Haunting Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Brooklyn is America’s ‘original’ tomb of unknown war heroes


The Prison Ship Martyrs Monument offers chilling testimony that American independence was purchased by patriots at the price of hideous human suffering. 

The 150-foot-tall Doric column at Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, New York, towers over the footprint of a colonial garrison of the American Revolution. 

It’s dedicated to the estimated 11,500 American soldiers, sailors and privateers who died in hellish conditions aboard British prison ships on the East River during the American Revolution.


A number of these patriots are buried in a crypt beneath the monument — the identities of many known only to God.

“This is hallowed ground,” Brooklyn native and self-professed patriot Eddie Desmond told Fox News Digital. 

“This is America’s original tomb of the unknown soldiers,” he said.

More Americans died on prison ships during the American Revolution than were killed in combat. 

An estimated 6,800 died in battle during the six-year conflict, according to the American Battlefield Trust.

“This is hallowed ground.”

“Prisoners roasted in sizzling temperatures, drank brackish water supplied through the sides of the ship, starved, and quarreled with vermin, lice, impending madness, dehydration and contagious disease,” the trust writes of conditions aboard the prison ships. 

“It is estimated at that least six lives were lost each day on a single prison ship.”

Revolutionary War memorial

They were offered release from their misery if they renounced American independence and proclaimed fealty to the Crown of England.  

None accepted the offer, according to popular lore.

The prison ship martyrs, emaciated and riddled with disease, were tossed overboard or buried in shallow graves. 

No ceremony or salute honored their sacrifice. 


“Famed historian David McCullough has said the crypt is no less significant than the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery,” reads one inscription inside the park’s small visitors center.

The Prison Ships Martyrs Monument was dedicated in a ceremony led by President William Howard Taft in 1908. 

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia opened in 1921. 

HMS Jersey

Thousands of allies from France, Netherlands and Spain — among other countries — also died aboard British prison ships, which floated just north of the park in Wallabout Bay. 

It is likely that these foreign warriors for the cause of American independence are also buried in the crypt beneath the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument.

“It’s a much bigger story than just an American story. We forget sometimes that it’s an international story,” Purdue University history professor Cole Jones told Fox News Digital.

“Prisoners roasted in sizzling temperatures … starved, and quarreled with vermin, lice, impending madness, dehydration and contagious disease.”

Jones, who was raised in New York City, wrote the book “Captives of Liberty: Prisoners of War and the Politics of Vengeance in the American Revolution” in 2019. 

He added, “The fight for American independence was a world war, fought in every ocean, on every continent.”

Prison ships dead

About 16 British ships housed prisoners in the East River during the American Revolution. 

The HMS Jersey, a massive warship converted for prison purposes, was the most notorious among them. 


“I soon found that every spark of humanity had fled the breasts of the British officers who had charge of that floating receptacle of human misery,” wrote 18-year-old American patriot Alexander Coffin Jr., a prisoner aboard HMS Jersey.

“Nothing but abuse and insult was to be expected.”

“Famed historian David McCullough said the crypt is no less significant than the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.”

The remains of the prison ship martyrs were exposed when their poorly dug graves eroded. Others washed up on Brooklyn beaches for years after the war. 

The bodies, mostly bones, were dutifully gathered by grateful local residents of the newly independent United States.

Prison Ship Martyrs plaque

They were first buried in a tomb on what’s now Hudson Avenue in 1808, near Wallabout Bay, according to the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. 

The bay became home of the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1801, which expanded into an industrial colossus.


The site where so many Americans suffered aboard British ships during the American Revolution built many of the mightiest warships in the history of the U.S. Navy. 

The USS Missouri, upon which Japan signed the surrender that ended World War II, was built in Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The former shipyard is an industrial park today. 

USS Missouri

The site of the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument was known as Fort Putnam during the American Revolution, constructed under the guidance of General Nathaniel Greene. It was renamed in his honor during the War of 1812. 

Famed American poet Walt Whitman, then a newspaper editor, helped rally support to turn the fortress into a public park in the 1840s. 

“Most of us could not imagine the suffering experienced by those who are interred here.”

Celebrated landscape architects Franklin Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux designed it, complete with a crypt to house remains of the martyrs. 

“Twenty-two boxes, containing a mere fraction of total volume of remains, were interred in the vault” in 1873, notes the NYC Parks Department. 

Prison ship monument

“Toward the end of the 19th century, a diverse group of interests including the federal government, municipal and state governments, private societies and donors began a campaign for a permanent monument to the prison ship martyrs.”

The monument, designed by the prestigious architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White and sculptor Adolph Alexander Weinman, was dedicated in 1908. 

It was restored in 2008 to celebrate a centennial of honoring American and allied heroes in the fight for independence.

“The Prison Ship Martyrs Monument is a gruesome reminder of war,” Greg Young, co-host and producer of “The Bowery Boys” podcast, a popular chronicle of New York City history, told Fox News Digital. 

“Most of us could not imagine the suffering experienced by those who are interred here.”

The monument column is topped by a brass lantern. Originally housing an eternal flame, it’s now illuminated at night with electric lights. 

Fort Greene Park is used as any other park in the city. New Yorkers on a recent day skateboarded, practiced boxing and yoga, read books and ate lunch in the verdant expanse beneath the column. 

Prison ship memorial

They may or may not be aware that so many patriots, largely unknown, lay beneath their feet.

“The prisoners who were held on those ships were central to the effort to win American independence,” said Purdue professor Jones. 

“Their suffering and their sacrifice deserve to be remembered.”

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