The Prisons of New York--Jonathan Gillett
As found in the book, "American Prisoners of The Revolution", By Danske Dandridge.
We will now endeavor to describe the principal places of confinement used by the British in New York during the early years of the war.
Lossing, in his Field Book of the Revolution, thus speaks of these dens of misery: "At the fight around Fort Washington," he says, "only one hundred Americans were killed, while the British loss was one thousand, chiefly Hessians. But the British took a most cruel revenge. Out of over 2600 prisoners taken on that day, in two months and four days 1900 were killed in the infamous sugar houses and other prisons in the city.
"Association of intense horror are linked with the records of the prisons and prison ships of New York. Thousands of captives perished miserably of hunger, cold, infection, and in some cases, actual poison.
"All the prisoners taken in the battle near Brooklyn in August, 1776 and at Fort Washington in November of the same year, were confined in New York, nearly 4000 in all. The New Jail and the New Bridewell were the only prisons. The former is the present Hall of Records. Three sugar houses, some dissenting churches, Columbia College, and the Hospital were all used as prisons. The great fire in September; the scarcity of provisions; and the cruel conduct of the Provost Marshal all combined to produce intense sufferings among the men, most of whom entered into captivity, strong, healty, young, able-bodied, the flower of the American youth of the day.
"Van Cortlandt's Sugar House was a famous (or infamous) prison. It stood on the northwest corner of Trinity church-yard.
"Rhinelander's Sugar House was on the corner of William and Duane Streets. Perhaps the worst of all the New York prisons was the third Sugar House, which occupied the space on Liberty Street where two buildings, numbers 34 and 36, now stand.
"The North Dutch Church on William Street contained 800 prisoners, and there were perhaps as many in the Middle Dutch Church. The Friends' Meeting House on Liberty and several other buildings erected for the worship of a God of love were used as prisons.
"The New Jail was made a Provost Prison, and here officers and men of note were confined. At one time they were so crowded into this building, that when they lay down upon the floor to sleep all in the row were obliged to turn over at the same time at the call, 'Turn over! Left! Right!'
"The sufferings of these brave men were largely due to the criminal indifference of Loring, Sproat, Lennox, and other Commissaries of the prisoners.
"Many of the captives were hanged in the gloom of night without trial and without a semblance of justice.
"Liberty Street Sugar House was a tall, narrow building five stories in height, and with dismal underground dungeons. In this gloomy abode jail fever was ever present. In the hot weather of July, 1777, companies of twenty at a time would be sent out for half an hour's outing, in the court yard. Inside groups of six stood for ten minutes at a time at the windows for a breath of air.
"There were no seats; the filthy straw bedding was never changed. Every day at least a dozen corpses were dragged out and pitched like dead dogs into the ditches and morasses beyond the city. Escapes, deaths, and exchange at last thinned the ranks. Hundreds left names and records on the walls."
"In 1778 the hulks of decaying ships were moored in the Wallabout. These prison ship were intended for sailors and seaman taken on the ocean, mostly the crews of privateersmen, but some soldiers were also sent to languish in their holds.
"The first vessels used were transports in which cattle and other stores had been brought over by the British in 1776. These lay in Gravesend Bay and there many of the prisoners taken in battle near Brooklyn in August, 1776, were confined, until the British took possession of New York, when they were moved to that city. In 1778 the hulks of ships were moored in the Wallabout, a sheltered bay on the Long Island shore, where the Navy Yard now is."
The sufferings of the prisoners can be better understood by giving individual instances, and whatever this is possible it shall be done. We will commence by an abstract of
THE CASE OF JONATHAN GILLETT OF WEST HARFORD
This man with seven others was captured on Long Island on the 27th of August, 1776, before they could take to their boats. He was at first confined in a prison ship, but a Masonic brother named John Archer procured him the liberty of the city on parole. His rank, we believe, was that of a lieutenant. He was a prisoner two years, then was allowed to go home to die. He exhibited every symptom of poison as well as starvation.
When he was dying he said to his son, Jonathan Gillett, Junior, "Should you enlist and be taken prisoner as I was, inquire for Mr. John Archer, a man with whom I boarded. He will assist you."
In course of time his son enlisted, was taken prisoner, and confined in the Old Sugar House on Liberty Street. Here he was nearly starved to death. The prisoners ate mice, rats, and insects. He one day found in the prison yard the dry parings of a turnip which seemed to him a delicious banquet. It is recorded that Jonathan Gillet, Jr., was finally freed from captivity through the efforts of the same gentleman, Mr. John Archer, who had aided his father.
In 1852 Jacob Barker offered to present survivors who had been confined in the Old Sugar House with canes made from the lumber used in its construction. Four of these survivors were found. Their names were William Clark, Samuel Moulton, Levi Hanford, and Jonathan Gillett, Jr. The letter's father during his confinement wrote a letter to his friends which has been preserved, and is as follows:
No doubt my misfortunes have reached your ears. Sad as it is, it is true as sad. I was made prisoner the 27th day of August past by a people called heshens, and by a party called Yagers the most Inhuman of all Mortals. I cant give Room to picture them here but thus much--I at first Resolved not to be taken, but by the Impertunity of the Seven taken with me, and being surrounded on all sides I unhapily surendered; would to God I never had--then I should never (have) known their unmerciful cruelties; they first disarmed me, then plundered me of all I had, watch, Buckles, money, and sum Clothing, after which they abused me by bruising my flesh with the butts of there (guns). They knocked me down; I got up and they (kept on) beating me almost all the way to there (camp) where I got shot of them--the next thing I was allmost starved to death by them. I was keept here 8 days and then sent on board a ship, where I continued 39 days and by (them was treated) much worse than when on shore--after I was set on (shore) at New York (I was) confined (under) a strong guard till the 20th day of November, after which I have had my liberty to walk part over the City between sun and sun, notwithstanding there generous allowance of food I must inevitably have perished with hunger had not sum friends in this (city) Relieved my extreme necessity, but I cant expect they can always do it--what I shall do next I know not, being naked for clothes and void of money, and winter present, and provisions very skerce; fresh meat one shilling per pound, Butter three shillings per pound, Cheese two shillings, Turnips and potatoes at a shilling a half peck, milk 15 Coppers per quart, bread equally as dear; and the General says he cant find us fuel thro' the winter, tho' at present we receive sum cole.*
"I was after put on board siezed violently with the disentarry--it followed me hard upwards of six weeks--after that a slow fever, bot now arm vastly better * * * my sincere love to you and my children. May God keep and preserve you at all times from sin, sickness, and death * * * I will Endeavor to faintly lead you into the poor cituation the soldiers are in, espechally those taken at Long Island where I was; in fact these cases are deplorable and they are Real objects of pitty--they are still confined and in houses where there is no fire--poor mortals, with little or no clothes--perishing with hunger, offering eight dollars in paper for one in silver to Relieve there distressing hunger; occasioned for want of food--there natures are broke and gone, some almost loose there voices and some there hearing--they are crouded into churches and there guarded night and day. I cant paint the horable appearance they make--it is shocking to human nature to behold them. Could I draw the curtain from before you; there expose to your view a lean Jawd mortal, hunger laid his skinny hand (upon him) and whet to keenest Edge his stomach cravings, sorounded with tattred garments, Rotten Rags, close beset with unwelcome vermin. Could I do this, I say, possable I might in some (small) manner fix your idea with what appearance sum hundreds of these poor creatures make in houses where once people attempted to Implore God's Blessings, and c, but I must say no more of there calamities. God be merciful to them--I cant afford them no Relief. If I had money I soon would do it, but I have none for myself.--I wrote to you by Mr. Wells to see if some one would help me to hard money under my present necessity I write no more, if I had the General would not allow it to go out, and if ever you write to me write very short or else I will never see it--what the heshens robbed me of that day amounted to the value of seventy two dollars at least. * * * I will give you as near an exact amount of how many prisoners the enemy have taken as I can. They took on Long Island of the Huntington Regiment 64, and of officers 40, of other Regiments about 60. On Moulogin Island 14, Stratton Island (Staten) 7, at Fort Washington 2200 officers and men. On the Jersey side about 28 officers and men. In all 3135 and how many killed I do not know. Many died of there wounds. Of those that went out withme of sickness occasioned by hunger eight and more lie at the point of death.
"Roger Filer hath lost one of his legs and part of a Thigh, it was his left. John Moody died here a prisoner.
"So now to conclude my little Ragged History * * * I as you know did ever impress on your mind to look to God, for so still I continue to do the same--think less of me but more of your Creator, * * * So in this I wish you well and bid you farewell and subscribe myself your nearest friend and well wisher for Ever.John'a Gillett
New York, Dec. 2nd, 1776
To Eliza Gillett at West Harford
The figures given in this pathetic letter may be inaccurate, but the description of the sufferings of the prisoners is unexaggerated. Of all the places of torment provided for these poor men the churches seem to have been the worst, and they were probably the scenes of the most brutal cruelty that was inflicted upon these unfortunate beings by the wicked and heartless men, in whose power they found themselves. Whether it was because the knowledge that they were thus desecrating buildings dedicated to the worship of God and instruction in the Christian duties of mercy and charity, had a peculiarly hardening effect upon the jailers and guards employed by the British, or whether it was merely because of their unfitness for human habitation the men confined in these buildings perished fast and miserably. We cannot assert that no prisoners shut up in the churches in New York lived to tell the awful tale of their sufferings, but we do assert that in all our researches we have never yet happened upon any record of a single instance of a survivor living to reach his home. All the information we have gained on this subject we shall lay before the reader, and then he may form his own opinion of the justice of these remarks.
* I have made no changes in this letter except to fill up some blanks and to add a few marks of punctuation.