The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn

An Untold Story of the American Revolution


By Robert P. Watson

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The most horrific struggle of the American Revolution occurred just 100 yards off New York, where more men died aboard a rotting prison ship than were lost to combat during the entirety of the war.

Moored off the coast of Brooklyn until the end of the war, the derelict ship, the HMS Jersey, was a living hell for thousands of Americans either captured by the British or accused of disloyalty. Crammed below deck — a shocking one thousand at a time — without light or fresh air, the prisoners were scarcely fed food and water. Disease ran rampant and human waste fouled the air as prisoners suffered mightily at the hands of brutal British and Hessian guards. Throughout the colonies, the mere mention of the ship sparked fear and loathing of British troops. It also sparked a backlash of outrage as newspapers everywhere described the horrors onboard the ghostly ship. This shocking event, much like the better-known Boston Massacre before it, ended up rallying public support for the war.

Revealing for the first time hundreds of accounts culled from old newspapers, diaries, and military reports, award-winning historian Robert P. Watson follows the lives and ordeals of the ship’s few survivors to tell the astonishing story of the cursed ship that killed thousands of Americans and yet helped secure victory in the fight for independence.


Map of New York City in 1770

Map of Wallabout Bay During the American Revolution


The treatment of prisoners of war throughout history has been unimaginably horrific. Those soldiers and civilians unfortunate enough to be captured during times of conflict have been subjected to a bewildering array of abuses, including forced labor, starvation, torture, rape, and solitary confinement. Others were simply murdered. Tragically, every country, culture, and conflict has suffered such crimes. Some have been worse than others. The Aztecs, for instance, tied prisoners to stone slabs and cut out their hearts… while the prisoner was still alive. In the Second Sino-Japanese War, Imperial Japanese forces murdered tens—and possibly hundreds—of thousands of Chinese civilians in what became known as the "Nanking Massacre" or the "Rape of Nanking." The Chinese would later return the cruelty, beheading captured Japanese soldiers and using their heads as soccer balls. And during the Nazi reign, Dr. Josef Mengele, the infamous "Angel of Death," conducted savagely cruel medical experiments on concentration camp prisoners. Such incidents are all too common in the annals of history and are far too numerous to list.

On the other hand, there have been efforts by the international community, individual governments, and human rights groups to limit such barbarous behavior. One such example is the Geneva Convention, a series of international treaties and agreements on the status and treatment of prisoners of war, first developed in 1864. The subsequent record has been mixed. In the wake of history's bloodiest conflict, when approximately 3.3 million Soviet prisoners taken by the Axis powers died in captivity and Joseph Stalin and the Red Army, in turn, killed countless German prisoners and millions more of their own citizens, the world community came together in 1949 to ratify two new conventions. Sadly, none of this stopped the mistreatment of prisoners.

Americans have been among those prisoners who have suffered during conflicts. This includes the Civil War, when the Confederacy treated Northern prisoners with neglect, disdain, and brutality. Perhaps the most reprehensible example was when roughly thirteen thousand Union soldiers incarcerated at the notorious Andersonville Prison in Georgia died from malnutrition, poor sanitation, disease, exposure to the elements, and abuse at the hands of individuals who had, until only a few years prior, been their fellow countrymen. In the twentieth century, the crimes against American servicemen in Germany, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam were particularly loathsome and numerous.

The ensuing years have been plagued by campaigns of genocide around the world in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, and elsewhere. As I write this preface, the headlines are dominated by news of public beheadings of prisoners by groups such as the self-proclaimed Islamic State and abuses directed at prisoners of war and political prisoners in China, Russia, parts of Africa, and much of the Middle East.

Yet, long before the Geneva Convention, concerns over the mistreatment of prisoners arose during the Revolutionary War, when some of the most odious and vile crimes in American history occurred at the hands of the British and were directed against American soldiers and sailors fighting for independence. While the stories of the Boston Massacre, Boston Tea Party, and Paul Revere's midnight ride are well known by any American schoolchild, the plight of American prisoners during the Revolution remains largely unknown. In particular, history has forgotten the struggles that occurred on an old, rotting prison ship moored off the coast of Brooklyn, despite the fact that as many as 11,500 prisoners may have died in her holds—a number roughly twice the total number of American lives lost in combat during the entirety of the war!

This little-known story is shocking and grisly, but the struggles of those who escaped and, against all odds, survived are nothing shy of inspiring and heroic. They are also important, for they compel us to rethink our inaccurate view of how the British prosecuted the war, to remember the sacrifices made by so many forgotten patriots, and to explore one of the worst tragedies in American military history, one involving a wretched and cursed ghost ship that the British believed would frighten patriots into submission. It did not. It had the opposite effect and unintentionally ended up helping the colonists win the war.

A note to the reader: The words of the prisoners aboard the hellish ship as well as the war records and letters of prison wardens and generals are all quoted verbatim in the following pages. Some of the spelling reflects the time period and varying degrees of literacy of the men and boys in the book.

The book would not have been possible without the assistance of several people. First, I would like to thank my incredible literary agent, Peter Bernstein. I am also fortunate to have Robert Pigeon as my editor. It has been a pleasure to work with such a talented editor as Bob and the entire team at Da Capo Press and Perseus Books—Lissa Warren, Justin Lovell, Skyler Lambert, Michael Clark, Sue Warga, Jack Lenzo, and too many others to mention.

I would like to acknowledge Jared Wellman, a librarian at Lynn University, for his help in tracking down old and obscure documents, and both Juan Tirado (who passed away in 2016 after a long and courageous struggle with cancer) and David Garcia for making photocopies of them for me. Nancy Katz and George Goldstein, M.D., read an early version of the manuscript and provided me with valuable feedback. Thanks also to Julie Stoner and Bruce Kirby of the Library of Congress, Joanna Lamaida of the Brooklyn Historical Society, Dr. Daniel Rolph and Steven Smith of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Alicia Parks of the Museum of the American Revolution, the reference staff at the New York Public Library, and many other archivists and librarians for their help with accessing historic documents.

Mostly, however, I would like to thank my family—Claudia, Alessandro, and Isabella—for their constant support. Lastly, this book is dedicated to all the men and women who have suffered the misfortune of being a prisoner of war. Your sacrifices are not forgotten.

Boca Raton, Florida


"A Vast and Silent Army"

The various horrors of these hulks to tell—

These prison ships where Pain and Penance dwell.

Where Death in ten-fold vengeance holds his reign,

And injured ghosts, yet unavenged, complain:

This be my task.

—Philip Freneau, "The British Prison-Ship" (1781)

On a crisp winter's morn in the closing days of the year 431 B.C.E., the Athenian statesman Pericles climbed a high platform for the painful but honored task of eulogizing his brethren who fell in the Peloponnesian War.* The struggle against Sparta had started earlier that spring and would prove to be a long and bloody affair. Accordingly, this would be but one of many burials in Athens, though history would remember Pericles' funeral oration that day as one of the most important speeches of the ancient world.

It was customary in Athens for men lost in war to be honored at elaborate funerals. These ceremonies began a few days prior to the burial, when the fallen soldiers' remains were placed on public display, providing an opportunity for family members, friends, and other Athenians to gather to pay their respects and make offerings. Coffins were then carried in carts to a scenic spot on the outskirts of the city for the burial, with one of the coffins remaining empty—a haunting symbol of the dead who were still missing. After the processional, the heroes were laid to rest in a large sepulcher. The grand ceremony concluded with comments from an individual of great esteem.

And so it was that day that the famed orator Pericles offered his remarks. The account was recorded that day and retold by Thucydides, the Athenian historian and general who wrote the history of the Peloponnesian War. According to Thucydides, Pericles opened with these now-famous lines: "Most of my predecessors in this place have commended him who made this speech part of the law, telling us that it is well that it should be delivered at the burial of those who fall in battle. For myself, I should have thought that the worth which had displayed itself in deeds would be sufficiently rewarded by honors also shown by deeds; such as you now see in this funeral."

Noting that the fallen were part of something larger than themselves, Pericles maintained, "It is for such a city, then, that these men nobly died in battle, thinking it right not to be deprived of her, just as each of their survivors should be willing to toil for her sake." The statesman did more than recognize the dead as heroes. In a comparatively brief eulogy, he heralded the special qualities of Athenians and enshrined the sacrifices within the larger context of the struggle for freedom.

Two millennia later, President Abraham Lincoln also stood atop a viewing stand for a similar purpose: to commemorate a new national cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the site of a bloody clash that had taken place in early July 1863. That pivotal battle of the American Civil War claimed a staggering 23,000 Union casualties, along with roughly the same number on the Confederate side. The death toll overwhelmed the small farming community and prompted the need for the creation of a stately public resting place.

Although Lincoln was not the featured speaker—he followed musical performances and a lofty, two-hour disquisition by Edward Everett, the president of Harvard and a famed orator—his remarks echoed those of Pericles. In a surprisingly brief address, Lincoln not only honored "a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that a nation might live," but placed the sacrifices into the larger context of "a new birth of freedom." Like Pericles, the Great Emancipator also poetically noted that the deeds of those who had fallen would never be forgotten and their service would consecrate the sacred spot far beyond any words he offered.

Both Pericles and Lincoln confessed that they were humbled by the task before them. Yet both used the occasion to call upon their countrymen to remember and honor the fallen by continuing their work. "It is for us the living, rather," admonished Lincoln, "to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced." Both orations remain as among the most celebrated speeches in history, even prompting Professor Everett, the Gettysburg keynoter, to sheepishly later admit in a letter to Lincoln, "I wish I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes." Indeed.

It is hard to imagine two more eloquent and fitting wartime eulogiums than those offered by Pericles and Lincoln, as it is hard for us today to imagine not honoring those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. Indeed, in ancient Greece the failure to commemorate those who died in war was seen as an unforgivable breach of honor and nothing less than an affront to patriotism. It was akin to a public rebuke, display of cowardice, or a dismissal of their deeds by another.

Yet, tragically, this was precisely the fate of countless thousands of men who died during the single bloodiest struggle of the entire American Revolution. For these wretched souls there was no grand homily, no public procession, no pomp or pageantry, no act of remembrance when their bodies were laid to rest. As one New Yorker living shortly after the tragedy lamented, for the prisoners aboard the ships "no degree of gratitude [has been] expressed, in written record or enduring memorial."* Rather, for the starved and tortured prisoners, the end was marked with their bodies' being dumped unceremoniously into shallow, unmarked graves on the Brooklyn shoreline. Apallingly, their sacrifices have largely been forgotten.

Belatedly, however, these prison ship martyrs from the Revolutionary War would get their Pericles, their Lincoln. None other than Walt Whitman, one of America's most significant poets, sought in the mid-nineteenth century to memorialize the prisoners aboard the monstrous ship. The Long Island native lived near the site of the worst struggle of the Revolution and, during his lifetime, the bones of Americans who had died on the prison ships still occasionally washed ashore or were unearthed by construction projects. It pained the celebrated poet greatly that the burial sites had been desecrated when workers dredged the shoreline to build a new naval facility, and he cursed the "thoughtless boys" in town who played in the martyrs' crypts, often using the skulls and bones they found in games.

Whitman wrote an article in the Brooklyn Standard hoping to raise public awareness for a suitable commemoration for what he described as "a vast and silent army" of ghosts scattered in shallow graves along Brooklyn's waterfront. On July 2, 1846, he also published a poem in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. His intention was for the lyrics to be put to the melody of "The Star-Spangled Banner" and have the public gather by the site of the tragedy and sing the poem at the Independence Day celebration two days later. Whitman's first verse read,

O, God of Columbia! O, Shield of the Free!

More grateful to you than the fanes of old story,

Must the blood-bedewed soil, the red battle-ground be

Where our fore-fathers championed America's glory!

Then how priceless the worth of the sanctified earth,

We are standing on now. Lo! The slope of its girth

Where the Martyrs were buried: Nor prayers, tears, or stones,

Marked their crumbled-in coffins, their white, holy bones!

Whitman was not the only one to attempt to commemorate the "vast and silent army" that died along Brooklyn's shoreline. There was another. In 1895 the noted attorney, scholar, and Brooklyn resident Dr. Charles E. West addressed a group of students at the Brooklyn Heights Seminary. Like the famed poet before him, West told his audience, "The horrors of the British prison ships of the Wallabout have never been revealed to the public eye." While the claim failed to acknowledge Whitman's earlier poems, Dr. West was correct in saying that the tragedy "for some unaccountable reason has been omitted from the leading American histories and very many ordinary well-informed people know practically nothing of the unparalleled cruelty of the British or the unflinching courage of the patriots who met martyr's deaths in defence of their country." West gave the address well over a century after the incident, and with the passing of years, the tragedy was again largely forgotten.

Here we are now, well over a century after West's speech and more than 230 years after the demise of the ghost ship of the Revolution. His complaint that "the muse of history sits silent by the tomb of the American martyrs, draped in mourning," still rings mostly true. Thankfully, there is today a lone obelisk known as the Prison Ship Martyrs' Monument that stands quietly on a small hilltop in Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn. It overlooks the reinterred remains of the prisoners and site of so much suffering so long ago.

But this solitary testament to the tragedy is overshadowed by the hustle and bustle of the city and so many other, more popular and frequented sites. Even the touching Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument at Trinity Church in New York City is rendered nearly inconsequential by the surrounding skyscrapers. Unfortunately, unlike Revolutionary sites in Boston, Philadelphia, and Williamsburg—with their many visible reminders, intact colonial buildings, and large historic districts—amid New York's skyline and onslaught of development few tangible connections to the prisoners' stories remain.

History remembers and celebrates Lexington and Concord, George Washington's surprise Christmas night attack against the Hessians at Trenton, and the triumphal American victory in 1781 over Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown. But the single bloodiest conflict of the Revolution does not appear in textbooks and has been discussed in only two scholarly books. It has yet to be made into a Hollywood film or musical score. The tragedy in the waters off Brooklyn is not featured in museums, taught in schools, or evoked today with either reverent pride or solemn remembrance during Independence Day ceremonies. In short, it has never captured the popular imagination.

We may have forgotten the story of Brooklyn's Wallabout Bay today, but prison ships were not always a mystery. Charles Dickens, for instance, in his classic book Great Expectations, features a ghostly prison ship. Dickens introduces the scene with a properly haunted location—a foggy churchyard next to a shrouded marsh during a dark night. Nearby, a search party is hunting an escaped prisoner still wearing irons on his legs. Dickens's character Pip has a frightening brush with the prisoner, a scene made all the more unnerving when the flickering light of the search party's torches reveals a "black hulk lying out a little way from the mud of the shore, like a wicked Noah's ark, cribbed and barred and moored by massive rusty chains." Dickens, a social critic and reformer, was likely inspired to include a prison ship in his novel because of their widespread and controversial use by the British. He most probably observed them, as prison ships were anchored off the towns of Portsmouth and Woolwich on the outskirts of London as well as at ports in the West Indies during Dickens's lifetime.

Yet most people have never heard of the Old Sugar House in New York City, Wallabout Bay, or the British prison ships of the Revolution. Nevertheless, these places were the scenes of some of the most gruesome events in the nation's history and constitute the ugly secret of the Revolutionary War. Ironically, few aspects of the Revolutionary War were as thoroughly documented yet as quickly forgotten as the prison ships. Captured ships were listed, prisoners' names were registered, and deaths recorded.

In 1832 the U.S. Congress finally passed a measure allowing veterans of the Revolutionary War to petition for pensions. Sadly, most of those who fought were by then long gone. For those still alive, the legislation offered a much-needed yearly stipend to anyone who could prove at least six months of wartime service. Unfortunately, most of the elderly petitioners had little to no proof of their service—maybe an old uniform, a scar from a gunshot or bayonet wound, an enlistment certificate, or discharge papers. What all of them had, however, were memories. The petitioners who came forward shared stories with court clerks who documented them and encouraged veterans to record their experiences in order to prove their status as veterans. We can be thankful that many put quill to paper.

Others were motivated by their families to write memoirs. In particular, five men and boys—Christopher Hawkins, Thomas Dring, Thomas Andros, Ebenezer Fox, and Andrew Sherburne—somehow survived the most cursed of all the prison ships and wrote detailed narratives of the experience. Together, these remarkable and gripping accounts of battles, captures, imprisonment, and escapes or releases offer a firsthand telling of perhaps the most dreadful event of the Revolutionary period.

In the words of Thomas Dring, an officer from Rhode Island, "Among the varied events of the war of the American Revolution, there are few circumstances which have left a deeper impression on the public mind, than those connected with the cruel and vindictive treatment which was experienced by those of our unfortunate countrymen whom the fortune of war had placed on board the Prison-Ships of the enemy." Christopher Hawkins echoed Dring's account of the ships. A young boy captured by the British and imprisoned aboard the worst of the ships, he described the ordeal in the opening lines of his journal, saying, "Among the various modes adopted by the British, during the Revolution, for taming the American people into submission to the English yoke, none were more barbarous and more revolting to humanities than the cruelties inflicted by means of the prison ships."

The macabre and grisly chapter in American history they described occurred in the waters just off the coast of Brooklyn. From 1776 to the very end of the war in 1783, the British occupied New York City and Long Island and made them the staging ground for their military operations in America. The waterways throughout the city soon filled with supply vessels, transport craft, and warships, prompting the British command to use older ships to incarcerate American soldiers and sailors captured in battle. Civilians suspected of supporting the colonial cause or refusing to swear an oath of allegiance to the Crown were arrested. They joined countless thousands of soldiers from the Continental Army and sailors from warships, merchant craft, and privateers who were imprisoned belowdecks in the cramped, diseased holds of these floating dungeons. As thousands perished, the prison ships moored in a shallow and otherwise forgettable body of water known as Wallabout Bay quickly became massive, ghostly coffins.

The most notorious of these ships was the HMS Jersey. More than a thousand prisoners at a time were held aboard the ship. The deplorable conditions belowdecks resulted in a half dozen to one dozen men, on average, dying every day from smallpox, dysentery, typhoid, or yellow fever as well as from the effects of malnutrition, polluted water, and torture. This single ship accounted for the lion's share of the misery and deaths of American prisoners during the war, an amount described as "obscenely high" by one source. In fact, more Americans died on board the ghost ship of Brooklyn than died in combat during the entirety of the Revolutionary War—by a factor of two!

The tragedy of the Jersey and other horrid prison ships was irrefutably "the darkest in the history of our Revolutionary struggle." An attorney from Brooklyn tasked with preparing a report on the floating dungeons after the war concluded that although there are always "occasional acts of inhumanity and cowardly brutality, committed in the heat of battle," this particular catastrophe could never be "excused." On the contrary, he argued that the ordeal was a chilling example of the "temporary triumph of passion and vengeance over reason and humanity."

To be sure, the British command intended the Jersey to be a weapon of terror. The threat of imprisonment in her deadly bowels, they reasoned, would deter even the most ardent of patriots from fighting. And so they crammed thousands into the dark, dank hull and moored the ship far enough from shore to prevent the disease that soon permeated her rotting timbers from inflicting the city, yet close enough to be seen and smelled by all who passed by. However, the plan backfired. As prisoners aboard the dreaded ship escaped and as colonial pamphlets and newspapers such as the Connecticut Courant, New York Journal, Pennsylvania Journal, and others told their gruesome stories, the "Old Jersey" quickly emerged as a powerful symbol of British oppression and cruelty. Like the Boston Massacre, an event that crystalized support for the cause of liberty a decade earlier, the horrors that occurred on the Jersey turned loyalists into patriots and ended up inspiring the struggle for independence.

This is the story of an old warship that, because of the obscenely high death toll and inhumane conditions below her decks, was nicknamed "Hell Afloat" or simply "Hell." She earned the reputation.



Ungenerous Britons, you

Conspire to murder whom you can't subdue.

—Philip Freneau, "The British Prison-Ship" (1781)

The rivalry between Britain and Spain for supremacy of the seas had a long and bloody history. The two naval powers squared off time and again from the beginning of the Age of Exploration through the colonial period, including a bitter struggle during what was essentially the first modern world war—the War of Spanish Succession, fought in the early eighteenth century. The centrality of the seas to the rivalry was such that even the terms of the peace treaty, signed in the Dutch city of Utrecht, emphasized maritime trade and naval relations. In it, Spain agreed to a thirty-year trade deal that permitted Britain to ship a specified annual tonnage of goods to Spain's colonies along with a limited number of slaves.

But the history between the two naval powers proved too onerous for the treaty to hold. Neither nation trusted the other. The Spanish suspected the British of smuggling additional goods and slaves in violation of the treaty, while British captains did not take kindly to having limits placed by the Spanish monarch on what they could carry. Tensions increased and ultimately resulted in yet another conflict—the Anglo-Spanish War, fought from 1727 to 1729.

The negotiations leading to the Treaty of Seville, which ended that war, again affirmed British maritime trade, but in return gave the Spanish the right to stop and inspect British ships. In the ensuing years, both sides navigated the arrangement with great difficulty and distrust. Ultimately, this agreement, like the others before it, was destined to fail.

It happened on April 9, 1731, when the Spanish patrol boat La Isabela seized the British merchant craft Rebecca in waters off Havana. Spanish authorities suspected Captain Robert Jenkins and his crew of smuggling goods in violation of the treaty. During the argument that ensued between Jenkins and the commander of the Spanish ship, Julio León Fandiño, the British officer's left ear was cut off. Back in England, the incident was met with outrage and became an emotional and memorable symbol of Spanish interference with British shipping. Relations between the two powers eroded.

Then, in March 1738, Captain Jenkins was called before the House of Commons to testify about his ordeal and, in general, Spanish harassment of British shipping. Jenkins, still fuming over his lost ear, was only too happy to stir up anti-Spanish sentiment. Some accounts suggest that, to the horror of some members of Parliament (but to the delight of the war hawks), he held forth the severed ear, which he had preserved by having it pickled.* British politicians were already in the clutches of war fever, and Jenkins's passionate description of the humiliation he had endured produced cries in Parliament for retribution.


  • "The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn brings to life the hell on water that thousands of prisoners were forced to endure during the American Revolutionary War. Through these untold stories, Robert Watson recounts the horrors inflicted aboard the HMS Jersey, remembers the courageous spirit of its captives, and ensures the memory of these American Patriots will never be forgotten."--Senator John McCain (R-AZ), former Navy pilot and Vietnam POW
  • "In vivid and often elegiac prose, Robert Watson has rediscovered a forgotten story about the grim and usually fatal fate of American prisoners of war during the American Revolution. We carry in our heads prim and proper pictures of that patriotic struggle that will need to be revised on the basis of Watson's thorough documentation of the hellish conditions aboard those floating dungeons, where twice as many American soldiers and sailors died than in all the battles of the war. Watson makes 'lest we forget' ironic, since until now, we have."--Joseph J. Ellis, Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning author of Founding Brothers and American Sphinx
  • "A fascinating collection of stories of American Revolutionary War soldiers and sailors captured by the British and imprisoned, many of them in the infamous ship, Jersey, the hell that floated off of Brooklyn. These stories may have been once forgotten by history, but with the publication of this very readable book, that will be no longer possible."--Gordon Wood, Pulitzer Prize- and Bancroft Prize-winning author of The Radicalism of the American Revolution and Empire of Liberty
  • "Watson brings the people of history to life! His well-written, carefully-researched book propels the reader into some of the grim realities of the American Revolution. By skillfully weaving together historical records with dozens of first-hand accounts, Watson introduces the reader to the ghastly consequences of being an American prisoner aboard the British prison ship, Jersey. This is how history should be written--bravo!"--Michael C. Quinn, President and CEO, Museum of the American Revolution
  • "A tale worth retelling."
    New York Times
  • "A penetrating look at forgotten horrors of America's Revolutionary War...Watson makes reading history a totally engaging experience. He does so by choosing unusual and challenging topics, setting them into contexts rich in detail, and presenting them in a prose style that is clear, vivid, and uncluttered by academic jargon. His latest book is a piece of fine storytelling, accessible to the general reader. Prof. Watson makes historical events shine as if they were today's news...This sobering book reminds us that no one can overestimate the human capacity for cruelty or underestimate the capacity for perseverance and courage."
    Florida Weekly
  • "A readable...account of the worst atrocity committed by either side during the Revolutionary War, as well as a damning portrayal of the British military's 'moral state.'"
    Wall Street Journal
  • "The memory of the prison-ship captives is honorably served in Robert P. Watson's terrifying new history."
    New York Post
  • "Watson has recounted this story to remind contemporary America of those who came before and kept their eyes on the prize in spite of the horrors and deprivations of wartime capture."
    New York Journal of Books
  • "The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn sheds light on this little-known, yet dark chapter in American history...The narrative flair [Watson] showed in his previous works, such as The Nazi Titanic and America's First Crisis, continues with Ghost Ship. The text is accessible to the casual reader, yet contains enough notes and appendixes to be a resource for the serious scholar...Watson makes a case that the Jersey was the bloodiest 'battle' of the war."—The Gotham Center for New York City History
  • "Well researched and written, using actual transcripts from the few survivors...Well worth a read-even if you're not interested in military history as such."
    Nudge Book
  • "Watson has succeeded in shedding a brilliant light on a little-known facet of the American Revolution: the British prison ships of Brooklyn...Watson writes with great verve as he offers account after harrowing account of prisoners coming to grips with their fate. He uses extensive resources, and the narrative reads like a gothic horror tale...[An] empathetic rendering of a mostly forgotten chapter of American history. Anyone interested in this time period will find this book an illuminating and worthwhile read."—Washington Independent Review of Books
  • "It's clear author Robert P. Watson has done a great deal of research to present this largely-unknown story in such detail. His use of first-hand accounts written by some of the few who survived the ordeal lends an incredible, yet fascinating, window into the horror. The writing flows well and Watson uses great storytelling techniques that make the subject matter eminently readable."—Manhattan Book Review
  • "A very well-written account of a rather grim and dismal situation which has hitherto been neglected in naval history."—Warship International
  • "Sharp and incisive...[The] Ghost Ship of Brooklyn showcases several stories of impossible survival, daring prison breaks and even a couple surprising rescues. For every grim statistic, there's a moment of desperate bravery."—The Bowery Boys
  • "The story of how this ship sparked enough outrage to fuel the Revolution makes for a powerful account which documents individuals who suffered on the ship, escaped from its conditions, and helped keep its memory a part of American history which has not been properly examined until this survey. No American history holding should be without this eye-opening account."—Midwest Book Review
  • "A stirring reminder of the sacrifices made by so many, during America's war for independence."—Champaign News-Gazette
  • "In breezy but sober prose [Watson] fills in a large gap in the average American's knowledge of the 1775-1783 War for Independence...He offers vivid descriptions of conditions and incidents aboard the Jersey and of prisoner revolts and escapes...But he also jumps ship into the wider world, sketching General George Washington's struggle to facilitate prisoner exchanges, and even giving us occasional glimpses of the humane...The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn is a long-overdue account of this neglected chapter of the American Revolution."—Blogcritics
  • "Provides significant food for thought about our own times, and how treatment of prisoners of war can have significant unintended consequences."—Naval History
  • "The rotten hulk of the Jersey sank in 1783, becoming a ghost ship on the harbor bottom. The story of the suffering of its inmates is finally being told in this well-researched expose."—WTBF Radio
  • "[A] well-written and researched book...It is essential to understanding the fury with which the British lashed out against Americans taken POW during the American Revolution. Recommended."—Choice
  • "A history book of an element of the Revolutionary War most likely little known to us as Americans, and certainly not recounted in our elementary or high school education about the War...For anyone interested in the Revolutionary War, this is a well-written, well-structured, informative, and evocative presentation of the horrors from which these men perished and few survived."
    Portland Book Review
  • "A gripping, horrific account of misery, degradation, torture and inhumanity...A Dantesque portrait of a living hell."—American Spirit
  • "The author skillfully reconstructs the horrific, little known story of the Jersey and its prisoners...The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn is a welcome...reminder that many unknown patriots suffered greatly and gave their lives to establish the United States and that we should keep their memory alive."—Michigan War Studies Review
  • "The author brings these untold stories to life using clear prose and detailed accounts. The book is a fascinating look at a part of the war which has been largely forgotten today."—Military Heritage
  • "Through his well-researched and riveting narrative, Robert P. Watson is able to preserve the nearly forgotten tale of the Patriots who risked everything for their country. On each page, the shockingly gruesome scenes of the Hell Ship come to life."
    Naval Historical Foundation

On Sale
Aug 15, 2017
Page Count
312 pages
Da Capo Press

Robert P. Watson

About the Author

Robert P. Watson, PhD, has published three dozen nonfiction books, two encyclopedia sets, three novels, and hundreds of scholarly journal articles, book chapters, and reference essays on topics in politics and history. A frequent media commentator, Watson has been interviewed by outlets throughout the United States and internationally and serves as the political analyst for WPTV 5 (NBC) in Florida. For many years he was also a Sunday columnist with the Sun-Sentinel newspaper. An award-winning author, Watson’s recent books include The Presidents’ Wives; Affairs of the State; and America’s First Crisis, which received the 2014 Gold Medal in History from the Independent Publishers’ Association (IPPY). He is a Distinguished Professor of American History at Lynn University.

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