The Prison Ship Martyrs Monument that stands today in the center of Fort Greene Park is a 1908 memorial to the 11,000 men, women and children who died in horrid conditions on the British Prison Ships during the Revolutionary War. The Monument, which is sometimes referred to as the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, stands in the center of what was then called Fort Putnam, named after Gernal Putnam. The Monument you see today is actually the third incarnation of this sacred shrine. The story of the horrid Prison Ships – and the ghastly conditions suffered by the men, women & children imprisoned on them during the Revolutionary War – is one of the most disturbing chapters in American history.
Click Here to View the Monument to the Prison Ship Martyrs
During the American Revolutionary War, which began in 1775, the British arrested scores of soldiers, sailors, and private citizens on both land and sea. Many were imprisoned simply because they would not swear allegiance to the Crown of England. Besides American civilians and resistance fighters, the British captured the crews of foreign ships on the high seas, especially Spanish vessels. The apprehended soldiers, sailors and civilians were deemed by the British to be prisoners of war and were incarcerated. When the British ran out of jail space to house their POWs they began using decommissioned or damaged ships that were anchored in Wallabout Bay as floating prisons.
Life was unbearable on the prison ships, the most notorious of them being the Old Jersey – which was called “Hell” by the inhabitants. Disease was rampant, food and water were scarce or nonexistent, and the living conditions were horrendously overcrowded and wretched. If one had money they could purchase food from the many entrepreneurs who rowed up to the boat to sell their wares. Otherwise, the meager rations would consist of sawdust laden bread or watery soup.
A great number of the captives died from disease and malnutrition. Their emaciated bodies were either thrown overboard or buried in shallow graves in the sandy marshes of Wallabout Bay. Even thought the British surrendered at Yorktown. Virginia in 1782, the surving prisoners were not freed until 1783, when the British abandoned New York City . (A footnote: after the war, the British Commander in charge of the Prison Ships was brought up on war crimes charges and was subsequently hanged.)
In the years following the war the bones of the patriots would regularly wash up along the shores of Brooklyn and Long Island. These remains were collected by Brooklynites with the hopes of creating a permanent resting place for the remains of the brave Prison Ship Martyrs. In the early 1880’s the first Martyrs Monument monument was erected by the Tammany Society of New York. It was located on a triangular plot of land near the Brooklyn Navy Yard waterfront in what is now called Vinegar Hill.
By the 1840s, the original monument was in a state of disrepair and neglect. By 1873 a large stone crypt was constructed in the heart of what is now Fort Greene Park (then called Washington Park), and the bones were re-interred in the crypt. A small monument was erected on the hill above the crypt.
By the close of the 19th century, funds were finally raised for a grander more fitting monument for the Prison Ship Martyrs. The prestigious architectural firm of McKim. Meade and White was commissioned to design the large 148 ft. tower which stands today in the park. It was unveiled in 1908 with a grand ribbon-cutting ceremony presided over by President Taft. The monument originally housed a staircase and elevator to the top observation deck, which featured a lighted urn and beacon of light which could be seen for miles. The elevator was operational until the 1930s when it, and the monument, fell into disrepair due to a shortage of public funds, neglect and lack of community interest. The elevator was eventually removed by the city in the early 1970s.
Renovation of Prison Ship Martyrs Memorial Will Light Up Fort Greene Park
By DANIELA GERSON
Staff Reporter of the Sun
May 25, 2005
As part of a $3 million reconstruction project, the park’s Prison Ship Martyrs Memorial will be restored to its prior glory. The aging 147-foot granite obelisk, towering over the ginkgo trees that line the park’s central slope, will be illuminated for the first time in 60 years. A new spiral staircase will be built inside the memorial, and some of the bronze eagles – removed from the base in the late 1970s after one was stolen – will be replaced.
Among the city’s most remarkable monuments, the Prison Ship Martyrs Memorial was designed at different times by the two most important landscape-architecture firms in the city’s history: Olmsted, Vaux & Co. and McKim, Mead, and White.
The memorial pays tribute to the soldiers and civilians who perished in Wallabout Bay after the English demanded that Americans surrender to the crown. Those who refused were taken as prisoners of war and held captive on ships where they died at a rate of 10 to 12 a day, according to John Krawchuk, who is heading the reconstruction project for the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation.
Long after the war ended, the bones of the dead, who had been buried in shallow graves along the East River, washed up on the shores of Brooklyn. Residents collected them and eventually created an initial memorial in the early 19th century at the Brooklyn Navy Yard for those who perished aboard the prison ships.
In the 1840s, a celebrated Brooklyn resident, the editor and poet Walt Whitman, spearheaded the construction of Fort Greene Park. In 1867, the designers of Central and Prospect parks, Olmsted, Vaux & Company, redesigned Fort Greene Park, and in a stone wall, halfway up the stairs that now face the Fort Greene housing projects, a crypt for the remains of the prison ship victims was installed.
In the first decade of the 20th century, McKim, Mead, and White, the firm that also designed Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn and parts of Columbia University, was commissioned to create an obelisk in tribute. That was to be the last design for the firm, which was considered the premier architecture company at the time. Stanford White, after a day of working on the monument, was slain in Manhattan by a lover’s husband. The plans went ahead nonetheless and, in 1908, President Taft traveled to Fort Greene for an official ribbon-cutting ceremony.
The obelisk towered over Brooklyn. Until the 1930s, visitors could take elevator rides up to the top to get impressive views of Manhattan. In the ensuing years, however, the park slowly decayed and, by the 1970s, graffiti covered much of the base of the monument and vandalism was taking its toll.
“When it was built, 40,000 people came to the opening ceremony,” a former president of the Society of Old Brooklynites, Frank Spinner, said. Whitman was a member of the society. Now, Mr. Spinner said, his group is lucky to get 200 at its annual rededication of the site. “It should be getting much more attention because these people died horribly, and the monument is the only thing that remembers them,” he said.
In 1986, the monument and the park were featured prominently in the independent feature film “She’s Gotta Have It” by director Spike Lee, who was then a resident of Fort Greene.
Since the 1990s, Fort Greene has seen a real estate boom, and various organizations have focused on improving the park. The Fort Greene Park Conservancy contributed $300,000 for the conservation of the bronze brazier atop the obelisk through a state grant.
Veterans groups, too, have been actively lobbying for restoration of the monument and the eagles that were said either to be in storage in Queens or used as interior decorating for a city official.
The Parks Department expects to begin work on the monument in the fall and the project should take 18 months, Mr. Krawchuk said at a meeting Monday night of the Fort Greene Association.
Read more about the restoration project.