The Jersey And Other Horrors
     ~ British Prison Ships

   The JERSEY was a British sea vessel, originally a sixty-four gun ship, dismantled (with its masts removed), and placed in the "Wallabout", a sheltered bay on the Long Island shore. This floating three storey structure had a cabin area under the quarter-deck for the British officers and guards and a tent on top the quarter-deck for shade in hot weather for the sailor on guard. Apart from these features and a flag-staff for signals that stood in the center of the main deck and a barricade ten foot high on the quarter-deck, the ship was stripped. This allowed for a large number of men to be held as prisoners upon her. The Jersey was moored in the Wallabout in 1780 and used as a prison there until the end of the war. There were sometimes more than a thousand men at a time crowded into her decks, and the terrible sufferings that they endured made her name notorious.

   Although official records do not exist to give an actual number of the American men who died as prisoners of war, an estimate might be set at close to seven thousand. We do know that through the course of fighting in the vicinity of New York City about 4,000 Patriots were captured by the British; about 5,000 were taken at Charleston; and American seamen to the number of over 1,000 were captured in naval defeats. These three situations alone would have placed about ten thousand men in British prisons. There were many other confrontations in which substantial numbers of prisoners were taken. Of course, the total number of men taken in battle would have included Patriots who were wounded and would not have survived the trip to New York, which the British held throughout the course of the war, and where the British had the most of their prisons and their prison ships located. It also included numbers of men who were able to make their escape enroute to their intended point of incarceration. Depending on the location of the action in which prisoners were taken, it was sometimes more expedient and beneficial to the captors to bargain for an exchange with the other side in order to forego the expense and time required to transport the captives to the nearest prison facility.

   Prisoners of the American Revolutionary War were subjected to rather barbaric treatment on both sides. The Americans were especially harsh on any Loyalists and Tories they captured; they felt that any and every man born and reared on American soil should direct his allegiance to the colony (and by 1776, state) of his birth. If the state was in conflict with the mother country, then the residents of that state should be in conflict with the mother country likewise. A general contempt was also held by the Patriots toward the Hessian soldiers who were fighting for the British because they were here on American soil only for mercenary purposes. The British, on the other hand, did not grant their prisoners many conveniences or courtesies because they maintained that Americans taken during the conflict were not prisoners of war at all, but were rather traitors in rebellion against their lawful king. Britain would not recognize the existence of the United States, and therefore she was not at war; she was merely attempting to quench a civil uprising of her own subjects. These disparate views translated into horrific existences for the unfortunates who were taken prisoner on either side.

   One of the worst things the prisoners of either side had to face was disease. We are living in an age when we at least know what causes most diseases and how to treat and cure them. Even though we still wage war and our men are still captured and confined to prisons by the enemy, they are generally afforded basic medical and sanitary means to prevent death through disease. In the 1770s, adequate medical knowledge was not prevalent and available even outside of the prison system, and so death and torment by disease was an assumed and acknowledged future for prisoners. Disease epidemics that could have been curtailed, aggravated by near or total starvation, tended to empty the prisons on a regular, ongoing basis. The British needed all the prisoners they could get because they were fighting an overseas war. Apart from the Loyalists and Tories they could recruit on these shores, the whole of the British army had to be ferried in across the Atlantic Ocean. And despite what one might think, there was a certain amount of anti-war sentiment in England throughout the war; not every able-bodied male was rushing to join the army. The British needed American prisoners in order to possess bargaining power and leverage. They could not stand to loose too many of their own men to the enemy, and therefore every American taken meant the possibility of exchange for a British soldier. For this reason we might assume that it was not in their best interests to have so many prisoners dying from disease.

   One major problem with the whole idea of prisons and prisoners was that despite whatever "good" intentions the British might have had in mind to keep their prisoners alive, once the process of disease and death had enterred into the picture, there was no way to stop it. As new prisoners were introduced into the prison environment, they were soon overtaken by the effects of starvation and disease left there by the previously departed victims. British policy demanded that healthy British soldiers could not be exchanged for emaciated, wasted Americans. Therefore the idea that started the process ~ the desire to have bargaining power to exchange American for British soldiers ~ collapsed upon itself.

   There were only two prisons proper in the city of New York in 1776: the New Jail and the New Brigwell. In order to accomodate the captives taken in the battle near Brooklyn in August and at Fort Washington in November of 1776, the British took possession of three large sugar-houses, a couple churches whose members were accused of overly patriotic sentiment, the Columbia College and the city hospital. One of these buildings, the North Dutch Church, held eight hundred prisoners after the pews were all removed and used for fuel. Van Cortlandt's Sugar house was a five-storey stone building, and being one of the largest in the city was quickly adapted into a prison. The old City Hall was converted into a guard-house for the city's main guards, and a dungeon beneath it was intended specifically for captured civil officers. The New Jail was converted to a provost prison where American officers were confined. Each war has spawned horror stories of the prisons and the prison guards who delighted in creating a living hell for their captive inmates. The American Revolutionary War was no different. The provost prison of New York City gained notoriety as being the worst of the British (land) prisons in regard to the cruelty meted out by provost marshal Cunningham who delighted in making his prisoners' lives as miserable as possible.

   The unsanitary conditions inside these stuffy and crowded structures resulted in the spread of diseases. No matter how large a building might have been, there eventually were more prisoners to fit into it than sense and logic would dictate. The resulting crowded conditions made the perfect environment for diseases. It has been estimated that a dozen prisoners died each day, to be carried out in carts and cast into ditches dug just outside the city limits. Vermin and lice, though not diseases in themselves, were constant companions even to the healthiest of the prisoners; their persistent borings into the flesh would have been a steady irritation to remind the prisoner of the situation he was in.

   Thomas Stone, a Patriot from Connecticut, was captured in a raid on British post near New York City. In his recollections he noted:

"About the 25th of Jan., 1778 we were taken from the ships to the Sugar House... We left the floating Hell with joy, but alas, our joy was of short duration. Cold and famine were now our destiny. Not a pane of glass, nor even a board to a single window in the house, and no fire but once in three days to cook our small allowance of provision. Old shoes were bought and eaten with as much relish as a pig or a turkey; a beef bone of four or five ounces, after it was picked clean, was sold by the British guard for as many coppers. In the spring our misery increased; frozen feet began to mortify...Death stared the living in the face; we were now attacked by a fever which threatened to clear our walls of its miserable inhabitants."

   The statement was made in Lossing's Pictorial Field Book Of The Revolution, that "the sufferings of American captives in British hulks were greater even than those in the prisons on land." The floating prisons were originally intended to house captured sailors, but occasionally soldiers were transported to their rotting depths. The floating prisons were the ideal solution to Britain's need for more prison space. Floating in the Hudson, they did not require the type of guards that land prisons called for. Few prisoners would attempt to swim for shore in their weakened state of health with the threat of drowning as near as the threat of being shot in the attempt. The shorelines surrounding the Hudson River's Wallabout were all controlled by the British, and much of the nearby lands of New Jersey were populated by Loyalists. Any escapee from the prisonships had to contend with being caught and turned in by those British sympathizers even if he did succeed in swimming to shore. As a result of the difficulties to be faced, few prisoners even attempted to escape.

   The ships used for the purpose of housing prisoners were ones that had outlived their usefulness. Used in 1776 to transport cattle and other supplies to support the British forces, the earliest ships to be tranformed into prisons were already starting to show signs of decay when the Patriots taken in the battle near Brooklyn were confined in them. The ships thusly transformed included, among six or seven of lesser note, the Whitby, the Good Hope, the Scorpion, the Prince of Wales, the Falmouth, the Hunter, the Stromboli and, of course, the Jersey.

   Thomas Dring was from Rhode Island. By his own account, published in 1829 under the title of Recollections of the Jersey Prison ship, he had been imprisoned on the Good Hope in 1779 for the span of four months. He had escaped from it and had also escaped the perils of the Jersey Loyalists only to be recaptured in 1782 while on board a privateer's first voyage out of Providence. In his narrative, Dring noted that:

"We had now reached the accomodation-ladder, which led to the gangway on the larboard side of the Jersey, and my station in the boat, as she hauled alongside, was exactly opposite to one of the air-ports in the side of the ship. From this aperture proceeded a strong current of foul vapor, of a kind which I had been before accustomed while confined on board the Good Hope... This was, however, far more foul and loathsome than anything which I had ever met with on board that ship...Here, while waiting for orders to ascend on board, we were addressed by some of the prisoners, from the air-ports...'Death has no relish for such skeleton carcasses as we are, but he will now have a feast upon you fresh-comers."

"During the night, in addition to my other sufferings, I had been tormented with what I supposed to be vermin; and on coming upon deck, found that a black silk handkerchief, which I wore around my neck, was completely spotted with them. The next disgusting object which met my sight was a man suffering with the smallpox; and in a few minutes I found myself surrounded by many others laboring under the same disease, in every stage of its progress. As I had never had the smallpox, it became necessary that I should be inoculated...On looking about me, I soon found a man in the proper stage of the disease, and desired him to favor me with some of the matter for the purpose. The only instrument which I could procure, for the purpose of inoculation, was a common pin. With this, having scarified the skin of my hand, between the thumb and forefinger, I applied the matter and bound up my hand. The next morning I found that the wound had begun to fester; a sure symptom thast the application had taken effect."

   According to Dring's account, the prisoners divided themselves into messes of six men each. Each mess was numbered, and every morning at nine o'clock a bell was rung and the messes were called in rotation to receive their daily allowance of food. Each prisoner was supposed to receive the quantity of two-thirds of the allowance of a seaman in the British navy. A typical day's ration, therefore might consist of 2/3 pound of biscuit, 2/3 pound of pork and 1/3 pint of peas. Each mess received such a quantity per man. Each day a different member of the mess was given the duty of taking his mess's rations to the forecastle, on which was the galley: a large copper kettle enclosed in brickwork about eight feet square. It was divided by a partition; on one side the peas and oatmeal was boiled in fresh water; on the other side the meat was boiled in salt water drawn from alongside the ship. Not only would the salt water corrode the copper to produce a poison which was eaten daily along with the boiled meat, but the water drawn from the bay itself was putrid, carrying with it disease and death. The meat furnished to each mess was tied to a string and hung into the boiler for a certain length of time. The length of time was not intended to be such that the meat would be properly cooked, and often it indeed was not, but the prisoners still greedily ate it because it was not completely raw. Dring noted that:

"many of the different messes had obtained permission from 'His Majesty the cook' to prepare their own rations separate from the general mess in the great boiler. For this purpose, a great number of spikes and hooks had been driven into the brickwork by which the boiler was enclosed, on which to suspend their tin kettles."

   The members of the mess who were granted this special privilege would save their rations of fresh drinking water in order to use it to boil their meat in. Through experience, the prisoners discovered that by hammering the bottoms of their small kettles into concave form, the amount of water and fire needed to boil their meat was greatly reduced. Small splinters of wood shavings would be used as kindling underneath these kettles, their flames quenched carefully when the cooking was finished so that they could be used again another day. These shavings of wood were jealously guarded from day to day.

   The daily routine of life on board the Jersey was to be crowded on the main deck as soon as the sun was high overhead and to remain there until sunset. During that time a "work Party" of about twenty men chosen from among the prisoners, being the most able-bodied, were put to work to clean up the lower decks. Large tubs, used by the men to relieve themselves during the night, were carried up and pitched over the side of the ship, and then the floors of the lower decks were washed down. The benefit of this loathsome work was that the "work party" was permitted the luxury of going onto the main deck in the early hours of the morning to breathe the fresh cool air prior to the sun's rising.

   At the end of the war the remaining prisoners on board the Jersey were liberated, and the Jersey herself was left to rot where she floated. The fear of contagion kept everyone from venturing on board her, and eventually she sank into the harbor.

Bedford County Residents Who Were Prisoners Of The British During The American Revolutionary War

  (Note: This listing does not include those individuals who were taken prisoner by the Indians at Frankstown in 1781.)

Joshua Burton

  Joshua served in a number of companies during the war including that of Captain Philip Griffith's Company of the Fourth Regiment of the Maryland Continental Line from 1776 to 1780, during which time he was taken prisoner at Fort Washington in the vicinity of New York City in November of 1776. He was a member of Captain John Boyd's Rangers of the Bedford Militia in 1781 when he was discharged. He later moved to Ohio.

John Holliday

  John was commissioned a 2 Lieutenant in Captain Cluggage's Company of the 1st Pennsylvania Rifle Regiment on 01 January, 1776 and was promoted to 1st Lieutenant on 25 September, 1776. He was captured at Fort Washington in November of 1776. John was included in the Pennsylvania Archives in a list of paroled officers; he resigned from his commission in 1778, so it might be assumed he was exchanged during that year. He was buried in the Holliday Burial Ground near Hollidaysburg.

David Milligan

  David was a private in Major Jeremiah Talbott's Company of the 6th Pennsylvania Regiment in June of 1776 when he was taken prisoner at Three Rivers, Canada. Sent to England, he was placed on a prison ship which was then sent to the float along the coast of Africa. The ship was later sent to New York, where David escaped. He made his way to Philadelphia. On 25 May, 1781 David enlisted in Captain Boyd's Rangers of the Bedford County Militia. He later moved to Ohio.

James Piper

  James served as a Lieutenant Colonel in the 1st Pennsylvania Battalion of Riflemen, was captured at Long Island on 27 August, 1776 and (according to some sources) was placed on a prison ship. He died on 29 January, 1777 from starvation and exposure aboard the prison ship. James had been a resident of Bedford County prior to his enlistment.