Prison ship shrine in Brooklyn a step closer to becoming national monument
Public meeting on Jan. 31
The majestic, 149-foot-high resting place of thousands of Revolutionary War POWs who died under shockingly cruel conditions is a step closer to becoming a national monument, to be protected and maintained by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
The National Park Service will hold a public meeting to discuss its special study on the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument in Fort Greene Park on Tuesday, Jan. 31 at 6 p.m. in the Shirley A. Chisholm State Office Building, 55 Hanson Place, Brooklyn.
The monument marks the site of a crypt for more than 11,500 men and women whose lives ended miserably aboard 16 British prison ships anchored in New York Harbor.
As they died — of starvation, disease, lack of medical attention and wanton cruelty — their British jailers simply dumped their bodies into the river. Body parts and bones washed up on Brooklyn’s shores near Wallabout Bay, now the site of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, for years. The skulls on the coast were once “as thick as pumpkins in an autumn cornfield,” Edwin Burrows wrote in “Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War.”
This history is irreplaceable, according to U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D- Brooklyn-Queens), who sponsored the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument Preservation Act in 2014. The bill was approved by the House and was sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
“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 at that time.
The special study will help determine whether the monument meets the criteria for congressional designation as a unit of the national park system. These criteria include: national significance, suitability and feasibility for inclusion within the national park system, and the need for National Park Service (NPS) management.
The New York City Parks Department “has been working very closely with Federal Legislative Affairs on the proposed bill, and we have met with Representative Jefferies on the issue,” said Parks Department spokesperson Maeri Ferguson. “We welcome collaboration and partnership with our federal partners to potentially bring in more resources to these important, historic sites.”
NYC Parks oversees more than 800 monuments citywide. Over the last two years, elected officials and NYC Parks have allocated $13 million for future Fort Greene Park improvements — the greatest investment in the park since the 1930s, Ferguson said.
“By conserving and maintaining this irreplaceable Brooklyn landmark, the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument is most certainly a historic gem within our Parks system,” she said.
Bringing the monument into the federal park system would offer enhanced opportunities, however.
“In general, NPS involvement can offer connectivity to a larger system and other related sites, greater visibility, enhanced interpretive and educational opportunities, and support for resource protection,” National Park Service Community Planner Amanda Jones told the Brooklyn Eagle.
“If the study meets those criteria, we would evaluate a set of management alternatives that would give us a better understanding of what a park would look like for the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument,” she added.
The monument, consisting of a central Doric column with a 100-foot-wide granite staircase, was designed by architect Stanford White. Several sculptures, including eagles and a tablet, are in storage due to vandalism, according to the New York City Parks Department, which currently operates the monument, but their return is under consideration.
The Society of Old Brooklynites, an organization founded in 1880 that works to preserve and celebrate the borough’s rich history, holds a memorial service in Fort Greene Park each August. The annual memorial coincides with the anniversary of the Battle of Brooklyn.
Information about the monument, status of the study and the criteria used to evaluate new national parklands is available at: http://parkplanning.nps.gov/prisonship.
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