By Philip R. Devlin
(May 23, 2023) — The American death rate for battle casualties during the American Revolution is estimated to be between 4,200-4,500 men; however, one of the least publicized facts of the American Revolution is that nearly three times that number of Americans died in British prison ships in New York Harbor.
Eight men from Haddam were among those casualties: Captain David Brooks, Lt. Shubael Brainerd (after whom Lt. Shubael Road in Higganum is named), William Aikens, Jonathan Brainerd, Jr., Elihu Cook, Elijah Green, and brothers James and Nathaniel Stocking.
All eight men were crew members of a war sloop called the Samson. Built in Higganum with a sharp bow for fast sailing, the Samson was equipped with eight guns that could shoot 9-12 lb. projectiles. Both the ship’s speed and its crew’s skills enabled it to engage and to defeat bigger ships with more guns, such as the British sloop, Swallow, which carried 20 guns. Despite the ship’s speed and the crew’s prowess, the British finally captured the Samson off the English coast in 1782. Its crew was taken to a dismasted British prison ship in New York City known as the HMS Jersey. The Jersey was the most notorious of the 16 British prison ships in Wallabout Bay, later better known as the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
By all known accounts of the time, American POWs on these prison ships were subjected to a level of abuse and deprivation comparable to the concentration camps of World War II. Thousands were crammed below the decks of prison ships in abominable conditions. Disease was rampant, as was extreme thirst and malnutrition. On average, 8 to 10 men on the Jersey died each day. Sometimes, however, some prisoners were simply murdered. Such was the case with the crew of the Samson.
Church records from Middle Haddam indicate that eight crew members of the Samson were deliberately poisoned in June of 1782. Field’s Genealogy of the Brainerd Family also mentions their poisoning (pg. 106). In fact, the steward of the Jersey, a sociopathic man named Cunningham, boasted that he had killed more rebels with poison than the guns of the British army had during the war. He may have been right. Cunningham’s preferred method was to offer water laced with poison to desperately thirsty men.
One Connecticut prisoner, Robert Sheffield of Stonington, miraculously escaped from the Jersey in 1778. He had this to say in the Connecticut Gazette on July 10, 1778:
“The heat was so intense…Their sickly countenances and ghastly looks were truly horrible; some swearing and blaspheming, others crying, praying, and wringing their hands and stalking about like ghosts; others delirious, raving, and storming…the air was so foul that at times a lamp could not be kept burning, by reason of which the bodies were not missed until they had been dead 10 days.”
Following the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1783, the British burned the HMS Jersey in the harbor. While the USS Connecticut was being built at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1902, workers discovered the remains of the Jersey.
Spurred on by a Brooklyn DAR chapter, the Prison Ships Martyrs Monument (photo above) was dedicated in Brooklyn in 1908. It is a 145-foot-tall Doric column that stands over the collected bones of thousands of dead American POWS—including those of eight men from Haddam. A New York newspaper had this to say about the dead American POWs: “near twenty hogsheads full of bones were collected by the indefatigable industry of John Jackson, Esq., the committee of Tammany Society, and other citizens, to be interred in the vault.” Men from all 13 colonies were known to have died there. Most of them remain unknown. Now, however, we know that at least eight of them from Haddam have been identified and are forever honored annually for their sacrifice by a grateful community.
Lt. Shubael Brainerd Photo by Philip Devlin
Martyrs Monument Photo Public Domain