J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, May 26, 2008

Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Brooklyn

This November will mark the hundredth anniversary of the erection of the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park. The monument is currently undergoing restoration. At right is a photo from late last year, showing the column enshrouded in scaffolding and mesh.

During the Revolutionary War, the British military kept many of its prisoners from privateers and battles on ships anchored in New York harbor. The American authorities, knowing that they had a numerical advantage in available men, dragged their feet about exchanging their British and Hessian prisoners for these captives. As a result, many Americans were held for years. The poor food, terrible sanitation, and close conditions aboard those hulks meant that many prisoners died of disease and were buried along the shore of Wallabout Bay.

Over the decades, those graves eroded, and skeletons were exposed; this was quite a controversy in the early republic. While previous generations honored the memory of the dead as we do, they weren’t as invested in matching remains with individual people. Locals collected those bones and placed them together in a vault near the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The picture below shows that monument as it appeared in the 1840s. It was in less picturesque disrepair twenty years later.
Fort Greene was built in Brooklyn during the War of 1812 and named after Gen. Nathanael Greene. In 1864, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux produced a design for a park around that site with a new monument to the dead prisoners of war. However, it took until 1908 for people to raise the funds for that memorial column and to complete its construction. Shortly thereafter, skyscrapers sprang up all over Manhattan, and the column’s viewing platform seemed low and quaint.

The Fort Greene Park Conservancy is now leading the effort to restore the monument and the park as a whole. They are also planning for a grand celebration of the monument’s centenary this fall, featuring author David McCullough as keynote speaker. And it looks like they could use financial help from anyone who cares to give.

1 comment:

Heather said...

What a timely article! thank you so much. I was researching the prison ships today as I was writing a memorial to my ancestor Samuel Ward, who reportedly died aboard a prison ship. I have made a donation to the Fort Greene Conservancy in his honor.