American Prisoners of The Revolution
BY DANSKE DANDRIDGE
THE EXPERIENCE OF EBENEZER FOX
Ebenezer Fox, a prisoner on board the Jersey, wrote a little book about his dreadful experiences when he was a very old man. The book was written in 1838, and published by Charles Fox in Boston in 1848. Ebenezer Fox was born in the East Parish of Roxbury, Mass., in 1763. In the spring of 1775 he and another boy named Kelly ran away to sea. Fox shipped as a cabin boy in a vessel commanded by Captain Joseph Manchester
. He made several cruises and returned home. In 1779 he enlisted, going as a substitute for the barber to whom he was apprenticed. His company was commanded by Captain William Bird of Boston in a regiment under Colonel Proctor. Afterwards he signed ship's papers and entered the naval service on a twenty gun ship called the Protector, Captain John F. Williams of Massachusetts. On the lst of April, 1780, they sailed for a six months cruise, and on the ninth of June, 1780, fought the Admiral Duff until she took fire and blew up. A short time afterwards the Protector was captured by two English ships called the Roebuck and Mayday.
Fox concealed fifteen dollars in the crown of his hat, and fifteen more in the soles of his shoes.
All the prisoners were sent into the hold. One third of the crew of the Protector were pressed into the British service. The others were sent to the Jersey. Evidently this prison ship had already become notorious, for Fox writes: "The idea of being incarcerated in this floating pandemonium filled us with horror, but the ideas we had formed of its horror fell far short of the reality. * * * The Jersey was removed from the East River, and moored with chain cables at the Wallabout in consequence of the fears entertained that the sickness which prevailed among the prisoners might spread to the shore. * * * I now found myself in a loathsome prison, among a collection of the most wretched and disgusting looking objects that I ever beheld in human form.
"Here was a motley crew, covered with rags and filth; visages pallid with disease; emaciated with hunger and anxiety; and hardly retaining a trace of their original appearance. Here were men, who had once enjoyed life while riding over the mountain wave or roaming through pleasant fields, full of health and vigor, now shrivelled by a scanty and unwholesome diet, ghastly with inhaling an impure atmosphere, exposed to contagion; in contact with disease, and surrounded with the horrors of sickness, and death. Here, thought I, must I linger out the morning of my life" (he was seventeen) "in tedious days and sleepless nights, enduring a weary and degrading captivity, till death should terminate my sufferings, and no friend will know of my departure.
"A prisoner on board the 'Old Jersey!' The very thought was appalling. I could hardly realize my situation.
"The first thing we found it necessary to do after our capture was to form ourselves into small parties called messes, consisting of six in each, as previous to doing this, we could obtain no food. All the prisoners were obliged to fast on the first day of their arrival, and seldom on the second could they obtain any food in season for cooking it. * * * All the prisoners fared alike; officers and sailors received the same treatment on board of this old hulk. * * * We were all 'rebels.' The only distinction known among us was made by the prisoners themselves, which was shown in allowing those who had been officers previous to their captivity, to congregate in the extreme afterpart of the ship, and to keep it exclusively to themselves as their place of abode. * * * The prisoners were confined in the two main decks below. The lowest dungeon was inhabited by those prisoners who were foreigners, and whose treatment was more severe than that of the Americans.
"The inhabitants of this lower region were the most miserable and disgusting looking objects that can be conceived. Daily washing in salt water, together with their extreme emaciation, caused the skin to appear like dried parchment. Many of them remained unwashed for weeks; their hair long, and matted, and filled with vermin; their beards never cut except occasionally with a pair of shears, which did not improve their comeliness, though it might add to their comfort. Their clothes were mere rags, secured to their bodies in every way that ingenuity could devise.
"Many of these men had been in this lamentable condition for two years, part of the time on board other prison ships; and having given up all hope of ever being exchanged, had become resigned to their situation. These men were foreigners whose whole lives had been one continual scene of toil, hardship, and suffering. Their feelings were blunted; their dispositions soured; they had no sympathies for the world; no home to mourn for; no friends to lament for their fate. But far different was the condition of the most numerous class of prisoners, composed mostly of young men from New England, fresh from home.
"They had reason to deplore the sudden change in their condition. * * * The thoughts of home, of parents, brothers, sisters, and friends, would crowd upon their minds, and brooding on what they had been, and what they were, their desire for home became a madness. The dismal and disgusting scene around; the wretched objects continually in sight; and 'hope deferred which maketh the heart sick', produced a state of melancholy that often ended in death,--the death of a broken heart."
Fox describes the food and drink, the prison regulations, deaths, and burials, just as they were described by Captain Dring, who wrote the fullest account of the Jersey, and from whose memoirs we shall quote further on. He says of their shallow graves in the sand of the Wallabout: "This was the last resting place of many a son and a brother,--young and noble-spirited men, who had left their happy homes and kind friends to offer their lives in the service of their country. * * * Poor fellows! They suffered more than their older companions in misery. They could not endure their hopeless and wearisome captivity:--to live on from day to day, denied the power of doing anything; condemned to that most irksome and heart-sickening of all situations, utter inactivity; their restless and impetuous spirits, like caged lions, panted to be free, and the conflict was too much for endurance, enfeebled and worn out as they were with suffering and confinement. * * * The fate of many of these unhappy victims must have remained forever unknown to their friends; for in so large a number, no exact account could be kept of those who died, and they rested in a nameless grave; while those who performed the last sad rites were hurried away before their task was half completed, and forbid to express their horror and indignation at this insulting negligence towards the dead. * * * "
The regular crew of the Jersey consisted of a Captain, two Mates, a steward, a cook, and about twelve sailors. There was likewise on board a guard of about thirty soldiers, from the different regiments quartered on Long Island, who were relieved by a fresh party every week.
"The physical force of the prisoners was sufficient at any time to take possession of the ship, but the difficulty was to dispose of themselves after a successful attempt. Long Island was in possession of the British, and the inhabitants were favorable to the British cause. To leave the ship and land on the island, would be followed by almost certain detection; and the miseries of our captivity would be increased by additional cruelties heaped upon us from the vindictive feelings of our oppressors.
"Yet, small as was the chance for succeeding in the undertaking, the attempt to escape was often made, and in not a few instances with success.
"Our sufferings were so intolerable, that we felt it to be our duty to expose ourselves to almost any risk to obtain our liberty. To remain on board of the prison ship seemed to be certain death, and in its most horrid form; to be killed, while endeavoring to get away, could be no worse.
"American prisoners are proverbial for their ingenuity in devising ways and means to accomplish their plans, whether they be devised for their own comfort and benefit, or for the purpose of annoying and tormenting their keepers.
"Although we were guarded with vigilance yet there did not appear much system in the management of the prisoners; for we frequently missed a whole mess from our number, while their disappearance was not noticed by our keepers. Occasionally a few would be brought back who had been found in the woods upon Long Island, and taken up by the Tories.
"Our mess one day noticed that the mess that occupied the place next to them were among the missing. This circumstance led to much conjecture and inquiry respecting the manner in which they had effected their escape. By watching the movements of our neighbors we soon found out the process necessary to be adopted.
"Any plan which a mess had formed they kept a secret among their number, in order to insure a greater prospect of success. * * * For the convenience of the officers of the ship a closet, called the "round house", had been constructed under the forecastle, the door of which was kept locked. This room was seldom used, there being other conveniences in the ship preferable to it.
"Some of the prisoners had contrived to pick the lock of the door; and as it was not discovered the door remained unfastened.
"After we had missed our neighbor prisoners, and had ascertained to our satisfaction their mode of operation, the members of our mess determined to seize the first opportunity that offered to attempt our escape. We selected a day, about the 15th of August, and made all the preparations in our power for ensuring us success in our undertaking. At sunset, when the usual cry from the officer of the guard, 'Down, rebels, down!' was heard, instead of following the multitude down the hatchways, our mess, consisting of six, all Americans, succeeded in getting into the 'round house', except one. The round house was found too small to contain more than five; and the sixth man, whose name, I think, was Putnam of Boston, concealed himself under a large tub, which happened to be lying near the place of our confinement. The situation of the five, as closely packed in the round house as we could stand and breathe, was so uncomfortable as to make us very desirous of vacating it as soon as possible.
"We remained thus cooped up, hardly daring to breathe, for fear we should be heard by the guard. The prisoners were all below, and no noise was heard above, saving the tramp of the guard as he paced the deck. It was customary, after the prisoners were secured below, for the ship's mate every night to search above; this, however, was considered a mere formality, and the duty was very imperfectly executed. While we were anxiously awaiting the completion of this service, an event transpired, that we little anticipated, and which led to our detection.
"One of the prisoners, an Irishman, had made his arrangements to escape the same evening, and had not communicated with any one on the subject except a countryman of his, whom he persuaded to bury him up in the coal hole, near the forecastle.
"Whether his friend covered him faithfully or not, or whether the Irishman thought that if he could not see anybody, nobody could see him, or whether, feeling uncomfortable in his position, he turned over to relieve himself, I know not; but when the mate looked in the coal hole he espied something rather whiter than the coal, which he soon ascertained to be the Irishman's shoulder. This discovery made the officer suspicious, and induced him to make a more thorough search than usual.
"We heard the uproar that followed the discovery, and the threats of the mate that he would search every damned corner. He soon arrived at the round house, and we heard him ask a soldier for the key. Our hopes and expectations were a little raised when we heard the soldier reply, 'There is no need of searching this place, for the door is kept constantly locked.'
"But the mate was not to be diverted from his purpose, and ordered the soldier to get the key.
"During the absence of the soldier, we had a little time to reflect upon the dangers of our situation; crowded together in a space so small as not to admit of motion; with no other protection than the thickness of a board; guarded on the outside by about twelve soldiers, armed with cutlasses, and the mate, considerably drunk, with a pistol in each hand, threatening every moment to fire through;--our feelings may be more easily conceived than described. There was but little time for deliberation; something must be immediately done. * * * In a whispered consultation of some moments, we conceived that the safest course we could pursue would be to break out with all the violence we could exercise, overcome every obstacle, and reach the quarter-deck. By this time the soldier had arrived with the key, and upon applying it, the door was found to be unlocked. We now heard our last summons from the mate, with imprecations too horrible to be repeated, and threatening us with instant destruction if we did not immediately come out.
"To remain any longer where we were would have been certain death to some of us; we therefore carried our hastily formed plan into execution. The door opened outwards, and forming ourselves into a solid body, we burst open the door, rushed out pellmell, and making a brisk use of our fists, knocked the guard heels over head in all directions, at the same time running with all possible speed for the quarter-deck. As I rushed out, being in the rear, I received a wound from a cutlass on my side, the scar of which remains to this day.
"As nearly all the guards were prostrated by our unexpected sally, we arrived at our destined place, without being pursued by anything but curses and threats.
"The mate exercised his authority to protect us from the rage of the soldiers, who were in pursuit of us, as soon as they had recovered from the prostration into which they had been thrown; and, with the assistance of the Captain's mistress, whom the noise had brought upon deck, and whose sympathy was excited when she saw we were about to be murdered: she placed herself between us and the enraged guard, and made such an outcry as to bring the Captain" (Laird) "up, who ordered the guard to take their station at a little distance and to watch us narrowly. We were all put in irons, our feet being fastened to a long bar, a guard placed over us, and in this situation we were left to pass the night.
"During the time of the transactions related, our fellow prisoner, Putnam, remained quietly under the tub, and heard the noise from his hiding place. He was not suffered to remain long in suspense. A soldier lifted up the tub, and seeing the poor prisoner, thrust his bayonet into his body, just above his hip, and then drove him to the quarter-deck, to take his place in irons among us. The blood flowed profusely from his wound, and he was soon after sent on board the hospital ship, and we never heard anything respecting him afterwards.
"With disappointed expectations we passed a dreary night. A cold fog, followed by rain, came on; to which we were exposed, without any blankets or covering to protect us from the inclemency of the weather. Our sufferings of mind and body during that horrible night, exceeded any that I have ever experienced.
"We were chilled almost to death, and the only way we could preserve heat enough in our bodies to prevent our perishing, was to lie upon each other by turns.
"Morning at last came, and we were released from our fetters. Our limbs were so stiff that we could hardly stand. Our fellow prisoners assisted us below, and wrapping us in blankets, we were at last restored to a state of comparative comfort.
"For attempting to escape we were punished by having our miserable allowance reduced one third in quantity for a month; and we had found the whole of it hardly sufficient to sustain life. * * *
"One day a boat came alongside containing about sixty firkins of grease, which they called butter. The prisoners were always ready to assist in the performance of any labor necessary to be done on board of the ship, as it afforded some little relief to the tedious monotony of their lives. On this occasion they were ready to assist in hoisting the butter on board. The firkins were first deposited upon the deck, and then lowered down the main hatchway. Some of the prisoners, who were the most officious in giving their assistance, contrived to secrete a firkin, by rolling it forward under the forecastle, and afterwards carrying it below in their bedding.
"This was considered as quite a windfall; and being divided among a few of us, proved a considerable luxury. It helped to fill up the pores in our mouldy bread, when the worms were dislodged, and gave to the crumbling particles a little more consistency.
"Several weeks after our unsuccessful attempt to escape, another one attended with better success, was made by a number of the prisoners. At sunset the prisoners were driven below, and the main hatchway was closed. In this there was a trap-door, large enough for a man to pass through, and a sentinel was placed over it with orders to permit one prisoner at a time to come up during the night.
"The plan that had been formed was this:--one of the prisoners should ascend, and dispose of the sentinel in such a manner that he should be no obstacle in the way of those who were to follow.
"Among the soldiers was an Irishman who, in consequence of having a head of hair remarkable for its curly appearance, and withal a very crabbed disposition, had been nicknamed 'Billy the Ram'. He was the sentinel on duty this night, for one was deemed sufficient, as the prisoners were considered secure when they were below, having no other place of egress saving the trap-door, over which the sentinel was stationed.
"Late in the night one of the prisoners, a bold, athletic fellow, ascended upon deck, and in an artful manner engaged the attention of Billy the Ram, in conversation respecting the war; lamenting that he had engaged in so unnatural a contest, expressing his intention of enlisting in the British service, and requesting Billy's advice respecting the course necessary to be pursued to obtain the confidence of the officers.
"Billy happened to be in a mood to take some interest in his views, and showed an inclination, quite uncommon for him, to prolong the conversation. Unsuspicious of any evil design on the part of the prisoner, and while leaning carelessly on his gun, Billy received a tremendous blow from the fist of his entertainer on the back of his head, which brought him to the deck in a state of insensibility.
"As soon as he was heard to fall by those below, who were anxiously awaiting the result of the friendly conversation of their pioneer with Billy, and were satisfied that the final knock-out argument had been given, they began to ascend, and, one after another, to jump overboard, to the number of about thirty.
"The noise aroused the guard, who came upon deck, where they found Billy not sufficiently recovered from the stunning effects of the blow he had received to give any account of the transaction. A noise was heard in the water; but it was so dark that no object could be distinguished. The attention of the guard, however, was directed to certain spots which exhibited a luminous appearance, which salt water is known to assume in the night when it is agitated, and to these appearances they directed their fire, and getting out the boats, picked out about half the number that attempted to escape, many of whom were wounded, though not one was killed. The rest escaped.
"During the uproar overhead the prisoners below encouraged the fugitives, and expressed their approbation of their proceedings in three hearty cheers; for which gratification we suffered our usual punishment--a short allowance of our already short and miserable fare.
"For about a fortnight after this transaction it would have been a hazardous experiment to approach near to 'Billy the Ram', and it was a long time before we ventured to speak to him, and finally to obtain from him an account of the events of the evening.
"Not long after this another successful attempt to escape was made, which for its boldness is perhaps unparalleled in the history of such transactions.
"One pleasant morning about ten o'clock a boat came alongside, containing a number of gentlemen from New York, who came for the purpose of gratifying themselves with a sight of the miserable tenants of the prison-ship, influenced by the same kind of curiosity that induces some people to travel a great distance to witness an execution.
"The boat, which was a beautiful yawl, and sat like a swan upon the water, was manned by four oarsmen, with a man at the helm. Considerable attention and respect was shown the visitors, the ship's side being manned when they showed their intention of coming on board, and the usual naval courtesies extended. The gentlemen were soon on board; and the crew of the yawl, having secured her to the forechains on the larboard side of the ship, were permitted to ascend the deck.
"A soldier as usual was pacing with a slow and measured tread the whole length of the deck, wheeling round with measured precision, when he arrived at the end of his walk; and whether upon this occasion, any one interested in his movements had secretly slipped a guinea into his hand, not to quicken but to retard his progress, was never known; but it was evident to the prisoners that he had never occupied so much time before in measuring the distance with his back to the place where the yawl was fastened.
"At this time there were sitting in the forecastle, apparently admiring the beautiful appearance of the yawl, four mates and a captain, who had been brought on board as prisoners a few days previous, taken in some vessel from a southern port.
"As soon as the sentry had passed these men, in his straightforward march, they, in a very quiet manner, lowered themselves down into the yawl, cut the rope, and the four mates taking in hand the oars, while the captain managed the helm, in less time than I have taken to describe it, they were under full sweep from the ship. They plied the oars with such vigor that every stroke they took seemed to take the boat out of the water. In the meantime the sentry heard nothing and saw nothing of this transaction, till he had arrived at the end of his march, when, in wheeling slowly round, he could no longer affect ignorance, or avoid seeing that the boat was several times its length from the ship. He immediately fired; but, whether he exercised his best skill as a marksman, or whether it was on account of the boat's going ahead its whole length at every pull of the rowers, I could never exactly ascertain, but the ball fell harmlessly into the water. The report of the gun brought the whole guard out, who blazed away at the fugitives, without producing any dimunition in the rapidity of their progress.
"By this time the officers of the ship were on deck with their visitors; and while all were gazing with astonishment at the boldness and effrontery of the achievement, the guard were firing as fast as they could load their guns. When the prisoners gave three cheers to the yawl's crew, as an expression of their joy at their success, the Captain ordered all of us to be driven below at the point of the bayonet, and there we were confined the remainder of the day.
"These five men escaped, greatly to
the mortification of the captain and officers of the prison-ship. After this,
as long as I remained a prisoner, whenever any visitors came on board, all
the prisoners were driven below, where they were obliged to remain till the
company had departed."