Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Prison Ship Martyrs Monument - Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn, NY

High on a hill in Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, New York, stands a monument in memory to the 11,500 soldiers, sailors, and patriotic New York men, women, and children that were taken prisoner during the 1776 Revolutionary War. The monument, which is sometimes referred to as the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, stands in the center of what was once called Fort Putnam, an actual Revolutionary War fort, named after the Continental Army's General Putnam As both the formal burial site of nearly 12,000 American Martyrs and bustling greenspace serving nearly 200,000 residents of the surrounding neighborhoods, Fort Greene Park may be the closest thing to "sacred space" one can find in New York City.

At first, Continental Army prisoners were incarcerated in jails, churches, and homes. When the British ran out of space they began using decommissioned or damaged ships that were anchored in Wallabout Bay in Brooklyn (the area now abuts the Brooklyn Navy Yard) as floating prisons.

The conditions on board the ships were horrid. Many diseases were rampant, food and water were scarce or nonexistent, and the ships were overcrowded and wretched.

Many of the captives died from disease and malnutrition. Their emaciated bodies were either thrown overboard or buried in shallow graves in the sandy marshes of Wallabout Bay. 

Even though the British surrendered at Yorktown, Virginia in 1782, the surviving prisoners were not freed until 1783 when the British abandoned New York City.

A view of Manhattan across the East River from the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument

Please click on to enlarge

In the years following the war, the bones of the patriots would regularly wash up along the shores of Brooklyn. These remains were collected by Brooklyn residents who had hopes of creating a permanent resting place for the remains. Three monuments have been erected since the early 1880s with the present 148 ft. Doric column monument dedicated in 1908. The bones of the patriots are interred in the base of the crypt.

The Fort Greene Park Conservancy has done much in recent years to restore and maintain the monument after many past years of neglect. There is an informational Visitors Center near the monument that has pictorial exhibits plus displays of Revolutionary War weapons and uniform buttons that have been uncovered in the park over the years.

Today, Fort Greene Park is a beautiful place to relax and enjoy nature. It is also a fitting resting place for the early martyrs of our country and a reminder that liberty does not come without a price.

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Gracie said...

I guess more than often we forget that what we have today is the result of battles of the past, and to give thanks to the ones who fought in those battles.
Thanks Pat for reminding us.

Sea Witch said...

Powerful post and history lesson. I really look forward to your postings about our great nations history. Heros, all of them. Sea Witch

steviewren said...

I had no idea the British took so many prisoners. It changes ones perspective a bit about how the war affected people doesn't it?

black eyed susans kitchen said...

Fascinating post. You have really outdone yourself to educate us, Pat. Thank you for the history lesson and the reminder to appreciate what went before.
♥, Susan

RoeH said...

Interesting. I didn't know all that. I seemed to have honed in to the Civil War more than the Revolutionary. My blog is down until my computer gets fixed. :(

happyone said...

Thanks for another history lesson. I'm learning so many new things here and love all your photos that go along with it.

GailO said...

Amazing....never knew any of this and that somehow just doesn't seem right...

Anonymous said...

What we have & enjoy today is because of brave & determined people of yesterday & what they endured. Someday centurys down the road humanity will say the same thing of us!!

Junie Moon said...

It breaks my heart envisioning the horrid treatment of the prisoners and the way they discarded like broken pottery bits. I'm glad that they are remembered today in a kinder way, too bad the world cannot treat people such while they're alive.

Unknown said...

Thank you for the wonderful tour Pat.

A million thanks for your kind wishes and prayers, Elissa is back home and well, there is nothing more comforting than having good friends like you, I am grateful.

Love ......... M

CatHerder said...

every time i read your blog i am reminded how much history there is so close to home...i really need to get out there :-)

Tracy said...

A very sobering look back in time... I too wasn't aware of this particular bit of history. Much more should be taught in history courses. Dates and facts are all good to know...but the stories of the people--that's the real history. Thank you, Pat. Have a great weekend, my friend :o)((HUGS))

Nola said...

Love hearing all the bits of history I missed in school!
I keep meaning to get a photo posted of the rose of sharon's that germinated from the seed you sent me! I had about a dozen make it through the summer; it was a killer of a summer here, too much heat and too dry. I will get them in the ground this fall. I think of you each time I water them!

Ciao Chow Linda said...

Pat - You should write a history book on Brooklyn. These are all interesting and news to me and so many other people.

Anonymous said...

How utterly awful. I can only imagine what leaky condition those decomissioned (unseaworthy) ships must've been in. Having been to Liverpool's Maritime Museum this summer just the normal below decks conditions for people emigrating to the states would've been bad enough.

Overcrowding always leads to disease. In normal UK stone built prisons often still within castles at this time (pre Victorian gaols) conditions were dark, damp, overcrowded, unsanitory, brutal, without good food unless your relatives brought it in to you having bribed the gaoler. So many people tried to reform the system in the Victorian period but sadly at this time this was how things were done. So so sad.

Claudia said...

Very moving.

Anonymous said...

Very, very interesting. I love how NY is so rich in all types of history.


Catherine said...

I had no idea of this tragedy. Thank you for your post. Great pictures as always.


Vee said...

Good heavens! This is one of those things that I have never heard about before. How do such gaps in learning happen? You'd think that this would be high on the list of Revolutionary War facts. What a story...such an incredible story. Thank you for telling us this one.

Are you home now? :D

Fifi Flowers said...

You are so fabulous to take us around on tours!!!

Proud Italian Cook said...

I agree with Linda, you have a wealth of knowledge in you Pat!
I'll be stopping by to see highlights of your vacation, can't wait!


Juliana said...

I really enjoy the history on your post and the pictures...thanks a lot!

jeanne said...

Hello Pat, I'm sure you are home by now. I know you enjoyed your trip out West and I am so glad you did. We did too but I am sure I do not want to be gone that long again.

Your history lesson about the prison ships and the monument was so heart rending. We have lost so many for our freedom in America. Then, over the years and even now. Our freedom was not free. we paid a big price for it. I hope our country can recover from so many problems we are going through right now.

I am so mindful of the upcoming 9/11. I have dedicated my posts on Thursday and Friday to that day. After finishing Friday's post I had a good cry. The sadness is just overwhelming to me.

Take care Pat and have a nice evening.

Hugs, Jeanne

Nana Trish is Living the Dream said...

I never realized there were so many interesting things in Brooklyn. I would love to visit someday. There must be tons to see.

Travel Blog said...

So beautiful

The Quintessential Magpie said...

My heart always goes out to those who are captured in war, and this story is good reason why we should memorialize the sacrifices made by patriots.

Great stories, Pat! Enjoyed this history series SO much.


Sheila :-)

Catherine said...

Thank you for the comment on the pictures. They are not real sharp and just 4 x 6 Walmart glossy prints.

Your husband is priceless! LOL

Brian Patrick O'Malley said...


Thank you for posting such a helpful description of prison reform in Victorian Britain.

Although conditions in British jails were often unpleasant in the 1700s, the lethality of confinement in occupied cities in North America was often much worse. Francis D. Cogliano, a Boston-born professor at the University of Edinburgh, remarked that Americans detained in British jails suffered a mortality rate of about 7%, for the period he can find documentation to inform a guess. In New York City, however, Cogliano proposed that prisoners suffered a mortality rate of 47%.

Honestly, though, the mortality rate was probably even higher.
Please consult Francis D. Cogliano, American Maritime Prisoners in the Revolutionary War: The Captivity of William Russell (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2001); compare his work to Edwin G. Burrows, Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War (New York: Basic Books, 2008).

Thank you, Melanie, for the kind remarks on the subject, as well as the information.

Brian Patrick O'Malley said...

The mortality rates at the English prisons were even lower than I thought. At Forton Prison, near Plymouth, England, Francis D. Cogliano wrote that 52 prisoners died from 1777 to 1782. For prisoners in Forton, these deaths amounted to a 4.7% mortality rate.

Cogliano points to oversight of civilian authorities and visits and donations by the English people. I think he could have emphasized that the guards in England were probably more humane than those in North America, sometimes recruited from the most angry and bitter Tories, hoping for revenge for lost homes (confiscations) or lost loved ones.