever seen a light between decks. The piece of candle had been left by the side of the bunk, in order to produce an additional effect upon the prisoners. Many had been suddenly awakened from their slumbers, and had crowded round the bunk where the sufferer lay. The effect of the partial light upon his bleeding and naked limbs, and upon the pale and haggard countenances, and tattered garments of the wild and crowded groups by whom he was surrounded, was horrid beyond description. We could render the sufferer but little assistance, being only able to furnish him with a few articles of apparel, and to bind a handkerchief around his head. His body was completely covered, and his hair filled with clotted blood; we had not the means of washing the gore from his wounds during the night. We had seen many die, but to view this wretched man expire in that situation, where he had been placed beyond the reach of surgical aid, merely to strike us with terror, was dreadful.
“The gratings were not removed at the usual hour in the morning, but we were all kept below until ten o’clock. This mode of punishment had now become habitual with our keepers, and we were all frequently detained between decks until a late hour in the day, in revenge for the most trifling occasion. This cruelty never failed to produce the torments arising from heat and thirst, with all their attendant miseries.
“The immediate purpose of our tyrants having been answered by leaving Mr. Lawrence below in that situation they promised in the morning that he should have the assistance of a surgeon, but that promise was not fulfilled. The prisoners rendered him every attention in their power, but in vain. Mortification soon commenced; he became delirious and died.
“No inquiry was made by our keepers respecting his situation. They evidently left him thus to suffer, in order that the sight of his agonies might deter the rest of the prisoners from following his example.
“We received not the least reprimand for this transaction. The aperture was again filled up with plank and made perfectly secure, and no similar attempt to escape was made,–at least so long as I remained on board.
“It was always in our power to knock down the guards and throw them overboard, but this would have been of no avail. If we had done so, and had effected our escape to Long Island, it would have been next to impossible for us to have proceeded any further among the number of troops there quartered. Of these there were several regiments, and among them the regiment of Refugees before mentioned, who were vigilant in the highest degree, and would have been delighted at the opportunity of apprehending and returning us to our dungeons.
“There were, however, several instances of individuals making their escape. One in particular, I well recollect,–James Pitcher, one of the crew of the Chance, was placed on the sick list and conveyed to Blackwell’s Island. He effected his escape from thence to Long Island; from whence, after having used the greatest precaution, he contrived to cross the Sound, and arrived safe at home. He is now one of the three survivors of the crew of the Chance.”
THE MEMORIAL TO GENERAL WASHINGTON
“The body maddened by the spirit’s pain; The wild, wild working of the breast and brain; The haggard eye, that, horror widened, sees Death take the start of hunger and disease. Here, such were seen and heard;–so close at hand, A cable’s length had reached them from the land; Yet farther off than ocean ever bore;– Eternity between them and the shore!”
“Notwithstanding the destroying pestilence which was now raging to a degree hitherto unknown on board, new companies of victims were continually arriving; so that, although the mortality was very great, our numbers were increasing daily. Thus situated, and seeing no prospect of our liberty by exchange, we began to despair, and to believe that our certain fate was rapidly approaching.
“One expedient was at length proposed among us and adopted. We petitioned General Clinton, who was then in command of the British forces at New York, for leave to transmit a Memorial to General Washington, describing our deplorable situation, and requesting his interference in our behalf. We further desired that our Memorial might be examined by the British General, and, if approved by him, that it might be carried by one of our own number to General Washington. Our petition was laid before the British commander and was granted by the Commissary of Prisoners. We received permission to choose three from our number, to whom was promised a pass-port, with leave to proceed immediately on their embassy.
“Our choice was accordingly made, and I had the satisfaction to find that two of those elected were from among the former officers of the Chance, Captain Aborn and our Surgeon, Mr. Joseph Bowen.
“The Memorial was soon completed and signed in the name of all the prisoners, by a Committee appointed for that purpose. It contained an account of the extreme wretchedness of our condition, and stated that although we were sensible that the subject was one over which General Washington had no direct control, as it was not usual for soldiers to be exchanged for seamen, and his authority not extending to the Marine Department of the American service; yet still, although it might not be in his power to effect an exchange, we hoped he would be able to devise some means to lighten or relieve our sufferings.
“Our messengers were further charged with a verbal commission to General Washington, which, for obvious reasons, was not included in the written Memorial. They were directed to state, in a manner more circumstantial than we had dared to write, the peculiar horrors of our situation; to discover the miserable food and putrid water on which we were doomed to subsist; and finally to assure the General that in case he could effect our release, we would agree to enter the American service as soldiers, and remain during the war. Thus instructed our messengers departed.
“We waited in alternate hope and fear, the event of their mission. Most of our number, who were natives of the Eastern States, were strongly impressed with the idea that some means would be devised for our relief, after such a representation of our condition should be made. This class of the prisoners, indeed, felt most interested in the success of the application; for many of the sufferers appeared to give themselves but little trouble respecting it, and some among the foreigners did not commonly know that such an appeal had been made, or that it had even been in contemplation. The long endurance of their privations had rendered them almost indifferent to their fate, and they appeared to look forward to death as the only probable termination of their captivity.
“In a few days our messengers returned to New York, with a letter from General Washington, addressed to the Committee of Prisoners who had signed the Memorial. The prisoners were all summoned to the Spar-deck where this letter was read. Its purport was as follows:–That he had perused our communication, and had received, with due consideration, the account which our messengers had laid before him; that he viewed our situation with a high degree of interest, and that although our application, as we had stated, was made in relation to a subject over which he had no direct control, yet that it was his intention to lay our Memorial before Congress; and that, in the mean time, we might be assured that no exertions on his part should be spared which could tend to a mitigation of our sufferings.
“He observed to our messengers, during their interview, that our long detention in confinement was owing to a combination of circumstances, against which it was very difficult, if not impossible, to provide. That, in the first place, but little exertion was made on the part of our countrymen to secure and detain their British prisoners for the sake of exchange, many of the British seamen being captured by privateers, on board which, he understood, it was a common practice for them to enter as seamen; and that when this was not the case, they were usually set at liberty as soon as the privateers arrived in port; as neither the owners, nor the town or State where they were landed, would be at the expense of their confinement and maintenance; and that the officers of the General Government only took charge of those seamen who were captured by the vessels in public service. All which circumstances combined to render the number of prisoners, at all times, by far too small for a regular and equal exchange.
“General Washington also transmitted to our Committee copies of letters which he had sent to General Clinton and to the Commissary of Prisoners, which were also read to us. He therein expressed an ardent desire that a general exchange of prisoners might be effected; and if this could not be accomplished, he wished that something might be done to lessen the weight of our sufferings, that, if it was absolutely necessary that we should be confined on the water, he desired that we might at least be removed to clean ships. He added if the Americans should be driven to the necessity of placing the British prisoners in situations similar to our own, similar effects must be the inevitable results; and that he therefore hoped they would afford us better treatment from motives of humanity. He concluded by saying, that as a correspondence on the subject had thus begun between them, he ardently wished it might eventually result in the liberation of the unfortunate men whose situation had called for its commencement.
“Our three messengers did not return on board as prisoners, but were all to remain on parole at Flatbush, on Long Island.
“We soon found an improvement in our fare. The bread which we received was of a better quality, and we were furnished with butter, instead of rancid oil. An awning was provided, and a wind-sail furnished to conduct fresh air between the decks during the day. But of this we were always deprived at night, when we most needed it, as the gratings must always be fastened over the hatchway and I presume that our keepers were fearful if it was allowed to run, we might use it as a means of escape.
“We were, however, obliged to submit to all our privations, consoling ourselves only with the faint hope that the favorable change in our situation, which we had observed for the last few days, might lead to something still more beneficial, although we saw little prospect of escape from the raging pestilence, except through the immediate interposition of divine Providence, or by a removal from the scene of contagion.”
_Note_. From the _New Jersey Gazette_, July 24th, 1782. “New London. July 21st. We are informed that Sir Guy Carleton has visited all the prison ships at New York, minutely examined into the situation of the prisoners, and expressed his intention of having them better provided for. That they were to be landed on Blackwell’s Island, in New York harbour, in the daytime, during the hot season.”
“Soon after Captain Aborn had been permitted to go to Long Island on his parole, he sent a message on board the Jersey, informing us that his parole had been extended so far as to allow him to return home, but that he should visit us previous to his departure. He requested our First Lieutenant, Mr. John Tillinghast, to provide a list of the names of those captured in the Chance who had died, and also a list of the survivors, noting where each survivor was then confined, whether on board the Jersey, or one of the Hospital ships.
“He also requested that those of our number who wished to write to their friends at home, would have their letters ready for delivery to him, whenever he should come on board. The occupants of the Gun-room, and such of the other prisoners as could procure the necessary materials were, therefore, soon busily engaged in writing as particular descriptions of our situation as they thought it prudent to do, without the risk of the destruction of the letters; as we were always obliged to submit our writing for inspection previous to its being allowed to pass from the ship. We, however, afterwards regretted that on this occasion our descriptions were not more minute, as these letters were not examined.
“The next day Captain Aborn came on board, accompanied by several other persons, who had also been liberated on parole; but they came no nearer to the prisoners than the head of the gangway-ladder, and passed through the door of the barricade to the Quarter-deck. This was perhaps a necessary precaution against the contagion, as they were more liable to be affected by it than if they had always remained on board; but we were much disappointed at not having an opportunity to speak to them. Our letters were delivered to Captain Aborn by our Lieutenant, through whom he sent us assurances of his determination to do everything in his power for our relief, and that if a sufficient number of British prisoners could be procured, every survivor of his vessel’s crew should be exchanged; and if this could not be effected we might depend upon receiving clothing and such other necessary articles as could be sent for our use.
“About this time some of the sick were sent on shore on Blackwell’s Island. This was considered a great indulgence. I endeavored to obtain leave to join them by feigning sickness, but did not succeed.
“The removal of the sick was a great relief to us, as the air was less foul between decks, and we had more room for motion. Some of the bunks were removed, and the sick were carried on shore as soon as their condition was known. Still, however, the pestilence did not abate on board, as the weather was extremely warm. In the daytime the heat was excessive, but at night it was intolerable.
“But we lived on hope, knowing that, in all probability, our friends at home had ere then been apprised of our condition, and that some relief might perhaps be soon afforded us.
“Such was our situation when, one day, a short time before sunset, we described a sloop approaching us, with a white flag at her mast-head, and knew, by that signal, that she was a Cartel, and from the direction in which she came supposed her to be from some of the Eastern States. She did not approach near enough to satisfy our curiosity, until we were ordered below for the night.
“Long were the hours of the night to the survivors of our crew. Slight as was the foundation on which our hopes had been raised, we had clung to them as our last resource. No sooner were the gratings removed in the morning than we were all upon deck, gazing at the Cartel. Her deck was crowded with men, whom we supposed to be British prisoners. In a few moments they began to enter the Commissary’s boats, and proceeded to New York.
“In the afternoon a boat from the Cartel came alongside the hulk, having on board the Commissary of Prisoners, and by his side sat our townsman, Captain William Corey, who came on board with the joyful information that the sloop was from Providence with English prisoners to be exchanged for the crew of the Chance. The number which she had brought was forty, being more than sufficient to redeem every survivor of our crew then on board the Jersey.
“I immediately began to prepare for my departure. Having placed the few articles of clothing which I possessed in a bag (for, by one of our By-laws, no prisoner, when liberated, could remove his chest) I proceeded to dispose of my other property on board, and after having made sundry small donations of less value, I concluded by giving my tin kettle to one of my friends, and to another the remnant of my cleft of firewood.
“I then hurried to the upper deck, in order to be ready to answer to my name, well knowing that I should hear no second call, and that no delay would be allowed.
“The Commissary and Captain Corey were standing together on the Quarter-deck; and as the list of names was read, our Lieutenant, Mr. Tillinghast, was directed to say whether the person called was one of the crew of the Chance. As soon as this assurance was given, the individual was ordered to pass down the Accommodation ladder into the boat. Cheerfully was the word ‘Here!’ responded by each survivor as his name was called. My own turn at length came, and the Commissary pointed to the boat. I never moved with a lighter step, for that moment was the happiest of my life. In the excess and overflowing of my joy, I even forgot, for awhile, the detestable character of the Commissary himself, and even, Heaven forgive me! bestowed a bow upon him as I passed.
“We took our stations in the boat in silence. No congratulations were heard among us. Our feelings were too deep for utterance. For my own part, I could not refrain from bursting into tears of joy.
“Still there were moments when it seemed impossible that we were in reality without the limits of the Old Jersey. We dreaded the idea that some unforeseen event might still detain us; and shuddered with the apprehension that we might yet be returned to our dungeons.
“When the Cartel arrived the surviving number of our crew on board the Old Jersey was but thirty-five. This fact being well known to Mr. Tillinghast, and finding that the Cartel had brought forty prisoners, he allowed five of our comrades in the Gun-room to answer to the names of the same number of our crew who had died; and having disguised them in the garb of common seamen, they passed unsuspected.
“It was nearly sunset when we had all arrived on board the Cartel. No sooner had the exchange been completed than the Commissary left us, with our prayers that we might never behold him more. I then cast my eyes towards the hulk, as the horizontal rays of the sunset glanced on her polluted sides, where, from the bend upwards, filth of every description had been permitted to accumulate for years; and the feeling of disgust which the sight occasioned was indescribable. The multitude on her Spar-deck and Fore-castle were in motion, and in the act of descending for the night; presenting the same appearance that met my sight when, nearly five months before, I had, at the same hour, approached her as a prisoner.”
It appears that many other seamen on board the Jersey and the Hospital ships were exchanged as a good result of the Memorial addressed to General Washington. An issue of the _Royal Gazette_ of New York, published on the 17th of July, 1782, contains the following statement:
“The following is a Statement of the Navy Prisoners who have, within the last few days, been exchanged and brought to this city, viz:
“From Boston, 102 British Seamen.
“From Rhode Island, 40 British Seamen. “From New London, Conn., 84 British Seamen. “From Baltimore, Md, 23 British Seamen.
“The exertions of those American Captains who published to the world in this _Gazette_, dated July 3rd, the real state and condition of their countrymen, prisoners here, and the true cause of their durance and sufferings, we are informed was greatly conducive to the bringing this exchange into a happy effect. We have only to lament that the endeavors of those who went, for the same laudable purpose, to Philadelphia, have not hitherto been so fortunate.”
This was published before the release of Captain Dring and the crew of the Chance, and shows that they were not the only prisoners who were so happy as to be exchanged that summer. It is possible that the crew of the Chance is referred to in this extract from the _Pennsylvania Packet_, Philadelphia, Thursday, August 15th, 1782: “Providence, July 27th. Sunday last a flag of truce returned here from New York, and brought 39 prisoners.”
THE CARTEL–CAPTAIN DRING’S NARRATIVE (CONTINUED)
“On his arrival in Providence Captain Aborn had lost no time in making the details of our sufferings publicly known; and a feeling of deep commiseration was excited among our fellow citizens. Messrs. Clarke and Nightingale, the former owners of the Chance, in conjunction with other gentlemen, expressed their determination to spare no exertion or expense necessary to procure our liberty. It was found that forty British prisoners were at that time in Boston. These were immediately procured, and marched to Providence, where a sloop owned and commanded by a Captain Gladding of Bristol was chartered, to proceed with the prisoners forthwith to New York, that they might be exchanged for an equal number of our crew. Captain Corey was appointed as an Agent to effect the exchange, and to receive us from the Jersey; and having taken on board a supply of good provisions and water, he hastened to our relief. He received much assistance in effecting his object from our townsman, Mr. John Creed, at that time Deputy Commissary of Prisoners. I do not recollect the exact day of our deliverance, but think it was early in the month of October * * * We were obliged to pass near the shore of Blackwell’s Island, where were several of our crew, who had been sent on shore among the sick. They had learned that the Cartel had arrived from Providence for the purpose of redeeming the crew of the Chance, and expected to be taken on board. Seeing us approaching they had, in order to cause no delay, prepared for their departure, and stood together on the shore, with their bundles in their hands; but, to their unutterable disappointment and dismay, they saw us pass by. We knew them and bitterly did we lament the necessity of leaving them behind. We could only wave our hands as we passed; but they could not return the salutation, and stood as if petrified with horror, like statues fixed immovably to the earth, until we had vanished from their sight.
“I have since seen and conversed with one of these unfortunate men, who afterwards made his escape. He informed me that their removal from the Jersey to the Island was productive of the most beneficial effects upon their health, and that they had been exulting at the improvement of their condition; but their terrible disappointment overwhelmed them with despair. They then considered their fate inevitable, believing that in a few days they must again be conveyed on board the hulk; there to undergo all the agonies of a second death. * * * Several of our crew were sick when we entered the Cartel, and the sudden change of air and diet caused some new cases of fever. One of our number, thus seized by the fever, was a young man named Bicknell of Barrington, R. I. He was unwell when we left the Jersey, and his symptoms indicated the approaching fever; and when we entered Narragansett Bay, he was apparently dying. Being informed that we were in the Bay he begged to be taken on deck, or at least to the hatchway, that he might look once more upon his native land. He said that he was sensible of his condition; that the hand of death was upon him; but that he was consoled by the thought that he should be decently interred, and be suffered to rest among his friends and kindred. I was astonished at the degree of resignation and composure with which he spoke. He pointed to his father’s house, as we approached it, and said it contained all that was dear to him upon earth. He requested to be put on shore.
“Our Captain was intimately acquainted with the family of the sufferer; and as the wind was light we dropped our anchor, and complied with his request. He was placed in the boat, where I took a seat by his side; in order to support him; and, with two boys at the oars, we left the sloop. In a few minutes his strength began rapidly to fail. He laid his fainting head upon my shoulder, and said he was going to the shore to be buried with his ancestors; that this had long been his ardent desire, and that God had heard his prayers. No sooner had we touched the shore than one of the boys was sent to inform his family of the event. They hastened to the boat to receive their long lost son and brother, but we could only give them his yet warm and lifeless corpse.”
OUR ARRIVAL HOME
“After remaining a few moments with the friends of our deceased comrade we returned to the sloop and proceeded up the river. It was about eight o’clock in the evening when we reached Providence. There were no quarantine regulations to detain us; but, as the yellow fever was raging among us, we took the precaution to anchor in the middle of the stream. It was a beautiful moonlit evening, and the intelligence of our arrival having spread through the town, the nearest wharf was in a short time crowded with people drawn together by curiosity, and a desire for information relative to the fate of their friends and connections.
“Continual inquiries were made from the anxious crowd on the land respecting the condition of several different individuals on board. At length the information was given that some of our number were below, sick with the yellow fever. No sooner was this fact announced than the wharf was totally deserted, and in a few moments not a human being remained in sight. The Old Jersey fever as it was called, was well known throughout the whole country. All were acquainted with its terrible effects; and it was shunned as if its presence were certain destruction.
“After the departure of the crowd, the sloop was brought alongside the wharf, and every one who could walk immediately sprang on shore. So great was the dread of the pestilence, and so squalid and emaciated were the figures which we presented, that those among us whose families did not reside in Providence found it almost impossible to gain admittance into any dwelling. There being at that time no hospital in or near the town, and no preparations having been made for the reception of the sick, they were abandoned for that night. They were, however, supplied in a few hours with many small articles necessary for their immediate comfort, by the humane people in the vicinity of the wharf. The friends of the sick who belonged in the vicinity of the town were immediately informed of our arrival, and in the course of the following day these were removed from the vessel. For the remainder of the sufferers ample provision was made through the generous exertions of Messrs. Clarke and Nightingale.
“Solemn indeed are the reflections which crowd upon my mind as I review the events which are here recorded. Forty-two years have passed away since this remnant of our ill-fated crew were thus liberated from their wasting captivity. In that time what changes have taken place! Of their whole number but three are now alive. James Pitcher, Dr. Joseph Bowen, and myself, are the sole survivors. Of the officers I alone remain.”
CORRESPONDENCE OF WASHINGTON AND OTHERS
General Washington cannot with justice be blamed for any part of the sufferings inflicted upon the naval prisoners on board the prison ships. Although he had nothing whatever to do with the American Navy, or the crews of privateers captured by the British, yet he exerted himself in every way open to him to endeavor to obtain their exchange, or, at least, a mitigation of their sufferings, and this in spite of the immense weight of cares and anxieties that devolved upon him in his conduct of the war. Much of his correspondence on the subject of these unfortunate prisoners has been given to the world. We deem it necessary, in a work of this character, to reproduce some of it here, not only because this correspondence is his most perfect vindication from the charge of neglect that has been brought against him, but also because it has much to do with the proper understanding of this chronicle.
One of the first of the letters from which we shall quote was written by Washington from his headquarters to Admiral Arbuthnot, then stationed at New York, on the 25th of January 1781.
Through a variety of channels, representations of too serious a nature to be disregarded have come to us, that the American naval prisoners in the harbor of New York are suffering all the extremity of distress, from a too crowded and in all respects disagreeable and unwholesome situation, on board the Prison-ships, and from the want of food and other necessaries. The picture given us of their sufferings is truly calamitous and deplorable. If just, it is the obvious interest of both parties, omitting the plea of humanity, that the causes should be without delay inquired into and removed; and if false, it is equally desirable that effectual measures should be taken to obviate misapprehensions. This can only be done by permitting an officer, of confidence on both sides, to visit the prisoners in their respective confinements, and to examine into their true condition. This will either at once satisfy you that by some abuse of trust in the persons immediately charged with the care of the prisoners, their treatment is really such as has been described to us and requires a change; or it will convince us that the clamors are ill-grounded. A disposition to aggravate the miseries of captivity is too illiberal to be imputed to any but those subordinate characters, who, in every service, are too often remiss and unprincipled. This reflection assures me that you will acquiesce in the mode proposed for ascertaining the truth and detecting delinquency on one side, or falsehood on the other. The discussions and asperities which have had too much place on the subject of prisoners are so irksome in themselves, and have had so many ill consequences, that it is infinitely to be wished that there may be no room given for reviving them. The mode I have suggested appears to me calculated to bring the present case to a fair, direct, and satisfactory issue. I am not sensible of any inconvenience it can be attended with, and I therefore hope for your concurrence.
I should be glad, as soon as possible, to hear from you on the subject.
I have the honor to be, etc.,
To this letter, written in January, Admiral Arbuthnot did not reply until the latter part of April. He then wrote:
Royal Oak Office
April 2lst. 1781.
If I had not been very busy when I received your letter dated the 25 of Jan. last, complaining of the treatment of the naval prisoners at this place, I certainly should have answered it before this time; and, notwithstanding that I then thought, as I now do, that my own testimony would have been sufficient to put the truth past a doubt, I ordered the strictest scrutiny to be made into the condition of all parties concerned in the victualling and treatment of those unfortunate people. Their several testimonies you must have seen, and I give you my honor that the transaction was conducted with such strict care and impartiality that you may rely on its validity.
Permit me now, Sir, to request that you will take the proper steps to cause Mr. Bradford, your Commissary, and the Jailor at Philadelphia, to abate the inhumanity which they exercise indiscriminately upon all people who are so unfortunate as to be carried into that place.
I will not trouble you, Sir, with a catalogue of grievances, further than to request that the unfortunate may feel as little of the severities of war as the circumstances of the time will permit, that in future they may not be fed in winter with salted clams, and that they may be afforded a sufficiency of fuel.
I am, Sir,
your most obdt and hble srvt
Probably the American prisoners would have been glad to eat salted clams, rather than diseased pork, and, as has been shown, they were sometimes frozen to death on board the prison ships, where no fire except for cooking purposes seems ever to have been allowed.
In August, 1781, a committee appointed by Congress to examine into the condition of naval prisoners reported among other things as follows: “The Committee consisting of Mr. Boudinot, Mr. Sharpe, Mr. Clymer, appointed to take into consideration the state of the American prisoners in the power of the enemy report:
“That they have collected together and cursorily looked into various evidences of the treatment our unhappy fellow-citizens, prisoners with the enemy, have heretofore and do still meet with, and find the subject of so important and serious a nature as to demand much greater attention, and fuller consideration than the present distant situation of those confined on board the Prison-ships at New York will now admit of, wherefor they beg leave to make a partial representation, and desire leave to sit again. * * *”
PART OF THE REPORT OF THE COMMITTEE
“A very large number of marine prisoners and citizens of these United States taken by the enemy, are now closely confined on board Prison-ships in the harbor of New York.
“That the said Prison-ships are so unequal in size to the number of prisoners, as not to admit of a possibility of preserving life in this warm season of the year, they being crowded together in such a manner as to be in danger of suffocation, as well as exposed to every kind of putrid, pestilential disorder:
“That no circumstances of the enemy’s particular situation can justify this outrage on humanity, it being contrary to the usage and customs of civilizations, thus deliberately to murder their captives in cold blood, as the enemy will not assert that Prison-ships, equal to the number of prisoners, cannot be obtained so as to afford room sufficient for the necessary purposes of life:
“That the enemy do daily improve these distresses to enlist and compel many of our citizens to enter on board their ships of war, and thus to fight against their fellow citizens, and dearest connections.
“That the said Marine prisoners, until they can be exchanged should be supplied with such necessaries of clothing and provisions as can be obtained to mitigate their present sufferings.
“That, therefor, the Commander-in-chief be and he is hereby instructed to remonstrate to the proper officer within the enemy’s lines, on the said unjustifiable treatment of our Marine prisoners, and demand, in the most express terms, to know the reasons of this unnecessary severity towards them; and that the Commander-in-chief transmit such answer as may be received thereon to Congress, that decided measures for due retaliation may be adopted, if a redress of these evils be not immediately given.
“That the Commander-in-chief be and he is hereby also instructed to direct to supply the said prisoners with such provisions and light clothing for their present more comfortable subsistence as may be in his power to obtain, and in such manner as he may judge most advantageous for the United States.”
Accordingly Washington wrote to the officer then commanding at New York, Commodore Affleck, as follows:
Headquarters, August 21 1781
The almost daily complaints of the severities exercised towards the American marine prisoners in New York have induced the Hon. the Congress of the United States to direct me to remonstrate to the commanding officer of his British Majesty’s ships of war in the harbor upon the subject; and to report to them his answer. The principal complaint now is, the inadequacy of the room in the Prison-ships to the number of prisoners, confined on board of them, which causes the death of many, and is the occasion of most intolerable inconvenience and distresses to those who survive. This line of conduct is the more aggravating, as the want of a greater number of Prison-ships, or of sufficient room on shore, can hardly be pleaded in excuse.
As a bare denial of what has been asserted by so many individuals who have unfortunately experienced the miseries I have mentioned, will not be satisfactory, I have to propose that our Commissary-general of prisoners, or any other officer, who shall be agreed upon, shall have liberty to visit the ships, inspect the situation of the prisoners, and make a report, from an exact survey of the situation in which they may be found, whether, in his opinion, there has been any just cause of complaint.
I shall be glad to be favored with an answer as soon as convenient.
I have the honor to be
yr most obdt srvt
New York 30 August 1781
I intend not either to deny or to assert, for it will neither facilitate business, nor alleviate distress. The subject of your letter seems to turn on two points, namely the inconvenience and distresses which the American prisoners suffer from the inadequacy of room in the Prison-ships, which occasions the death of many of them, as you are told; and that a Commissary-general of prisoners from you should have liberty to visit the ships, inspect the situation of the prisoners, and make a report from an actual survey. I take leave to assure you that I feel for the distresses of mankind as much as any man; and since my commission to the naval command of the department, one of my principal endeavors has been to regulate the Prison and hospital ships.
The Government having made no other provision for naval prisoners than shipping, it is impossible that the greater inconvenience which people confined on board ships experience beyond those confined on shore can be avoided, and a sudden accumulation of people often aggravates the evil.
But I assure you that every attention is shown that is possible, and that the Prison-ships are under the very same Regulations here that have been constantly observed towards the prisoners of all nations in Europe. Tables of diet are publicly affixed; officers visit every week, redress and report grievances, and the numbers are thinned as they can provide shipping, and no attention has been wanting.
The latter point cannot be admitted to its full extent; but if you think fit to send an officer of character to the lines for that purpose, he will be conducted to me, and he shall be accompanied by an officer, and become a witness to the manner in which we treat the prisoners, and I shall expect to have my officer visit the prisoners detained in your jails and dungeons in like manner, as well as in the mines, where I am informed many an unhappy victim languishes out his days. I must remark, had Congress ever been inclined, they might have contributed to relieve the distress of those whom we are under the necessity of holding as prisoners, by sending in all in their possession towards the payment of the large debt they owe us on that head, which might have been an inducement towards liberating many now in captivity. I have the honor to be, Sir, with due respect, etc,
Much correspondence passed between the English and American Commissaries of Prisoners, as well as between Washington and the commanding officer at New York on the subject of the naval prisoners, but little good seems to have been effected thereby until late in the war, when negotiations for peace had almost progressed to a finish. We have seen that, in the summer of 1782, the hard conditions on board the prison ships were in some measure mitigated, and that the sick were sent to Blackwell’s Island, where they had a chance for life. We might go on presenting much more of the correspondence on both sides, and detail all the squabbles about the number of prisoners exchanged; their treatment while in prison; and other subjects of dispute, but the conclusion of the whole matter was eloquently written in the sands of the Wallabout, where the corpses of thousands of victims to British cruelty lay for so many years. We will therefore give only a few further extracts from the correspondence and reports on the subject, as so much of it was tedious and barren of any good result.
In December of the year 1781 Washington, on whom the duty devolved of writing so many of the letters, and receiving so many insulting replies, wrote to the President of Congress as follows:
“I have taken the liberty of enclosing the copies of two letters from the Commissary-general of Prisoners setting forth the debt which is due from us on account of naval prisoners; the number remaining in captivity, their miserable situation, and the little probability there is of procuring their release for the want of proper subjects in our hands.
“Before we proceed into an inquiry into the measures that ought to be adopted to enable us to pay our debt, and to affect the exchange of those who still remain in captivity, a matter which it may take some time to determine, humanity and policy point out the necessity of administering to the pressing wants of a number of the most valuable subjects of the republic.
“Had they been taken in the Continental service, I should have thought myself authorized in conjunction with the Minister of War to apply a remedy, but as the greater part of them were not thus taken, as appears by Mr. Skinner’s representation, I must await the decision of Congress upon the subject.
“Had a system, some time ago planned by Congress and recommended to the several States, been adopted and carried fully into execution, I mean that of obliging all Captains of private vessels to deliver over their prisoners to the Continental Commissioners upon certain conditions, I am persuaded that the numbers taken and brought into the many ports of the United States would have amounted to a sufficiency to have exchanged those taken from us; but instead of that, it is to be feared, that few in proportion were secured, and that the few who are sent in, are so partially applied, that it creates great disgust in those remaining. The consequence of which is, that conceiving themselves neglected, and seeing no prospect of relief, many of them entered into the enemy’s service, to the very great loss of our trading interest. Congress will, therefore, I hope, see the necessity of renewing their former, or making some similar recommendation to the States.
“In addition to the motives above mentioned, for wishing that the whole business of prisoners of war might be brought under one general regulation, there is another of no small consideration, which is, that it would probably put a stop to those mutual complaints of ill treatment which are frequently urged on each part. For it is a fact that, for above two years, we have had no occasion to complain of the treatment of the Continental land prisoners in New York, neither have we been charged with any improper conduct towards those in our hands. I consider the sufferings of the seamen, for some time past, as arising in great measure from the want of that general regulation which has been spoken of, and without which there will constantly be a great number remaining in the hands of the enemy. * * *”
Again in February of the year 1782 Washington wrote to Congress from Philadelphia as follows:
Feb. 18, 1782.
* * * “Mr. Sproat’s proposition of the exchange of British soldiers for American seamen, if acceded to, will immediately give the enemy a very considerable re-enforcement, and will be a constant draft hereafter upon the prisoners of war in our hands. It ought also to be considered that few or none of the Continental naval prisoners in New York or elsewhere belong to the Continental service. I, however, feel for the situation of these unfortunate people, and wish to see them relieved by any mode, which will not materially affect the public good. In some former letters upon this subject I have mentioned a plan, by which I am certain they might be liberated nearly as fast as they are captured. It is by obliging the Captains of all armed vessels, both public and private, to throw their prisoners into common stock, under the direction of the Commissary-general of prisoners. By this means they would be taken care of, and regularly applied to the exchange of those in the hands of the enemy. Now the greater part are dissipated, and the few that remain are applied partially. * * *”
James Rivington edited a paper in New York during the Revolution, and, in 1782, the American prisoners on board the Jersey addressed a letter to him for publication, which is given below.
“On Board the Prison-ship Jersey, June 11, 1782.
Enclosed are five letters, which if you will give a place in your newspaper will greatly oblige a number of poor prisoners who seem to be deserted by our own countrymen, who has it in their power, and will not exchange us. In behalf of the whole we beg leave to subscribe ourselves, Sir, yr much obliged srvts,
ENCLOSURES OF THE FOREGOING LETTER