America never seems to find the time and money to give proper attention to its lesser-known memorials. While famous locales and attractions such as Gettysburg and the numerous monuments in Washington, D.C. receive the lion’s share of federal funding and diligence (these are, of course, tourist spots), the less popularly frequented/ less attractively situated sites usually fade away unnoticed. One of these lesser-known memorials is situated right here in Brooklyn…a memorial overgrown with weeds, falling into decay and fenced off from passersby.
The Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Fort Greene Park honors the memory of 11,500 soldiers who died in the American Revolution. They were not killed in the tumult of combat, on such historical battlefields as Lexington or Concord, but as a result of being captured and imprisoned. The captives were housed aboard a group of British ships moored in Wallabout Bay (today’s Brooklyn Navy Yard); the HMS Jersey soon became the most notorious of this group of prison-ships.
Formerly a hospital ship, the Jersey became a prison ship at the start of the Revolution. Thousands of prisoners were crammed below decks without natural light or fresh air and perished due to neglect and disease. As many as eight prisoners a day died, often aboard the Jersey alone, before the British surrender at Yorktown on October 19, 1781.
Christopher Vail, who was aboard the Jersey, wrote:
‘When a man died he was carried up on the forecastle and laid there until the next morning at 8 o’clock when they were all lowered down the ship sides by a rope round them in the same manner as tho’ they were beasts. There was 8 died of a day while I was there. They were carried on shore in heaps and hove out the boat on the wharf, then taken across a hand barrow, carried to the edge of the bank, where a hole was dug 1 or 2 feet deep and all hove in together” (Wikipedia)
Robert Sheffield, who escaped from one of the prison-ships, and told his story in the Connecticut Gazette in 1778:
‘Their sickly countenances and ghastly looks were truly horrible,’ the newspaper wrote on 10 July, without identifying the ship. ‘Some swearing and blaspheming; some crying, praying, and wringing their hands, and stalking about like ghosts; others delirious, raving, and storming; some groaning and dying—all panting for breath; some dead and corrupting air so foul at times that a lamp could not be kept burning, by reason of which the boys were not missed till they had been dead ten days.’ (Wikipedia)
The dead, originally buried in makeshift graves near the area of their confinement, were reinterred in Fort Greene Park; they now lie within an underground crypt. The monument, designed by Stanford White, consists of a 100-foot (30m)-wide granite staircase and a central Doric column 149 (45m) feet in height. Last November, the monument celebrated its 100th anniversary and recalled the 1908 dedication; an “event so important that president-elect Taft, all 320 pounds of him, attended.” (Brooklyn Paper)
Unfortunately, it’s only through the increased gentrification of this neighborhood that the memorial is receiving any recognition at all; a return of prosperity to such neighborhoods once forsaken for prosperity. A century ago, Fort Greene was a comfortable and thriving neighborhood that (like so many other Brooklyn neighborhoods), grew nightmarishly disheveled amidst the skillfully manipulated American Dream of the mid-20th century. In the 1960s, new “revolutionaries” began to appear in forms that ranged from hostile hippies to, later in the 70s, hostile gangs who claimed the park surrounding neighborhood as their very own stomping ground: a spoil of their social war of assimilative attrition.
All this time, the spirits of these martyrs of the American Revolution (along with martyrs of every war in freedom‘s name), viewing the situation from their astral plane, must wonder if dying for the cause of independence was more dreadful than seeing independence run amock.