Revolutionary War history

The HMS Jersey and the other Revolutionary War prison ships

Relevant laws and policies:

1776: The Hulks Act allowed the use of decommissioned ships as prisons.

March 1777: “North’s Act” suspended habeas corpus and allowed Americans to be prosecuted for treason/privacy.

1778: A policy set out the requirement that prisoners taken from a privateer were immediately to be jailed.

1779: Continental Congress moves to hold British naval prisoners on ships.

25 March 1782: Parliament declares Americans to be prisoners of war.

The prison ships were considered to be naval jurisdiction and treated separately from land based prisons.

Known British prison ships:

In Wallabout Bay,

  • To May 1777: The Whitby
  • From May 1777: The Kitty and unknown ship
  • By January 1780: The Prince of Wales, Falmouth, Hunter, Good Hope, Scorpion, Strombolo, Good Intent
  • By April 1780 – 9 April 1783 : The Jersey
  • By the end of the War: Bristol, Chatham, Clyde, Glasgow, Providence, Scheldt, Woodlands, John, Frederick, and Perseverance.

A full list of known ships in Wallabout Bay can be found on pages 241-242 of The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn.

In the Hudson:

  • Mid-1777: the Judith, the Myrtle
  • by the end of the War: The Eagle, Felicity, Isis, Richmond, Otter, Dispatch, York, Vigilant and Mercury, none which were designated prison ships.

Prisoner exchanges

Prisoner exchanges were generally funded by local governments, including towns and states. The first exchange did not occur until January 1777. Many of those exchanged from the prison ships were sailors, often crews of privateers, and civilians. Exchanges were common through September 1780, when they were stopped because more Americans had been exchanged than British prisoners.

Exchanges by official channels were limited, as the British and Americans sought to exchange rank for rank. The numbers rarely matches: in most cases, the exchange would have benefited the British.

The British Army would often “impress” – or forcibly conscript – American sailors. In later years, they offered them roles outside of the American colonies. Some accepted for the sake of survival.

Known American prison ships: New York, Virginia, Massachusetts, and Connecticut are said to have operated prison ships during the War.

References

  • Burrows, Edwin G. Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners during the Revolutionary War. New York: Basic Books, 2008.
  • Lowenthal, Larry. Hell on the East River: British Prison Ships in the American Revolution. Fleischmanns, NY: Purple Mountain Press, 2009.
  • Watson, Robert P. The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn: An Untold Story of the American Revolution. New York: Da Capo Press, 2017.