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Top of the Prison Ship Martyrs Memorial.

Prison Ship Martyrs Memorial

Field review by the editors.

Brooklyn, New York

A 15-story-tall granite column, topped by an eight-ton bronze brazier, in the middle of a park in Brooklyn, marks the mass grave of the so-called prison ship martyrs, or what's left of them.

Most people have never heard of the prison ship martyrs, and that's because they were the American losers during the Revolutionary War.

Soon after the fighting started, the Yanks were kicked out of New York City by the British. The redcoats were left with a lot of American POWs: soldiers, sailors, civilians, pretty much anyone who wasn't an ally. The Brits crammed them into prison ships moored in the East River. An estimated 11,500 people died in the ships (only 6,800 died in combat during the entire war). Perhaps 1,000 survived. That's a mortality rate that not even the infamous Andersonville Civil War prison could match.

In the decades after the war, bones of dead prisoners -- who were dumped overboard daily from the ships -- turned up whenever anyone dug a hole near the river or threw a net into it. They were collected, packed into stone caskets, and interred in a crypt cut into a hill that had overlooked the prison ships. The hill became Fort Greene Park, and the crypt was surrounded by a sweeping staircase and topped with an eternal flame and the big pole. The memorial was dedicated by then-President William Howard Taft

Prison Ship Martyrs Memorial.
Prison Ship Martyrs Memorial.

That was in 1908. But as the years passed, people forgot about the pole, as they had forgotten about the dead prisoners. The Brits became our pals. A plaque detailing their bad behavior was taken down. The stairs to the top were closed. The flame went out.

But in 2008, after many false starts, the Prison Ship Martyrs Memorial was restored. Its top is still off-limits, but the exterior has been cleaned and its plaque has reappeared. The flame -- now an electric light bounced upward from a mirror -- is turned on at night.

A park ranger told us that 21 bodies in the hillside crypt were complete enough to be identified, and that the only people allowed into the vault are those who can prove that they are related. In a city that prizes status, the Prison Ship Martyrs Memorial crypt is the most exclusive club in town.

Prison Ship Martyrs Memorial

Fort Greene Park

295 Willoughby St., Brooklyn, NY
By subway: Take the 2, 3, 4, or 5 trains to Nevins St., or the B, M, Q, or R trains to DeKalb Ave. Walk north along the Flatbush Ave. Extension for a couple of blocks, then turn right onto Willoughby St. Walk two blocks to Fort Greene Park. The monument stands at the center of the park.
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