The Revolution’s forgotten martyrs


    When most of us think and talk about the American Revolution, a few iconic snapshots spring to mind. George Washington crossing the Delaware.  The Boston Tea Party. The “shot heard ’round the world” at Lexington and Concord. The Boston Massacre. Winter at Valley Forge. Paul Revere’s midnight ride.

    But how often do we hear about the 11,500 men who suffered and died under horrifying conditions on British prison ships in New York harbor?  Just about ... never?

    I decided I wanted to change that in Five 4ths of July.

    The prison ship Bonhomme, in my novel, is based on the most infamous of the real prison ships – the Jersey, shown at left. Most of my information in the “Prisoner” section came from a fascinating document, “Recollections of the Jersey Prison Ship,” a firsthand account by Capt. Thomas Dring. Despite unbearable conditions, American captives steadfastly refused their one chance for release: renouncing the Patriot cause and joining the British.

    On a bitter cold February day, I took the subway from Manhattan to pay my respects at the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park (right). Watching people hurry past in their warm winter coats, I felt sad. How many of them had ever stopped to read the words on the monument? How many knew anything about the prisoners who had perished without so much as a blanket in these same frigid temperatures?

    In Five 4ths of July, a fellow prisoner tells Jake he must “stay alive ... bear witness to what happens here.” I hope Jake’s story will help bring attention to the existence of the prison ship martyrs, so that their contribution to the fight for freedom will be rediscovered – and never again forgotten.