The Prison Ship Martyrs' Monument in Fort Greene Park, in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, is a memorial to the more than 11,500 American prisoners of war who died in captivity aboard sixteen British prison ships during the American Revolutionary War. The remains of a small fraction of those who died on the ships are interred in a crypt beneath its base. The ships included the HMS Jersey, the Scorpion, the Hope, the Falmouth, the Stromboli, Hunter, and others.
Their remains were first gathered and interred in 1808. In 1867 landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, designers of Central Park and Prospect Park, were engaged to prepare a new design for Washington Park as well as a new crypt for the remains of the prison ship martyrs. In 1873, after urban growth hemmed in that site near the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the remains were moved and re-interred in a crypt beneath a small monument. Funds were raised for a larger monument, which was designed by noted architect Stanford White. Constructed of granite, its single Doric column 149 feet (45 m) in height sits over the crypt at the top of a 100-foot (30 m)-wide 33 step staircase. At the top of the column is an eight-ton bronze brazier, a funeral urn, by sculptor Adolf Weinman. President-elect William Howard Taft delivered the principal address when the monument was dedicated in 1908.
Remains of deceased prisoners
Origin of remains
During the Revolutionary War, the British maintained a series of prison ships in the New York Harbor and jails on the shore for captured prisoners of war. Due to brutal conditions, more Americans died in British jails and prison ships in New York Harbor than in all the battles of the American Revolutionary War.
The British quickly disposed of the bodies of the dead from the jails and ships by quick interment or throwing the bodies overboard. Following the end of the American Revolutionary War in 1783, the remains of those who died on the 16 prison ships were neglected, left to lie along the Brooklyn shore on Wallabout Bay, a rural area little visited by New Yorkers. On January 21, 1877, the New York Times reported that the dead came from all parts of the nation and "every state of the Union was represented among them."
Collection of remains
Officials of the local Dutch Reformed Church met with resistance from the property owner when they sought to remove the bones to their churchyard. Nathaniel Scudder Prime reported that the “skulls and feet, arms and legs [were] sticking out of the crumbling bank in the wildest disorder”. Edwin G. Burrows described the skulls on the coast “as thick as pumpkins in an autumn cornfield”. During construction at the Naval Yards, workers were not sure what to do with the bones, and they started to fill casks and boxes.
Volume of remains collected
Eventually, "near twenty hogsheads full of bones were collected by the indefatigable industry of John Jackson esq, the committee of Tammany Society, and other citizens, to be interred in the vault." The monument's dedication plaque estimates that 11,500 prisoners of war died in the prison ships, but others estimate the number to be as high as 18,000 people. I
The movement to commemorate the dead only took off when political differences between Federalists and Republicans deepened in the last years of the eighteenth century and the Republicans took up the question of a memorial in response to the Federalist erection of a statue of George Washington in 1803. The Tammany Society, (headed by Benjamin Romaine) was created and grew into a Republican organization. On February 10, 1803 Republican Congressman Samuel L. Mitchill asked the federal government to erect a monument to the fallen, but had no success They then turned their efforts to a grand ceremonial re-interment of the prisoners' remains, emphasizing less the construction of a monument than something more suited to the common man. Tammany formed the Wallabout Committee in January 1808. Their efforts took strength from renewed anti-British feeling stemming from British incidents in 1806 & 1807. Finally, when President Thomas Jefferson enacted the Embargo Act of 1808, Tammany and the Republicans used their plans for a re-interment as part of their campaign to bolster anti-British sentiment.
First vault and monument
On April 13, 1808, they held a ceremony to lay the cornerstone of a planned vault and a grand ceremony of re-interment followed on May 26, 1808. A small square building stood above the 1808 vault with an eagle mounted at the point of the roof. It was located on a triangular plot of land near the Brooklyn Navy Yard waterfront (Wallabout Bay) in what is now called Vinegar Hill. A wooden fence with thirteen posts and bars painted with the names of the original thirteen states was erected in front. At the entrance through the fence, an inscription said: "Portal to the tomb of 11,500 patriot prisoners, who died in dungeons and prison-ships, in and about the City of New York, during the Revolution." The remains were put in long coffins made of bluestone. Extra space was provided in case more bones were discovered during continuing renovations in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Little was done to repair or upkeep the vault and eventually, the original monument was in a state of disrepair and neglect. In 1839, Benjamin Romaine purchases the land where the Martyrs were buried, in a tax sale from Henry Reed Stiles for $291.08. Later that year on 4 July 1839, Benjamin Romaine made an appeal for support (governmental or civic) to build a monument. In this appeal, Romaine talked about the monument and his intention to use his Revolutionary War pension for the monument. On 31 January 1844, Benjamin Romaine died and was also interred in the crypt as he was also one of the men who had been a prisoner of war on the ships.
Second vault and monument
Later in the nineteenth century, the idea of erecting of a monument on the vault site attracted only occasional interest until 1873 when an appropriation of $6,500 was established for a new mausoleum. The new 25 by 11 foot brick mausoleum in Fort Greene Park, then known as Washington Park, was constructed. The new mausoleum was constructed of Portland granite embellished with pillars and fret work of polished Aberdeen stone. The front of the tomb had the following inscription: "SACRED TO THE MEMORY, OF OUR SAILORS, SOLDIERS AND CITIZENS, WHO SUFFERED AND DIED ON BOARD BRITISH PRISON SHIPS IN THE WALLABOUT DURING THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION". On June 18, 1873, the first tomb was emptied of bones and they were moved to this tomb. The bones remained here until interest was again built and a new monument could be constructed.
Following the discovery of additional bones in the Brooklyn Naval Yard in 1899, interest in establishing a significant monument was again renewed. June 16, 1900 the bones found during additional excavations in the Brooklyn Navy Yard were interred in the Crypt with full Military Honors. The boxes were reported to be oak, 5 feet long and two feet wide. On June 19, 1900, the Brooklyn Eagle reported that a committee had been appointed to build a larger memorial to replace the current one. Due to the work of this committee, funds for a new monument were finally considered and raised.
Development and funding
Funding for a larger monument came from all levels of government. On June 28, 1902, a joint resolution of the House and Senate appropriated $100,000 for the memorial construction under the provision that an additional $100,000 be raised from other sources. In the following months, New York State provided $25,000, and New York City $50,000, while private contributions provided another $25,000. Following funds being established, the Prison Ship Martyrs Association was incorporated in Albany on May 9, 1903 to oversee the work and the renowned architect Stanford White (1853–1906) of the architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White was commissioned to design it. The contract for construction of the monument was awarded to Carlin Construction Company under the project supervision of Lieut. Col. W. L. Marshall.
Constructed of granite, its single Doric column 149 feet (45 m) in height sits over the crypt at the top of a 100-foot (30 m)-wide 99 stairs staircase. When it was built, it was the world’s tallest Doric column. At the top of the column is an eight-ton bronze brazier or a funeral urn. The urn, which is 22.5 feet tall and weighs 7.5 tons, was cast by the Whale Creek Iron Works in Greepoint from designs of Manhattan sculptor Adolph Alexander Weinman. The top had a light, The “eternal flame”, at its top. It went out in 1921 and was never relit until 1997 when a new solar-powered eternal beacon was turned on as part of that ceremony. The solar powered beacon or “eternal flame”, now consisting of solar powered lights reflected from a mirror, lit daily during the hours of darkness.
The column carries this inscription: "1776 THE PRISON SHIP MARTYRS MONUMENT 1908". The grand staircase of 100 80-feet-wide granite steps rises in three stages. At the foot of the staircase, the entrance to the vault was covered by a slab of brown sandstone, now in storage, that bears the names of the 1808 monument committee and builders and this inscription:
In the name of the spirits of the departed free
sacred to the memory of that portion of American seamen, soldiers and citizens who perished in the cause of liberty & their country on board the prison ships of the British (during the Revolutionary War) at the Wall-about.
This is the corner stone of the vault which contains their relics.
Erected by the Tammany Society or Columbian Order of the City of New York.
The ground for which was bestowed by John Jackson Nassau Island,
season of blossoms
year of discovery, the 316th
of the institution the 19th
and of American Independence the 32nd
April the 6th, 1808.
Four 3-foot-high open-winged 300-pound eagles stood at the corners of the 200-foot square terrace at the column's base, each on its own 2-foot pedestal in front of a 7-foot Doric column. They were designed by Adolf Weinman, who also designed the 6-ton brazier that sits upon the Monument's principal column.
The crypt is in a vault at the base of the stairs. Inside the vault the floor is made of concrete and the walls and ceiling are a bisque-colored brick. One enters the crypt through a copper-clad door. One must take three or so steps down, enter a short passageway into the hill and at the end of the passage is the brick-lined crypt, with approximately 15–20 feet square. There are a series of slate coffins inserted into a double-set of shelves on the right and left. Various bones are said to be sorted into different coffins, presumably because individual bodies could not be identified and re-assembled for burial.
The dedication ceremony on November 15, 1908, included a parade with 15,000 participants, including military and National Guard units, veterans, and civic organizations, including representatives of Tammany Hall in their first parade since the Civil War. President-elect Taft, Secretary of War Luke E. Wright, New York Governor Charles Evans Hughes, New Jersey Governor Franklin Fort, and Delaware Governor Preston Lea watched along with approximately twenty thousand spectators as "the enormous flag draping the Prison Ship Martyr's Monument on the highest point of Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn, was allowed to slide slowly to the ground from its heighth [sic] of 198 feet in the air." The ceremony was opened with a prayer delivered by Rev. S. Parkes Cadman and the principal address was delivered by Taft. He set out in detail the treatment of American prisoners and of the dead he said: "They died because of the cruelty of their immediate custodians and the neglect of those who, in higher authority, were responsible for their detention." He carefully described British culpability:
I do not wish to be understood as charging that these conditions were due to the premeditations of the English commanders in chief or to the set purposes of anyone in authority having to do with the fate of the unfortunate men whose bravery and self-sacrifice this monument records. Such a charge would make the British commanders human monsters. The conditions were the result of neglect, not design.
He discussed the treatment of prisoners of war throughout history and praised the recent Hague Convention on the rights of prisoners of war and the recent Sino-Japanese War in which "both parties exceeded, in the tenderness and the care which they gave to the prisoners of the other, the requirements of the Hague Convention."
Following the initial dedication, the Society of Old Brooklynites has hosted an annual memorial for the martyrs every year since President Taft dedicated the monument in 1908.
A plaque was added in 1960 located across from the front label on the monument. The plaque reads:
In memory of the 11,500 patriotic American sailors and soldiers who endured untold suffering and died on the prison British ships anchored in Wallabout Bay during the Revolutionary War 1776- 1782. Their remains lie buried in the crypt at the base of this monument which was dedicated on November 14, 1908. This plaque was afforded by The Society of Old Brooklynites on June 1, 1960. Farelly Crane M.D. President.
Currently surrounding the monument are secured exhibits explaining the history of the Prison Ships, the Battle of Brooklyn and a list of the 8,000 known martyrs. It is not documented when these exhibits were added.
Near the monument, a small building designed to coordinate with the work of McKim, Mead, and White once provided restroom facilities but was re-purposed as a visitors' center for the park. The visitors center has pictorial exhibits plus displays of Revolutionary War weapons and uniform buttons that have been uncovered in the park over the years.
Timeline of repeated neglect and restoration
In February 1914, one of the eagles was stolen. The thieves attempted to sell it as scrap metal for $24. When police found it at a recycling yard, the wings of the eagle had already been removed and partially melted.
By 1921, the beacon was out. The twin helix stairways to the top of the monument, which visitors once paid a dime to climb, were closed. Until then, visitors could go to the top to get impressive views of Manhattan. In 1923, the bronze door to the crypt was "battered from its hinges" by vandals and the crypt was exposed. The New York Times report of the incident described how the monument provided a play area for neighborhood children: "[A] score of children, white and black, who live in the neighborhood were using the granite coping of the walls leading to the crypt as a sort of 'chute the chutes.' The color line was sharply drawn. The slope of one side was used by the negro children while the slope of the other side amused the whites. The children of neither hue were concerned with the crime. They realized vaguely that something unusual had taken place, but it was not important enough to them to stop their daily sport." However, neglect and damage to the park required it to be renovated. The memorial had become so scarred by vandals and unkempt from lack of proper maintenance as to present a dilapidated appearance. Work was done to clean and preserve the site. A staircase and elevator were installed inside the large column and it was reopened in 1937 by Park Commissioner Robert Moses. Again, the park was neglected and restoration work was required. It began in 1948 to "keep the shrine from falling apart". The staircase and elevator that had been installed inside the large column in 1937 were both removed in 1949.
In the ensuing years, however, the park slowly decayed again and, by the 1970s, graffiti covered much of the base of the monument and vandalism was taking its toll. After being vandalized repeatedly, the four eagles were removed for repairs in 1966 and restored when $251,000 was spent to repair the monument about 1974, part of a larger $780,000 restoration of Fort Greene Park. They were again removed in 1981 and two of them are on display at the Central Park Arsenal, the administrative headquarters of the New York City Parks Department. They presently flank the third floor entrance.
In 1995, an examination of the vault reported it held bone fragments in 20 slate boxes, each two feet by two feet by seven feet. During this inspection in 1995 by the park system, Graffiti was noted to be on the crypt's interior walls. The graffiti is dated but the dates are in question as they reflect 1973, 1908 and, one tag was scribbled, 1776—before the tomb was even built, in 1908.
By the year 2000 the monument was missing plaques, the plaza was potholed, the crypt had a plywood door, and the eternal flame had long been extinguished.
During a site review on January 7, 2000, Park System workers raised the lid of the stone coffin of Benjamin Romaine. The interior of the coffin appeared to have contained a partially collapsed wooden coffin.
A budgetary study was conducted from March 6, 2006 to September 5, 2008 on electrical improvements and the cost estimated to about $341,000. The restored monument was unveiled on November 15, 2008, a centennial celebration. That night, the column and urn were lit by a spectacular lighting scheme. The overall restoration cost for the monument from 2006 to 2008 was an estimated $5,100,000.
Current designation and responsibility
In the first half of the 20th century efforts were made to seek a national designation. However, the United States Department of the Interior declined at the time and noted that the prisoners didn’t die at the site itself. Currently, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation is responsible for the preservation and supervision of the monument. A budgetary study was conducted from March 6, 2006, to September 5, 2008, on electrical improvements and the cost estimated at $341,000. The overall restoration cost for the monument from 2006 to 2008 was estimated at $5,100,000.
Archaeology of original site
In December 2003, a dig was done on the original site of the Martyrs' Monument. The site dig was funded by a grant of $2,500 from the J. M. Kaplan Fund. It was supervised by Dr. Joan H. Geismar an archaeological consultant. The original site (block 44, lot 14 Brooklyn) is located on 89 Hudson Ave (formerly Jackson Street: named after an early donor of the property for the Monument in 1808). The goals of the dig were to review if any more human remains could be found on the site and if evidence of the original crypt remained. The site was scheduled for housing development to begin on the site. The Crypt location was specifically identified from an 1855 Perris insurance atlas as well as a mid-19th century manuscript map found in the National Archives. The work determined that the site at one time contained a deep void, but no foundations were found. They did find a massive stone side wall as well as the likely original post holes for the rail fence. The site development was allowed with a recommendation of a plaque when work was done. The redevelopment of the site was completed and eventually the property changed owners. The status of the plaque is not known and currently there is no plaque on the site.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Prison Ship Martyrs' Monument.|
- Historical Marker Database: Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, additional images
- Mindful Walker: "In Our Midst: The Prison Ship Martyrs," September 30, 2010, additional images
- Prison Ship Martyrs Association, including additional images
- Photo Gallery
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