House passes bill to seek change of status for Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument
By Paula Katinas
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
A 149-foot-high shrine to American Revolutionary War POWs that stands majestically over Fort Greene Park could be on its way to becoming a national monument to be maintained by the U.S. Department of the Interior if a bill approved by the House on April 28 is passed by the senate and signed into law by President Obama.
The House passed the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument Preservation Act, a bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D- Brooklyn-Queens), via a voice vote on Monday. The legislation directs the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to study the feasibility of designating the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument as a national monument.
The monument, consisting of a 100-foot-wide granite staircase and a central Doric column 149 feet in height, houses the remains of some 11,500 Revolutionary War soldiers who were kept as prisoners of war by the British. Because there was limited prison space on land, the British maintained approximately 16 prison ships in New York Harbor to hold the POWs. The prisoners were housed under inhumane conditions. Many died as a result of starvation, disease and lack of medical attention, Jeffries said. The patriots who lost their lives on the ships represented all 13 colonies and more than a dozen countries.
“As one of America’s largest revolutionary war burial sites and in tribute to the patriots that lost their lives fighting for our nation’s independence, this monument deserves to be considered as a unit of the National Park Service,” Jeffries said.
Currently, the monument is operated under the jurisdiction of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. A local civic group, the Fort Greene Conservancy, often looks after the base of the monument.
The national monument designation would man that the monument would fall under the aegis of the Dept. of the Interior, the agency which has jurisdiction over the national parks, presidential libraries, and other important national historic sites. It would be maintained by the National parks Service, a unit within the department.
“I look forward to working with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand as this bill now moves to the senate,” Jeffries said.
The Society of Old Brooklynites, an organization founded in 1880 that works to preserve and celebrate the borough’s rich history, was responsible for getting the monument built and holds a memorial service in Fort Greene Park each August. The annual memorial coincides with the anniversary of the Battle of Brooklyn. As the Brooklyn Eagle’s Lore Croghan reported last year, the Society’s members in the past have included historical figures like the poet Walt Whitman, Columbia University president Seth Low and Henry Chadwick, the name widely considered to be the father of modern baseball. Former borough president Marty Markowitz is a life member of the group. Its current president is historian Ron Schweiger.
“The society’s position is that the monument is sacred ground,” Ted General, second vice president of the society, told the Brooklyn Eagle.
General got the opportunity to go inside the crypt a few years ago, an opportunity any history buff would savor. “It’s fascinating. One of the tings I saw was a slate casket with wires wrapped around it,” he said.
The patriots who perished on the prison ships deserve to be remembered, General said. “They died in the fight to create this country and our freedoms. They were kept in horrendous conditions. There was disease and starvation. And when they died, the British threw them overboard. Eventually, their bodies washed ashore,” he said.
In the years after the war, the bones of dead POWs still continued to wash ashore, according to Findagrave.com, a website devoted to the monument. Brooklyn residents collected the bones. The bones were housed in a monument constructed in the Brooklyn Navy Yard in the early 19th Century.
The Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument was erected in Fort Greene Park in 1908. President William Howard Taft attended the ribbon cutting ceremony.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the monument into disrepair due to a shortage of funds, neglect, vandalism and lack of public interest, Jeffries said. In 2005, as part of a $3 million reconstruction project, which took 18 months, the condition of the monument was somewhat improved, according to Jeffries.
“The story of these brave heroes and the atrocities they suffered has been described as one of the least known accounts of the American Revolution,” Jeffries said. “The prison ship martyrs died so that we might be free. By passing this bill, the house has taken an important step toward recognizing the sacrifices of the patriots whose remains are contained in the crypt in Fort Greene Park.”