Book Talk

'Floating Pandemonium' in War-Torn New York

By Gary Schmidgall

Climbing the hill in Ft. Greene - Brooklyn's first park, laid out by Olmsted and Vaux after their Central Park success - is one of the grandest staircases in New York City; on its summit stands the world's tallest Doric column (nearly 150 feet): the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, which celebrated its centennial last year (visit: pages/prisonship.htm). And thereby hangs the grim tale told in historian Edwin Burrows' new book, Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War (Basic Books).

Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison was a mere picnic compared to the prisons the British established in New York - "the nerve center of British operations in the colonies" - both on land and in hulked former battleships in the Hudson and East Rivers. Burrows, co-author with Mike Wallace of the massive, Pulitzer-winning Gotham and a Brooklyn College Disting-uished Professor, begins by the numbers as he shows how significant the subject of prisoners is for the War of Independence. About 6,800 Americans died in battle during the war (another 10,000 of injuries in camp), but Burrows comes up with much higher numbers of captives (30,000) and prisoner fatalities (18,000) between 1775 and 1783 than hitherto thought. Most of the Revolutionary dead breathed their last in prison.

This is a New York story. A vast majority of the prisoners, from all around the colonies and beyond, ended up in one of several prison ships gathered together in Wallabout Bay, which the Brooklyn Navy Yard began to encroach on in 1806. On these dismal hulks prisoners suffered, as one survivor later recalled "every inconvenience but death," or, as Burrows lists them, "overcrowding, hunger, sickness, appalling squalor, and petty, capricious cruelties." And there was plenty of death, too: Burrows and others have arrived, by pure guesswork (virtually no records survive), at a figure of 11,000 prison-ship fatalities, plus another thousand or so in such notorious Lower Manhattan prisons as the Provost and the Sugar House near present-day City Hall. (The tricky business of guessing the number of victims - "conjectures wobbling atop assumptions," Burrows says - is discussed in the chapter "Dead Reckonings.")

Easily the most infamous of the ships was the largest, the former 64-gun frigate Jersey, which one captive 17-year-old seaman called a "floating Pandemonium." Another captive sneaked out a letter, published in the Boston Gazette, in which he said that the Jersey was "popularly called HELL" and that "our morning's salutation is, 'Rebels! turn out your dead!' " Between six and 11 bodies were daily hoisted off like animal carcasses, then taken to the sandy Wallabout shore and buried in shallow mass graves. Playing children or builders at the Navy Yard would happen upon the bones for more than a century.

Burrows covers in colorful detail the various failed attempts to negotiate prisoner exchanges, and the ensuing war of words as horrific news of prison life spread. An opening shot in the propaganda war was the dashing Col. Ethan Allen's Narrative (1779) of his two years in British captivity, which became a huge best-seller.

Among the scoundrels Burrows shines light on, one of the most fascinating is Ben Franklin's only son William, who became a vocal opponent of independence. Eventually having to escape from patriot-held Philadelphia, he spent two years in confinement, and his royalist group was involved in the first summary execution of a patriot prisoner. Needless to say, father and son were deeply estranged.

Burrows notes that the U.S. had prison ships too, four of them, of which he writes:. "One searches in vain for their equal in the sorry parade of arrogant British commanders and corrupt bureaucrats." Only one good thing can be said of the prison ships: There seems to have been no 18th century equivalent of water-boarding, no torture to extract intelligence. The bedraggled prisoners, brought in from hither and yon, obviously had no intelligence in them.

The horror ended abruptly in 1782, with the British cave-in and a preliminary peace treaty, thus ending what was becoming an increasingly unpopular war back home. Within a few years the age of humane treatment of POWs had dawned, as Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin negotiated a treaty with Prussia in 1785 that aimed "to prevent the destruction of prisoners of war."

Unfolding his story, Burrows reminds us that New York was very tiny at the time, only 33,000 inhabitants in the 1790 census (500,000 by 1850), that it was the city most seriously devastated during the war, and that about one percent of the total U.S. population in 1780 died during it (compared to two percent in the Civil War, 0.12 percent in WWI, and 0.28 percent in WWII).

Burrows ends with a chapter (also titled "Forgotten Patriots") telling the fascinating read-it-and-weep tale of plans to memorialize the victims of Wallabout. The pro-British Federalists wanted to sink the prison-ships in lethe; the Democratic-Republicans (yes, such a party there once was) wanted to rub it in. Others thought this business of war memorials simply too Old World. Congress stayed stingy, but the idea simply refused to die. Around 1808 the "Wallabout Dead March" became about as popular at public festivities as "Yankee Doodle."

Several schemes were proposed, but all failed. An 8-by-8-by-10 "antechamber" to a crypt for some martyrs' bones was built about 1840 and tumbledown by 1897. An editorial writer for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle named Walt Whitman urged the memorial on in 1846 to no effect. (Surpris-ingly, Burrows never quotes Whitman's fine short 1888 poem, "The Wallabout Martyrs.") Finally, with the 30-acre Washington Park (later changed to Ft. Greene) becoming the center of a fancy neighborhood, the Brooklyn City Council funded a mausoleum for the martyrs. Designed by Olmsted and Vaux and completed in 1873, it still lacked a proper monument.

After wandering in the mists of oblivion for decades, the martyrs' ghosts finally received their due largely, Burrows says, because the Daughters of the Revolution and their rival Daughters of the American Revolution joined hands for once and put their minds to it. They spearheaded a consortium of societies that at last broke open the Congressional bank. It helped that another 100 skeletons had just been uncovered at the Navy Yard.

New Yorkers are currently restless about all the dithering and delay over the 9/11 memorial after 10 years. They may be chastened to learn that from 1800, when a young Democratic-Republican orator named Jonathan Russell proposed a "Colossal Column" to remember 11,000 "willing martyrs," to the day President-elect Taft assisted at the unveiling of the spectacular Stanford White-designed column was exactly 108 years!

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