Since the first Geneva Convention of 1864, nations have attempted to codify a system of international law, concerning acceptable limits on the conduct of war. These laws address a range of considerations including declarations of war, acceptance of surrender and proper treatment of prisoners.
Such discussions are nothing new, the earliest examples dating to the ancient Sanskrit epic Mahābhārata, and to the old testament (Torah) Book of Deuteronomy. The first Caliph, Abu Bakr, laid down ten rules of warfare for his Muslim army, in the 7th century.
In the New World British colony in North America, one of twenty-seven grievances enumerated in the Declaration of Independence was that King George III “has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions“.
The American Revolution was on its last legs in December 1776. The year had started out well for the Patriot cause but turned into a string of disasters, beginning in August. Food, ammunition and equipment were in short supply by December. Men were deserting as the string of defeats brought morale to a new low. Most of those who remained, ended enlistments at the end of the year.
General George Washington and a force of 5,000 performed the famous crossing of the Delaware River in the howling blizzard of Christmas day, 1776. The assault on the Hessian garrison at Trenton, was do or die. The cause of Independence needed decisive victory, or it was over. The pass word on that frigid night was “Victory”. There was only one acceptable response: “Or Death”.
The tactical surprise was complete in the early morning hours of December 26. Hessian losses were 22 killed, 92 wounded and 918 captured. Only 400 escaped. The Americans suffered two who had frozen to death in the march on Trenton, and five wounded. It was the colonist’s first major victory of the Revolution.
What to do with all those prisoners was a new problem for Washington, who ordered his troops to treat them with humanity. “Let them have no reason to complain of our copying the brutal example of the British army in their treatment of our unfortunate brethren who have fallen into their hands.”
Washington’s position on the treatment of prisoners was clear and consistent. On September 14 of the previous year, the General wrote to Colonel Benedict Arnold then in camp in Cambridge Massachusetts: “Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any [prisoner]…I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require.”
No such consideration was given American prisoners of his Majesty’s government. King George III personally declared American revolutionaries to be traitors in 1775, denying them prisoner of war status. Land based detention facilities in British-occupied cities such as New York, Philadelphia and Charleston quickly filled up when the hulks of spent vessels were brought into service as prison ships, little more than waterlogged coffins.
Conditions on board these prison ships, were gruesome. The stifling hold of HMS Jersey alone held no fewer than 1,000 men in Wallabout Bay, modern-day site of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Authorities were loath to execute detainees for “treason” for fear of inciting sympathy. Prisoners were left instead to wallow in their own filth, starved and tormented by most every disease and parasite, known to modern medicine. The Connecticut Gazette recounted the experience of one Robert Sheffield in July 1778, one of precious few to escape:
The heat was so intense that [the 300-plus prisoners] were all naked, which also served the well to get rid of vermin, but the sick were eaten up alive. Their sickly countenances, and ghastly looks were truly horrible; some swearing and blaspheming; others crying, praying, and wringing their hands; and stalking about like ghosts; others delirious, raving and storming, all panting for breath; some dead, and corrupting. The air was so foul that at times a lamp could not be kept burning, by reason of which the bodies were not missed until they had been dead ten days. One person alone was admitted on deck at a time, after sunset, which occasioned much filth to run into the hold, and mingle with the bilge water …
Bodies of the dead were tossed overboard, ten or fifteen every day from Jersey, alone. Thousands of dead fouled the brackish waters of Wallabout Bay, from which water was drawn to boil “soup” for survivors, more like a toxic sludge, sometimes augmented with moldy bread or rancid meat.
Even after Cornwallis’ surrender in 1781, prisoners languished in the holds of Jersey and other Hell ships until the Treaty of Paris formally ended the war, in 1783.
A host of place names enter the popular imagination, when we think of the American Revolution. Bunker Hill. Trenton. Saratoga. Yorktown. British and American forces and their allies fought no fewer than seventy-one major engagements from the April 19, 1775 battles of Lexington and Concord, to the 1783 Battle of Arkansas Post. The prison ships of the British killed more Americans than every one of them, combined.
Thousands of remains washed up on the shores of Brooklyn. Bones were still being found in 1801, during construction of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Locals collected as many as they could for burial in a local tomb. The bones were eventually moved to a crypt in Fort Greene Park, a half-mile south of Wallabout Bay. Today, a 149-foot martyrs memorial topped with an eight-ton bronze brazier marks the location of their Fort Greene crypt.
In eight years, an estimated eleven to twelve thousand men perished of the filth, abuse, neglect and disease of these Hell Ships. Untold thousands more passed through their stinking holds, and lived to tell the tale.
That such men ever lived, may be counted among the blessings of Liberty.
Brooklyn Parks Commissioner Martin “Marty” Maher is quoted in Smithsonian.com: “These were ordinary citizens, fighting for a country that had barely been born. Every man was offered freedom if he would swear to stop fighting. But there’s no record that anyone took up the offer. No prisoner renounced the revolution to gain his freedom. Not one.”