Yet, these subjects have all addressed the frigate South Carolina as she voyaged the seas from the Texel in Holland until she was captured by the three British men-of-war just off Cape Henlopen on December 20, 1782. Even some of the officers have had their captivity and parole on Long Island or in New York City addressed, usually as an afterward to their service for the state of South Carolina on board the frigate South Carolina. But, almost nothing has been said of the fate of frigate's enlisted crew and marines after they reached New York City harbor as prisoners-of-war of the British. Thus, the next several posts will be dedicated to this subject.
As has been noted before, there is always a best spot to begin a story - the beginning. At some point after the British had recaptured New York City, in the summer of 1776, the British high command decided to use a small bay along the shores of Long Island, across the East River from Manhattan for their "prison hulks" to hold all the "rebels" (patriots) they were capturing. Today, this site is contained in the New York borough of Brooklyn. In the 18th century, this small, rather insignificant body of water was known as Wallabout Bay. According to Wikipedia (entry for "Wallabout Bay", accessed on 05/15/2015), "Wallabout Bay is a small body of water in Upper New York Bay along the northwest shore of the New York City borough of Brooklyn, between the present Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges, opposite Corlear's Hook on Manhattan to the west, across the East River. Wallabout Bay is now the site of the Brooklyn Navy Yard" (page 1). The article goes on the say that "the name of this curved bay on the western end of 'Lang Eylandt' (Long Island) comes from the Dutch 'Waal bocht', which means 'Wallons' Bend', named for its first European settlers: French immigrants, the Wallons, from what is today Belgium" (page 1).
This was the first location "...on Long Island settled by Europeans when several families of French-speaking Wallons opted to purchase land there in the early 1630s, having arrived in New Netherland in the previous decade" (page 1). Actual settlement of the area began in the mid-1630s when one of the earliest settlers, Joris Jansen Rapelje, traded goods to the Canarsee peoples in exchange for 335 acres of land along Wallabout Bay (page 1). But, Rapelje and the others had to wait "...at least a decade..." before actually beginning settlement of the Wallabout Bay area due to conflict with the tribal peoples of the area needing to be resolved (page 1).
This same article goes on to state the more ominous, deadly nature that this tranquil, small body of water took on in later years. On page 2 of the Wikipedia article, it states that "the area was the site where the infamous British prison ships moored during the American Revolutionary War (most infamous of which was the HMS Jersey), from about 1776-1783. Over 10,000 soldiers and sailors died due to deliberate neglect on these rotting hulks, more American deaths than from every battle of the war combined."
According to the article entitled "History & Tragedy - Prison Ships" by East River NYC.org, page 1, "there were at least 16 of these floating prisons anchored in Wallabout Bay on the East River for most of the war, and they were sinkholes of filth, vermin, infectious disease and despair. The ships were uniformly wretched, but, the most notorious was the Jersey." All of the vessels destined to become floating prisons or "prison hulks" had begun their nautical lives as vessels of the British Royal Navy. This also included the Jersey or, more properly, the HMS Jersey. The HMS Jersey was "built in 1735 as a 64-gun ship..." and used as a ship-of-war by the Royal Navy until the winter of 1779-1780 (East River NYC.org, page 1). At this time, the HMS Jersey was deemed unfit for further duty as a ship-of-war and was "hulked". This process involves the removal of all the vessels masts, rigging, sails, ordinance, and rudder; leaving only a flagstaff and derrick amidships for taking on supplies. The portholes would be sealed shut and replaced "...by a series of small holes, 20 inches square, crossed by two bars of iron" (East River NYC.org, page 1).
The article cited in the above paragraph makes reference to sixteen prison hulks anchored in Wallabout Bay. But, Larry G. Bowman's work, Captive Americans: Prisoners During the American Revolution, (Ohio University Press, 1976), cites the names of more than sixteen prison "hulks". According to Bowman's work, Captive Americans, page 42, "including the Jersey, there is solid evidence of the existence of at least twenty-six ships which were converted into prisons between 1776 and 1782. The names of the ships which records show as having served as prisons were: John, Glasgow, Whitby, Jersey, Preston, Good Intent, Good Hope, Prince of Wales, Grovnor, Falmouth, Strombolo, Lord Dunlace, Scorpion, Judith, Myrtle, Felicity, Chatham, Kitty, Frederick, Woodlands, Scheldt, and Clyde. In addition to these prison ships, three vessels served as hospitals to the New York prison fleet. They were the Hunter, Perseverance, and Bristol Packet. All the foregoing vessels saw service at one time or another in the New York vicinity."
(Note: The name of one of the hospital ships is recorded in the text of Bowman's work, Captive Americans, as the Perserverance which is not a known character trait or even a word in the English language. The writer of this blog is therefore assumes that the original writer of this name meant to write Perseverance instead. The writer of this blog has "corrected" this spelling based on this assumption.)
(Note: The list of British prison "hulks" in New York City harbor contains twenty-two prison ships and three hospital ships for a total of twenty-five ships servicing the captive population of the British from 1776-1783. Yet, Bowman's work, Captive Americans, page 42, states that "...there is solid evidence of the existence of at least twenty-six ships which were converted into prisons between 1776 and 1782." That leaves the list a single ship short of twenty-six prison ships. This may be cleared up through a reference in Lewis's work, Neptune's Militia, page 202 n.14 - "a few crew members ended up prisoners on other ships, such as the Scorpion and Eayd". The Scorpion is listed among the prison ships mentioned above in Bowman's work, Captive Americans. The Eayd is not. If the list should include the names of twenty-six prison ships, then possibly, this is the one ship whose name is missing from the list.)
Bowman's work, Captive Americans, includes a more extensive description of the decommissioning of an ocean-going vessel to that of a prison "hulk". Bowman's work, Captive Americans, states that "a prison ship was not difficult to identify. Once a vessel was fitted out to serve as a prison the outward appearance betrayed its function. The first step toward converting a vessel into a prison, after she was moored at her station, was to remove all her usable fittings. A prison hulk was normally stripped of her rudder, masts, spars, rigging, and other equipment which was not needed by a ship that would never put out to sea again. Aside from the hull, about all that remained of the exterior of the vessel was the flagstaff, bowsprit, and a spar amidship which was used as a derrick to hoist supplies aboard".
Bowman's work, Captive Americans, also points out why the British selected Wallabout Bay for this particular station in the New York City area. It also provides a bit of information concerning what nature or condition of ships were employed as prison ships. Bowman's work, Captive Americans, pages 42-43, states that "the normal practice at New York City, where most of the floating prisons were employed, was to move an obsolete warship or an aging merchantman to a secure but isolated anchorage where it was converted to a prison. A few of the prison vessels, as mentioned before, were anchored in the Hudson and East Rivers, but most of them were situated in Wallabout Bay across from New York City on Long Island. The prime consideration was that the bay was conveniently located, in relation to New York City, for easy access to the hulks for administration purposes. Furthermore, Wallabout Bay, while it was close to the city, was located in such a fashion that the prison fleet riding at anchor there presented little hazard to the heavy harbor traffic. And finally, the bay was large enough that men who tried to escape the prisons had first to cross an expanse of water and mud flats which would make their attempts much more difficult, if not impossible.... So from the security standpoint Wallabout Bay had its merits. At least the British Navy thought so".
(Note: There were other British prison "hulks" located elsewhere in the colonies but, the remarkable nature of this situation is that there were so few other prison ships than those located in New York City harbor. According to Bowman's work, Captive Americans, "after the fall of Charleston, South Carolina, in 1780, two ships named Torbay and Pack-Horse were anchored in Charleston harbor and employed as prisons. Additionally, a ship named the Peter was stationed at St. Lucia in the West Indies to handle naval prisoners too. Very little information about the Torbay, Pack-Horse, and Peter appears to have survived, but fragments of evidence indicate they were similar in appearance and function to the more famous prison ships of New York". Thus, of the twenty-nine prison ships employed by the British in the colonies during the course of the American Revolution from 1776-1783, twenty-six of these prison "hulks" were moored in New York City harbor.)