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Prisoners Buried in Ft. Greene Honored on Battle of Brooklyn Anniversary

By Alexandra Leon | August 24, 2016 12:17pm
 The 108th Memorial to the Prison Ships Martyrs will be held Saturday in Fort Greene Park.
Prison Ship Martyrs' Monument
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FORT GREENE — While Fort Greene never saw a battle during the American Revolution, its eponymous park holds one of Brooklyn’s most important memorials to the war.

Remains of the 11,500 soldiers who died on British prison ships during the Revolution are buried in a crypt at the base of the Prison Ship Martyrs' Monument — the 149-foot Doric column at the center of Fort Greene Park, according to historians and city records.

On Saturday, the Society of Old Brooklynites will pay tribute to those soldiers with their 108th Annual Memorial to the Prison Ships Martyrs, held on the 240th anniversary of the Battle of Brooklyn, the first major battle of the Revolutionary War. 

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“This really is the most sacred ground around the borough in relationship to our founding of the country,” said Julian Macrone, program and development manager for the Fort Greene Park Conservancy. “It’s the most immense sacrifice that was made in the wake of the Battle of Brooklyn.”

During the course of the Revolutionary War, roughly 6,000 American soldiers died in battle, Macrone said. The majority of American casualties happened aboard the British prison ships, where soldiers, sailors and marines were kept in dungeon-like conditions, he said.

boot tray

A medallion commemorating those who died on British prison ships during the Revolutionary War (left) and the cover to the 1908 dedication ceremony for the Prison Ship Martyrs' Monument at Fort Greene Park. (Credit: Ted General)

“The British were horrific back then, the conditions on board the ships were very bad,” said Ted General, first vice president of the Society of Old Brooklynites.

Prisoners who died from overcrowding, contaminated water, starvation and disease were cast overboard by British soldiers or buried in shallow graves onshore, he said.

In 1808, their remains were buried in a tomb near the Brooklyn Navy Yard on the property of a local farmer.

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The remains, which are mostly bone fragments and shards, were moved into 22 boxes and laid to rest in a new crypt at Fort Greene Park in 1873, according to Macrone and city records. The Prison Ship Martyrs' Monument was then built above the crypt and completed in 1908 with a dedication ceremony led by then-President-elect William Howard Taft. 

The Society of Old Brooklynites will honor the prison ship martyrs on Saturday with a wreath-laying ceremony at the base of the memorial, a ceremonial honor guard with bagpipes played by local firefighters, the national anthem sung by a vocalist from the Martha Cardona Opera Company, and an interpretive dance by performers from Craig Gabrian’s Young Dancers in Repertory.

The Society will also toll eight slow bells and perform a symbolic maritime piping ceremony.

During a traditional piping ceremony, a boatswain blows a shrill whistle when Navy and Coast Guard officials board and leave a ship. In Saturday’s ceremony, the spirits of the prison ship martyrs will be symbolically piped up from the grave and into the base of the monument.

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Event organizers will read off the names of the British prison ships, explaining the torturous conditions the prisoners endured, before symbolically piping the martyrs back down to the crypt.

For the Society of Old Brooklynites, the ceremony keeps the memory of the prisoners alive.

“Very few people are aware of the fact that these prison ship martyrs are buried in a monument in Fort Greene Park,” General said. “We want to raise civic awareness so the younger generation knows what this is all about.”

Saturday’s memorial runs from 10 to 11:30 a.m. at the base of the Prison Ship Martyrs' Monument.