Robert Watson is a prolific writer and, as a professor, an important voice in academia. He has authored and edited more than 30 books and novels on American politics and history and published hundreds of articles, essays, and editorials. Needless to say, when I found out about his new book, The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn: An Untold Story of the American Revolution, I was itching to speak with him about one of my favorite topics: the American Revolution.
I was able to catch up with him after The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn published on August 15.
Robert Watson on The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn
BAM: What was the HMS Jersey?
The Jersey was a British warship built in 1736. Sleek yet powerful, she was over 144 feet in length and armed with 60 cannons. However, the ship was involved in a few disastrous expeditions and gained a reputation as being cursed. By the time of the American Revolution she was well past her prime; her old wooden planks were rotting and she constantly had to be pumped in order to keep afloat.
BAM: What was the original intended purpose of the Jersey?
The ship was part of the largest British expeditionary force ever to set sail. Their destination: New York City. The massive armada transported the army of General William Howe to His Majesty’s North American colonies in the summer of 1776 for the express purpose of squashing the upstart revolutionaries. The Jersey, by now one of the oldest ships in the fleet, was used as a transport ship. She was likely loaded with supplies, weaponry, and perhaps even horses and cattle.
BAM: How did the change from warship to prison ship happen?
General Howe’s powerful army pushed General Washington’s ragtag forces out of New York City with relative ease and quite quickly. Washington’s troops were on the run—for their lives—across New Jersey and into Pennsylvania. The war looked to be ending and Howe found himself in possession of thousands of American prisoners. The British command also believed the war would be over in months and did not want to spend time, money, or resources building prisons. A good portion of New York City had been burned by the fleeing patriots and the handful of churches, sugar houses, and barns—and two small prisons—still standing in the city proved to be inadequate for the number of prisoners, a number that only grew with each subsequent battle. The decision was made to “hulk” the older warships and transport craft, and convert them into prison ships. One of those to receive this inglorious demotion was the ill-fated Jersey.
BAM: What were the conditions like for those imprisoned on the Jersey?
Wretched! Numerous first-hand accounts from the prisoners who managed to survive the floating dungeon describe being locked in the deep holds of the old ship. The hatches above and portholes along the sides were covered and nailed shut, making it so hot and stagnant in the summer months that the prisoners gasped for air. The holds were infested by lice, rats, and disease—several epidemics tore through the old ship, killing so many prisoners that some survivors described the scourges as a part of her wooden hulls. There was insufficient food, the water was putrid, the waste tub in the center of the hull was rarely emptied and constantly overflowed, and the brutal guards took delight in beating their charges. But perhaps the most unbearable hardship was the severe overcrowding which made even sitting down, much less lying down to sleep, a near impossibility. Each morning, the prisoners who survived the evening were awakened by guards shouting down into the holds, “Rebels, send up your dead!”
BAM: Were there any treaties or agreements about the rights of prisoners of war during the time of the American Revolution?
Yes, however the British command did not recognize them when it came to the Jersey… for a few reasons. One was that most of the prisoners on the old ship were privateers and sailors, not soldiers (or a part of the Continental Army), who the British did not consider to be worthy of humane treatment. They saw their prisoners as criminals. At the same time, pride was a factor. The British fancied themselves masters of the sea and were outraged that the upstart colonials would challenge them—and humiliated when the colonials occasionally bested them—on the high seas. But mostly, the conventions of warfare governing the treatment of prisoners were utterly ignored when it came to Britain’s prison ships because the British concocted a plan to use the Jersey for psychological warfare. It became a weapon of terror designed to deter would-be patriots from picking up arms against His Majesty’s forces… for, if they were captured, they would be taken to the Jersey—and there was only one way off this hellish ship!
BAM: What role did the Jersey, its reputation, and its prisoners play in the American Revolution?
The British believed the Jersey would play a role in helping to end the uprising by deterring— through fear and terror—the revolution. The old hulk was used as propaganda in loyalist newspapers and public announcements. But the plan would end up backfiring. As stories of the inhumanity aboard the ship and unimaginably high death toll came to light—largely through accounts by the few prisoners who managed to escape—and were retold in newspapers and pamphlets (and around dinner tables), the Jersey became a rallying cry for liberty. Incensed by the shocking stories, news of the dreaded prison ship spread throughout the colonies much as had happened before the war with the Boston Massacre.
BAM: Who were some of the people in charge of the Jersey, and how did they contribute to the horrors that took place on the ship?
As if the ship itself was not horrific enough, the men assigned to oversee prisoners and those on the ship in particular were particularly loathsome and sadistic. For instance, Joshua Loring, William Cunningham, and David Sproat, the “jailers” responsible for American prisoners and those aboard the Jersey, were men who lined their own pockets by stealing rations and funds intended for the prisoners. The latter two took a perverse pleasure in torturing their charges; Cunningham personally presided over numerous cold-blooded murders and Sproat once tricked a group of prisoners from the ship about to be exchanged by lacing their final meal with poison. All the men and boys died on their way home.
BAM: How much did the public know about what was happening aboard the Jersey?
Although the shocking story of the Jersey has all but been forgotten by us today, it was actually quite well known during the Revolutionary War, attaining almost a mythical status and becoming a prominent symbol of both British brutality and colonial resistance. Old diaries and letters reveal several instances where an escaped prisoner, while sneaking by night through British-held New York City, would came across a farmer or villager who, based on the ghastly appearance of the escapee, correctly guessed that the person must have been on the Jersey. Other stories abound whereby, as soon as villagers discovered that an escaped prisoner was from the Jersey, their mouths fell open in disbelief—they knew all about the infamous ship! Fellow colonials were quick and eager to render assistance, providing food and clothing to those who survived the dreaded prison ship. In an almost improbable twist, one young boy who escaped the Jersey was found by a woman who, after correctly guessing his fate, told the boy that her husband had recently died on that very ship!
BAM: How did the role of the Jersey and prisoners’ circumstance change as the war came to an end?
The coast of New York City was the very last piece of “real estate” held by the British. As the war was coming to a close, the British abandoned every prison ship but one. They even sold off parts of the other prison ships (through newspaper ads, no less!). But the one ship they never abandoned or even tried to sell until after the peace treaty was the ghostly Jersey. She remained to the bitter end, with no one to man her bilge pumps slowly sinking into the muck off Brooklyn once the British departed on “Evacuation Day.” The only change was that, once it was apparent the peace treaty was in force, the British command began to panic — George Washington informed them that he too held prisoners and that, unless the British treated American prisoners including those on the Jersey with humanity and exchanged them, he would respond in kind!
BAM: What drew you to the story of the Jersey, and why do you think it has been largely forgotten by history?
I am always drawn to “hidden history”—the stories missed by historians and neglected by textbooks. I myself had not heard of this tragedy until I came across it by chance many years into my career, and then knew very little of this story. Any American schoolkid knows about Paul Revere’s midnight ride, the Boston Tea Party, and George Washington crossing the Delaware. These stories have, rightly, become iconic—if not mythical—aspects of the American story. Yet the Jersey had been all but forgotten by history. I was also drawn to this statistic: More men and boys perished aboard the Jersey than died in combat in the entirety of the Revolutionary War— by a factor of two. Twice as many, which therefore makes the Jersey by far the bloodiest “battle” of the entire war. And to think that we had forgotten the horrors suffered and sacrifices made by these prisoners.