The most horrific struggle of the American Revolution occurred just 100 yards off New York, where more men died aboard a rotting prison ship than were lost to combat during the entirety of the war.
Moored off the coast of Brooklyn until the end of the war, the derelict ship, the HMS Jersey, was a living hell for thousands of Americans either captured by the British or accused of disloyalty. Crammed below deck—a shocking one thousand at a time—without light or fresh air, the prisoners were scarcely fed food and water. Disease ran rampant and human waste fouled the air as prisoners suffered mightily at the hands of brutal British and Hessian guards. Throughout the colonies, the mere mention of the ship sparked fear and loathing of British troops. It also sparked a backlash of outrage as newspapers everywhere described the horrors onboard the ghostly ship. This shocking event, much like the better-known Boston Massacre before it, ended up rallying public support for the war.
Revealing for the first time hundreds of accounts culled from old newspapers, diaries, and military reports, award-winning historian Robert P. Watson follows the lives and ordeals of the ship's few survivors to tell the astonishing story of the cursed ship that killed thousands of Americans and yet helped secure victory in the fight for independence.
ROBERT P. WATSON, PhD, has published over three dozen nonfiction books, two encyclopedia sets, three novels, and hundreds of scholarly journal articles, book chapters, and reference essays on topics in politics and history. A frequent media commentator, Watson has been interviewed by outlets throughout the United States and internationally and serves as the political analyst for WPTV 5 (NBC) in Florida. For many years he was also a Sunday columnist with the Sun-Sentinel newspaper. An award-winning author, Watson's recent books include The Nazi Titanic, The Presidents' Wives, Affairs of the State, and America's First Crisis, which received the 2014 Gold Medal in History from the Independent Publishers' Association (IPPY).
After a brief detainment, the guards escorted Thomas Dring and his crewmates [from the captured Chance] into the hold. Even though he had been aboard the prison ship Good Hope three years earlier, the master's mate was not prepared for the sight before him. Men barely had room to sit, much less lie down, most wore tattered clothing and resembled walking skeletons, and many were in the grip of disease. Said Dring, "I found myself among the wretched and disgusting multitude." And then the hatch was shut above them and fastened down for the night
Dring's immediate priority was finding a place to sit down and to hold tightly on to his bag, as he was worried someone would steal it. The stench and heat below decks were stifling, and the air felt thick and heavy in the trapped holds. On the side of the ship he spotted a faint "glimmering of light through the iron gratings of one of the air-ports." Clutching his bag, Dring worked his way toward the porthole, hoping to be able to sit down near the small opening and possibly bunk there. On the way, however, he repeatedly tripped over sleeping prisoners, who cursed him or moaned. Finally arriving at the small porthole, he discovered the area was crowded with prisoners who refused to allow him any space. Nor did they want to talk, other than inquiring about the state of the war. Most prisoners were too weak, had abandoned all hope, or simply kept to themselves. Not finding any of his mates from the privateer Chance or a decent place to bunk, Dring felt anxiety begin to wash over him.
But a pressing matter confronted him. When he finally found a place to sit, the Rhode Islander realized he was surrounded by men dying of smallpox. He had never had the disease and knew he would be vulnerable, but there were no inoculations on the prison ship. The officer remembered what happened next: "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." Dring had inoculated himself.
Dring's former shipmates finally found him and he informed them of his self-inoculation. He spent that first day helping his fellow officers inoculate themselves. He also took care to see that young Palmer, the frightened cabin boy from the Chance, received a small dose of the disease.
The other order of business was to form a "mess" in order to eat. Prisoners were served in these small groups at set times during the day, so it was vital that all new inmates either be assigned to a mess or find an available space in an established mess. If a prisoner was not assigned to a mess, he did not eat. It was that simple. There were no exceptions. But because Dring and other prisoners brought aboard from the British warship Belisarius were, for some reason, not formally registered onto the ship, they were not assigned a mess. Therefore, Dring and his mates did not eat that first day. Nor were they allotted a ration of water.
For a full day and night the men from the Chance remained painfully hungry and desperately thirsty, and began to worry how and when they would manage to eat. Fortunately, Dring had planned ahead. When captured, he had taken the precaution of putting a few biscuits into his bag. He had not eaten them while chained in the hold of the Belisarius, so now he quietly shared the meager morsels of food with the other officers and young Palmer. It was not much, but it momentarily propped up their spirits.
It was a nerve-racking and sleepless night. In the poorly lit and crowded ship Dring found no other former shipmates beyond the few officers and Palmer, the cabin boy. Sleep eluded him. He recalled sitting in pitch blackness, being forced to "reflect on the horrors of the scene, and to consider the prospect before me." All around were the images of ghosts and the "dismal" sounds of dying prisoners. He remembered, "From every direction; a nauseous and putrid atmosphere filling my lungs at every breath; and a stifled and suffocating heat, which almost deprived me of sense, and even of life." Dring was overcome with the weight of despair.
Dawn brought a ghastly sight. Faces and bodies became visible in the dimly lit, dank holds of the ship, and Dring saw that he was surrounded by a pale throng of dying men with the look of famine and death upon their faces. He described it as "scenes of wretchedness, disease, and woe." He again looked around for other former shipmates but could not find any. At last, at eight o'clock, the guards allowed the prisoners to climb the ladder to the top deck, where the master's mate finally found his friends. To his horror, he noticed, "How different did they appear … shrunken and decayed" after only one day!
The prisoners were given a few moments to enjoy the morning sun before being forced back into the dungeon-like holds. Rather than rekindle his energy, however, the daylight simply revealed the "motley crew of wretches with tattered garments and pallid visages … to be even more disgusting and loathsome" than he realized when first brought aboard the ship the day before.
Despite the situation, a sense of hope slowly returned. Dring "found that the wound had begun to fester; a sure symptom that the application had taken effect." The inoculation had worked—he contracted smallpox, but only lightly. Thankfully, he recorded, with "the blessing of Divine Providence, I soon recovered." Also, on the second day, the master's mate was able to get the officers and Palmer registered as a mess. Only a small "pittance of food" was offered to them, but at least they ate. Along with other famished prisoners, they now had to line up each morning and wait for their number to be called. A large boiling pot was available to "cook" their rations and soften the shoe-like consistency of the food so that it could be chewed without losing a tooth. Boiling their rations, Dring observed dryly, also cut the "putrid" smell of the rotting food and removed the insects that inhabited much of what was served.
The brief moment of hopefulness was fleeting, however. Later that day Palmer took ill. The symptoms of smallpox came on strong and fast. By night Palmer was delirious. In the pitch-black holds, Dring tried to comfort the boy, but there was nothing anyone could do. His constant appeals to the guards for a doctor went unheeded. Palmer's "convulsions" through the night tore at Dring, who felt guilty for inoculating the boy. He spent another sleepless night suffering through Palmer's desperate "calling and imploring, in his delirium, for the assistance of his mother and other persons of his family." He remained by Palmer's side through the long, difficult night. But as the morning approached, the boy's cries became weaker.
Dring placed his hand over the cabin boy's mouth and did not feel any breathing. When the dawn's light struggled through the old iron grates that covered the portholes, the few officers from the Chance could finally see the "pallid and lifeless corpse" of their cabin boy, who was only twelve. In the morning, the prisoners were instructed to sew a blanket around the body and carry it and the corpses of others who had died overnight to the upper deck. Dring learned that the bodies were to be taken ashore for a quick and unceremonious burial. He requested to go ashore to bury Palmer, but was turned away because he had signs of smallpox.
After young Palmer, the next of Dring's former crewmates to die were James Mitchell and his son-in-law, Thomas Sturmey, both of Providence. Both died at the same time. Dring had seen them only hours earlier but, because everyone now looked sick, he did not even know they were dying. The bodies were taken to the upper deck for burial. Dring raced up the ladder and saw the two corpses lying on the deck. He obtained blankets and wrapped them up for interment. Dring then asked permission to go ashore to bury the two sailors, as they had been his friends. The request was again denied, and he was forced to stand on the upper deck and watch for a second time as the "dead boat" was rowed ashore filled with bodies.
A tale worth retelling.
THE GHOST SHIP OF BROOKLYN brings to life the hell on water that thousands of prisoners were forced to endure during the American Revolutionary War. Through these untold stories, Robert Watson recounts the horrors inflicted aboard the HMS Jersey, remembers the courageous spirit of its captives, and ensures the memory of these American Patriots will never be forgotten.
In vivid and often elegiac prose, Robert Watson has rediscovered a forgotten story about the grim and usually fatal fate of American prisoners of war during the American Revolution. We carry in our heads prim and proper pictures of that patriotic struggle that will need to be revised on the basis of Watson's thorough documentation of the hellish conditions aboard those floating dungeons, where twice as many American soldiers and sailors died than in all the battles of the war. Watson makes 'lest we forget' ironic, since until now, we have.
A fascinating collection of stories of American Revolutionary War soldiers and sailors captured by the British and imprisoned, many of them in the infamous ship Jersey, the hell that floated off of Brooklyn. These stories may have been once forgotten by history, but with the publication of this very readable book, that will be no longer possible.
Watson brings the people of history to life! His well-written, carefully researched book propels the reader into some of the grim realities of the American Revolution. By skillfully weaving together historical records with dozens of first-hand accounts, Watson introduces the reader to the ghastly consequences of being an American prisoner aboard the British prison ship Jersey. This is how history should be written—bravo!
A readable…account of the worst atrocity committed by either side during the Revolutionary War, as well as a damning portrayal of the British military's 'moral state.'
The memory of the prison-ship captives is honorably served in Robert P. Watson's terrifying new history.
THE GHOST SHIP OF BROOKLYN sheds light on this little-known, yet dark chapter in American history…The narrative flair [Watson] showed in his previous works, such as The Nazi Titanic and America's First Crisis, continues with GHOST SHIP. The text is accessible to the casual reader, yet contains enough notes and appendixes to be a resource for the serious scholar…Watson makes a case that the Jersey was the bloodiest 'battle' of the war.
Watson has succeeded in shedding a brilliant light on a little-known facet of the American Revolution: the British prison ships of Brooklyn…Watson writes with great verve as he offers account after harrowing account of prisoners coming to grips with their fate. He uses extensive resources, and the narrative reads like a gothic horror tale…[An] empathetic rendering of a mostly forgotten chapter of American history. Anyone interested in this time period will find this book an illuminating and worthwhile read.
It's clear author Robert P. Watson has done a great deal of research to present this largely-unknown story in such detail. His use of first-hand accounts written by some of the few who survived the ordeal lends an incredible, yet fascinating, window into the horror. The writing flows well and Watson uses great storytelling techniques that make the subject matter eminently readable.
Provides significant food for thought about our own times, and how treatment of prisoners of war can have significant unintended consequences.
August 17, 2017
Books & Books (Coral Gables, FL)
talk/signing, 7pm ET
August 24-25, 2017
Hadassah Book & Author Gala (Delray Beach, FL)
September 13, 2017
Museum of the American Revolution (Philadelphia, PA)
September 20, 2017
Hagan Ranch Library/Palm Beach County Library System (Delray Beach, FL)
talk/signing, 10am ET
September 20, 2017
Lantana Library/Palm Beach Library System (Lantana, FL)
talk/signing, 2pm ET
October 2, 2017
West Boynton Beach Library (Boynton Beach, FL)
talk/signing, 2pm ET
October 4, 2017
West Boynton Beach Library (Boynton Beach, FL)
talk/signing, 6:30pm ET
October 19, 2017
Lynn University, Wold Performing Arts Center (Boca Raton, FL)
talk/signing, 12pm ET
November 13, 2017
Florida Atlantic University, Lifelong Learning Society (Jupiter, FL)
talk/signing, 3pm ET
November 20, 2017
Fraunces Tavern Museum (New York, NY)
talk/signing, 6:30pm ET
December 13, 2017
Brooklyn Historical Society (Brooklyn, NY)
talk/signing, 6:30pm ET