The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn: An Untold Story of the American Revolution, by Robert P. Watson, Da Capo Press, Boston, Mass., 2017, $28
One of the less savory aspects of the American Revolutionary War was Britain’s shameful treatment of American prisoners of war. Far more POWs died in British captivity in New York than were killed in battle during the war. Beaten, starved and ill-clothed prisoners were packed into overcrowded churches, sugar houses and superannuated warships. Their experiences equaled or exceeded the worst abuses endured by their counterparts in Andersonville, the Black Hole of Calcutta, the Japanese POW camps or the Nazi concentration camps of World War II. And yet their story has been forgotten to the point of becoming barely a footnote in history.
Of all the Revolutionary War POW compounds the worst were the prison hulks anchored in Wallabout Bay on the East River, site of the present-day Brooklyn Navy Yard. Stripping the armament, equipment and rigging from old warships to transform the hulls into floating prisons was nothing new in the 1770s. Indeed, the British used such floating prisons in their own country well into the 19th century, as attested by Charles Dickens in Great Expectations. Of those East River prison hulks the worst and most notorious was the former 60-gun warship HMS Jersey. Although the British didn’t keep exact records, an estimated 11,500 prisoners reportedly perished on that one ship.
Drawing from extensive research into 18th century records, as well as harrowing personal accounts of those who survived the ordeal, Robert Watson has produced a colorfully written, fast-paced book comparable to Pierre Boulle’s The Bridge Over the River Kwai as a chronicle of endurance under the most severe conditions imposed on men by their wartime captors.