David Sproat, Commissary of Prisoners, to the prisoners on board the Jersey, New York.
“June 11 1782
“This will be handed you by Captain Daniel Aborn, and Dr, Joseph Bowen, who, agreeable to your petition to his Excellency, Rear-Admiral Digby, have been permitted to go out, and are now returned from General Washington’s Head-quarters, where they delivered your petition to him, representing your disagreeable situation at this extreme hot season of the year, and in your names solicited his Excellency to grant your speedy relief, by exchanging you for a part of the British _soldiers_ in his hands, the only possible means in his power to effect it. Mr. Aborn and the Doctor waits on you with his answer, which I am sorry to say is a flat denial.
“Enclosed I send you copies of three letters which have passed between Mr. Skinner and me, on the occasion, which will convince you that everything has been done on the part of Admiral Digby, to bring about a fair and general exchange of prisoners on both sides. I am
“your most hble Srvt,
“Comm. Gen. for Naval Prisoners.”
ENCLOSURES SENT BY D. SPROAT
David Sproat to Abraham Skinner, American Commissary of Prisoners.
New York lst June 1782
“When I last saw you at Elizabeth Town I mentioned the bad consequences which, in all probability, would take place in the hot weather if an exchange of prisoners was not agreed to by the commissioners on the part of General Washington. His Excellency Rear-Admiral Digby has ordered me to inform you, that the very great increase of prisoners and heat of the weather now baffles all our care and attention to keep them healthy. Five ships have been taken up for their reception, to prevent being crowded, and a great number permitted to go on parole.
“In Winter, and during the cold weather, they lived comfortably, being fully supplied with warm cloathing, blankets, etc, purchased with the money which I collected from the charitable people of this city; but now the weather requires a fresh supply–something light and suitable for the season–for which you will be pleased to make the necessary provision, as it is impossible for them to be healthy in the rags they now wear, without a single shift of cloathing to keep themselves clean. Humanity, sympathy, my duty and orders obliges me to trouble you again on this disagreeable subject, to request you will lose no time in laying their situation before his Excellency General Washington, who, I hope, will listen to the cries of a distressed people, and grant them, (as well as the British prisoners in his hands) relief, by consenting to a general and immediate exchange.
“I am, sir, etc,
It is scarcely necessary to point out to the intelligent reader the inconsistencies in this letter. The comfortable prisoners, abundantly supplied with blankets and clothing in the winter by the charity of the citizens of New York, were so inconsiderate as to go on starving and freezing to death throughout that season. Not only so, but their abundant supply of clothing was reduced to tattered rags in a surprisingly short time, and they were unable to be healthy, “without a single shift of clothing to keep themselves clean.”
We have already seen to what straits they were in reality reduced, in spite of the private charity of the citizens of New York. We do not doubt that the few blankets and other new clothing, if any such were ever sent on board the Jersey, were the gifts of private charity, and not the donation of the British Government.
No one, we believe, can blame General Washington for his unwillingness to add to the British forces arrayed against his country by exchanging the captured troops in the hands of the Americans for the crews of American privateers, who were not in the Continental service. As we have already seen, the blame does not rest with that great commander, whose compassion never blinded his judgment, but with the captains and owners of American privateers themselves, and often with the towns of New England, who were unwilling to burden themselves with prisoners taken on the ocean.
The next letter we will quote is the answer of Commissary Skinner to David Sproat:
“New York June 9th. 1782
From the present situation of the American naval prisoners on board your prison-ships, I am induced to propose to you the exchange of as many as I can give you British naval prisoners for, leaving the balance already due you to be paid when in our power. I could wish this to be represented to his Excellency, Rear Admiral Digby, and that the proposal could be acceded to, as it would relieve many of these distrest men and be consistent with the humane purposes of our office.
“I will admit that we are unable at present to give you seaman for seaman, and thereby relieve the prison-ships of their dreadful burthen, but it ought to be remembered there is a large balance of British soldiers due to the United States, since February last, and that as we have it in our power we may be disposed to place the British soldiers who are now in our possession in as disagreeable a situation as those men are on board the prison ships.
“I am yr obdt hble srvt
COMMISSARY SPROAT’S REPLY
“New York June 9th 1782
“I have received your letter of this date and laid it before his Excellency Rear Admiral Digby, Commander in charge, etc, who has directed me to give for answer that the balance of prisoners, owing to the British having proceeded, from lenity and humanity, on the part of himself and those who commanded before his arrival, is surprized you have not been induced to offer to exchange them first; and until this is done can’t consent to your proposal of a partial exchange, leaving the remainder as well as the British prisoners in your hands, to linger in confinement. Conscious of the American prisoners under my direction, being in every respect taken as good care of as their situation and ours will admit. You must not believe that Admiral Digby will depart from the justice of this measure because you have it in your power to make the British prisoners with you more miserable than there is any necessity for. I am, Sir,
“yr hble servt
The prisoners on board the Jersey published in the _Royal Gazette_ the following
ADDRESS TO THEIR COUNTRYMEN
“Prison Ship Jersey, June 11th 1782
“Friends and Fellow Citizens of America:
“You may bid a final adieu to all your friends and relatives who are now on board the Jersey prison ships at New York, unless you rouse the government to comply with the just and honorable proposals, which has already been done on the part of Britons, but alas! it is with pain we inform you, that our petition to his Excellency General Washington, offering our services to the country during the present campaign, if he would send soldiers in exchange for us, is frankly denied.
“What is to be done? Are we to lie here and share the fate of our unhappy brothers who are dying daily? No, unless you relieve us immediately, we shall be under the necessity of leaving our country, in preservation of our lives.
“Signed in behalf of prisoners
“To Mr James Rivington, Printer N. Y.”
This address was reproduced in Hugh Gaines’s _New York Gazette_, June 17, 1782.
Whether the John Cooper who signed his name to this address is the Mr. Cooper mentioned by Dring as the orator of the Jersey we do not know, but it is not improbable. Nine Coopers are included in the list, given in the appendix to this volume, of prisoners on the Jersey, but no John Cooper is among them. The list is exceedingly imperfect. Of the other signers of the address only two, George Wanton and John Sheffield, can be found within its pages. It is very certain that it is incomplete, and it probably does not contain more than half the names of the prisoners who suffered on board that dreadful place. David Sproat won the hatred and contempt of all the American prisoners who had anything to do with him. One of his most dastardly acts was the paper which he drew up in June, 1782, and submitted to a number of American sea captains for their signature, which he obtained from them by threats of taking away their parole in case of their refusal, and sending them back to a captivity worse than death. This paper, _which they signed without reading_ was to the following effect:
LETTER PURPORTING TO BE FROM A COMMITTEE OF CAPTAINS, NAVAL PRISONERS OF WAR TO J. RIVINGTON, WITH A REPRESENTATION OF A COMMITTEE ON THE CONDITION OF THE PRISONERS ON BOARD THE JERSEY
New York, June 22, 1782.
We beg you will be pleased to give the inclosed Report and Resolve of a number of Masters of American Vessels, a place in your next Newspaper, for the information of the public. In order to undeceive numbers of our countrymen without the British lines, who have not had an opportunity of seeing the state and situation of the prisoners of New York as we have done. We are, Sir,
yr most obdt, hble srvts,
Robert Harris, Captain of the sloop Industry John Chace
Charles Collins, Captain of the Sword-fish Philemon Haskell
We whose names are hereunto subscribed, late Masters of American vessels, which have been captured by the British cruisers and brought into this port, having obtained the enlargement of our paroles from Admiral Digby, to return to our respective homes, being anxious before our departure to know the true state and situation of the prisoners confined on board the prison ships and hospital ships for that purpose, have requested and appointed six of our number, viz, R. Harris, J. Chace, Ch. Collins, P. Haskell, J. Carnes and Christopher Smith, to go on board the said prison ships for that purpose and the said six officers aforesaid having gone on board five of the vessels, attended by Mr. D. Sproat, Com. Gen. for Naval Prisoners, and Mr. George Rutherford, Surgeon to the hospital ships, do report to us that they have found them in as comfortable a situation as it is possible for prisoners to be on board of ships at this season of the year, and much more so than they had any idea of, and that anything said to the contrary is false and without foundation. That they inspected their beef, pork, flour, bread, oatmeal, pease, butter, liquors, and indeed every species of provisions which is issued on board his British Majesty’s ships of war, and found them all good of their kind, which survey being made before the prisoners, they acknowledged the same and declared they had no complaint to make but the want of cloaths and a speedy exchange. We therefore from this report and what we have all seen and known, _Do Declare_ that great commendation is due to his Excellency Rear Admiral Digby, for his humane disposition and indulgence to his prisoners, and also to those he entrusts the care of them to; viz: To the Captain and officers of his Majesty’s prison-ship Jersey, for their attention in preserving good order, having the ship kept clean and awnings spread over _the whole_ of her, fore and aft: To Dr Rutherford, and the Gentlemen acting under him * * *, for their constant care and attendance on the sick, whom we found in wholesome, clean sheets, also covered with awnings, fore and aft, every man furnished with a cradle, bed, and sheets, made of good Russia linen, to lay in; the best of fresh provisions, vegetables, wine, rice, barley, etc, which was served out to them. And we further do declare in justice to Mr. Sproat, and the gentlemen acting under him in his department, that they conscientiously do their duty with great humanity and indulgence to the prisoners, and reputation to themselves; And we unanimously do agree that nothing is wanting to preserve the lives and health of those unfortunate prisoners but clean cloaths and a speedy exchange, which testimony we freely give without restriction and covenant each with the other to endeavor to effect their exchange as soon as possible:
For the remembrance of this our engagement we have furnished ourselves with copies of this instrument of writing. Given under our hands in New York the 22 of June, 1782.
Dr. J. Bowen.
The publication of this infamously false circular roused much indignation among patriotic Americans, and no one believed it a trustworthy statement. The _Independent Chronicle_, in its issue for August, 1782, had the following refutation: [Footnote: This letter is said to have been written by Captain Manly, _five times_ a prisoner during the Revolution.]
“Happening to be at Mr. Bracket’s tavern last Saturday, and hearing two gentlemen conversing on the surprising alteration in regard to the treatment our prisoners met with in New York, and as I have had the misfortune to be more than once a prisoner in England, and in different prison-ships in New York, and having suffered everything but death, I cannot help giving all attention to anything I hear or read relative to the treatment our brave countrymen met with on board the prison-ships of New York. One of the gentlemen observed that the treatment of our prisoners must certainly be much better, as so many of our commanders had signed a paper that was wrote by Mr. David Sproat, the commissary of naval prisoners in New York. The other gentleman answered and told him he could satisfy him in regard to the matter, having seen and conversed with several of the Captains that signed Mr. Sproat’s paper, who told him that, although they had put their names to the paper that Mr. Sproat sent them on Long Island, where they were upon parole, yet it was upon these conditions they did it: in order to have leave to go home to their wives and families, and not be sent on board the prison-ships, as Mr. Sproat had threatened to do if they refused to sign the paper that he sent them. These captains further said, that they did not read the paper nor hear it read. The gentleman then asked them how they could sign their names to a paper they did not read; they said it was because they might go home upon parole. He asked one of them why he did not contradict it since it had appeared in the public papers, and was false: he said he dare not at present, for fear of being recalled and sent on board the prison-ship, and there end his days: but as soon as he was exchanged he would do it. If this gentleman, through fear, dare not contradict such a piece of falsehood, I dare, and if I was again confined on board the prison-ship in New York, dare again take the boat and make my escape, although at the risk of my life.
“Some of the captains went on board the prison-ship with Mr. Sproat, a few moments, but did not go off the deck.
“In justice to myself and country I am obliged to publish the above.
Besides this refutation of Sproat’s shameful trick there were many others. The _Pennsylvania Packet_ of Tuesday, Sept. 10, 1782, published an affidavit of John Kitts, a former prisoner on board the Jersey.
“The voluntary affidavit of John Kitts, of the city of Phila., late mate of the sloop Industry, commanded by Robert Harris, taken before the subscriber, chief justice of the commonwealth of Pa., the 16th day of July, 1782.–This deponent saith, that in the month of November last he was walking in Front St. with the said Harris and saw in his hand a paper, which he told the deponent that he had received from a certain Captain Kuhn, who had been lately from New York, where he had been a prisoner, and that this deponent understood and believed it was a permission or pass to go to New York with any vessel, as it was blank and subscribed by Admiral Arbuthnot: that he does not know that the said Robert Harris ever made any improper use of said paper.”
AFFIDAVIT OF JOHN COCHRAN, DENYING THE TRUTH OF THE STATEMENTS CONTAINED IN THE REPORT OF THE COMMITTEE OF CAPTAINS
From the _Pennsylvania Packet_, Phila., Tuesday, Sept. 10, 1782.
“The voluntary Affidavit of John Cochran, of the city of Phila., late mate of the ship, Admiral Youtman, of Phila., taken before the subscriber, the 16 day of July, 1782.
“The said deponent saith, that he was taken prisoner on board the aforesaid ship on the 12 of March last by the ship Garland, belonging to the king of Great Britain, and carried into the city of New York, on the 15 of the same month, when he was immediately put on board the prison-ship Jersey, with the whole crew of the Admiral Youtman, and was close confined there until the first day of this month, when he made his escape; that the people on board the said prison-ship were very sickly insomuch that he is firmly persuaded, out of near 1000 persons, perfectly healthy when put on board the same ship, during the time of his confinement on board, there are not more than but three or four hundred now alive; that when he made his escape there were not three hundred men well on board, but upward of 140 very sick, as he understood and was informed by the physicians: that there were five or six men buried daily under a bank on the shore, without coffins; that all the larboard side of the said ship was made use of as a hospital for the sick, and was so offensive that he was obliged constantly to hold his nose as he passed from the gun-room up the hatchway; that he seen maggots creeping out of a wound of one Sullivan’s shoulder, who was the mate of a vessel out of Virginia; and that his wound remained undressed for several days together; that every man was put into the hold a little after sundown every night, and the hatches put over him; and that the tubs which were kept for the use of the sick * * * were placed under the ladder from the hatchway to the hold, and so offensive day and night, that they were almost intolerable, and increased the number of the sick daily. The deponent further saith, that the bilge water was very injurious in the hold, was muddy and dirty, and never was changed or sweetened during the whole time he was there, nor, as he was informed and believes to be true, for many years before; for fear, as it was reported, the provisions might be injured thereby; that the sick in the hospital part of the said ship Jersey, had no sheets of Russia, or any other linen, nor beds nor bedding furnished them; and those who had no beds of their own, of whom there were great numbers, were not even allowed a hammock, but were obliged to lie on the planks; that he was on board the said prison ship when Captain Robert Harris and others, with David Sproat, the commissary of prisoners, came on board her, and that none of them went or attempted to go below decks, in said ship, to see the situation of the prisoners, nor did they ask a single question respecting the matter, to this deponent’s knowledge or belief; for that he was present the whole time they were on board, and further the deponent saith not.
“Theodore McKean C. J.
It seems singular that Sproat should have resorted to such a contemptible trick, which deceived few if any persons, for the reputation of the Jersey was too notorious for such a refutation to carry weight on either side.
In the meantime the mortality on board continued, and, by a moderate computation, two-thirds of her wretched occupants died and were buried on the shore, their places being taken by fresh victims, from the many privateers that were captured by the British almost daily.
GENERAL WASHINGTON AND REAR ADMIRAL DIGBY–COMMISSARIES SPROAT AND SKINNER
Washington’s best vindication against the charge of undue neglect of American prisoners is found in the correspondence on the subject. We will therefore give his letter to Rear Admiral Digby, after his interview with the committee of three sent from the Jersey to complain of their treatment by the British, and to endeavor to negotiate an exchange.
GENERAL WASHINGTON TO REAR ADMIRAL DIGBY
Head-Quarters, June 5 1782
By a parole, granted to two gentlemen, Messrs. Aborn and Bowen, I perceive that your Excellency granted them permission to come to me with a representation of the sufferings of the American prisoners at New York. As I have no agency on Naval matters, this application to me is made on mistaken grounds. But curiosity leading me to enquire into the nature and cause of their sufferings, I am informed that the prime complaint is that of their being crowded, especially at this season, in great numbers on board of foul and infected prison ships, where disease and death are almost inevitable. This circumstance I am persuaded needs only to be mentioned to your Excellency to obtain that redress which is in your power _only_ to afford, and which humanity so strongly prompts.
If the fortune of war, Sir, has thrown a number of these miserable people into your hands, I am certain your Excellency’s feelings for fellowmen must induce you to proportion the ships (if they _must_ be confined on board ships), to their accommodation and comfort, and not, by crowding them together in a few, bring on disorders which consign them, by half a dozen a day, to the grave.
The soldiers of his British Majesty, prisoners with us, were they (which might be the case), to be equally crowded together in close and confined prisons, at this season, would be exposed to equal loss and misery. I have the honor to be, Sir
Yr Excellency’s most obt
REAR-ADMIRAL DIGBY’S ANSWER
N. Y. June 8 1782
My feelings prompted me to grant Messrs. Aborn and Bowen permission to wait on your Excellency to represent their miserable situation, and if your Excellency’s feelings on this occasion are like mine, you will not hesitate one moment in relieving both the British and Americans suffering under confinement.
I have the Honor to be your Excellency’s Very obdt Srvt
FROM COMMISSARY SKINNER TO COMMISSARY SPROAT
Camp Highlands, June 24th 1782
As I perceive by a New York paper of the 12 inst, the last letters which passed between us on the subject of naval prisoners have been committed to print, I must request the same to be done with this which is intended to contain some animadversions on those publications.
The principles and policy which appear to actuate your superiors in their conduct towards the American seamen who unfortunately fall into their power, are too apparent to admit of a doubt or misapprehension. I am sorry to observe, Sir, that notwithstanding the affectation of candour and fairness on your part, from the universal tenor of behaviour on your side of the lines, it is obvious that the designs of the British is, by misrepresenting the state of facts with regard to exchanges, to excite jealousy in the minds of our unfortunate seamen, that they are neglected by their countrymen, and by attempting to make them believe that all the miseries they are now suffering in consequence of a pestilential sickness arise from want of inclination in General Washington to exchange them when he has it in his power to do it; in hopes of being able by this insinuation and by the unrelenting severity you make use of in confining them in the contaminated holds of prison-ships, to compel them, in order to avoid the dreadful alternative of almost inevitable death, to enter the service of the King of Great Britain.
To show that these observations are just and well grounded, I think it necessary to inform you of some facts which have happened within my immediate notice, and to put you in mind of others which you cannot deny. I was myself present at the time when Captain Aborn and Dr. Bowen * * * waited on his Excellency General Washington, and know perfectly well the answer his Excellency gave to that application: he informed them in the first place that he was not directly or indirectly invested with any power of inference respecting the exchange of naval prisoners; that this business was formerly under the direction of the Board of Admiralty, that upon the annihilation of that Board Congress had committed it to the Financier (who has in charge all our naval prisoners) and he to the Secretary at war. That (the General) was notwithstanding disposed to do everything in his power for their assistance and relief: that as exchanging seamen for soldiers was contrary to the original agreement for the exchange of prisoners,–which specified that officers should be exchanged for officers, soldiers for soldiers, citizens for citizens, and seamen for seamen; as it was contrary to the custom and practice of other nations, and as it would be, in his opinion, contrary to the soundest policy, by giving the enemy a great and permanent strength for which we could receive no compensation, or at best but a partial and temporary one, he did not think it would be admissible: but as it appeared to him, from a variety of well authenticated information, the present misery and mortality which prevailed among the naval prisoners were almost entirely, if not altogether produced by the _mode of their confinement_, being closely crowded together in infected prison-ships, where the very air is pregnant with disease, and the ships themselves (never having been cleaned in the course of many years), a mere mass of putrefaction, he would therefor, from motives of humanity, write to Rear-Admiral Digby, in whose power it was to remedy this great evil, by confining them on shore, or having a sufficient number of prison-ships provided for that purpose, for, he observed, it was as preposterously cruel to confine 800 men, at this sultry season, on board the Jersey prison-ship, as it would be to shut up the whole army of Lord Cornwallis to perish in the New Goal of Philadelphia, but if more commodious and healthy accommodations were not afforded we had the means of retaliation in our hands, which he should not hesitate, in that case, to make use of, by confining the land prisoners with as much severity as our seamen were held.–The Gentlemen of the Committee appeared to be sensible of the force of these reasons, however repugnant they might be to the feelings and wishes of the men who had destruction and death staring them in the face.
His Excellency was further pleased to suffer me to go to New York to examine into the grounds of the suffering of the prisoners, and to devise, if possible, some way or another, for their liberation or relief. With this permission I went into your lines: and in consequence of the authority I had been previously invested with, from the Secretary at War, I made the proposition contained in my letter of the ninth instant. Although I could not claim this as a matter of right I flattered myself it would have been granted from the principles of humanity, as well as other motives. There had been a balance of 495 land prisoners due to us ever since the month of February last, when a settlement was made; besides which, to the best of my belief, 400 have been sent in, (this is the true state of the fact, though it differs widely from the account of 250 men, which is falsely stated in the note annexed to my letter in the New York paper:) notwithstanding this balance, I was then about sending into your lines a number of land prisoners, as an equivalent for ours, who were then confined in the Sugar House, without which (though the debt was acknowledged, I could not make interest to have them liberated), this business has since been actually negotiated, and we glory in having our conduct, such as will bear the strictest scrutiny, and be found consonant to the dictates of reason, liberality, and justice. But, Sir, since you would not agree to the proposals I made, since I was refused being permitted to visit the prison-ships: (for which I conclude no other reason can be produced than your being ashamed or afraid of having those graves of our seamen seen by one who dared to represent the horrors of them to his countrymen,) Since the commissioners from your side, at their late meeting, would not enter into an adjustment of the accounts for supplying your naval and land prisoners, on which there are large sums due us; and since your superiors will neither make provision for the support of your prisoners in our hands, nor accommodation for the mere existence of ours, who are now languishing in your prison-ships, it becomes my duty, Sir, to state these pointed facts to you, that the imputations may recoil where they are deserved, and to report to those, under whose authority I have the honor to act, that such measures as they deem proper may be adopted.
And now, Sir, I will conclude this long letter with observing that not having a sufficient number of British seamen in our possession we are not able to release urs by exchange:–this is our misfortune, but it is not a crime, and ought not to operate as a mortal punishment against the unfortunate–we ask no favour, we claim nothing but common justice and humanity, while we assert to the whole world, as a notorious fact, that the unprecedented inhumanity in the _mode_ of confining our naval prisoners, to the amount of 800 in one old hulk, which has been made use of as a prison-ship for more than three years, without ever having been once purified, has been the real and sole cause of the deaths of hundreds of brave Americans, who would not have perished in that untimely and barbarous manner, had they, (when prisoners,) been suffered to breathe a purer air, and to enjoy more liberal and convenient accommodations agreeably to the practice of civilized nations when at war, (and) the example which has always been set you by the Americans. You may say, and I shall admit, that if they were placed on islands, and more liberty given them, that some might desert; but is not this the case with your prisoners in our hands? And could we not avoid this also, if we were to adopt the same rigid and inhuman mode of confinement you do?
I beg, Sir, you will be pleased to consider this as addressed to you officially, as the principal executive officer in the department of naval prisoners, and not personally, and that you will attribute any uncommon warmth of style that I may have been led into to my feeling and animation on a subject with which I find myself so much interested, both from the principles of humanity and the duties of office. I am, Sir,
yr most obdt Srvt
Letters full of recriminations continued to pass between the commissaries on both sides. In Sproat’s reply to the letter we have just quoted, he enclosed a copy of the paper which he had induced the thirteen sea captains and other officers to sign, obtained as we have seen, in such a dastardly manner.
In the meantime the naval prisoners continued to die in great numbers on board the prison and hospital-ships. We have already described the cleansing of the Jersey, on which occasion the prisoners were sent on board of other vessels and exposed to cold and damp in addition to their other sufferings. And while negotiations for peace were pending some relaxation in severity appears to have taken place.
SOME OF THE PRISONERS ON BOARD THE JERSEY
We have seen that the crew of the Chance was exchanged in the fall of 1782. A few of the men who composed this crew were ill at the time that the exchange was affected, and had been sent to Blackwell’s Island. Among these unfortunate sufferers was the sailing-master of the Chance, whose name was Sylvester Rhodes.
This gentleman was born at Warwick, R. I., November 21, 1745. He married Mary Aborn, youngest sister of Captain Daniel Aborn, and entered the service of his country, in the early part of the war, sometimes on land, and sometimes as a seaman. He was with Commodore Whipple on his first cruise, and as prize-master carried into Boston the first prize captured by that officer. He also served in a Rhode Island regiment.
When the crew of the Jersey was exchanged and he was not among the number, his brother-in-law, Captain Aborn, endeavored to obtain his release, but, as he had been an officer in the army as well as on the privateer, the British refused to release him as a seaman. His father, however, through the influence of some prominent Tories with whom he was connected, finally secured his parole, and Captain Aborn went to New York to bring him home. But it was too late. He had become greatly enfeebled by disease, and died on board the cartel, while on her passage through the Sound, on the 3rd of November, 1782, leaving a widow and five children. Mary Aborn Rhodes lived to be 98, dying in 1852, one of the last survivors of the stirring times of the Revolution.
One of the most adventurous of American seamen was William Drowne, who was taken prisoner more than once. He was born in Providence, R. I., in April 1755. After many adventures he sailed on the 18th of May, 1780, in the General Washington, owned by Mr. John Brown of Providence. In a Journal kept by Mr. Drowne on board of this ship, he writes:
“The cruise is for two months and a half, though should New York fetch us up again, the time may be protracted, but it is not in the bargain to pay that potent city a visit _this bout_. It may easily be imagined what a _sensible mortification_ it must be to dispense with the delicious sweets of a Prison-ship. But though the Washington is deemed a prime sailor, and is well armed, I will not be too sanguine in the prospect of escape, as ‘the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong.’ But, as I said before, it is not in the articles to go there this time, especially as it is said the prisoners are very much crowded there already, and it would be a piece of unfeeling inhumanity to be adding to their unavoidable inconvenience by our presence. Nor could we, in such a case, by any means expect that Madam Fortune would deign to smile so propitiously as she did before, in the promotion of an exchange so much sooner than our most sanguine expectations flattered us with, as ’tis said to be with no small difficulty that a parole can be obtained, much more an exchange.”
This cruise resulted in the capture by the Washington of several vessels, among them the Robust, Lord Sandwich, Barrington, and the Spitfire, a British privateer.
In May, 1781, Mr. Drowne sailed on board the Belisarius, commanded by Captain James Munro, which vessel was captured on the 26th of July and brought into the port of New York. Browne and the other officers were sent to the Jersey, where close confinement and all the horrors of the place soon impaired his vigorous constitution. Although he was, through the influence of his friends, allowed to visit Newport on parole in November, 1781, he was returned to the prison ship, and was not released until some time in 1783. His brother, who was a physician, nursed him faithfully, but he died on the 9th of August, 1786. Letters written on board the Jersey have a melancholy interest to the student of history, and this one, written by William Drowne to a Mrs. Johnston, of New York, is taken from the appendix to the “Recollections of Captain Dring.”
Jersey Prison Ship Sep. 25 1781
Your letter to Captain Joshua Sawyer of the 23d Inst, came on board this moment, which I being requested to answer, take the freedom to do, and with sensible regret, as it announces the dissolution of the good man. It was an event very unexpected. Tis true he had been for some days very ill, but a turn in his favor cancel’d all further apprehension of his being dangerous, and but yesterday he was able without assistance to go upon deck; said he felt much better, and without any further Complaints, at the usual time turned into his Hammock, and as was supposed went to sleep. Judge of our Surprise and Astonishment this morning at being informed of his being found a lifeless Corpse.
Could anything nourishing or comfortable have been procured for him during his illness, ’tis possible He might now have been a well man. But Heaven thought proper to take him to itself, and we must not repine.
A Coffin would have been procured in case it could be done seasonably, but his situation render’d a speedy Interment unavoidable. Agreeably to which 10 or 12 Gentlemen of his acquaintance presented a petition to the Commanding Officer on board, requesting the favor that they might be permitted, under the Inspection of a file of Soldiers, to pay the last sad duties to a Gentleman of merit; which he humanely granted, and in the Afternoon his remains were taken on shore, and committed to their native dust in as decent a manner as our situation would admit. Myself, in room of a better, officiated in the sacred office of a Chaplain and read prayers over the Corpse previous to its final close in its gloomy mansion. I have given you these particulars, Madam, as I was sensible it must give you great satisfaction to hear he had some friends on board. Your benevolent and good intentions to him shall, (if Heaven permits my return) be safely delivered to his afflicted wife, to give her the sensible Consolation that her late much esteemed and affectionate Husband was not destitute of a Friend, who had wish’d to do him all the good offices in his power, had not the hand of fate prevented.
If you wish to know anything relative to myself–if you will give Yourself the trouble to call on Mrs. James Selhrig, she will inform You, or Jos. Aplin, Esqre.
You will please to excuse the Liberty I have taken being an entire stranger. I have no Views in it but those of giving, as I said before, satisfaction to one who took a friendly part towards a Gentleman decease’d, whom I very much esteemed. Your goodness will not look with a critical eye over the numerous Imperfections of this Epistle.
I am, Madam, with every sentiment of respect
yr most Obdt Servt
The next letter we will give was written by Dr. Solomon Drowne to his sister Sally. This gentleman was making every effort to obtain his brother’s release from captivity.
Providence, Oct. 17 1781
We have not forgot you;–but if we think strongly on other objects the memory of you returns, more grateful than the airs which fan the Summer, or all the golden products of ye Autumn. The Cartel is still detained, for what reason is not fully known. Perhaps they meditate an attack upon some unguarded, unsuspecting quarter, and already in idea glut their eyes, with the smoke of burning Towns and Villages, and are soothed by the sounds of deep distress. Forbid it Guardian of America!–and rather let the reason be their fear that we should know the state of their shattered Navy and declining affairs–However, Bill is yet a Prisoner, and still must feel, if not for himself, yet what a mind like his will ever feel for others. In a letter I received from him about three weeks since he mentioned that having a letter to Mr. George Deblois, he sent it, accompanied with one he wrote requesting his influence towards effecting his return the next Flag,–that Mr. Deblois being indisposed, his cousin Captain William Deblois, taken by Monro last year, came on board to see him, with a present from Mr. Deblois of some Tea, Sugar, Wine, Rum, etc, and the offer of any other Civilities that lay in the power of either:–This was beneficence and true Urbanity,–that he was not destitute of Cash, that best friend in Adversity, except some other best friends,–that as long as he had health, he should, he had like to have said, be happy. In a word he bears up with his wonted fortitude and good spirits, as we say, nor discovers the least repining at his fate. But you and I who sleep on beds of down and inhale the untainted, cherishing air, surrounded by most endeared connexions, know that his cannot be the most delectable of situations: therefor with impatience we look for his happy return to the Circle of his Friends.
Yr aff Bro.
DR. S. DROWNE TO MRS. MARCY DROWNE
Newport Nov. 14 1781
I found Billy much better than I expected, the account we received of his situation having been considerably exaggerated: However we ought to be thankful we were not deceived by a too favorable account, and so left him to the care of strangers, when he might most need the soothing aid of close relatives. He is very weak yet, and as a second relapse might endanger his reduced, tottering system, think it advisable not to set off for home with him till the wind is favorable. He is impatient, for the moment of its shifting, as he is anxious to see you all.
The boat is just going, Adieu, yr aff son
We have already quoted from the Recollections of Jeremiah Johnson who lived on the banks of Wallabout Bay during the Revolution. He further says: “The prisoners confined in the Jersey had secretly obtained a crow-bar which was kept concealed in the berth of some confidential officer among the prisoners. The bar was used to break off the _port_ gratings. This was done, in windy nights, when good swimmers were ready to leave the ship for the land. In this way a number escaped.
“Captain Doughty, a friend of the writer, had charge of the bar when he was a prisoner on board of the Jersey, and effected his escape by its means. When he left the ship he gave the bar to a confidant to be used for the relief of others. Very few who left the ship were retaken. They knew where to find friends to conceal them, and to help them beyond pursuit.
“A singularly daring and successful escape was effected from the Jersey about 4 o’clock one afternoon in the beginning of Dec. 1780. The best boat of the ship had returned from New York between 3 & 4 o’clock, and was left fast at the gangway, with the oars on board. The afternoon was stormy, the wind blew from the north-east, and the tide ran flood. A watchword was given, and a number of prisoners placed themselves carelessly between the ship’s waist and the sentinel. At this juncture four Eastern Captains got on board the boat, which was cast off by their friends. The boat passed close under the bows of the ship, and was a considerable distance from her before the sentinel in the fo’castle gave the alarm, and fired at her. The second boat was manned for a chase; she pursued in vain; one man from her bow fired several shots at the boat, and a few guns were fired at her from the Bushwick shore; but all to no effect,–and the boat passed Hell-gate in the evening, and arrived safe in Connecticut next morning.
“A spring of the writer was a favorite watering-place for the British shipping. The water-boat of the Jersey watered from this spring daily when it could be done; four prisoners were generally brought on shore to fill the casks, attended by a guard. The prisoners were frequently permitted to come to the (Johnstons’) house to get milk and food; and often brought letters privately from the prisoners. From these the sufferings on board were revealed.
“Supplies of vegetables were frequently collected by Mr. Remsen (the benevolent owner of the mill,) for the prisoners; and small sums of money were sent on board by the writer’s father to his friends by means of these watering parties.”
AN ESCAPE FROM THE JERSEY
“I was one of 850 souls confined in the Jersey in the summer of 1781, and witnessed several daring attempts to escape. They generally ended tragically. They were always undertaken in the night, after wrenching or filing the bar off the port-holes. Having been on board several weeks, and goaded to death in various ways, four of us concluded to run the hazard. We set to work and got the bars off, and waited impatiently for a dark night. We lay in front of Mr. Remsen’s door, inside of the pier head and not more that 20 yards distant. There were several guard sloops, one on our bow, and the other off our quarter a short distance from us. The dark night came, the first two were lowered quietly into the water; and the third made some rumbling. I was the fourth that descended, but had not struck off from the vessel before the guards were alarmed, and fired upon us. The alarm became general, and I was immediately hauled on board (by the other prisoners).
“They manned their boats, and with their lights and implements of death were quick in pursuit of the unfortunates, cursing and swearing, and bellowing and firing. It was awful to witness this deed of blood. It lasted about an hour,–all on board trembling for our shipmates. These desperadoes returned to their different vessels rejoicing that they had killed three damned rebels.
“About three years after this I saw a gentleman in John St., near Nassau, who accosted me thus: ‘Manley, how do you do?’ I could not recollect him. ‘Is it possible you don’t know me? Recollect the Old Jersey?’ And he opened his vest and bared his breast. I immediately said to him–‘You are James McClain.’ ‘I am,’ said he. We both stepped into Mariner’s public house, at the corner, and he related his marvellous escape to me.
“‘They pursued me:–I frequently dived to avoid them, and when I came up they fired on me. I caught my breath, and immediately dived again, and held my breath till I crawled along the mud. They no doubt thought they killed me. I however, with much exertion, though weak and wounded, made out to reach the shore, and got into a barn, not far from the ship, a little north of Mr. Remsen’s house. The farmer, the next morning, came into his barn,–saw me lying on the floor, and ran out in a fright. I begged him to come to me, and he did, I gave an account of myself, where I was from, how I was pursued, with several others. He saw my wounds, took pity on me; sent for his wife, and bound up my wounds, and kept me in the barn until night-fall,–took me into his house, nursed me secretly, and then furnished me with clothing, etc., and when I was restored, he took me with him, into his market-boat to this city, and went with me to the west part of the city, provided me with a passage over to Bergen, and I landed somewhere in Communipaw. Some friends helped me across Newark Bay, and then I worked my way, until I reached Baltimore, to the great joy of all my friends.” [Footnote: “Recollections of Captain Manley”.]
Just what proportion of captives died on board of the Jersey it is now impossible to determine. No doubt there were many escapes of which it is impossible to obtain the particulars. The winter of 1779-80 was excessively cold, and the Wallabout Bay was frozen over. One night a number of prisoners took advantage of this to make their escape by lowering themselves from a port hole on to the ice. It is recorded that the cold was so excessive that one man was frozen to death, that the British pursued the party and brought a few of them back, but that a number succeeded in making their escape to New Jersey. Who these men were we have been unable to discover. Tradition also states that while Wallabout Bay was thus frozen over the Long Island market women skated across it, with supplies of vegetables in large hampers attached to their backs, and that some of them came near enough to throw some of their supplies to the half-famished prisoners on board the Jersey.
It would appear that these poor sufferers had warm friends in the farmers who lived on the shores of the Wallabout. Of these Mr. A. Remsen, who owned a mill at the mouth of a creek which empties into the Bay, was one of the most benevolent, and it was his daughter who is said to have kept a list of the number of bodies that were interred in the sand in the neighborhood of the mill and house. In 1780 Mr Remsen hid an escaped prisoner, Major H. Wyckoff, for several days in one of his upper rooms, while at the same time the young lieutenant of the guard of the Jersey was quartered in the house. Remsen also lent Captain Wyckoff as much money as he needed, and finally, one dark night, safely conveyed him in a sleigh to Cow Neck. From thence he crossed to Poughkeepsie.
Although little mention is made by those prisoners who have left accounts of their experiences while on board the Jersey, of any aid received by them from the American government the following passage from a Connecticut paper would seem to indicate that such aid was tendered them at least for a time. It is possible that Congress sent some provisions to the prison-ships for her imprisoned soldiers, or marines, but made no provision for the crews of privateers.
“New London. September 1st. 1779. D. Stanton testifies that he was taken June 5th, and put in the Jersey prison ship. An allowance from Congress was sent on board. About three or four weeks past we were removed on board the Good Hope, where we found many sick. There is now a hospital ship provided, to which they are removed and good attention paid.”
The next extract that we will quote probably refers to the escape of prisoners on the ice referred to above.
“New London. Conn. Feb. 16th. 1780. Fifteen prisoners arrived here who three weeks ago escaped from the prison-ship in the East River. A number of others escaped about the same time from the same ship, some of whom being frost-bitten and unable to endure the cold, were taken up and carried back, one frozen to death before he reached the shore.”
“_Rivington’s Gazette_, Dec. 19th 1780. George Batterman, who had been a prisoner on board the prison ship at New York, deposes that he had had eight ounces of condemned bread per day; and eight ounces of meat. He was afterwards put on board the Jersey, where were, as was supposed, 1,100 prisoners; recruiting officers came on board and finding that the American officers persuaded the men not to enlist, removed them, as he was told, to the Provost. The prisoners were tempted to enlist to free themselves from confinement, hopeless of exchange. * * * The prisoners had a pint of water per day:–the sick were not sent to the hospitals until they were so weak and ill that they often expired before they got out of the Jersey. The commanding officer said his orders were that if the ship took fire we should all be turned below, and left to perish in the flames. By accident the ship took fire in the steward’s room, when the Hessian guards were ordered to drive the prisoners below, and fire among them if they resisted or got in the water.”
Talbot in his Memoirs stated that: “When the weather became cool and dry in the fall and the nights frosty the number of deaths on board the Jersey was _reduced_ to an average of ten per day! which was _small_ compared with the mortality for three months before. The human bones and skulls yet bleaching on the shore of Long Island, and exposed by the falling down of the high bank, on which the prisoners were buried, is a shocking sight.” (Talbot, page 106.)
In May, 1808, one William Burke of New York testified that “He was a prisoner in the Jersey 14 months, has known many American prisoners put to death by the bayonet. It was the custom for but one prisoner at a time to go on deck. One night while many prisoners were assembled at the grate, at the hatchway to obtain fresh air, and waiting their turn to go on deck, a sentinel thrust his bayonet down among them, and 25 next morning were found to be dead. This was the case several mornings, when sometimes six, and sometimes eight or ten were found dead by wounds thus received.”
A Connecticut paper, some time in May, 1781, stated that. “Eleven hundred French and American prisoners died in New York last winter.”
A paper published in Philadelphia, on the 20th of February, 1782, says: “Many of our unfortunate prisoners on board the prison ships in the East River have perished during the late extreme weather, for want of fuel and other necessaries.”
“New London. May 3rd. 1782. One thousand of our seamen remain in prison ships in New York, a great part in close confinement for six months past, and in a most deplorable condition. Five hundred have died during the past five or six months, three hundred are sick; many seeing no prospect of release are entering the British service to elude the contagion with which the prison ships are fraught.”
Joel Barlow in his Columbiad says that Mr. Elias Boudinot told him that in the Jersey 1,100 prisoners died in eighteen months, almost the whole of them from the barbarous treatment of being stifled in a crowded hold with infected air; and poisoned with unwholesome food, and Mr Barlow adds that the cruelties exercised by the British armies on American prisoners during the first years of the war were unexampled among civilized nations.
Such of the prisoners as escaped after months of suffering with health sufficient for future usefulness in the field often re-enlisted, burning for revenge.
Mr. Scharf, in his “History of Western Maryland,” speaks of Colonel William Kunkel, who had served in Prussia, and emigrated to America about the year 1732. He first settled in Lancaster, Pa., but afterwards moved to Western Maryland. He had six sons in the Revolution. One of these sons entered the American army at the age of eighteen. Taken prisoner he was sent on board the Jersey, where his sufferings were terrible. On his return home after his exchange he vowed to his father that he would return to the army and fight until the last redcoat was driven out of the country. He did return, and from that time, says Mr Scharf, his family never heard from him again.
Mr. Crimmins in his “Irish-American Historical Miscellany,” says: “An especially affecting incident is told regarding one prisoner who died on the Jersey. Two young men, brothers, belonging to a rifle corps were made prisoners, and sent on board the ship. The elder took the fever, and in a few days became delirious. One night as his end was fast approaching, he became calm and sensible, and lamenting his hard fate, and the absence of his mother, begged for a little water. His brother with tears, entreated the guard to give him some, but in vain. The sick youth was soon in his last struggles, when his brother offered the guard a guinea for an inch of candle, only that he might see him die. Even this was denied.”
The young rifleman died in the dark.
“Now,” said his brother, drying his tears, “if it please God that I ever regain my liberty, I’ll be a most bitter enemy!”
He was exchanged, rejoined the army, and when the war ended he is said to have had eight large and one hundred and twenty-seven small notches on his rifle stock. The inference is that he made a notch every time he killed or wounded a British soldier, a large notch for an officer, and a small one for a private.
Mr. Lecky, the English historian, thus speaks of American prisoners: “The American prisoners who had been confined in New York after the battle of Long Island were so emaciated and broken down by scandalous neglect or ill usage that Washington refused to receive them in exchange for an equal number of healthy British and Hessian troops. * * * It is but justice to the Americans to add that their conduct during the war appears to have been almost uniformly humane. No charges of neglect of prisoners, like those which were brought, apparently with too good reason, against the English, were substantiated against them. The conduct of Washington was marked by a careful and steady humanity, and Franklin, also, appears to have done much to mitigate the war.”
Our task is now concluded. We have concerned ourselves with the prisoners themselves, not much with the history of the negotiations carried on to effect exchange, but have left this part of the subject to some abler hand. Only a very small part of the story has been told in this volume, and there is much room for future investigations. It is highly probable that if a systematic search is made many unpublished accounts may be discovered, and a great deal of light shed upon the horrors of the British prisons. If we have awakened interest in the sad fate of so many of our brave countrymen, and aroused some readers to a feeling of compassion for their misfortunes, and admiration for their heroism, our task has not been in vain.
LIST OF 8000 MEN WHO WERE PRISONERS ON BOARD THE OLD JERSEY
PRINTED BY PERMISSION OF THE SOCIETY OF OLD BROOKLYNITES
This list of names was copied from the papers of the British War Department. There is nothing to indicate what became of any of these prisoners, whether they died, escaped, or were exchanged. The list seems to have been carelessly kept, and is full of obvious mistakes in spelling the names. Yet it shall be given just as it is, except that the names are arranged differently, for easier reference. This list of prisoners is the only one that could be found in the British War Department. What became of the lists of prisoners on the many other prison ships, and prisons, used by the English in America, we do not know.
John Aarons (2)
Don Meegl (Miguel) Abusure
John Adams (4)
Wm Adamson (2)
Sebastian de Aedora
Joseph Antonio Aguirra
Joseph Aker (2)
Joseph de Alcorta
Juan Ignacid Alcorta
John Alexander (2)
John Allen (5)
Richard Allen (2)
Samuel Allen (7)
Thomas Allen (3)
William Allen (4)
Don Ambrose Alverd
William Anderson (3)
John Andrews (4)
Andre D. C. Annapolen
Manuel de Artol
Don Pedro Asevasuo
Jean Pierre Atton
Igarz Baboo Augusion
Don Pedro Azoala
John Bailey (2)
John Baker (2)
Thomas Baker (3)
John Banister (2)
Jean Rio Bapbsta
George Batterman (2)
Nathaniel Bentley (2)
Joshua M Berason
Jean Juquacid Berra
Peter Berry (2)
William Berry (3)
Charles Bill (2)
John Bill (2)
John Bishop (2)
James Black (3)
Robert N Black
Samuel Black (2)
V C Blaine
Peter Bloome (2)
George Blunt (4)
Daniel Borus (2)
Thomas Bowen (3)
Elijah Bowman (2)
P I Bowree
Ebenezer Bragg (2)
Peter Brays (2)
James Brewster (2)
Jalaher C Briton
Ephraim Broad (3)
William Broderick (2)
Charles Brooks (2)
Samuel Brooks (2)
David Brown (2)
Gustavus Brown (3)
Hugh Brown (2)
James Brown (3)
John Brown (12)
Joseph Brown (3)
Samuel Brown (3)
William Brown (5)
William Boogs Brown
Daniel Buckley (2)
John Buckley (3)
Daniel Bucklin (2)
Richard Bunson (2)
Edward Burns (2)
Louis Pierre Cadate
David Cain (2)
John Campbell (2)
Philip Campbell (2)
Thomas Campbell (2)