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Colonial American captives aboard Britain’s horrific prison ships cried, starved, and prayed for death as England refused to recognize them as prisoners of war.

The routine was grim for the American prisoners manning the oars; guarded by British soldiers, they rowed through the armada in Brooklyn’s Wallabout Bay, although nothing in the flotilla resembled a genuine ship— Whitby, John, Glasgow, Preston, Stromboli, Felicity, Scheldt, Bristol Packet and other vessels had been stripped bare of any nautical stature  and beauty down to mere hulks. Time and weather had rendered these vessels unseaworthy for ocean passages, wind no longer filled their sails and only tidal currents in this East River cove rattled their anchor chains. Packed within the fetid hulls were thousands of starving, ragged and ailing American prisoners of war, captured privateers and soldiers from countless clashes of the Revolutionary War who wished only to survive. As the boat rowed alongside the hulks, a British officer bellowed, “Damned Yankee rebels, turn out your dead,” and the bodies were lowered for burial.

The ferocity of any conflict is measured by the treatment of POWs, combatants who rather than perish surrender to a victorious and hopefully compassionate enemy. When it comes to the Revolutionary War, however, the harsh fate of American captives beginning in April 1775 is often overlooked. After the opening rounds at Lexington and Concord, the British evacuation from besieged Boston in March 1776 and the repulse of the British attack on Charleston, S.C., that June, the Continental Congress gained the confidence to issue the Declaration of Independence on July 4. The siege of British Quebec, however, faltered at the city walls, and the American invasion of Canada became a rout, with men such as Colonels Daniel Morgan and Ethan Allen taken captive. Their treatment boded ill for American POWs: Allen and 90 of his soldiers shipped off in irons to English imprisonment were treated so brutally that when the frigate Solebay docked in Cork, Ireland, sympathetic Whigs donated wine, fruit, sugar and 50 guineas to clothe his men.

When General George Washington complained to Lt. Gen. Sir William Howe of the mistreatment of American prisoners in Canada on July 15, 1776, he no longer wrote as the head of a rebellious army but as commander in chief of a newly declared republic. Britain nevertheless could not recognize the Continentals as official belligerents without acknowledging American independence. Prime Minister Lord Frederick North declared on February 6, 1777, that “trials for [treason and piracy would] take place at the pleasure of the crown, thus holding the prisoners of war in a position to be dealt with as criminals… as…the government might find it expedient.” In 1780 when the crew of HMS Vestal seized Henry Lauren, the American commissioner to Holland, off Mercury, instead of being given diplomatic immunity, Lauren was told he would be sent to the Tower of London. Lauren remained in a medieval dungeon for 15 months on suspicion of high treason, held under dire conditions that would cause his health to suffer. To the Crown, rebellious Americans were no better than the restless Irish and Scots—traitors to the realm, not prisoners of war.

The numbers of captives, however, were minuscule until the summer of 1776, when two massive armies met in battle at New York. British General Howe commanded 30,000 men, the largest expeditionary army Britain had yet assembled, and for New York’s defense Washington mustered 23,000 men, mainly ill-equipped, undisciplined militia, many of whom became prisoners in the impending defeats. A decisive British flanking maneuver during the August 1776 Battle of Long Island netted hundreds of captives. The fall of Fort Washington, the massive Hudson River citadel on Upper Manhattan, yielded another 2,837 prisoners that November. For General Washington, the New York campaign was catastrophic, and his once formidable force that retreated across the frozen New Jersey landscape numbered fewer than the American captives held by Lord Howe.

The British hold on New York lasted until the war’s end in 1783, but the colonial metropolis had just been occupied when at midnight of September 21, 1776, John Joseph Henry, an American prisoner on the British frigate Pearl, observed “the burning of an old and noted tavern called ‘the Fighting Cocks’…near the wharf.” Strong southwesterly winds cut a fiery swath of destruction that consumed Manhattan’s entire west side, 1,000 brick and timber buildings including Trinity Church, the city’s tallest structure. That conflagration exacerbated already severe housing shortages in a city packed with military stores, residents, British troops, Loyalist refugees and American prisoners.

Besides leaving a third of the city in ruins, fire produced what historian Barnet Schecter called “an element of paranoia [and] a siege mentality that made British commanders fiercely protective of the city,” where carelessly guarded prisoners might become saboteurs. Barns, warehouses, residential homes, even King’s College—later Columbia—became makeshift stockades so crowded that prisoners incarcerated in the French Church had no room to lie down, and had to sleep in shifts on the stone floors. Denied any firewood, according to one account, they ate “their Pork Raw when the Pews & Door & Wood on Facings failed them for fuel.” Thomas Stone, who was imprisoned in the Sugar House, recalled: “Old shoes were bought and eaten with as much relish as a pig or a turkey….In the spring our misery increased; frozen feet began to mortify….By the first of May out of 69 taken with me only 15 were alive.”

No Geneva Conventions existed to protect POWs in the 18th century. While treatises such as Hugo Grotius’ On the Law of War and Peace 1625-31 and Emmerich de Vattel’s 1758 publication The Laws of Nations offered guidelines, the treatment of captives depended as much on the captor’s whims, will and means. The European powers were shocked by devastation of the Thirty Years’ War, however, and sought to restrain warfare’s brutality. French King Louis XIV was instrumental in creating the Articles of War that governed soldierly conduct for more than a century in an era when no commander would order his troops to fight to the last man because no such heroics were demanded. Officers on opposing sides formed a fraternity of respected aristocratic professionals who deemed ambushes and irregular warfare unbecoming tactics for gentlemen-warriors. Where religious passions had wrought devastation, it was believed that logic and rationalism could uplift mankind into the spirit of Enlightenment. Its spokesman, philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, proposed banishing standing armies for militias because he believed “Every citizen should be a soldier out of his sense of duty, but not as a professional vocation…[and] only when he has to be.”

If the Swiss-French theorist could find his ideal in the American Minutemen, uniformed regular British troops, trained in massed musket volleys and bayonet charges, saw Colonial irregulars as unreliable and obstreperous—and dished out punishment accordingly. During the French and Indian War, for example, teamster Daniel Morgan survived being given 500 lashes for striking a British officer. The British ranks, though recruited from society’s dregs and subjected to the same brutal discipline, proudly wore their red coats, which symbolized their professionalism and willingness to fight under the Articles of War. The utilitarian clothing worn by much of the American forces did not distinguish fighting men from neutral civilians, whose muskets and rifles might be hunting pieces or snipers’ weapons fired furtively from behind trees. New World warfare against frontier warriors and Massachusetts Minutemen, who reputedly scalped British dead on the Concord Bridge and specifically targeted officers, exhibited a savagery and sordidness that most English troops had never before encountered. The trauma of this war scarred the psyche of British fighting men, also affecting their treatment of prisoners.

To supply this massive army, hundreds of British vessels sailed into New York’s superb natural harbor, but the arduous Atlantic crossing rendered many ships unseaworthy. Derelict vessels could hold stores, form sunken obstacles to enemy navigation or become prison-hulks, a form of incarceration that already had a long history among the French, Spanish and British. Samuel Johnson called Americans “a race of convicts,” but when the Revolution precluded the New World as dumping grounds for British criminals, hordes amassing in British prisons overflowed onto ships moored in Portsmouth, Deptford, the Thames River and Woolwich. Writer Thomas Watling decried the makeshift prisons: “When I have seen so much wanton cruelty practiced on board the English hulks, on poor wretches, without the least colour of justice, what may I not reasonably infer?—French Bastille, nor Spanish Inquisition, could not centre more of horrors.”

Conditions in the dismal fleet assembling in Wallabout Bay were equally horrific. In this bucolic cove the derelict Whitby anchored on October 20, 1776, to take on the first prisoners and was soon joined by Mentor, Wooly and Rochford. Although Whitby burned within a year, 23 other ships such as Good Intent, Grovesnor, Falmouth, Lord Dunlace, Scorpion, Judith, Myrtle, Chatham, Kitty, Good Hope, Frederick, Woodlands, Clyde, Hunter and Perseverance expanded the fleet exponentially. Sailors first removed spars, masts, rudders and superfluous rigging on the ships—the largest of which measured 150 feet, although most were smaller. Iron bars secured the gunports, and small holes were cut along the hulls for ventilation. Crude benches lining the bulkheads and hull offered little comfort, while at night hammocks were often strung in the common areas for sleeping. The British used hulks in Canada and Charleston, where in 1780 Torbay and Pack-Horse were anchored and employed as prisons, while Peter was also stationed at St. Lucia in the West Indies to handle naval prisoners.

The hulks were freezing in winter and stifling in summer heat, which helped to incubate hosts of lice and diseases in the overcrowded conditions. Fleeting doses of fresh air came only when commanders allowed prisoners to exercise on deck. For victuals, the peas, oatmeal, beef or pork offered prisoners were often remnants from the army or spoiled rejects from naval vessels. Among the 500 men jailed on Grovesnor, William Slade, who had been captured at Fort Washington, recorded the tedium, suffering and privation: “Saturday, 7th [1776] we drawed 4 lb of bisd [biscuits] at noon, a piece of meat and rice….Friday, 13 of Dec. 1776. We drawed bisd and butter. A little water broth. We now see nothing but the mercy of God to intercede for us. Sorrowful times, all faces look pale, discouraged, discouraged….Tuesday, 17th. No fire. Suffer with cold and hunger. We are treated worse than cattle and hogs….Friday, 27. Three men of our battalion died last night. The most melancholyest night I ever saw. Small pox increases fast….Drawed bisd and butter. Stomach all gone. Saturday, 28th. Drawed bisd. This morning about 10 o’clock Josiah Basset died.”

Rather than feed them, the British occasionally released American militiamen to return home, but among the officers, British Lt. Gen. John Burgoyne felt that “all men of honour think alike.” The higher ranks could win release from prison by agreeing to remain within geographical confinement. It was theorized that an officer’s “identity as a man depended on the perception that he conducted his life in an honorable way, and breaking one’s parole was breaking one’s word.” American Maj. Gen. Charles Lee freely roamed New York streets and in his suite enjoyed warm fires, candles, fine food and wine, visits from guests and the company of his dogs and Italian servant Guiseppe Minghini. One Hessian officer on release reportedly “pleasantly entertained his comrades with stories of his captivity [about] his visit to the Moravian community in Bethlehem while on parole.” This officer was involved in an exchange agreement signed by Howe and Washington in January 1778. After Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln surrendered Charleston with 5,000 fellow American soldiers, he was exchanged for Maj. Gens. William Philips and Baron Friedrich von Riedesel. Ethan Allen was paroled to New York and eventually swapped for a Scottish officer. Historian Stanley Weintraub states that “Each side valued its limited stockpile of officers, and most British officers were also from families of rank and influence. The ordinary soldier expected only to molder, at best, in bleak captivity.” Actually Washington, who was not always eager to trade away British regulars, said on July 10, 1780: “Exchange of prisoners, though urged by humanity, is not politic. It would give force to the British, and add but little to our own. Few of the American prisoners belong to the army and the enlistment of those who do, is nearly expired.”

Although Thomas Andros made off from Jersey, and prisoners on Good Hope fired the ship in a desperate attempt to flee, escapes were few from vessels anchored 300 yards from shore. Beyond death or exchange, another prisoner option was enlisting in the British forces. Captain Thomas Dring, held captive on Jersey, remembered, “I never knew a single instance of enlistment among the prisoners…” but William Slade on Grovesnor reported that “twenty prisoners had joined the King’s service.”

In October 1777, an English jailer investigating cheering among prisoners discovered a smuggled note baked into a bread loaf, hailing the surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga. “A damned Yankee lie,” the jailer exclaimed, but the defeat he denied not only brought France into the war but also put 5,895 British and German prisoners at the rebels’ disposal. Washington could now threaten, “I shall regulate all my conduct towards those gentlemen who are or may be in our possession, exactly by the rule you observe towards those of ours now in your custody.” He also appointed the first commissary-general for American prisoners, Elias Boudinot, who harried Congress for funding, arranged exchanges and advanced $27,000 of his own money to alleviate their suffering. The British agreed to his inspection and interview while promising Boudinot better treatment of their prisoners, though they did not show him any of the prison ships. Afterward Joshua Loring, British commissary of prisoners, reported to General Howe that Boudinot found “everything to be satisfactory.”

Still, with the 3,000-mile supply line stretching across the Atlantic, hunger often haunted residents, soldiers and prisoners alike—as in August 1778, when the French fleet’s presence offshore reduced supplies of rations to only five weeks. Throughout some of New York’s most severe winters, homeless Loyalist refugees froze in “Canvass-towns” of tents while hordes of thieves, black marketers and petty functionaries formed the chain of corruption running into the highest circles of the British command.

Hungry and idle British troops called Lord Howe “the Duke of Dally,” implying that he was more ardent in romance than war, and expressed their frustration in rhyme:

Sir William he, snug as a flea

Lay all this time a-snoring

Nor dreamed of harm as he lay warm

In bed with Mrs. Loring.

Mrs. Elizabeth Loring was Joshua Loring’s wife, which also earned Howe the sobriquet “Lord Lingerloring.” To assuage her cuckolded husband, Howe made him the lucrative commissary of prisoners, a position with a high salary and ample opportunities for graft. Loring “got rich,” it was said, by “starving the living and feeding the dead.” Yet as a Boston Loyalist who had lost his home and livelihood, he felt no sympathy for his imprisoned countrymen. Nor did David Sproat, commissary general of naval prisoners, and particularly New York’s notorious Marshal Provost William Cunningham. When that Irish immigrant expressed his loyalty to the Crown in the spring of 1775, 200 Sons of Liberty had dragged him through the streets, ripped off his clothing and stole his watch. Now in a position of power, Cunningham wrought a terrible revenge. A British officer found him “hardened to human suffering and every softening sentiment of the heart,” a man “who would kick over the kettle so as to watch his charges lick soup from the stones.” Cunningham stole and sold the rations of 2,000 prisoners, and historian Henry Onderdonk documented his secretly hanging or poisoning hundreds of captives.

The fate of Loyalists falling into Continental hands was equally harsh. John Adams declared, “I would have hanged my own brother had he taken part with our enemy….” Captured Loyalists often faced execution, as after the battles of King’s Mountain and Bennington, while Tories in rebel territory suffered arrests, pillaged homes, tar-and-feathering and rail riding.

In 1777 Loyalist Malcolm Morrison was arrested for enlisting men for service with the enemy and became an inmate in one of three American hulks anchored along the Hudson River. New York State’s Council of Safety held 175 Tories such as Robert Livingston for being unfriendly to the American cause, just as they held men like John Finch for being persons highly disaffected and dangerous enemies to the cause of American liberty. In the fall of that same year troops under British Maj. Gen. John Vaughan burned the prison fleet along with the nearby town of Kingston, but the prisoners had already been moved to Connecticut, where the Americans held Loyalists in Thames River hulks at New London and in Connecticut’s notorious Simsbury copper mines, “the Catacombs of Loyalty.” These dank underground caverns held captives as prominent as New Jersey’s Royal Governor William Franklin—Benjamin Franklin’s son—and New York Mayor David Matthews.

While British prisoners did not fear execution, they endured privations alongside American combatants who could barely feed themselves. Captives only hampered Washington’s strategy of constant maneuvering, and Hessians—Britain’s German auxiliaries taken prisoners at Trenton, Saratoga or Yorktown—were held in loose confinement in secure German settlements. Washington’s stating that they “were innocent people…forced into this war” was little consolation to Yorktown prisoner Johann Conrad Döhla, who found the New Fredericks Barracks near Winchester, Md., “worse than pig stalls and doghouses.” Often, though, prisoners were good for local business, since they could sometimes purchase food and clothing not with inflated Continental paper but hard currency. In other instances, since they were poorly fed and supplied, they hired themselves out as laborers at local farms and foundries. Apparently some POWs adjusted to their new surroundings, because at the war’s conclusion 10,000 Hessians and other English troops settled in America rather than return to Europe. As for captured British seamen, Continentals often just released rather than cared for them, to the anger of imprisoned American mariners desperate for exchange.

If Britannia ruled the waves over the minuscule Continental Navy, privateering commerce raiders terrorized British merchant shipping, capturing 733 vessels by February 1778. Prize money sometimes made privateering the most profitable form of patriotism, and thousands of swift, heavily armed vessels roamed the oceans armed with letters of marque. On November 29, 1775, Lee brought back the British prize Nancy, laden with 2,000 muskets, bayonets, shot and powder for Continental troops besieging Boston. Skunk, a New Jersey ketch, took 19 prizes alone. These highwaymen of the high seas would cost Britain 18 million pounds. If they were captured, the more fortunate privateers were imprisoned in England’s Mill and Forton prisons, where mortality rates of 5 percent paled before the death rate at Wallabout Bay.

To be sent to one of the floating prisons of Wallabout Bay was to gain a foresight of hell. One privateer, Captain Thomas Dring, survived captivity on Jersey, formerly a 64-gun veteran of sea battles that took on its first prisoners in 1780. Among privateers the British recognized no officers, so Dring was cast into the dank, dark holds where smallpox raged. He remembered faces that “were covered with dirt and filth; their long hair and beards matted and foul, clothing in tatters.” Artist John Trumbull would portray these men with all the gauntness of 20th-century concentration camp inmates, recalling that they received only two-thirds of British seamen’s rations, “worms and all,” and a mere pint of fresh water daily “that a dog could hardly relish.” Prisoner Thomas Andros recorded Jersey as “a scene of horror, which baffles all description.” He recalled it as a place “where the diseased and the healthy were mingled….I sometimes found the man a corpse in the morning, by whose side I laid myself down at night.”

Once the men were confined, bathing was impossible, and speaking of the lower decks, Dring described a “disgusting smell…far more foul and loathsome than anything which I had ever met…[that] produced a sensation of nausea….” The spar deck was the sole place aboard where men could get air and exercise, but he recalled, owing to 1,000 prisoners “and the small space afforded us…it was our custom to walk, in platoons each facing the same way, and turning at the same time.” Night brought not rest, but the “groans of the sick and dying…restlessness caused by the suffocating heat and the confined and poisoned air…mingled with the wild and incoherent ravings of delirium.”

Working parties, recruited among the ranks, received extra rations for emptying latrines, scrubbing decks, hauling wood and supplies aboard as well as bringing up the dead, “the average number was about five” nightly. Burial details actually were actually coveted, Dring remembered, “as from the desire of once more placing their feet upon…the firm land beneath, and the sweet air above us, objects of deep and thrilling interest.”

The prisoners, who included Dutch, Spanish and French sailors, had virtually no contact with crews, while guards consisting of 30 men and an officer alternated between English, Scots, Hessians and the dreaded Loyalists, who on Jersey exhibited singular brutality. Prisoner William Burke stated, “Many of the captives were put to death by the bayonet, and that one night while many of them 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 the next morning 25 were found dead.” He said that “this happened several times, and at other times eight and ten would be found dead.” Their interments had all the solemnity of “burying…dead animals,” Dring wrote, adding, “a single glance was sufficient to show us parts of many bodies which were exposed to view…with the same mockery of interment, but a few days before.” Andros recalled: “A boat loaded with dead bodies convening them to Long Island shore where they were very slightly covered with sand. And certain I am that a few high tides or torrents of rain must have disinterred them.”

The prisoners’ agony ended only with the 1783 Treaty of Paris and the war’s conclusion, when prisoners were lined up on the decks and read the proclamation ending hostilities. The emaciated survivors left behind the rotting hulks to sink where they were anchored, along with most traces of their saga of suffering. If more than 8,000 Continentals had been killed or were missing in action and an equal number died of disease or exposure, most historians agree that 11,000 lost their lives on the New York prison ships alone. Prisoners on Jersey stood only a 20 percent chance of survival, which meant that it was far safer to go into combat than to become a captive on one of the prison-hulks.

Three decades later, when construction of the Brooklyn Naval Yard began, in the course of work on the hospital, workshops, barracks and docks, human bones were routinely unearthed. Laborers collected these remains, which were held for decades on nearby York Street. Brooklyn Eagle editor Walt Whitman railed that the “strange, rickety mildewed, tumbledown wooden structure” held no honor for the dead. He pressed passionately for both a monument and a respectful burial place for these forgotten Americans.

Not until 1907, however, did a public subscription make it possible to construct the Doric column on the summit of Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park. The 148-foot Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, designed by Stanford White, overlooks the Naval Yard Basin and Wallabout Channel, but within a few years of its dedication its “eternal flame” was extinguished due to lack of fuel— and public interest.

American prisoners were held in England, Ireland, St. Augustine, Florida, Halifax, Antigua and even Senegal, Africa. Historian Larry Bowman wrote that “The British Army did not officially condone mistreatment of its captives [and] British policy could not be typified as cruel.” Yet poet-prisoner Philip Freneau, who survived captivity aboard Scorpion, wrote:

The various horrors of these hulks to tell

where want and woe, where pain and penance dwell

where Death in ten-fold vengeance holds his reign

And injured ghosts yet unavenged, complain.

Today as traffic roars across the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges, the urban din overwhelms any lamentations of Colonial specters and the saga of those who died at Wallabout Bay.


James E. Held writes on a variety of historical topics from New York City. For further reading, he recommends: American Maritime Prisoners in the Revolutionary War, by Francis D. Cogliano; American Prisoners of the Revolution, by Danske Dandridge; and History of the Prison Ship Martyrs, by Henry Onderdonk.

Originally published in the November 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here