Extracts From Newspapers--Some Of The Prison Ships---Case of Captain Birdsall

As found in the book, "American Prisoners of The Revolution", By Danske Dandridge.

At the risk of repetition of some facts that have already been given, we must again refer the reader to some extracts from the newspapers of the day. In this instance the truth can best be established by the mouths of many witnesses, and we do not hesitate to give the English side whenever we have been able to discover anything bearing on the subject in the so-called loyal periodicals of the time.

From Freeman's Journal, date of Jan. 19th, 1777, we take the following:

"General Howe has discharged all the privates who were prisoners in New York. Half he sent to the world of spirits for want of food: the others he hath sent to warn their countrymen of the danger of falling into his hands, and to convince them by ocular demonstration, that it is infinitely better to be slain in battle, than to be taken prisoner by British brutes, whose tender mercies are cruelties."

In the Connecticut Journal of Jan. 30th, 1777, is the following:

"This account of the sufferings of these unfortunate men was obtained from the prisoners themselves. As soon as they were taken they were robbed of all their baggage; of whatever money they had, though it were of paper; of their silver shoe buckles and knee buckles, etc.; and many were stripped almost of their clothes. Especially those who had good clothes were stripped at once, being told that such were 'too good for rebels.'

"Thus deprived of their clothes and baggage, they were unable to shift even their linen, and were obliged to wear the same shirts for even three or four months together, whereby they became extremely nasty; and this of itself was sufficient to bring on them many mortal diseases.

"After they were taken they were in the first place put on board the ships, and thrust down into the hold, where not a breath of fresh air could be obtained, and they were nearly suffocated for want of air.

"Some who were taken at Fort Washington were first in this manner thrust down into the holds of vessels in such numbers that even in the cold season of November they could scarcely bear any clothes on them, being kept in a constant sweat. Yet these same persons, after lying in this situation awhile, till the pores of their bodies were as perfectly open as possible, were of a sudden taken out and put into some of the churches of New York, without covering, or a spark of fire, where they suffered as much by the cold as they did by the sweating stagnation of the air in the other situation; and the consequence was that they took such colds as brought on the most fatal diseases, and swept them off almost beyond conception.

"Besides these things they suffered severely for want of provisions. The commissioners pretended to allow a half a pound of bread, and four ounces of pork per day; but of this pittance they were much cut short. What was given them for three days was not enough for one day and, in some instances, they went for three days without a single mouthful of food of any kind. They were pinched to such an extent that some on board the ships would pick up and eat the salt that happened to be scattered there; others gathered up the bran which the light horse wasted, and eat it, mixed with dirt and filth as it was.

"Nor was this all, both the bread and pork which they did allow them was extremely bad. For the bread, some of it was made out of the bran which they brought over to feed their light horse, and the rest of it was so muddy, and the pork so damnified, being so soaked in bilge water during the transportation from Europe, that they were not fit to be eaten by human creatures, and when they were eaten were very unwholesome. Such bread and pork as they would not pretend to give to their own countrymen they gave to our poor sick dying prisoners.

"Nor were they in this doleful condition allowed a sufficiency of water. One would have thought that water was so cheap and plentiful an element, that they would not have grudged them that. But there are, it seems, no bounds to their cruelty. The water allowed them was so brackish, and withal nasty, that they could not drink it until reduced to extremity. Nor did they let them have a sufficiency of even such water as this.

"When winter came on, our people suffered extremely for want of fire and clothes to keep them warm. They were confined in churches where there were no fireplaces that they could make fires, even if they had wood. But wood was only allowed them for cooking their pittance of victuals; and for that purpose very sparingly. They had none to keep them warm even in the extremest of weather, although they were almost naked, and the few clothes they had were their summer clothes. Nor had they a single blanket, nor any bedding, not even straw allowed them until a little before Christmas.

"At the time those were taken on Long Island a considerable part of them were sick of the dysentery; and with this distemper on them were first crowded on board the ships, afterwards in the churches in New York, three, four or five hundred together, without any blankets, or anything for even the sick to lie upon, but the bare floors or pavements.

"In this situation that contagious distemper soon communicated from the sick to the well, who would probably have remained so, had they not in this manner been thrust in together without regard to sick or well, or to the sultry, unwholesome season, it being then the heat of summer. Of this distemper numbers died daily, and many others by their confinement and the sultry season contracted fevers and died of them. During their sickness, with these and other diseases, they had no medicines, nothing soothing or comfortable for sick people, and were not so much as visited by the physician for months together.

"Nor ought we to omit the insults which the humane Britons offered to our people, nor the artifices which they used to enlist them in their service to fight against their country. It seems that one end of their starving our people was to bring them, by dint of necessity, to turn rebels to their own country, their own consciences, and their God. For while thus famishing they would come and say to them: 'This is the just punishment of your rebellion. Nay, you are treated too well for rebels; you have not received half you deserve or half you shall receive. But if you will enlist into his Majesty's service, you shall have victuals and clothes enough.'

"As to insults, the British officers, besides continually cursing and swearing at them as rebels, often threatened to hang them all; and, on a particular time, ordered a number, each man to choose his halter out of a parcel offered, wherewith to be hanged; and even went so far as to cause a gallows to be erected before the prison, as if they were to be immediately executed.

"They further threatened to send them all into the East Indies, and sell them there for slaves.

"In these and numberless other ways did the British officers seem to rack their inventions to insult, terrify, and vex the poor prisoners. The meanest, upstart officers among them would insult and abuse our colonels and chief officers.

"In this situation, without clothes, without victuals or drink, or even water, or with those which were base and unwholesome; without fire, a number of them sick, first with a contagious and nauseous distemper; these, with others, crowded by hundreds into close confinement, at the most unwholesome season of the year, and continued there for four months without blankets, bedding, or straw; without linen to shift or clothes to cover their bodies;--No wonder they all became sickly, and having at the same time no medicine, no help of physicians, nothing to refresh or support nature, died by scores in a night, and those who were so far gone as to be unable to help themselves lay uncared for, till death, more kind than Britons, put an end to their misery.

"By these means, and in this way, 1,500 brave Americans, who had nobly gone forth in defence of their injured, oppressed country, but whom the chance at war had cast into the hands of our enemies, died in New York, many of whom were very amiable, promising youths, of good families, the very flower of our land; and of those who lived to come out of prison, the greater part, as far as I can learn, are dead or dying. Their constitutions are broken; the stamina of nature worn out; they cannot recover--they die. Even the few that might have survived are dying of the smallpox. For it seems that our enemies determining that even these, whom a good constitution and a kind Providence had carried through unexampled sufferings, should not at last escape death, just before their release from imprisonment infected them with that fatal distemper.

"To these circumstances we subjoin the manner in which they buried those of our people who died. They dragged them out of the prison by one leg or one arm, piled them up without doors, there let them lie until a sufficient number were dead to make a cart load, then loaded them up in a cart, drove the cart thus loaded out to the ditches made by our people when fortifying New York; there they would tip the cart, tumble the corpses together into the ditch, and afterwards slightly cover them with earth. * * * While our poor prisoners have been thus treated by our foes, the prisoners we have taken have enjoyed the liberty of walking and riding about within large limits at their pleasure; have been freely supplied with every necessary, and have even lived on the fat of the land. None have been so well fed, so plump, and so merry as they; and this generous treatment, it is said, they could not but remember. For when they were returned in the exchange of prisoners, and saw the miserable, famished, dying state of our prisoners, conscious of the treatment they had received, they could not refrain from tears." Connecticut Journal, Jan. 30th, 1777.

In April of the year 1777 a committee that was appointed by Congress to inquire into the doings of the British on their different marches through New York and New Jersey reported that "The prisoners, instead of that humane treatment which those taken by the United States experienced, were in general treated with the greatest barbarity. Many of them were kept near four days without food altogether. * * * Freemen and men of substance suffered all that generous minds could suffer from the contempt and mockery of British and foreign mercenaries. Multitudes died in prison. When they were sent out several died in being carried from the boats on shore, or upon the road attempting to go home. The committee, in the course of their inquiry, learned that sometimes the common soldiers expressed sympathy with the prisoners, and the foreigners (did this) more than the English. But this was seldom or never the case with the officers, nor have they been able to hear of any charitable assistance given them by the inhabitants who remained in, or resorted to the city of New York, which neglect, if universal, they believe was never known to happen in any similar case in a Christian country."

We have already shown that some of the citizens of New York, even a number of the profligate women of the town, did their best to relieve the wants of the perishing prisoners. But the guards were very strict, and what they could do was inadequate to remove the distresses under which these victims of cruelty and oppression died. As we are attempting to make this work a compendium of all the facts that can be gathered upon the subject, we must beg the reader's indulgence if we continue to give corroborating testimony of the same character, from the periodicals of the day. We will next quote from the New Hampshire Gazette, date of February 4th, 1779.

"It is painful to repeat the indubitable accounts we are constantly receiving, of the cruel and inhuman treatment of the subjects of these States from the British in New York and other places. They who hear our countrymen who have been so unfortunate as to fall into the hands of those unrelenting tyrants, relate the sad story of their captivity, the insults they have received, and the slow, cool, systematic manner in which great numbers of those who could not be prevailed on to enter their service have been murdered, must have hearts of stone not to melt with pity for the sufferers, and burn with indignation at their tormentors. As we have daily fresh instances to prove the truth of such a representation, public justice requires that repeated public mention should be made of them. A cartel vessel lately arrived at New London in Connecticut, carrying about 130 American prisoners from the prison ships in New York. Such was the condition in which these poor creatures were put on board the cartel, that in the short run, 16 died on board; upwards of sixty when they were landed, were scarcely able to move, and the remainder greatly emaciated and enfeebled; and many who continue alive are never likely to recover their former health. The greatest inhumanity was experienced by the prisoners in a ship of which one Nelson, a Scotchman, had the superintendence. Upwards of 300 American prisoners were confined at a time, on board this ship. There was but one small fire-place allowed to cook the food of such a number. The allowance of the prisoners was, moreover, frequently delayed, insomuch that, in the short days of November and December, it was not begun to be delivered out until 11 o'clock in the forenoon so that the whole could not be served until three. At sunset the fire was ordered to be quenched; no plea from the many sick, from their absolute necessity, the shortness of the time or the smallness of the hearth, was allowed to avail. The known consequence was that some had not their food dressed at all; many were obliged to eat it half raw. On board the ship no flour, oatmeal, and things of like nature, suited to the condition of infirm people, were allowed to the many sick, nothing but ship-bread, beef, and pork. This is the account given by a number of prisoners, who are credible persons, and this is but a part of their sufferings; so that the excuse made by the enemy that the prisoners were emaciated and died by contagious sickness, which no one could prevent, is futile. It requires no great sagacity to know that crowding people together without fresh air, and feeding, or rather starving them in such a manner as the prisoners have been, must unavoidably produce a contagion. Nor is it a want of candor to suppose that many of our enemies saw with pleasure this contagion, which might have been so easily prevented, among the prisoners who could not be persuaded to enter the service."


Soon after the battle of Long Island Captain Birdsall, a Whig officer, made a successful attempt to release an American vessel laden with flour for the army, which had been captured in the Sound by the British. Captain Birdsall offered, if the undertaking was approved of by his superior officer, to superintend the enterprise himself. The proposal was accepted, when Birdsall, with a few picked men, made the experiment, and succeeded in sending the vessel to her original destination. But he and one of his men fell into the hands of the enemy. He was sent to the Provost Jail under surveillance of "that monster in human shape, the infamous Cunningham." He requested the use of pen, ink, and paper, for the purpose of acquainting his family of his situation. On being refused he made a reply which drew from the keeper some opprobious epithets, accompanied by a thrust from his sword, which penetrated the shoulder of his victim, and caused the blood to flow freely. Being locked up alone in a filthy apartment, and denied any assistance whatever, he was obliged to dress the wound with his own linen, and then to endure, in solitude and misery, every indignity which the malice of the Provost Master urged him to inflict upon a damned rebel, who, he declared, ought to be hung. "After several months of confinement and starvation he was exchanged."

Two Whig gentlemen of Long Island were imprisoned in the Provost Prison some time in the year 1777. Two English Quakers named Jacob Watson and Robert Murray at last procured their release. Their names were George Townsend and John Kirk. Kirk caught the smallpox while in prison. He was sent home in a covered wagon. His wife met him at the door, and tenderly nursed him through the disorder. He recovered in due time, but she and her infant daughter died of the malady. There were hundreds of such cases: indeed throughout the war contagion was carried into every part of the country by soldiers and former prisoners. In some instances the British were accused of selling inoculated clothing to the prisoners. Let us hope that some, at least, of these reports are unfounded.

The North Dutch Church was the last of the churches used as prisons to be torn down. As late as 1850 it was still standing, and marks of bayonet thrusts were plainly to be discerned upon its pillars. How many of the wretched sufferers were in this manner done to death we have no means of discovering, but it must have been easier to die in that manner than to have endured the protracted agonies of death by starvation.

John Pintard, who assisted his uncle, Lewis Pintard, Commissioner for American prisoners in New York, thus wrote of their sufferings. It must be remembered that the prisoners taken in 1776 died, for the most part, before our struggling nation was able to protect them, before Commissioners had been appointed, and when, in her feeble infancy, the Republic was powerless to aid them.

"The prisoners taken on Long Island and at Fort Washington, sick, wounded, and well, were all indiscriminately huddled together, by hundreds and thousands, large numbers of whom died by disease, and many undoubtedly poisoned by inhuman attendants, for the sake of their watches or silver buckles."

It was on the 20th of January, 1777, that Washington proposed to Mr. Lewis Pintard, a merchant of New York, that he should accept the position as resident agent for American prisoners. In May of that year General Parsons sent to Washington a plan for making a raid upon Long Island, and bringing off the American officers, prisoners of war on parole. Washington, however, disapproved of the plan, and it was not executed.

No one sympathized with the unfortunate victims of British cruelty more deeply than the Commander-in-chief. But he keenly felt the injustice of exchanging sound, healthy, British soldiers, for starved and dying wretches, for the most part unable even to reach their homes. In a letter written by him on the 28th of May, 1777, to General Howe, he declared that a great proportion of prisoners sent out by the British were not fit subjects for exchange, and that, being made so unfit by the severity of their treatment, a deduction should be made. It is needless to say that the British General refused this proposition.

On the 10th of June, 1777, Washington, in a long letter to General Howe, states that he gave clothing to the British prisoners in his care. He also declares that he was not informed of the sufferings of the Americans in New York until too late, and that he was refused permission to establish an agency in that city to purchase what was necessary to supply the wants of the prisoners.

It was not until after the battle of Trenton that anything could be done to relieve these poor men. Washington, by his heroism, when he led his little band across the half frozen Delaware, saved the lives of the small remnant of prisoners in New York. After the battle he had so many British and Hessian prisoners in his power, that he was able to impress upon the British general the fact that American prisoners were too valuable to be murdered outright, and that it was more expedient to keep them alive for purposes of exchange.

Rivington's Gazette of Jan. 15th, 1779, contains this notice: "Privateers arriving in New York Harbor are to put their prisoners on board the Good Hope or Prince of Wales prison ships.

"James Dick."

If the Jersey were in use at that time it must have been too crowded for further occupancy. But although there is frequent mention in the periodicals of the day of the prison ships of New York the Jersey did not become notorious until later.

On the 29th of June, 1779, Sir George Collier, in a notice in Rivington's Gazette, forbids "privateers landing prisoners on Long Island to the damage and annoyance of His Majesty's faithful servants."

This order was no doubt issued, in fear of contagion, which fear led the British to remove their prison ships out of New York Harbor to the retired waters of Wallabout Bay, where the work of destruction could go on with less fear of producing a general pestilence.

In the issue for the 23rd of August, 1779, we read: "To be sold, The sails and rigging of the ship Good Hope. Masts, spars, and yards as good as new."

Among the accounts of cruelty to the prisoners it is refreshing to come upon such a paragraph as this, from a New London, Conn. paper, dated August 18th, 1779. "Last week five or six hundred American prisoners were exchanged. A flag returned here with 47 American prisoners, and though taken out of the Good Hope prison ship, it must (for once) be acknowledged that all were very well and healthy. Only 150 left."

The next quotation that we will give contains one of the first mentions of the Jersey as a prison ship, that we have been able to find.

"New London, Sept. 1st, 1779. D. Stanton testifies that he was taken June 5th and put in the Jersey prison ship. An allowance from Congress was sent on board. About three or four weeks past we were removed on board the Good Hope, where we found many sick. There is now a hospital ship provided, to which they are removed, and good attention paid."

A Boston paper dated September 2nd, 1779, has the following: "Returned to this port Alexander Dickey, Commissary of Prisoners, from New York, with a cartel, having on board 180 American prisoners. Their countenances indicate that they have undergone every conceivable inhumanity."

"New London, Sep. 29th 1779. A Flag arrived here from New York with 117 prisoners, chiefly from New England."

From Rivington's Gazette, March lst, 1780. "Last Saturday afternoon the Good Hope prison ship, lying in the Wallebocht Bay was entirely consumed after having been wilfully set on fire by a Connecticut man named Woodbury, who confessed to the fact. He with others of the incendiaries are removed to the Provost. The prisoners let each other down from the port holes and decks into the water."

So that was the end of the Good Hope. She seems to have been burned by some of the prisoners in utter desperation, probably with some hope that, in the confusion, they might be enabled to escape, though we do not learn that any of them were so fortunate, and the only consequence of the deed appears to have been that the remaining ships were crowded to suffocation.

A writer in the Connecticut Gazette, whose name is not given, says: "May 25th, 1780. I am now a prisoner on board the Falmouth, a place the most dreadful; we are confined so that we have not room even to lie down all at once to sleep. It is the most horrible, cursed, hole that can be thought of. I was sick and longed for some small beer, while I lay unpitied at death's door, with a putrid fever, and though I had money I was not permitted to send for it. I offered repeatedly a hard dollar for a pint. The wretch who went forward and backward would not oblige me. I am just able to creep about. Four prisoners have escaped from this ship. One having, as by accident, thrown his hat overboard, begged leave to go after it in a small boat, which lay alongside. Having reached the hat they secured the sentinel and made for the Jersey shore, though several armed boats pursued, and shot was fired from the shipping."

The New Jersey Gazette of June 4th, 1780, says: "Thirty-five Americans, including five officers, made their escape from the prison ship at New York and got safely off."

"For Sale. The remains of the hospital ship Kitty, as they now lie at the Wallebocht, with launch, anchors, and cables." Gaine's Mercury, July 1st, 1780.

New Jersey Gazette, August 23, 1780. "Captain Grumet, who made his escape from the Scorpion prison ship, at New York, on the evening of the 15th, says more lenity is shown the prisoners. There are 200 in the Strombolo, and 120 in the Scorpion."

It was in 1780 that the poet Freneau was a prisoner on the Scorpion, which, at that time, was anchored in the East River. In Rivington's Gazette, at the end of that year, the "hulks of his Majesty's sloops Scorpion and Hunter" are advertised for sale. Also "the Strombolo fire-ship, now lying in North River." It appears, however, that there were no purchasers, and they remained unsold. They were still in use until the end of the year 1781. Gaine's Mercury declares that "the Strombolo, from August 21st to December 10th, 1781, had never less than 150 prisoners on board, oftener over 200."

"Captain Cahoon with four others escaped from a prison ship to Long Island in a boat, March 8, notwithstanding they were fired on from the prison and hospital ships, and pursued by guard boats from three in the afternoon to seven in the evening. He left 200 prisoners in New York." Connecticut Journal, March 22, 1781.

The Connecticut Gazette, in May, 1781, stated that 1100 French and American prisoners had died during the winter in the prison ships. "New London, November 17th, 1781. A Flag of truce returned here from New York with 132 prisoners, with the rest of those carried off by Arnold. They are chiefly from the prison ships, and some from the Sugar House, and are mostly sick."

"New London, Jan. 4th, 1782. 130 prisoners landed here from New York December third, in most deplorable condition. A great part are since dead, and the survivors so debilitated that they will drag out a miserable existence. It is enough to melt the most obdurate heart to see these miserable objects landed at our wharves sick and dying, and the few rags they have on covered with vermin and their own excrements."

[ American Prisoners of The Revolution ]