I was privileged to attend a special opening of the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, NY, on Friday, January 7, 2000. The monument was opened for a film maker, members of the Brooklyn National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (NSDAR) and some descendents of Benjamin Romaine. A New Jersey militia soldier during the Revolution and a leading figure in the early Tammany Society, Benjamin Romaine agitated in the early nineteenth century to properly bury the "Prison Ship Martyrs."
During the American Revolution, the British imprisoned many Americans (mostly, but not entirely soldiers fighting in the cause of independence) in various make-shift prisons around the then-city of New York. These included the notorious Sugar House on Manhattan, and various retired naval vessels anchored in Wallabout Bay (incorporated into the current Brooklyn Navy Yard). The most notorious of these was the New Jersey, and as a consequence they were often called the "Jersey Prison Ships." Conditions in the eleven or so vessels were horrendous and men died every day. After the war, the death rate in the prisons was estimated at more than 10,000. (Not all authorities agree on the numbers, but the totals were high; the most commonly cited number is 11,500. However, Howard Metzer writing in 1973 called this number "propaganda", while Stiles, cited below, appears to suggest that this number comes from a 1783 newspaper source attacking the British.) This is an appalling number, considering that a typical "large" army in the Revolution might number 8,000-12,000. Post-war memoirs by prisoners were particularly bitter towards Loyalist prison keepers, who were more brutal than either British or Hessian soldiers.
I have organized a page of links concerning history of the Prison Ships, the Memorial, and more generally Brooklyn. Some particularly notable sites concerning the history of the Prison Ships include:
"Prison Ships" excerpted from Henry R. Stiles's A History of the City of Brooklyn (1867, 1868 and 1870), online as graphic images of each page, maintained by email@example.com http://www.panix.com/~cassidy/MartyrIndex.html. This is quite long.
The last entry, edited by Stiles, describes the desire of individual New Yorkers to commemorate the martyrs. Among those individuals a former school teacher and cordwainer turned politician named Benjamin Romaine. (Present author is no relation.) Romaine agitated in the early years of the nineteenth century for a monument to recognize the dead prisoners, whose bones often would lay exposed at low tide in Wallabout Bay.
Benjamin Romaine is buried in the tomb. This is family tradition, and New York City Parks Department workers point to an unmarked casket strewn with flowers that they say is his. There is documentation for this burial, but I do not have it. (I am not related to Benjamin, although the Romaine name is not very common.)
Fort Greene in Brooklyn is one of the oldest continuously operated parks in the City of New York. (Although prior to consolidation in 1898, the Park was run by the City of Brooklyn.) The Park is located near Brooklyn Hospital Center, and is fairly urban. Some of the homes on the side of the Park away from Manhattan appear to be nineteenth century walk-ups. According to literature I received from the Parks Department, Walt Whitman is said to have lived in the neighborhood.
The monument is sited within the Park. The crypt is located between two sets of stairs leading up to the great Martyr's monument, the McKim-Mead pillar is on the top of the hill. The pillar rises over 140 feet in height and would need 15-20 people holding hands to encircle. The stairway to the top is not open to the public.
The steps look out towards lower Manhattan. From the top of the hill, you can clearly see the World Trade Center and the towers of the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. Due to the growth of trees and taller buildings in the area, the view of lower Manhattan is somewhat reduced than it was in 1908. That hill (although reshaped by Calvert Vaux in the 1860s) must have been a formidable, if exposed position, when Washington and his troops tried holding it against the British in 1776.
The exterior of the crypt is granite. The crypt's entrance lies between the two sets of stairs and is kept sealed. Inside the vault the floor is concrete while the walls and ceiling are built from a bisque-colored brick. One enters the crypt through a copper-clad door (which has a steel plate sealed over it for protection), three or so steps down, then a short passageway perhaps 15 feet into the hill. 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. Condition of the crypt itself seemed quite good. There was minor dust and cobwebs. It is very plain -- an almost republican simplicity and austereness. I could see no visible inscriptions inside. The slate coffin identified as Benjamin Romaine's is located to the right, bottom row, center.
The Park workers had raised the lid of the coffin of Benjamin Romaine. Using an electric torch lamp from the Parks Department, we were permitted to peer in. The interior of the coffin appeared to have once contained a wooden coffin, that had partially collapsed. (I'm sorry about terminology here.) I am a bit hard-pressed to identify what I saw. I saw what appeared to be the dried remnants of small bouquets of flowers, including a carnation near the far end of the slate coffin, and some roses.
Centennial Celebration of the Prison Ships Martyrs Monument – a project currently planned for Nov. 14-Nov. 16th 2008! Visit www.fortgreenepark.org for the latest news about the celebration as well as news about the restoration of the monument.
© 1999-2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2008 Paul W. Romaine