Memorial to martyred mariners rededicated
[excerpts] Newark (NJ) Star-Ledger, August 26, 1997, by Bill Franz
Last Saturday morning a memorial service was held at Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, near the Brooklyn Navy Yard, rededicating a monument to the men interred in a vault that lies below it.
The monument itself is an impressive tower that stands high above the park with a lighthouse-like beacon on top. The original light was extinguished during World War II as a wartime security measure, and it would not be relit until last Saturday when a new solar-powered eternal beacon was turned on as part of the ceremony. The intention is for the light to shine forever as a symbol that, as the monument's motto promises, "They Shall Not Be Forgotten."
The men honored by the memorial and who lie beneath it are victims of one of the most terrifying acts of inhumanity to have occurred in America. They are the merchant seamen and privateers who served valiantly on the side of the colonials in the Revolution and who died under barbaric circumstances.
All were crew members of the thousands of merchant ships which sailed as privateers from the ports of the American colonies to attack and seize British ships. Privately owned and privately armed, these merchant ships made an invaluable contribution to the victory of the colonists in the War of Independence. Their crews were the predecessors of the heroic members of the Merchant Marine who would fight for the United States in future wars.
The privateers carried the newly-created American flag to all the ports of the world, attacking and capturing thousands of His Majesty's vessels whose cargoes were then sold to support the colonial militias in their battle against the British.
Half Would Survive
Fewer than half of the privateers would survive and return home. Thousands of their courageous seamen were captured by the British and offered their choice of joining the British Navy in the war or going to prison. The overwhelming majority chose to go to jail rather than turn against their friends, families and new nation.
Pitifully few of the captured American seamen survived the conditions of their imprisonment aboard the royal jail vessels which were moored along the Brooklyn waterfront.
In 1780 the British had anchored a flotilla of 12 former men-of-war and hospital ships in Brooklyn's Wallabout Bay. Crowded together in the most unsanitary circumstances, prisoners were given little food, no medical attention and a great deal of abuse and neglect, all as an incentive for them to change their minds and join the King's Navy.
Aboard the filthy ships, disease was rampant. The corpses of those who died on the prison vessels in New York Harbor - a total of between 11,500 and 12,500 men - were either rowed to shore and placed in shallow graves or unceremoniously tossed overboard by their British captors.
The worst of these prison ships was the H. M. S. Jersey, a decommissioned warship, on which 1,100 men were crowded together between decks. About a dozen prisoners died each night aboard the Jersey from dysentery, typhoid, smallpox, yellow fever, food poisoning, starvation and torture. When the war ended in 1783, aboard the entire prison fleet there were only 1,400 survivors, all of them ill and emaciated.
Remains Are Found
After the Revolution ended, the newly-formed U.S. Navy occupied the Brooklyn Navy Yard site on Wallabout Bay. When the Navy began expanding the yard, the remains of thousands of these sailors were found in the muddy bottom as the bay was dredged to build new drydocks. In 1808, as much of the remains as possible were dug up and reburied on the grounds of the nearby John Jackson estate.
In 1844 the first Prison Ship Martyrs Monument was erected near Hudson Avenue, but it soon fell into disrepair, and a new memorial was planned. Fort Greene Park, where the vault would finally be placed. . . was originally the site of Fort Putnam during the Revolution. When the War of 1812 broke out and New York City feared another invasion by British ships, the hill was again fortified and renamed Fort Greene in honor of Revolutionary General Nathaniel Greene.
In 1868 famed landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. . . converted the 30 acres of hillside and the old fortress into an elegant public space. In 1873 the remains of the sailors were transferred from the former Jackson estate to a crypt under the stairway of the planned monument.
American Prisoners of the Revolution: Names of 8000 Men
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