The Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument

Places: Fort Greene Park

I live at the corner of Fort Greene Park in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn. Every day on my walk to the subway, I pass the park and its giant central monument. I can see the monument through the window and, at night, it glows like a lantern. I think most modern-day residents of Fort Greene (like me!) probably don’t know the full history of the monument, though it becomes a part of our daily lives as our days play out around it. Ever curious, I wanted to learn more – and the little-known history of the monument turns out to be a fascinating study in memorialization and memorial-building from the 18th century through the present day.

During the American Revolutionary War, New York was a Loyalist stronghold and a base of operations for the British. There were 16 British prison ships used to detain prisoners of war on the New York Harbor, in Wallabout Bay at the site of what is now the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Following the end of the war in 1783, the remains of the soldiers who died on these prison ships were neglected and left to lie along the Brooklyn shore.

View of New York from the Brooklyn Navy Yard  View of New York from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, 1860.
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

The remains of the prison ship martyrs and the question of how to memorialize the sacrifice of these men first became a public issue in 1803 – the same year that the Federalist political party erected a statue to George Washington and thus took up memorial-building as a political act. The Republican response to this act was to call for a grand ceremonial re-interment of the prisoners’ remains, not emphasizing the construction of a monument, but rather something more suited to the “common man.” The Tammany Society formed the Wallabout Committee in 1808 for this purpose. In 1808, Tammany and the Republicans went further with their political exploitation of this issue by emphasizing their plans for re-interment as part of their campaign to bolster anti-British sentiment after the Embargo Act.

In his book Until the Last Man Comes Home, published in 2009, Michael J. Allen discusses the taking-up of the prison martyr’s interment as a politically-loaded cause.

“Buried in shallow graves or left to rot in the open air, [the bodies of the prison ship martyrs] languished for decades, with ‘skulls and feets, arms and legs, sticking out of the crumbling bank in the wildest disorder.’ Lone voices made sporadic calls to reinter the bones, but property owners refused and petitions to Congress were rejected.

“Not until 1808 did the New York State legislature grant the Tammany Society $1,000 to bury the prison ship dead. The act was less a sign of blooming nationalism than a measure of the intense partisanship of the early republic. With President Thomas Jefferson’s Embargo Act threatening the political fortunes of Jeffersonians in the seaport of New York, the Tammany ceremony stoked anti-British, anti-Tory, anti-Federalist fires among workingmen by recalling the common soldiers and sailors whose revolutionary sacrifices had been forgotten as Federalists promoted the memory of Washington over radical patriots.”

The first tomb for the prison ship martyrs was located near the Brooklyn Navy Yard in what is now the neighborhood of Vinegar Hill. The Republicans did get their grand re-interment ceremony in May of 1808.

The first tomb on Hudson Avenue in Vinegar Hill. From Whitman’s Brooklyn.

However, little was done to repair or upkeep the vault. Eventually, the original monument was in a state of disrepair and neglect. In 1839, a survivor of the prison ships took up the cause to repair the tomb and build a monument around it, but he died in 1844 and was buried in the tomb and not much seemed to happen for another several decades.

Fort Greene Park, then called Washington Park, was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux in 1867. Almost immediately after the park opened, an appropriation of $6,500 was established for a new mausoleum to inter the prison ship martyr’s remains and a 25 by 11 foot brick mausoleum was constructed.

The remains of the prisoners were moved from the first tomb to the new site in 1873. Twenty-two boxes, containing a mere fraction of total volume of remains, were interred in the vault. The front of the tomb had the following inscription: “SACRED TO THE MEMORY, OF OUR SAILORS, SOLDIERS AND CITIZENS, WHO SUFFERED AND DIED ON BOARD BRITISH PRISON SHIPS IN THE WALLABOUT DURING THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION”.

Towards the end of the 19th century, a diverse group of interests including the federal government, municipal and state governments, private societies, and donors, began a campaign for a permanent monument to the prison ship martyrs. Congress, together with local funds, financed construction of the monument that is there today.

In 1905, the renowned architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White was hired to design a new entrance to the crypt and a wide granite stairway leading to a terrace on top of the hill. The monument’s construction was finished in 1908, to mark the 100th anniversary of the original re-interment. President-elect William Howard Taft attended the monument’s dedication on November 14, 1908, which was attended by 20,000 people despite the freezing rain.

New Entrance to Fort Greene Park, Showing the Prison-Ship Martyrs' Monument, Brooklyn, N. Y.Valentine & Sons, New Entrance to Fort Greene Park, ca. 1910.
From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

The memorial is a grand terrace, with 100 steps leading up to it. In the center of the terrace is a freestanding Doric column crowned by a bronze lantern. There are granite eagles at each corner of the terrace.

From President Taft’s speech at the dedication ceremony:

“Efforts from time to time have been made to put into permanent form an expression of the gratitude of this Government and its people to those who thus offered up their lives rather than be unfaithful to their country’s cause, but not until now by Governmental aid has a suitable testimonial been reared in memory of those heroes and martyrs.”

As a resident of Fort Greene, I know that most people who live in the neighborhood think of the monument as more of a neighborhood landmark than a monument to fallen soldiers. I would venture to guess that most residents are not aware of the monument’s fascinating history – or the contents of the tomb. It is truly still one of New York City’s hidden histories – and worth a visit!

Visiting Fort Greene Park on a weekend morning is a delight, and one that I am lucky to do a lot since I live only a block from the park. Get an iced latte at local cafe Bittersweet and, if you’re up for it, one of their Dough donuts (yum!) and walk them over to the park for a little outdoor breakfast. If you’re not a morning person, consider a to-go lunch from Humo Smokehouse instead (I like the pulled pork!). A perfect outing if you ask me…and one surrounded by a lengthy and complex history of memorial-building that goes all the way back to the American Revolution.

From Brooklyn,

Lovely comments

  1. Rita Mcmenamin says

    Interesting story of the Monument in ft. Greene park. I lived there years ago and wasn’t aware of the entire history behind it. Thanks for sharing….



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