Untold Story of British Prison Ships During the American Revolution

Treatment of POWs during the late 18th Century was a lot different than it is today.  There was no Geneva Convention.  The custom at the time was for the prisoners to scavenge for their own food or grow it in a camp or make artifacts they could sell to earn money to buy food.  When King George III declared that those rebelling against England were traitors whatever modicum of decent treatment American POWs would have received went out the window.

The British problem was that early in the war, they captured large numbers of Continental Army soldiers.  Their jails were over-crowded and so to house captured rebels, the British brought old ships of the line and stripped them of their masts and weapons.  Most were anchored in New York but after Charleston was captured, several were there and for a short time in Philadelphia.

One of the most notorious ships was HMS Jersey.  Built in 1736 as a 60 gun third-rate ship-of-the-line, HMS Jersey had a compliment of approximately 500 men and when it was converted to a prison hulk, it was at the end of its service life.

Anchored in Wallabout Bay which later became the Brooklyn Navy Yard, prisoners were rowed out to Jersey and other prison ships where they lived in horrific conditions.  The British provided very little food and those too weak to fend off the rats, were eaten alive.  When a prisoner died, the men tossed his body over the side.

In New York Harbor alone, there were more than 8,000 American prisoners on prison ships.  During and after the war, 11,000 Americans died on British prison ships compared to 4,500 deaths on the battlefield.

At the end of the Revolution, several thousand men and boys were living on board the Jersey.  Even though Cornwallis was defeated in 1781, as late as 1783, the British were still keeping prisoners on prison ships in New York Harbor.  Rather than release the prisoners, the British set the ships in New York Harbor on fire.  At the time, it was estimated there were 1,400 men still on Jersey.

Lord Howe was never charged or reprimanded for this horrific act which took place in 1783, two years after Cornwallis’ surrender.  For months after the fire, charred bodies washed up on the shores of New York Harbor.

It wasn’t until 1902 when the Brooklyn Navy Yard was being expanded that they found the timbers of HMS Jersey.  In 1908, President Taft dedicated The Prison Ship Martyr’s Monument under which are 20 coffins filled with bones recovered from the hulk.

Setting fire to ships with men still on board was an act of cruelty unmatched until Adolph Hitler arrived on the scene in the first half of the 20th Century.  To this day, neither the Royal Navy nor the British government has apologized for this horrendous act.

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