Title: Brooklyniana, No. 5
Creator: Walt Whitman
Date: January 4, 1862
Publication information: Brooklyn Standard 4 January 1862: .
Source: The Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Our transcription is based on a digital image of an original issue. Gaps from damage to the original have been supplied by consulting Emory Holloway, ed. The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman, 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1921. pp. 236–245.
Whitman Archive ID: per.00220
Contributors to digital file: Brett Barney, Janel Cayer, Liz McClurg, and Sarah Walker
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A Series of Local Articles, on Past and Present
The much-talked-of American prison ships of the Revolutionary war, four or five old hulks, strong enough to hold together, but condemned as unfit for sea purposes—which hulks the invading British army brought round and anchored in our river during the years 1776–7–8 and 9. It will be remembered that the British, after the disastrous (to the Americans) Battle of Brooklyn,1 took possession of the city of New York at the very commencement of the war, and held it to the end. As their naval power gave them every advantage here, they made this the depot of their troops, stores, &c., and the largest receptacle of the numerous American prisoners they took from time to time in battle.
The principal of these prison-ships was the Old Jersey, a large 74 gun frigate.2 She was dismantled and moored on a spot now included in the dry land of our Brooklyn Navy Yard. Others lay off what is now the Battery. Then there were others, off and on; the Whitby (she was the first, and was burnt toward the latter part of the year 1777;) the Scorpion, the Good Hope (!)3 the Hunter, and the Stromboli, were the names of the others, or most of them. But the one which seems to have been most relied on was the Old Jersey.
The British took a great many American prisoners during the war—not only by land, but also by their privateers, at sea. When a capture was made in any of the waters near enough, the prisoners were brought with the vessel to New York. These helped to swell the rank of the unhappy men, who were crowded together in the most infernal quarters, starved, diseased, helpless, and many becoming utterly desperate and insane.—Death and starvation killed them off rapidly.
The Scorpion, Stromboli, and Hunter were called hospital ships—but mighty little health was there on any of the others. The American Government, after a while, appointed Commissioners who, by consent of the British Generals, were permitted to visit New York, and contribute to the relief of the prisoners—but they could only advance a very moderate degree of assistance. The British put out the keeping of the prisoners by contract, and as there was no one to look after the contractors, and their jobs were like all such favoritism, they made fortunes out of the starvation of thousands of unhappy men. The food was often the refuse of the English soldiery and of the ships of war in commission. There was the most frightful suffering from the want of water. The air was ftid, in warm weather, to suffocation. Still with all these facts, these thousands of men, any one of whom might have had his liberty by agreeing to join the British ranks, sternly abided by their fate and adhered to the cause of their country to the bitter end.
The patriotism of these prisoners appeared indeed to be all the more intense from their wrongs. On the anniversary of the 4th of July, one time (1782), they resolved to celebrate the occasion as well as they could. They arranged and exhibited among themselves thirteen little flags, sung the patriotic songs of those times, (and there were many such in circulation in those days, with others also on the British side, deriding Americans,) and occasionally joined in giving hearty rounds of cheers for the day, till at last the angry British guards drove them all below, and fastened the gratings upon them. Irritated at this, the prisoners raised their songs louder than ever, when the infuriated guards rushed down, charging in on the unarmed crowd, with fixed bayonets. Many were wounded frightfully, and several killed in the melee.
One of the prisoners on the Old Jersey, after the end of the war, when he was liberated, wrote an account of the proceedings on board this ship, and published it in a book. This was Thomas Andros, who was a great patriot, and afterwards settled as minister of a church in Berkley, Massachusetts.4 According to his account, there were a thousand men confined much of the time on the Old Jersey—sometimes increased to as many as twelve hundred. And as, at that time, the hospital-ships had also become overcrowded, the sick were no longer removed from the Jersey but remained with the rest.
The following extract from Andros's book seems to us interesting in the greatest degree, especially to us who live in the neighborhood of the scene:
In a short time we had two hundred men, sick and dying, lodged in the fore part of the lower gun deck, where all the prisoners were confined at night. Utter derangement was a common symptom of yellow fever, and to increase the horror of the darkness which surrounded us (for we were allowed no light betwixt decks), the voice of warning could be heard: "Take heed to yourselves, there is a madman stalking through the ship with a knife in his hand." I sometimes found the man a corpse in the morning by whose side I laid my self down at night. At another time he would become deranged, and attempt in the darkness to rise, and stumble over the bodies that everywhere covered the deck. In this case I tried to hold him in his place by main strength. In spite of my efforts he would sometimes rise, and then I had to close in with him, trip up his heels and lay him again upon the deck. While so many men were sick with raging fever, there was a loud cry for water, but none could be had except on the upper deck, and but one allowed to ascend at a time. The suffering then from the rage of thirst was very great. Nor was it at all times safe to attempt to go up. Provoked by the contined cry for leave to ascend when there was already one on deck the sentry would push them back with his bayonet. By one of these thrusts, more spiteful and violent than common, I had a narrow escape of my life. In the morning the hatchways were thrown open, and we were allowed to ascend all at once, and remain on the upper deck during the day. But the first object that met our view in the morning was a most appalling spectacle—a boat loaded with dead bodies, conveying them to the Long Island shore, where they were very slightly covered sand. I sometimes used to stand to count the number of times the shovel was filled with sand to cover a dead body. And certain I am that a few high tides or torrents of rain must have disinterred them. And had they not been removed, I should suppose the shore even now would be covered with huge piles of the bones of American seamen. There were probably four hundred on board who never had the small-pox; some perhaps might have been saved by inoculation. But humanity was wanting to try even this experiment. Let our disease be what it would, we were abandoned to our fate. Now and then an American was brought as a captive, but if he could obtain his parole, he left the ship, nor could we blame him much for this, for his own death was next to certain, and his success in saving others by medicine in our situation was very small. I remember only two American physicians who tarried on board a few days. No English physician, or any one from the city, ever to my knowledge came near us. There were thirteen of the crew to which I belonged, but in a short time, all but three or four were dead. The most healthy and vigorous were first seized with the fever and died in a few hours. For them there seemed to be no mercy. My constitution was less muscular and plethoric, and I escaped the fever longer than any of the thirteen except one, and the first onset was less violent.
Most of the crowding of the prisoners, and the more odious part of the treatment occurred in the earlier years of the war. Toward the last the British themselves appear to have grown ashamed and shocked at the proceedings of their officers. The Americans also indignantly interfered and produced a change toward the last.
The whole number of those who died aboard these ships of death, is reliably computed at close on twelve thousand men, mostly in the flower of their age. It is a profound reflection, that Brooklyn, in its Wallabout region,5 holds the remains of this vast and silent army. Few think as they cross the City Park, or pass along Flushing avenue, of the scenes there witnessed in the early part of our national history.
All the terra-firma of the present Navy Yard, and much of the land adjoining it also, has since been reclaimed from the dominion of old Neptune—that is, it has been "filled in." Of course, the whole face of the scene has been completely changed from what it was in the times of the Revolutionary war, when the ships lay here. At that period, the spot that is now just west of the wall along Flushing avenue, was a low stretching sand hill, and it was in and adjacent to this spot that the thousands of the American martyrs were mostly buried. They were dumped in loose loads every morning in pits, and the sand shoveled over them. The writer of these lines has been told by old citizens that nothing was more common in their early days than to see thereabout plenty of the skulls and other bones of these dead—and that thoughtless boys would kick them about in play. Many of the martyrs were so insecurely buried, that the sand being blown off by the wind, exposed their bleached skeletons in great numbers.
The work of "filling in" here, for the purpose of completing the Government Navy Yard, commenced 1807–8. And it was at this time that public attention (and even public decency) were directed to some means of preservation, beyond the destiny of common rubbish, of these patriotic relics. Garret Sickles6 and Benjamin Romaine,7 of New York city, [we believe Mr. R. afterward came to be a resident of Brooklyn,] were prominent in the good work. At their instigation, the Tammany Society of New York8 made a formal business of it. Large quantities of loose and disjointed bones were collected, and it was determined to deposite them in a spot near at hand, deeded to the Tammany Society for that purpose, by John Jackson, Esq. [from whom the old name of Jackson street, and not from Gen. Jackson, as generally supposed.]9 A vault was constructed here, a cornerstone prepared, and the occasion was made one of the most imposing and expensive ceremonies, very disproportionate to the present appearance of the "temple," or "ante-chamber," now visible over this vault to the passer-by along Hudson avenue, adjacent to the Navy Yard wall.
The ceremony alluded to, consisted of two parts, one on the 12th of April, 1808, and a following one one on the 26th of May. The first was the formal laying of the corner stone of the existing vault. A procession was formed at the Fulton Ferry, composed of United States marines, under command of their officers, and of the Tammany Society, and various civic societies, who proceeded to the ground, where an oration was delivered by Joseph D. Fay,10 and then the corner stone was duly lowered in its place—on it being cut the following inscription:
"IN THE NAME OF THE SPIRIT OF THE DEPARTED, Free, Sacred to the memory of that portion of American Seamen, Soldiers, and citizens, who perished on board the Prison Ships at the Wallabout, during the Revolution; This CORNER STONE of the vault is erected by the Tammany Society, or Columbian Order; Nassau Island, Season of Blossoms, year of Discovery the 316th and of the Institution the 19th and of American Independence, the 32d.
"Jacob Vandevoort, John Jackson, Burdett Stryker, Issachar Cozzens, Robert Townsend, Jr., Benjamin Watson, Samuel Cowdry, Committee.
"David and William Campbell, Builders. April 6, 1808."
TO BE CONTINUED.
1. The Battle of Brooklyn, also known as the Battle of Long Island or the Battle of Brooklyn Heights (New York, August 27, 1776), was the first major battle of the Revolutionary War. British General William Howe defeated American General George Washington. Despite their defeat, the American troops' subsequent escape from Long Island without being attacked was a surprising success. [back]
2. The Old Jersey, anchored in New York Harbor during the Revolutionary War, was the most infamous of the British prison ships. Some eleven thousand American prisoners are thought to have died onboard. The upper deck was also made into a hospital when the other hospital ships could not accommodate the number of sick. [back]
3. Like the Whitby, the Good Hope was burnt by prisoners during an escape attempt. [back]
4. Thomas Andros served as a Congregational minister in Berkley, Massachusetts, for forty–seven years. He also served briefly in the Massachusetts state legislature. [back]
5. "Wallabout" derives from Dutch "Waalboght," which means "Walloons bay" in honor of the Walloons, French-speaking immigrants from Belgium. Whitman published a poem entitled "The Wallabout Martyrs" in his 1891 edition of Leaves of Grass. [back]
6. Garret Sickles was a member of the Tammany Society and Grand Marshal of the ceremony mentioned in the following paragraph. [back]
7. Benjamin Romaine was Grand Sachem of Tammany Hall at the time of the 1808 ceremony mentioned in the following paragraph. [back]
8. The Tammany Society was established in May 1789, just after George Washington's first presidential inauguration. The Society played an active role in New York City politics until it was disbanded in the 1960s. [back]
9. John Jackson was a landowner who discovered the bones of the prison ship dead buried on his property. Though he would not consent to the removal of the bones, he deeded part of his land to the Tammany Society for the building of the monument Whitman discusses. Along with Jackson Street, John Street in Brooklyn was also likely named for John Jackson. [back]
10. Joseph D. Fay, son of New York politician Colonel Joseph Fay, was a clerk for Alexander Hamilton and became a prominent lawyer in New York City. [back]