The precursor to the magnificent granite staircase and 149-foot Doric column crowning the high-point of Fort Greene Park was this modest memorial, located for much of the 19th century in the Vinegar Hill neighborhood just outside to the Navy Yard. Erected to commemorate the remains of the Prison Ship Martyrs, it was a reminder of the greatest suffering endured in the cause of American liberty. Estimates of the dead from the prison ships exceeded 11,000 — nearly triple the 4,400 Americans who died in all the battles of the revolution.
The Americans were taken prisoner during the Battle of Long Island, the retreat from New York, and especially at the fall of Fort Washington. Others were captured on ships. With the available buildings on land overflowing with prisoners, the British anchored old ships in Wallabout Bay to serve as prisons. The Jersey, the most notorious ship, housed as many as a thousand men. Starving and freezing, they suffered from small pox and many other diseases. The Americans could obtain their freedom by pledging loyalty to the king. Few did. Each morning, the bodies were either thrown overboard or buried in trenches in the muddy shallows.
In the years following the war Brooklyn residents would find the bones of the patriots washing up along the shores. A movement swelled to create a permanent resting place for the Prison Ship Martyrs, and so in 1808 the New York Tammany Society interred the bones in a tomb buried in a lot on Jackson Street (later Hudson Avenue), just outside the Navy Yard wall at the end of Front Street. In 1839 an antechamber and decorative fencing was added, just before the effort was mounted to create a more suitable, permanent monument at the new Fort Greene Park.
What sobers the Brooklyn boy as he looks down the shores of the Wallabout and remembers the prison ships…
from “Song of Myself,” Leaves of Grass (1855)
✮ ✮ ✮