‘A tale of the forgotten patriots’: New Brooklyn tour explores history of British prison ships moored in NYC during the American Revolution

Along the East River just southwest of Williamsburg lies the historic Wallabout Bay — an inlet on the edge of the Brooklyn Navy Yard where, more than two centuries ago, thousands of U.S. patriots perished.

The Revolutionary War was in full swing by August of 1776 when the Continental Army suffered a crippling blow by the British at the Battle of Brooklyn, the first military engagement following the adoption of the Declaration of Independence.

The Red Coats’ strategic victory in current-day Brooklyn Heights geographically divided the colonies, and allowed for a fleet of British ships to sail into Wallabout Bay — disease-ridden wooden vessels where more than 11,500 starving American prisoners of war would eventually die.

“This is a tale of the forgotten patriots. ... When you learn about the American Revolution in school, you think [about] Boston, you think Philadelphia, Lexington and Concord. You really don’t think New York City,” said historian and urban archeologist Alyssa Loorya, who will lead a walking tour May 8 from DUMBO to Forth Greene Park, where many fallen prisoners were later interred.

“There were more people captured and held on American soil [during the Revolutionary War] than in any other time,” said Loorya, noting that POW estimates range between 18,000 and 30,000. “The British would try to offer [them] various enticements so they would sign loyalty to the king. … And even though many took the offer, the overwhelming majority chose to stick by this ideal of a new nation and pay a very heavy price for American freedom.”

The tour, hosted by the Fort Greene Daughters of the American Revolution, comes nearly 245 years after the Founding Fathers declared independence from the crown, and after New York became a seven-year stronghold for the British Army.

“The British captors were unquestionably, absolutely brutal ... and these hollowed-out, old warships had some of the grossest conditions,” said Loorya, describing the roughly 16 moored vessels, including the massive HMS Jersey, that dotted Wallabout Bay.

“They would be overflowing with excretions, and many [people] fell victim to dysentery, scurvy [and] a whole host of [other] conditions. Many did not survive ... but many who did went on to write memoirs or letters or diaries detailing their experience.”

While the Battle of Brooklyn — also known as the Battle of Long Island — left thousands imprisoned aboard both ships and in city jails, the American defeat was also a turning point in the war: Militiamen from Maryland had held off the British, allowing Gen. George Washington’s troops to retreat to Manhattan and later cross the Delaware River, saving the Continental Army from certain doom.

“They lived to fight another day. ... And that [sounded a] rallying cry where they came together as one nation united,” Loorya explained.

“Many of those Patriots [on the prison ships] truly took that [sentiment] to heart. They survived deplorable conditions instead of giving up on that cause of independence and what they truly believed in — and what they believed in was this country.”