Hell on the East River: British Prison Ships in the American Revolution - Purple Mountain Press

British Prison Ships in the American Revolution

by Larry Lowenthal

From the Preface

With his poet's eye, Walt Whitman could see multiple layers and meanings in the everyday scene. Beneath the mundane cobblestones and sedate brick homes of Brooklyn and the filled land of the navy yard, he perceived "a vast and silent army." They were the men who had sacrificed their lives for the cause of American independence, the prison ship martyrs. In Whitman's time their bones were still occasionally unearthed on the shore of Wallabout Bay, an unexceptional place made sacred by their presence.

Nearby, on a hill that had figured in the Battle of Brooklyn, rises an imposing monument to these martyrs, conceived by a leading firm of American architects almost exactly a century ago. The men it honors were unlikely martyrs, young men in the full flood of youthful vigor. Some, but not a high proportion, were burdened by the morbid religious gloom that had afflicted their ancestors. Most heedlessly accepted the strength and confidence that coursed through their veins. Yet, when a time of terrible choices came, they and their fellows, by unspoken agreement of loyalty, chose death.

Whitman asserted that these martyrs, in offering up their lives, had paved a path to the America he knew and, by extension, to all later forms of America. He was a Brooklyn resident and partisan, so perhaps his perspective was limited. The vast significance he attached to the martyrs is not reflected in textbooks or popular history. The monument, while still impressive, is by no means part of the standard tourist circuit. Nor, surprisingly, is it a place of pilgrimage like Valley Forge or Concord.

The sacrifice of the prison ship martyrs is not the kind of flashing heroism or dramatic gesture that seizes the popular imagination. It is quieter, more prolonged, more agonizing, and thus more difficult to comprehend. This book is, in essence, an attempt to correct an historical oversight and give the "vast and silent army" the recognition it deserves. In this effort, I have tried to let the martyrs speak for themselves as much as possible, so that their voices and way of thinking will be preserved.

In order to focus on this group, the men honored by the martyrs' monument, I have intentionally limited the scope of this book to the prison ships around New York City. Except for occasional references, this means resisting the impulse to expand the story to include other aspects of the prisoner issue during the War for Independence, such as American naval prisoners held in England, American land prisoners, or prisoners captured by the Americans. Because some of this history has been controversial, I have attempted to provide thorough documentation, using the old-fashioned method of citing sources. I recognize that this technique has come into increasing disfavor and is probably sliding toward oblivion, but it seemed worth perpetuating under the circumstances.

Larry Lowenthal is a National Park Service historian (retired) and the author of two other books published by Purple Mountain Press:
Marinus Willett: Defender of the Northern Frontier and From the Coalfields to the Hudson: A History of the Delaware & Hudson Canal.

208 pages, 6 x 9, illustrated, $15.00, paper, 2009
$15.00 paperback--A Purple Mountain Press original

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