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New York's Roadside Attractions

Prison Ship Martyrs Monument

Prison Ship Martyrs Monument
Credit: Erik Bryan

I took Tuesday afternoon off work to visit a historical site a short walk from my apartment in Brooklyn. It’d been raining that morning, so I had to avoid a lot of standing water and muddy patches as I walked through Fort Greene Park. The sky was still overcast and gloomy as I arrived at the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument at the highest point in the park. The gloominess was all too appropriate considering I was there to visit a memorial inside of which is a crypt holding the remains of thousands of Revolutionary War prisoners.

I’d first heard about the site on my outing to St. Paul’s Church in the Bronx. Frank, the lecturer at St. Paul’s that day, told me about the memorial, and gave me contact information for one Martin Maher, Brooklyn’s Chief of Staff for New York’s Parks Department. Frank intimated that someone from the media, such as myself, might even be allowed to enter the crypt if I communicated via the proper channels. I admit to certain morbid fascinations, and I’ve wanted to visit the memorial ever since.

Having scheduled to meet Martin at the site late that afternoon, I arrived a little early to take pictures of the monument, a large Doric column on a stone and brick plaza. At least 20 disconcertingly large squirrels scurried about the edges of the plaza, harvesting the acorns that had likely fallen during the rainstorm earlier that day. A few joggers ran through the plaza while I took pictures, and one woman strolled through pushing a baby carriage.

The Fort Greene Park Visitors Center adjoins the plaza. I decided to check it out while I waited for Martin. Though small, the center is very nicely appointed. Historic flags hang from the walls and ceiling. Two cannons from the Civil War are displayed, though they have no historical association with the memorial, much less the Revolutionary War. A turtle sat in a terrarium on the counter. I was hoping the turtle was some kind of mascot for the memorial. As I was taking pictures of the interior of the center, a middle-aged woman arrived and asked if I was Erik. She introduced herself as Carol, the director of Fort Greene Park. Martin had clued her in to our rendezvous, and she decided to join us.

Credit: Erik Bryan

While we waited for Martin to show up, she told me that the monument and memorial had recently been used as a location for the USA Network show White Collar. Apparently the set designers didn’t care for an open hole in the center of the column, and they’d fabricated a historically appropriate-looking cover that reads “In Honored Glory” and “Here Rests Fallen Soldiers.” Martin hadn’t seen the cover yet, however, and Carol was interested to see how he would react. I felt like I’d been let in on a nerdy prank, which is probably the best kind.

Martin showed up a few minutes later and asked if I knew any of the history of the site. I told him to assume I knew nothing, which was mostly true, and he launched into an incredibly detailed and focused description of how the memorial came to be. I get the feeling he’s done this a lot. Carol and a Visitors Center staff member whose name I didn’t catch listened in.

So here’s what happened. After George Washington’s Continental Army drove the British Navy from Boston in March of 1776, Washington figured the British would want to take New York Harbor because—just as New York’s earliest European explorers discovered—it’s just a really good harbor. Washington stationed most of the army in Manhattan, but sent troops to forts stretching up and down western Brooklyn. Then they waited. In late August of 1776, following the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the British fleet amassed off the coast of Staten Island. The Patriots didn’t really have a fleet to speak of, but had entreated privateer vessels to aid in the revolution.

The British fleet there, at around 400 ships, was the largest armada that had ever been assembled up to that point in history. Reports of the day tell of masts as far as the eye could see across the harbor. The patriots were hopelessly outshipped, so they didn’t make a move against the fleet. Washington expected a landing in Manhattan, but the British landed at Gravesend Bay in far south Brooklyn and started pushing north. The Continental line of defenses included Fort Putnam, named for Rufus Putnam, Washington’s chief engineer. Around 1812, the fort would later be renamed Fort Greene in honor of Nathanael “The Fighting Quaker” Greene (seriously), who’d led the construction of the fort and became one of the Patriots’ most celebrated generals during the course of the war.

Upon landing, the British swooped in with more than 30,000 troops, forcing Washington to surrender Long Island. He and his troops retreated to Manhattan, which they were also forced out of soon after. By October of 1776, the British had effectively taken what is now New York City, and would hold it for the rest of the war. Of their enormous fleet, 16 ships were used to house prisoners. Most of these ships were anchored in Wallabout Bay, the site of the current Brooklyn Navy Yard between the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges. Several thousand prisoners were held on these ships over the course of the war. Most of the prisoners had fought as patriots, either as members of the Continental Army or as privateers. A smaller number of prisoners were merely criminals picked up by the British for non-revolutionary offenses. The British, contrary to any declarations of independence, still considered the colonists citizens of the crown.

Martin explained that British custom was to feed prisoners of war the amount of three-quarters of rations for their sailors and soldiers. However, since the British did not consider this a war, since they did not consider the United States a sovereign nation, they mostly just let the prisoners starve. Coupled with that mean bureaucratic distinction were outbreaks of yellow fever and other diseases. The result was that the vast majority of those captured and put on prison ships did not survive the war. Their death toll numbered around 11,500.

One of the few surviving prisoners on one of the ships, the Jersey, wrote a memoir later describing his ordeal and conditions aboard. Based on this memoir by Capt. Thomas Dring, the Visitors Center built a wall inside based on some of the Jersey’s specifications. It’s the height of one deck of the ship’s hold, about a head shorter than I am, and I’m not a tall guy. There’s a small window with four square openings, roughly four inches by four inches each. There were only 10 of these windows on each side of the boat for all of the prisoners to share. You could fit an arm through, but that’s about it. I don’t know how many prisoners the ship could hold, but at 144 feet long, that’s about 14 studio apartments in a row.

The Jersey reportedly brought out between eight and 15 dead every day for the three-and-a-half years it was anchored in the harbor. Other prisoners were expected to help ferry the dead to shore, most of whom volunteered simply for the opportunity to get off the prison ship and breathe some fresh air. The dead were buried in shallow graves on the beaches and in the marshes lining the bay. A plaque on the wall at the Visitors Center lists the names of more than 8,000 known casualties of the prison ships; the identities of the other estimated 3,500 dead have been lost to history.

After the war was over, many of the graves of the prison ship martyrs were shallow enough that they gradually unearthed. The remains of untold numbers were collected, usually by locals who happened upon them, and finally interred at a site near the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1808, 25 years after the end of the war. In 1873, the remains were moved to a crypt with a small memorial statue at their present location, Fort Greene having been officially turned into a public park in the late 1840s. (It was officially called Washington Park, but the name never caught on.) The remains were compiled into 20 bluestone caskets. Martin told me he’d seen inside one of the caskets once, and the remains today are mostly dust and small fragments of bone. There are pictures of the interior of the crypt in the Visitors Center.

Martin led Carol and I back out to see the monument. Carol opened a bronze door in the column’s side, now also weathered green like the brazier on top. The three of us walked into the column, which is about 20 feet wide. At the entrance, Carol pointed out the covering added by the White Collar crew to Martin. If this was supposed to be some sort of prank, it failed. Martin barely betrayed any noticeable reaction. More like a “huh.” He did ask, however, that I not share the picture of the covering, since it is not supposed to be there and not representative of the monument itself. Fair enough.

I was able to look up into the monument from the inside, which in itself is a kind of special treat. It used to contain a double-helix stairwell, but that was replaced by an elevator when the technology became available, which was later removed. Now a single iron ladder, with regularly spaced landings is all that leads one to the top. Martin assured me, as if reading my mind, that I wouldn’t want to climb all the way to the top. I’m not saying it wouldn’t have been exhausting, or that I’m in good physical shape. I just like to climb things.

Credit: Erik Bryan

From there, after locking the column back up, Martin led me to the door of the crypt. I asked if I could maybe see inside. He’d told me on the phone when I scheduled the outing that only very rarely were visitors allowed in. He reiterated his position with deference, and I only kind of sighed, sheepishly,“Well, I had to try.” Martin added that they try to afford as much respect as possible to the interred. He told me that these victims of the British prison ships were each offered a choice upon capture of either renouncing the colonial revolt and serving under the British navy or going to the prison ships. The captives knew then what I only recently learned, that being sent to a prison ship was as good as a death sentence. There is not a record of a single prisoner taking the deal. Hearing that kind of made my guts squirm. Now, Martin continued, historical records can often be vague, and we can’t assume we have all the facts, but we do have records accounting for most of the prisoners of that war.

I hadn’t asked, nor did Martin say so, but I’m guessing this is where the word “martyr” in the monument’s name comes from. I’ve been relaying this factoid to friends all week. There were around 8,000 killed in action, both British and patriot, during the entire American Revolutionary War. About 11,500 men chose to die aboard prison ships rather than fight against their brothers in arms. Granted, given what I’ve learned of people, there may have been 11,500 reasons among them for refusing to serve the crown, but it doesn’t change the fact that they refused. I’ve never held any principle so dear.

Credit: Erik Bryan

We stood in front of the bronze doors of the crypt, Carol, Martin, and me. The entrance is set into a massive set of granite steps leading up to the monument. Carol had told me earlier that a number of movies and TV shows had filmed there. The last time a visitor was allowed access to the crypt was when David McCollough came in 2004 while researching 1776. Martin implored that I read it, and I certainly will now. I asked Martin about his background. He’s been with the Parks Department for nearly 28 years, and he’s been enlisted in the Coast Guard Reserve just as long. He grew up in Brooklyn, the youngest of eight kids. His father is a WWII vet. As a scoutmaster Martin guided his Eagle Scout candidates in the recent redesign of the Visitors Center there. Those Scouts do good work.

Carol then clued me in to Martin’s dirty little secret: He’s an amateur historical re-enactor. I’ve met my share while writing this series. I even sort of became one when I went to the Merchant House Museum. I told Martin about this, explaining that, while I originally thought the whole thing was silly, I’ve begun to see the appeal. Apparently Martin has a whole collection of period costume, which he uses to outfit his Parks Department rangers as necessary for re-enactments and events. He assured me it’s only two, three times a year. He offered to outfit me, too, should the need arise, to which I gave him a very definite maybe. People have been known to do weirder stuff for fun.

I asked Martin to take my picture in front of the crypt. I totally respect his call on not letting me in, and I felt a little chastened considering the truth of their martyrdom, but that respect was also tinged with a mote of disappointment. We walked back up the steps. The sun had almost completely escaped the clouds by that point. Martin was kind enough to give me a copy of Capt. Dring’s memoir in parting. I thanked him and Carol for their time, and set off. It turned out that Martin and I were heading in the same direction, so we loped down the hill together. More kids were playing on the lower fields by then than when I’d arrived, more families having early evening strolls. We talked briefly about the neighborhood, which I’ve only been in for a year. Our paths diverged at a southeastern gate, and I walked home.

biopic

TMN Editor Erik Bryan, though originally from Florida, left New Orleans in 2005 for higher ground. He occasionally enjoys a game of croquet, a glass of gin, smarting off, and not freezing to death in Brooklyn, where he currently resides. More by Erik Bryan