Andersonville. Bataan. Auschwitz. All conjure up images of disillusion, devastation, and death.
All are infamously known as harsh prisoner-of-war camps. When those words are read, images flash through your mind and memory of hollow faces attached to gaunt bodies staring blankly in the direction of the cameraman.
With Robert P. Watson’s new history, The Ghost Ship of Brookly, An Untold Story of the American Revolution, one can add another word to the lexicon of prison camp vernacular.
Or a few more words specifically, the HMS Jersey.
The ship, once part of the impressive British fleet that helped create an empire, was by the time of the American Revolution a ship passed by with the passing of time. The British high command then converted the vessel into a prisoner-of-war camp. By the end of the American Revolutionary War, the vessel, moored in Wallabout Bay off the coast of Brooklyn, had a reputation as “The Hell Ship.” Or as others would remember it as; the “Ghost Ship,”
Watson, a professor of history at Lynn College, uses the second nickname for the ship as the title of book. Using five personal accounts from survivors of the HMS Jersey to craft his narrative, he weaves in the hellish tales of what life was like as a prisoner of the British in New York during the war. The five; Christopher Hawkins, Thomas Dring, Thomas Andros, Ebenezer Fox, and Andrew Sherborne, left accounts that “offer a firsthand telling of perhaps the most shocking event of the Revolutionary period.” (pg. 7). All five of the men, held for varying lengths of time, survived their ordeal. Approximately 11,500 of their comrades did not. Astronomical numbers for one prisoner camp.
Or to put that number into another perspective, if population inflation is taken into account, 11,500 souls in the American Revolution would be the equivalent of one World War II prisoner camp claiming the lives of 850,000 men! (pg. 220).
However, what is remarkable about this study is that Watson not only incorporates the experiences of the above mentioned. Instead his history is filled with snippets from other prisoners of the Britsh. These accounts, brief in nature, add weight to the thesis of the emotional and physical strain that these American prisoners were put under by the sadistic William Cunningham warden of the infamous Prevost jail within the city and David Sproat, commissary of the prison ship, described variously as “notorious” and “universally detested for the cruelty of his conduct.” (pg. 96).
One may ask why General George Washington and the Continental Congress did not do more to aid their former comrades held by the British. Watson broaches the subject as well. The American commander is concerned with trading regular soldiers of the British who would be quickly returned into service by the enemy and be ready for combat situations. Meanwhile, the soldiers he would receive in return would just head home, nullifying the benefit of the exchange. Complicating the matter were issues of numbers held imprisoned by the Americans, which was far less in the early stages of the war and the degree of care given to the British, Loyalist, and Hessians captured. Washington, on a personal level felt remorse and sympathy for the prisoners but had to put those emotions aside for the betterment of the cause. Especially when, in Washington’s words, “there is scarce any price which they would not give for their veteran Troops now prisoners.” (pg. 205). Watson’s premise in including this aspect of the history is to place at the reader’s opinion the following dilemma; the benefit for the cause or the benefit of the exchange. The reader therefore gets a brief insight into the inner turmoil that George Washington wrestled with.
The opening of each chapter begins with a few lines from “The Poet of the American Revolution” Philip Freneau, himself a prisoner of war on a prison ship for six weeks during the war. The stanzas add a depth to the imagery of life confined to these floating confinements. An appendix at the conclusion of the book details Freneau’s life and experiences.
Overall, the book is a quick-read and provides valuable insight into an aspect of the war that for too long, using a pun, laid forgotten under the waters. Waiting, as in the words of Freneau for someone to tell “the various horrors of these hulks.” (pg. 1). The “task” started by the poet has now been furthered by Watson.
Publisher: Da Capo Press
Publication Date: August 15, 2017
312 pages, plus images and two appendices
Link for further information, click here.