The Old Sugar House–Trinity Churchyard

“Old shoes were bought and eaten with as much relish as a pig or a turkey; a beef bone of four or five ounces, after it was picked clean, was sold by the British guard for as many coppers.” – Thomas Stone as published in Journal of American History

We will now take our readers with us to the Sugar House on Liberty Street, long called the Old Sugar House, and the only one of the three Sugar Houses which appear to have been used as a place of confinement for American prisoners of war after the year 1777.

We have already mentioned this dreary abode of wretchedness, but it deserves a more elaborate description.

From Valentine’s Manual of the Common Council of New York for 1844 we will copy the following brief sketch of the British Prisons in New York during the Revolution.

“The British took possession of New York Sep. 15, ’76, and the capture of Ft. Washington, Nov. 16, threw 2700 prisoners into their power. To these must be added 1000 taken at the battle of Brooklyn, and such private citizens as were arrested for their political principles, in New York City and on Long Island, and we may safely conclude that Sir William Howe had at least 5000 prisoners to provide for.

“The sudden influx of so many prisoners; the recent capture of the city, and the unlooked-for conflagration of a fourth part of it, threw his affairs into such confusion that, from these circumstances alone, the prisoners must have suffered much, from want of food and other bodily comforts, but there was superadded the studied cruelty of Captain Cunningham, the Provost Marshal, and his deputies, and the criminal negligence of Sir Wm. Howe.

“To contain such a vast number of prisoners the ordinary places of confinement were insufficient. Accordingly the Brick Church, the Middle Church, the North Church, and the French Church were appropriated to their use. Beside these, Columbia College, the Sugar House, the New Gaol, the new Bridewell, and the old City Hall were filled to their utmost capacity.

“Till within a few years there stood on Liberty Street, south of the Middle Dutch Church, a dark, stone building, with small, deep porthole looking windows, rising tier above tier; exhibiting a dungeon-like aspect. It was five stories high, and each story was divided into two dreary apartments.

“On the stones and bricks in the wall were to be seen names and dates, as if done with a prisoner’s penknife, or nail. There was a strong, gaol-like door opening on Liberty St., and another on the southeast, descending into a dismal cellar, also used as a prison. There was a walk nearly broad enough for a cart to travel around it, where night and day, two British or Hessian guards walked their weary rounds. The yard was surrounded by a close board fence, nine feet high. ‘In the suffocating heat of summer,’ says Wm. Dunlap, ‘I saw every narrow aperture of these stone walls filled with human heads, face above face, seeking a portion of the external air.’

“While the gaol fever was raging in the summer of 1777, the prisoners were let out in companies of twenty, for half an hour at a time, to breathe fresh air, and inside they were so crowded, that they divided their numbers into squads of six each. No. 1 stood for ten minutes as close to the windows as they could, and then No. 2 took their places, and so on.

“Seats there were none, and their beds were but straw, intermixed with vermin.

“For many days the dead-cart visited the prison every morning, into which eight or ten corpses were flung or piled up, like sticks of wood, and dumped into ditches in the outskirts of the city.”

Silas Talbot says: “A New York gentleman keeps a window shutter that was used as a checkerboard in the Sugar House. The prisoners daily unhinged it, and played on it.”

Many years ago a small pamphlet was printed in New York to prove that some of the American prisoners who died in the Old Sugar House were buried in Trinity church-yard. Andrew S. Norwood, who was a boy during the Revolution, deposed that he used to carry food to John Van Dyke, in this prison. The other prisoners would try to wrest away the food, as they were driven mad by hunger. They were frequently fed with bread made from old, worm-eaten ship biscuits, reground into meal and offensive to the smell. Many of the prisoners died, and some were put into oblong boxes, sometimes two in a box, and buried in Trinity church-yard, and the boy, himself, witnessed some of the interments. A part of Trinity church-yard was used as a common burying-ground,–as was also the yard of St. George’s Church, and what was called the Swamp Burying-Ground.

This boy also deposed that his uncle Clifford was murdered during the Revolution, it was supposed by foreign soldiers, and he was buried in Trinity church-yard.

Jacob Freeman, also a boy during the Revolution, deposed that his father and several other inhabitants of Woodbridge were arrested and sent to New York. His grandfather was sixty years old, and when he was arrested, his son, who was concealed and could have escaped, came out of his hiding-place and surrendered himself for the purpose of accompanying his father to prison. The son was a Lieutenant. They were confined in the Sugar House several months. Every day some of the prisoners died and were buried in Old Trinity church-yard. Ensign Jacob Barnitz was wounded in both legs at the battle of Fort Washington. He was conveyed to New York and there thrown into the Sugar House, and suffered to lie on the damp ground. A kind friend had him conveyed to more comfortable quarters. Barnitz came from York, or Lancaster, Pa.

Little John Pennell was a cabin boy, bound to Captain White of the sloop of war, Nancy, in 1776. He testified that the prisoners of the Sugar House, which was very damp, were buried on the hill called “The Holy Ground.” “I saw where they were buried. The graves were long and six feet wide. Five or six were buried in one grave.” It was Trinity Church ground.

We will now give an account of Levi Hanford, who was imprisoned in the Sugar House in 1777. Levi Hanford was a son of Levi Hanford, and was born in Connecticut, in the town of Norwalk, on the 19th of Feb., 1759. In 1775 he enlisted in a militia company. In 1776 he was in service in New York. In March 1777, being then a member of a company commanded by Captain Seth Seymour, he was captured with twelve others under Lieut. J. B. Eels, at the “Old Well” in South Norwalk, Conn. While a prisoner in the Old Sugar House he sent the following letter to his father. A friend wrote the first part for him, and he appears to have finished it in his own handwriting.

New York June 7. 1777

Loving Father:–

I take the opportunity to let you know I am alive, and in reasonable health, since I had the small-pox.–thanks be to the Lord for it. * * * I received the things you sent me. * * * I wish you would go and see if you can’t get us exchanged–if you please. Matthias Comstock is dead. Sam. Hasted, Ebenezer Hoyt, Jonathan Kellog has gone to the hospital to be inoculated today. We want money very much. I have been sick but hope I am better. There is a doctor here that has helpt me. * * * I would not go to the Hospital, for all manner of disease prevail there. * * * If you can possibly help us send to the Governor and try to help us. * * * Remember my kind love to all my friends. I am

Your Obedient son, Levi Hanford.

Poor Levi Hanford was sent to the prison ship, Good Intent, and was not exchanged until the 8th of May, 1778.

In the “Journal of American History,” the third number of the second volume, on page 527, are the recollections of Thomas Stone, a soldier of the Revolution, who was born in Guilford, Conn., in 1755. In April, 1777, he enlisted under Capt. James Watson in Colonel Samuel Webb’s Regiment, Connecticut line. He spent the following campaign near the Hudson. The 9th of December following Stone and his comrades under Gen. Parsons, embarked on board some small vessel at Norwalk, Conn, with a view to take a small fort on Long Island. “We left the shore,” he says, “about six o’clock, P. M. The night was very dark, the sloop which I was aboard of parted from the other vessels, and at daybreak found ourselves alongside a British frigate. Our sloop grounded, we struck our colors-fatal hour! We were conducted to New York, introduced to the Jersey Prison Ship. We were all destitute of any clothing except what we had on; we now began to taste the vials of Monarchial tender mercy.

“About the 25th of Jan. 1778, we were taken from the ships to the Sugar House, which during the inclement season was more intolerable than the Ships.

“We left the floating Hell with joy, but alas, our joy was of short duration. Cold and famine were now our destiny. Not a pane of glass, nor even a board to a single window in the house, and no fire but once in three days to cook our small allowance of provision. There was a scene that truly tried body and soul. Old shoes were bought and eaten with as much relish as a pig or a turkey; a beef bone of four or five ounces, after it was picked clean, was sold by the British guard for as many coppers.

“In the spring our misery increased; frozen feet began to mortify; by the first of April, death took from our numbers, and, I hope, from their misery, from seven to ten a day; and by the first of May out of sixty-nine taken with me only fifteen were alive, and eight out of that number unable to work.

“Death stared the living in the face: we were now attacked by a fever which threatened to clear our walls of its miserable inhabitants.

“About the 20th of July I made my escape from the prison-yard. Just before the lamps were lighted. I got safely out of the city, passed all the guards, was often fired at, but still safe as to any injury done me; arrived at Harlem River eastward of King’s Bridge.

“Hope and fear were now in full exercise. The alarm was struck by the sentinels keeping firing at me. I arrived at the banks of Harlem,–five men met me with their bayonets at my heart; to resist was instant death, and to give up, little better.

“I was conducted to the main guard, kept there until morning then started for New York with waiters with bayonets at my back, arrived at my old habitation about 1 o’clock, P. M.; was introduced to the Prison keeper who threatened me with instant death, gave me two heavy blows with his cane; I caught his arm and the guard interfered. Was driven to the provost, thrust into a dungeon, a stone floor, not a blanket, not a board, not a straw to rest on. Next day was visited by a Refugee Lieutenant, offered to enlist me, offered a bounty, I declined. Next day renewed the visit, made further offers, told me the General was determined I should starve to death where I was unless I would enter their service. I told him his General dare not do it. (I shall here omit the imprecations I gave him in charge.)

“The third day I was visited by two British officers, offered me a sergeant’s post, threatened me with death as before, in case I refused. I replied, ‘Death if they dare!’

“In about ten minutes the door was opened, a guard took me to my old habitation the Sugar House, it being about the same time of day I left my cell that I entered it, being three days and nights without a morsel of food or a drop of water,–all this for the crime of getting out of prison. When in the dungeon reflecting upon my situation I thought if ever mortal could be justified in praying for the destruction of his enemies, I am the man.

“After my escape the guard was augmented, and about this time a new prison keeper was appointed, our situation became more tolerable.

“The 16th of July was exchanged. Language would fail me to describe the joy of that hour; but it was transitory. On the morning of the 16th, some friends, or what is still more odious, some Refugees, cast into the Prison yard a quantity of warm bread, and it was devoured with greediness. The prison gate was opened, we marched out about the number of 250. Those belonging to the North and Eastern States were conducted to the North River and driven on board the flag ship, and landed at Elizabethtown, New Jersey. Those who ate of the bread soon sickened; there was death in the bread they had eaten. Some began to complain in about half an hour after eating the bread, one was taken sick after another in quick succession and the cry was, ‘Poison, poison!’ I was taken sick about an hour after eating. When we landed, some could walk, and some could not. I walked to town about two miles, being led most of the way by two men. About one half of our number did not eat of the bread, as a report had been brought into the prison _that the prisoners taken at Fort Washington had been poisoned in the same way_.

“The sick were conveyed in wagons to White Plains, where I expected to meet my regiment, but they had been on the march to Rhode Island I believe, about a week. I was now in a real dilemma; I had not the vestige of a shirt to my body, was moneyless and friendless. What to do I knew not. Unable to walk, a gentleman, I think his name was Allen, offered to carry me to New Haven, which he did. The next day I was conveyed to Guilford, the place of my birth, but no near relative to help me. Here I learned that my father had died in the service the Spring before. I was taken in by a hospitable uncle, but in moderate circumstances. Dr. Readfield attended me for about four months I was salivated twice, but it had no good effect. They sent me 30 miles to Dr Little of East Haddam, who under kind Providence restored me to such state of health that I joined my Regiment in the Spring following.

“In the year 1780, I think in the month of June, General Green met the enemy at Springfield, New Jersey, and in the engagement I had my left elbow dislocated in the afternoon. The British fired the village and retreated. We pursued until dark. The next morning my arm was so swollen that it _could_ not, or at least was not put right, and it has been ever since a weak, feeble joint, which has disabled me from most kinds of manual labor.”

To this account the grandson of Thomas Stone, the Rev. Hiram Stone, adds some notes, in one of which he says, speaking of the Sugar House: “I have repeatedly heard my grandfather relate that there were no windows left in the building, and that during the winter season the snow would be driven entirely across the great rooms in the different stories, and in the morning lie in drifts upon our poor, hungry, unprotected prisoners. Of a morning several frozen corpses would be dragged out, thrown into wagons like logs, then driven away and pitched into a large hole or trench, and covered up like dead brutes.”

Speaking of the custom of sending the exchanged prisoners as far as possible from their own homes, he says: “I well remember hearing my grandfather explain this strange conduct of the enemy in the following way. Alter the poison was thus perfidiously administered, the prisoners belonging at the North were sent across to the Jersey side, while those of the South were sent in an opposite direction, the intention of the enemy evidently being to send the exchanged prisoners as far from home as possible, that most of them might die of the effect of the poison before reaching their friends. Grandfather used to speak of the treatment of our prisoners as most cruel and murderous, though charging it more to the Tories or Refugees than to the British.

“The effects of the poison taken into his system were never eradicated in the life-time of my grandfather, a ‘breaking out,’ or rash, appearing every spring, greatly to his annoyance and discomfort.”

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

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