The Interment Of The Dead

“The first of the crew of the Chance to die was a lad named Palmer, about twelve years of age, and the youngest of our crew.” – Captain Dring

Captain Dring continues his narrative by describing the manner in which the dead were interred in the sand of the Wallabout. Every morning, he says, the dead bodies were carried to the upper deck and there laid upon the gratings. Any person who could procure, and chose to furnish, a blanket, was allowed to sew it around the remains of his departed companion.

“The signal being made, a boat was soon seen approaching from the Hunter, and if there were any dead on board the other ships, the boat received them, on her way to the Jersey.

“The corpse was laid upon a board, to which some ropes were attached as straps; as it was often the case that bodies were sent on shore for interment before they had become sufficiently stiff to be lowered into the boat by a single strap. Thus prepared a tackle was attached to the board, and the remains were hoisted over the side of the ship into the boat, without further ceremony. If several bodies were waiting for interment, but one of them was lowered into the boat at a time, for the sake of decency. The prisoners were always very anxious to be engaged in the duty of interment, not so much from a feeling of humanity, or from a wish to pay respect to the remains of the dead, for to these feelings they had almost become strangers, as from the desire of once more placing their feet on the land, if but for a few minutes. A sufficient number of prisoners having received permission to assist in this duty, they entered the boat accompanied by a guard of soldiers, and put off from the ship.

“I obtained leave to assist in the burial of the body of Mr. Carver, and after landing at a low wharf which had been built from the shore, we first went to a small hut, which stood near the wharf, and was used as a place of deposit for the handbarrows and shovels provided for these occasions. Having placed the corpses on the barrows, and received our hoes and shovels, we proceeded to the side of the bank near the Waleboght. Here a vacant space having been selected, we were directed to dig a trench in the sand, of a proper length for the reception of the bodies. We continued our labor until the guards considered that a sufficient space had been excavated. The corpses were then laid in the trench without ceremony, and we threw the sand over them. The whole appeared to produce no more effect upon our guards than if they were burying the bodies of dead animals, instead of men. They scarcely allowed us time to look about us; for no sooner had we heaped the earth upon the trench, than we were ordered to march. But a single glance was sufficient to show us parts of many bodies which were exposed to view, although they had probably been placed there with the same mockery of interment but a few days before.

“Having thus performed, as well as we were permitted to do it, the last duty to the dead, and the guards having stationed themselves on each side of us, we began reluctantly to retrace our steps to the boat. We had enjoyed the pleasure of breathing for a few minutes the air of our native soil; and the thought of return to the crowded prison-ship was terrible in the extreme. As we passed by the waterside we implored our guards to allow us to bathe, or even to wash ourselves for a few minutes, but this was refused us.

“I was the only person of our party who wore a pair of shoes, and well recollect that I took them off for the pleasure of feeling the earth, or rather the sand, as we went along. We went by a small patch of turf, some pieces of which we tore up from the earth, and obtained permission to carry them on board for our comrades to smell them. Circumstances like these may appear trifling to the careless reader; but let him be assured that they were far from being trifles to men situated as we had been. The inflictions which we had endured; the duty which we had just performed; the feeling that we must, in a few minutes, re-enter the place of suffering, from which, in all probability, we should never return alive; all tended to render everything connected with the firm land beneath, and the sweet air above us, objects of deep and thrilling interest.

“Having arrived at the hut we there deposited our implements, and walked to the landing-place, where we prevailed on our guards, who were Hessians, to allow us the gratification of remaining nearly half an hour before we returned to the boat.

“Near us stood a house occupied by a miller, and we had been told that a tide-mill which he attended was in the immediate vicinity, as a landing-place for which the wharf where we stood had been erected. It was designated by the prisoners by the appellation of the ‘Old Dutchman’s,’ and its very walls were viewed by us with feelings of veneration, as we had been told that the amiable daughter of its owner had kept an accurate account of the number of bodies that had been brought on shore for interment from the Jersey and hospital ships. This could easily be done in the house, as its windows commanded a fair view of the landing place. We were not, however, gratified by a sight of herself, or of any other inmate of the house.

“Sadly did we approach and re-enter our foul and disgusting place of confinement. The pieces of turf which we carried on board were sought for by our fellow prisoners, with the greatest avidity, every fragment being passed by them from hand to hand, and its smell inhaled as if it had been a fragrant rose. The first of the crew of the Chance to die was a lad named Palmer, about twelve years of age, and the youngest of our crew. When on board the Chance he was a waiter to the officers, and he continued in this duty after we were placed on board the Jersey. He had, with many others of our crew, been inoculated for the small-pox, immediately after our arrival on board. The usual symptoms appeared at the proper time, and we supposed the appearance of his disorder favorable, but these soon changed, and the yellow hue of his features declared the approach of death. The night he died was truly a wretched one for me. I spent most of it in total darkness, holding him during his convulsions. I had done everything in my power for this poor boy, during his sickness, and could render him but one more kind office (after his death). I assisted to sew a blanket around his body, which was, with others who had died, during the night, conveyed upon deck in the morning, to be at the usual hour hurried to the bank at the Walebocht. I regretted that I could not assist at his interment, as I was then suffering with the small-pox myself, neither am I certain that permission would have been granted me, if I had sought it. Our keepers appeared to have no idea that the prisoners could feel any regard for each other, but appeared to think us as cold-hearted as themselves. If anything like sympathy was ever shown us by any of them it was done by the Hessians. The next deaths among our company were those of Thomas Mitchell and his son-in-law, Thomas Sturmey. It is a singular fact that both of these men died at the same time.”


“In addition to the regular officers and seamen of the Jersey, there were stationed on board about a dozen old invalid Marines, but our actual guard was composed of soldiers from the different regiments quartered on Long Island. The number usually on duty on board was about thirty. Each week they were relieved by a fresh party. They were English, Hessian, and Refugees. We always preferred the Hessians, from whom we received better treatment than from the others. As to the English, we did not complain, being aware that they merely obeyed their orders, in regard to us; but the Refugees were viewed by us with scorn and hatred. I do not recollect, however, that a guard of these miscreants was placed over us more than three times, during which their presence occasioned much tumult and confusion; for the prisoners could not endure the sight of these men, and occasionally assailed them with abusive language, while they, in turn, treated us with all the severity in their power. We dared not approach near them, for fear of their bayonets, and of course could not pass along the gangways where they were stationed; but were obliged to crawl along upon the booms, in order to get fore and aft, or to go up and down the hatchways. They never answered any of our remarks respecting them, but would merely point to their uniforms, as much as to say, ‘We are clothed by our Sovereign, while you are naked.’ They were as much gratified by the idea of leaving us as we were at seeing them depart.

“Many provoking gestures were made by the prisoners as they left the ship, and our curses followed them as far as we could make ourselves heard.

“A regiment of Refugees, with a green uniform, were then quartered at Brooklyn. We were invited to join this Royal band, and to partake of his Majesty’s pardon and bounty. But the prisoners, in the midst of their unbounded sufferings, of their dreadful privations, and consuming anguish, spurned the insulting offer. They preferred to linger and to die rather than desert their country’s cause. During the whole period of my confinement I never knew a single instance of enlistment among the prisoners of the Jersey.

“The only duty, to my knowledge, ever performed by the old Marines was to guard the water-butt, near which one of them was stationed with a drawn cutlass. They were ordered to allow no prisoner to carry away more than one pint at once, but we were allowed to drink at the butt as much as we pleased, for which purpose two or three copper ladles were chained to the cask. Having been long on board and regular in performance of this duty, they had become familiar with the faces of the prisoners, and could, in many instances, detect the frauds which we practiced upon them in order to obtain more fresh water for our cooking than was allowed us by the regulations of the ship. Over the water the sailors had no control. The daily consumption of water on board was at least equal to 700 gallons. I know not whence it was brought, but presume it was from Brooklyn. One large gondola, or boat, was kept in constant employment to furnish the necessary supply.

“So much of the water as was not required on deck for immediate use was conducted into butts, placed in the lower hold of the hulk, through a leather hose, passing through her side, near the bends. To this water we had recourse, when we could procure no other.

“When water in any degree fit for use was brought on board, it is impossible to describe the struggle which ensued, in consequence of our haste and exertions to procure a draught of it. The best which was ever afforded us was very brackish, but that from the ship’s hold was nauseous in the highest degree. This must be evident when the fact is stated that the butts for receiving it had never been cleaned since they were put in the hold. The quantity of foul sediment which they contained was therefore very great, and was disturbed and mixed with the water as often as a new supply was poured into them, thereby rendering their whole contents a substance of the most disgusting and poisonous nature. I have not the least doubt that the use of this vile compound caused the death of hundreds of the prisoners, when, to allay their tormenting thirst, they were driven by desperation to drink this liquid poison, and to abide the consequences.”

Dandridge, Danske American Prisoners of the Revolution, Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, 1911, 1967.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top