During the American Revolution, thousands of American soldiers, sailors, and civilians perished aboard British prison ships anchored near New York City. Captured during the Battle of Brooklyn or in other military engagements fought in what is now the city, Americans were crowded aboard rotting British ships moored in Wallabout Bay, a shallow cove on the Brooklyn side of the East River. Here they endured appalling conditions and died in vast numbers, their bodies then hastily buried on nearby beaches. The actual death toll cannot be reconstructed from surviving records, but it is estimated as many as 12,000 Americans perished aboard the British prison ships during the seven years of the Revolution—almost twice the number believed to have been killed in action during the war.
After the war ended, human remains littered the sandy shores of Wallabout Bay, washed out of the shallow gravesites of those who had become known as the prison ship martyrs. Many bones appeared on property owned by John Jackson, a politician and member of the Tammany Society. Jackson donated a piece of land from his estate for a tomb and memorial site for the remains of the prison ship martyrs. On this small triangular lot, situated on what is now Hudson Avenue, between York and Front Streets and adjacent to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the Tammany Society built a burial vault where they interred, in 1808, 13 coffins filled with the remains of the prison ship dead that had been collected from the beaches of Wallabout Bay.
Although the 1808 interment was accompanied by great fanfare and public excitement, plans to erect a suitable memorial at the vault never materialized, and the tomb was soon forgotten and allowed to deteriorate. In 1828, Benjamin Romaine—a Tammany leader who had himself been a Revolutionary War prisoner—acquired the site. He erected an ante-chamber over the vault, added decorations and inscriptions, and, in hopes of preventing future desecration, appropriated the tomb as a burial place for himself and his family. However, following Romaine’s 1844 death, the prison ship martyrs tomb again fell into disrepair and obscurity.
Around this same time, nearby Fort Greene (originally Fort Putnam, constructed in 1776), was turned into a public park and in 1867 landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux (designers of Central and Prospect Parks) were engaged to redesign the park and create a new tomb for the remains of the prison ship martyrs. In 1873 workmen quietly transferred the coffins from the original prison ship martyrs crypt to the new tomb built into the middle of a series of terraces created in the northwest part of the park. Facing the corner of Myrtle Avenue and St. Edwards Street, the crypt was surrounded by a granite mausoleum, 10 feet high, 30 feet long, and 15 feet wide and embellished with pillars and fretwork. Though the mausoleum still lacked a monument memorializing the prison ship dead, these patriots were no longer forgotten, as services at the “tomb of the martyrs” in Fort Greene Park became part of Brooklyn’s Memorial Day ceremonies for the remainder of the 19th century.
In 1905 the renowned architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White was hired to design a new entrance to the crypt and transform the terrace into a wide granite stairway leading to a plaza on top of the hill. At the center of the plaza would be a 149-foot Doric column honoring the prison ship martyrs, designed by esteemed architect Stanford White. On November 14, 1908, some 40,000 people stood in a storm of sleet and snow in Fort Greene Park as the folds of a massive American flag, more than 200 feet long, fell slowly away from the towering granite shaft during the monument’s dedication ceremony.
At the center of the grand staircase below the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument is the entrance to the crypt where the patriots are entombed. Beyond a bronze door, a short passageway leads to a room lined with 22 bluestone caskets that hold the remains of the prison ship martyrs collected in the early 1800s along Wallabout Bay as well as bones unearthed in later years. Although the crypt is occasionally opened for historic tours, it is generally closed to the public. Speaking at the opening of the new Visitors Center at Fort Greene Park in 2006, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough called the Prison Ship Martyrs Tomb one of the most sacred Revolutionary War sites in the country and, like Arlington National Cemetery, a place that every American should visit.
Sources: Johnson’s Diagram of the Wallabout Bay &c. from 1776 to 1783; Dripps’ 1869 Map of the City of Brooklyn; A History of the City of Brooklyn including the Old Town and Village of Brooklyn, the Town of Bushwick, and the Village and City of Williamsburgh, Vol 1 (Stiles 1867); [Yesterday at the Wallabout], Public Advertiser, Apr 7, 1808; “Arrangement for the Grand and Solemn Funeral Procession,” American Citizen, May 24, 1808; “Tomb of the Patriot Prisoners,” Long Island Star, Jul 8, 1839; “Martyrs’ Monument, Brooklyn Union, Apr 11, 1873; “The Prison-Ship Martyrs,” New York Times, Jun 19, 1873; “Revolutionary Martyrs,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 18, 1873; “Not Forgotten!” Brooklyn Times Union, May 30, 1887; “Where History Lies Entombed,” Brooklyn Citizen, Feb 27, 1898; “Centenary of First Tomb of Prison Ship Martyrs,” Brooklyn Standard Union, Jun 16, 1907; “Nation Honors Martyred Dead,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Nov 15, 1908; “Resurrecting Patriots, and Their Park,” New York Times, Sep 23, 1995; Encyclopedia of New York City, 2nd ed. (Jackson et al 2010); 1776 (McCullough 2005); Martyrs Monument/Monument Lot, Block 44, Lot 14, Brooklyn: Memo Report on Archaeological Investigations (Geismar 2003); Fort Greene Park Archaeological Assessment (Geismar 2005); Archaeological Documentary Study: Rose Plaza on the River (AKRF 2007); Phase IA Cultural Resources Investigation for Admiral’s Row Section, Former Brooklyn Navy Yard (Panamerican Consultants, Inc. 2008); Prison Ship Martyrs Monument/Fort Greene Park Visitor Center historical panels, New York City Parks & Recreation