Prisoner of War Ships

Willard Randall tells us that in April, 1778 while on Washington’s staff, Alexander Hamilton drafted “A Treaty and convention for the Exchange and accommodation of Prisoners of War.” The British held Continental Army soldiers prisoners on ships in the East River. A New York Times book forum late last year corrected the location from Kips Bay to Wallabout Bay near the present Brooklyn Navy Yard. The writer uses a Latin name Tanatopsis, just as Hamilton and Burr’s colleagues did 200 year ago when they wanted to publish anonymously.  He described for moderator Robert Whalen and me a source for Wallabout Bay. From another source, we are told:

The greatest suffering in the cause of American liberty was endured in the prison ships in Wallabout Bay. Estimates of the dead from the prison ships exceed 11,000 -- nearly triple the 4,400 Americans who died in all the battles of the revolution.
The Americans were taken prisoner during the Battle of Long Island, the retreat from New York, and especially at the fall of Fort Washington. Others were captured on ships.
With the available buildings on land overflowing with prisoners, the British anchored old ships in the bay to serve as prisons.  The Jersey, the most notorious ship, housed as many as 1,000 men. The starving and freezing men suffered from small pox and many other diseases.  The Americans could obtain their freedom by pledging loyalty to the king. Few did. Each morning, the bodies were carried from the ship and buried in shallow trenches on the Brooklyn shore.  The martyrs are honored by a monument in nearby Fort Greene Park.

Robert Whalen also discussed the slave ships arriving from Africa to New York ten years later. Young attorneys Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton would go to the docks as volunteer workers for the Manumission Society, whose charter Hamilton wrote. As the ships would arrive, both sued for freedom of the slaves they could help. They won 34 of 36 cases, and then set up schools to teach black children their rights. John Jay was also active here. In 1785 Burr was the New York assemblyman who was inactive for the most part except that he introduced legislation to outlaw slavery in New York. The assembly bill wanted NY to gradually stop slavery.  Burr tried to amend the bill to say No we immediately abolish all slavery now. It failed that time, but passed at a future session.


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