Old war's victims forgotten no longer [Privateers of War of 1812 buried in Halifax]

Colin Nickerson, Boston Globe Staff, 5/12/2000

Halifax, Nova Scotia - Except for the name, there is nothing to suggest the sad history of Deadman's Island. No plaques, no crosses, no mounds. Just 2.5 acres of forlorn bogland surmounted by a spruce knoll. The site isn't even a true island but a spit of land jutting into Halifax Harbor's Northwest Arm.

But in this unhallowed ground, forgotten by the country that sent them off to fight, lie the bodies of 188 American sailors and soldiers taken prisoner by British regulars and Canadian colonial forces during the War of 1812.

''No doubt their loved ones wept, but they seem to have vanished from the memory of the US,'' said Guy MacLean, a leader of the Northwest Arm Heritage Association and one of the Halifax residents whose recent fight to save Deadman's Island from development ended up pricking the conscience of American veterans groups and, finally, the US government.

''What started as a very local controversy over this land became a history lesson that reverberated on both sides of the border,'' MacLean said.

But in the end it was Canadians - the people of Halifax - who saved the resting place of their former foes, and ensured that the lost fighters of a nearly forgotten war will be remembered, along with others deposited in anonymous graves on Deadman's Island during the first half of the 19th century. Among the remains interred there, new findings show, are runaway slaves from the American South, Irish refugees from the Potato Famine, and French and Spanish prisoners of the Napoleonic Wars.

''They deserve some honor, some respect, some memory,'' said Halifax Mayor Walter Fitzgerald. ''The Americans died for their country in our prison. The blacks died seeking freedom. The Irish died looking for a new life in the New World.

''When you think about it,'' he said, ''there's a lot of our North American history on that bit of land.''

Halifax is already famous as the burial place of many steerage class victims of the Titanic shipwreck. Soon a US monument will officially add the ghosts of Deadman's Island to this port city's long legacy. The site has already become a stop for tour buses and camera-toting history buffs.

Until a few months ago, the island was little more than a source of spooky tales, scarcely believed even by locals.

''There have always been all kinds of sinister stories about the island,'' said Brian Cuthbertson, a Halifax historian. ''Tales of bones coming to surface, of graves unearthed by storms, of people chancing upon skulls.''

During the War of 1812, Canada was still part of the British Empire, and Halifax served as the Royal Navy's most important base in North America. According to Admiralty records, more than 8,100 American prisoners of war were held at a military detention camp on Melville Island - just 100 yards across the water from Deadman's Island - after being captured in sea engagements off New England or ferocious land battles in the hinterlands of Upper Canada, now Ontario.

''This day we embark'd for hell,'' Benjamin F. Palmer, a Massachusetts privateer taken prisoner in 1814, gloomily recorded in his diary, ''... by all save distant friends forgot.''

The prison was cramped and disease-ridden. Some prisoners succumbed to wounds. But infectious disease was the greater threat for most, with a steady toll taken by typhus, smallpox, pneumonia, and tuberculosis, according to British records.

The dead were rowed to the swampy spit then known as Target Hill. They were swathed in canvas shrouds and deposited in shallow graves, but not before the British bureaucracy noted their passing.

''Ironically, the Admiralty kept better records on these Americans when they died than the US kept of the same men when they enlisted,'' Cuthbertson said. ''Names, units, or ships, the battle in which they were captured - all recorded.''

They included James Newell of Boston, seaman, age 27, captured from the privateer Gossamer, ''died of typhus fever'' on Aug. 10, 1812. Or William Dunkin, 30, another Massachusetts seaman, ''killed by an axe onshore'' on Sept. 8, 1812, apparently slain while serving in a work party outside the prison walls. Or John Johnson, 22, of New York, seaman aboard the USS Chesapeake, ''dead of wounds'' received during the battle between the American frigate and HMS Shannon.

New research has found that along with the American POWs were buried 104 African-Americans, the least lucky of the slaves who escaped the plantations of Maryland as British regulars sacked Washington in 1814. (As fate would have it, the English officer who put the White House to the torch, Sir Robert Ross, is buried in Halifax's most prestigious cemetery in the city's center.) About 2,000 liberated slaves were carried to Nova Scotia aboard royal war vessels and quartered at the military base.

In 1847, Deadman's Island would serve one last time as a makeshift graveyard as Irish fleeing the potato blight perished of typhus and other diseases at a quarantine camp in Halifax.

And there on Deadman's Island the bodies of American sailors, slaves, and Irish croppers remained as the centuries turned. By the end of the 19th century, the origins of the name were forgotten, and the burial ground was an unvenerated setting for ghoulish tales and macabre pranks.

In 1907, for example, the owner of a dance hall, Charles F. Longley, dug three skulls from the sodden earth and placed them in his liquor cellar to frighten off thieves. The skulls themselves were spirited off. Meanwhile, generations of boys and girls dared one another to dash onto the scary spit.

Then, last year, developers announced plans to erect a large condominium complex on the land, which, with its bay views, is one of the most desirable waterfront sites still vacant in Atlantic Canada's most vital city.

But the project was haunted by barely remembered ghosts. At first, challengers of the development scheme had only word-of-mouth tales of bones jutting from the bog and unmarked graves. Then MacLean started combing through old Admiralty records in Nova Scotia's public archives - quickly making the American connection. ''Discovery that American POWs were buried here rang bells in some faraway places,'' he said.

US veterans groups and historical societies got wind of the island's past, and they were soon pressing Congress, Canada's ambassador, and the US State Department to protect Deadman's Island. The Sons of the American Revolution passed a resolution that ''any desecration of this sacred place would dishonor the memory of these patriots.''

Sentiment was somewhat less feverish in Halifax. ''But people were thinking: What if these were Nova Scotians buried on some little island in Boston Harbor?'' MacLean said. ''How would we feel if they were about to be paved over?''

African-Canadian groups chimed in, noting that the site was of historic significance to Nova Scotia's sizable black community, most of them descendants of runaway American slaves.

Even the developers seemed abashed. In February, after archeologists confirmed the history, they agreed to sell the site to the municipality of Halifax for a fairly modest $140,000.

Early this summer, the city will formally ask the US Department of Veterans Affairs to erect a memorial on Deadman's Island finally paying honor to the forgotten Americans from the barely remembered war.

''Our mission is to make sure no US veteran lies in an unmarked grave,'' said Lawrence De Meo, director of the department's memorial programs service. ''These soldiers and sailors shouldn't be forgotten again.''

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