We obsess over the deaths of individuals. When one notable person dies, or when one person dies notably, we imbue that person with our fears, with idealizations of our better nature, or with a rueful but unspoken gratitude of “there but for the grace of God go I.”
But when we die in batches, we gradually forget. “Remember the Maine!” we shouted, taking up guns, and we killed people over it — and then we forgot. Just what the hell is the Maine, most people would ask today. Was it near the Alamo? Once inspiration for violence and war, some of the Maine‘s 274 dead lie forgotten and unvisited in a cemetery in Key West, Florida, and New Yorkers eat lunch daily on the rim of the stone Maine memorial in Columbus Circle as if it was only a fancy park bench, which of course it now essentially is.
You might remember the Maine, or at least a little — I’d advise having a dim awareness that we now know it was probably a simple accident that caused the sinking and not a hidden mine, but Hearst, who spearheaded the Columbus Circle monument, wanted a war. But 122 years before that, some 11,500 people died in one episode, and we barely remember it at all.
I made a terrific video with AOL On’s “What Remains” series about this very topic. It really sets the scene:
Back during the colonial days, the British didn’t bother much with prisons. It tossed petty thieves and undesirables into hulks, which were usually disused ships festering somewhere in a backwater of the local port. Britain used to ship those inmates, after a long torturous stay, to other lands, where they would drop them off — a life sentence, more or less, since few could afford to buy their way back — and forget about them forever.
When the American colonies rebelled, Britain had to find a new dump for its human trash, and Australia was chosen. But during the Revolutionary War, the Crown couldn’t retire its prison ship fun. Any naughty colonist or mercenary who was caught rebelling was usually packed into a irreparably damaged ship somewhere. For a while, the British held New York City as the Revolutionary War raged elsewhere, and that was when it became particularly aggressive at stuffing human beings into their prison ships and subsequently ignore their basic needs. The hulks were a deterrent to crime back home, the Redcoats reasoned, so they’re sure to scare those colonists straight, too.
Bet Teacher didn’t tell you this: More people died on these moored prison ships than died on the battlefields of the war. That’s right: America was born out of concentration camps.
(It would not be the last concentration camp to devour so many lives in America, either. But I’ll leave that story for another time soon.)
Every day, British soliders would tell the luckless and momentary survivors to toss out the day’s dead. Over the course of the war, some 11,500 corpses were accumulated this way. The British, who are otherwise good about the soil and farming, ordered them quickly buried in shallow graves on the waterside. We wouldn’t even know how many people ended up there if it weren’t for the Dutch man and his daughter who looked out at the water from Remsen’s Mill and made a little note every time another corpse was dumped there.
Despite horrific conditions that created a daily orgy of death, not one person recanted their allegiance to the colonies and joined the British. One word would have freed them from the infection and stench that surrounded them. They died instead.
At one point, the prisoners banded together to write a desperate letter to George Washington, begging him to rescue them through a prisoner exchange. But Washington ignored them. He was afraid they would spread the smallpox they contracted on the ships, and what’s more, he didn’t want to release able-bodied Redcoats back into service. He let the prisoners die.
Of course, early Americans knew all about the willful mass slaughter, just as they gave the French their due for ultimately getting us out of our jam with the English. One of the survivors wrote a gruesome tell-all about it. You would have had a hard time forgetting, too: When you least expected it, corpses would resurface with uncivilized regularity. You can’t run a booming port with rotting body parts popping up all over the place, so the locals poked around the shoreline for all the human remains they could scrounge up and re-dumped them, with just enough solemnity to make it seem less sacrilegious, in a new mass grave and got on with the business of making money.
I’d like to say that in the mid-1970s, they built a luxurious suburban subdivision on top of that, neglecting to inform buyers that their tract homes were located on sacred burial ground, and that one day the corpses were found bobbing in the swimming pool with Carol Ann. That would be fun, and we’d probably remember them more… but it didn’t end that way.
But by the middle 1800s, without those pesky arms and skulls resurfacing to inconveniently remind new Americans of their conveniently buried savage past, there was a sense that we were forgetting about what happened. Americans are good at many things, but expeditious forgetting is a forte, especially if the thing not worth retaining has to do with being wrong or defeated.
Walt Whitman, bless him, was one of the ones who refused to forget. In what may have been the last instance of an American political movement inspired by verse (that is, until Clinton’s impeachment stemming from a gift version of Whitman’s own Leaves of Grass), he worked to inspire construction of a proper memorial to the so-called Martyrs by writing wrote an ode to the prison ships. It was to be sung to the tune of the national anthem in a march at the newly created Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn in 1846. Quoted in an old New York Times story:
…How priceless the worth of the sanctified earth
We are standing on now! Lo! The slope of its girth
Where the martyrs were buried; nor prayers, tears or stones
Marked their crumbled-in coffins, their white holy bones.
But he envisioned a proper memorial for those forgotten, rotten dead:
Ah, yes! be the answer. In memory still
We have placed in our hearts and embalmed there forever
The battle, the prison ship martyrs and hill;
Oh, may it be preserved till those hearts death shall sever,
For how priceless the worth, &c.
The “&c”, appears to be Walt’s. I have no idea how you’d sing it to the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and frankly it’s a lazy way to finish a stanza since he clearly had more to say but ran out of space for it. But he was Walt Whitman and it was for charity, so I have to let him have it.
Anyway, Walt died, too, before he got his dream, but it finally came true in 1908. Designed by world-famous philanderer Stanford White (also dead by then, shot in the face) and attended by the considerable aspect of President Taft, a 149 foot tall column fitted with an eternal flame was christened on the hill in Fort Greene Park. At the time, it was the tallest freestanding Doric column in the world. (“Honey! Pack the kids into the carriage! We’re going to the tallest freestanding Doric column!”) Beneath that, a crypt was set in the middle of a flight of imposing stairs 100 feet wide, and inside were placed all the corpse pieces that they could scrounge up at that late date. If you added up all the body parts, you’d almost certainly total less than 11,500 martyrs — more like 8,000 — but it’s the sentiment that counts.
Or at least, should count. By the late century, Fort Greene Park was its own horror show, half-lined with dilapidated and crime-ridden projects. The “eternal flame” atop the column was dead. An elevator was installed in 1937 but removed after just 11 years of inadvisable service. The four bronze eagles on the columnar flanks had been removed to storage units unknown until such a time New Yorkers decided they knew how to have nice things again — “removed for their safety in 1962 by the Parks Department” as my 2002 Blue Guide put it.
And yet a nearby historical plaque, also mostly forgotten, calls it “America’s Greatest Mass Grave.” Can you think of any that are bigger?
Fort Greene Park is next to downtown Brooklyn, though, and so it wasn’t destined to molder for long. In 2008, a refurbishment was completed. It looks terrific, and to my delight, there’s even a staffed information center on weekends. The park ranger told me the eternal flame is now only illuminated at night. She also says that visitors are not permitted to ascend, nor may they enter the tomb unless they come with written proof they’re related to someone who is consecrated there. That seems fair; New Yorkers have only just begun to prove they know how to take care of bronze eagles, so I am not personally prepared to entrust them with access to the earthly remains of the Prison Ship Martyrs.
The projects in New York City, meanwhile, have become desirable real estate, and now instead of junkies, Fort Greene Park is patronized by children and joggers who achieve their cardio goals by stampeding up and down the stairs over the white holy bones of the 11,500.