Brooklyn Boro

Memorial tributes to America’s first POWs to be held at Fort Greene Park, Green-Wood Cemetery

August 24, 2021 Theodore General
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Buried 40 feet below a 149-foot-tall monument in Fort Greene Park are the remains of approximately 11,500 brave patriots of the American Revolution who died aboard decrepit, disease- and vermin-ridden British “prison ships.”

This towering monument on the top of the hill is formally known as the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument. It memorializes these victims, who were incarcerated in dungeon-like spaces aboard the prison ships anchored in Wallabout Bay. They suffered under inhuman and horrific conditions, and after they died, many were cast overboard or placed in sand-covered shallow graves.

At times, the British offered them freedom if they renounced their allegiance to the American cause and swore loyalty to King George, but almost none did so.

Through fundraising efforts by the Society of Old Brooklynites, the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Sons of the American Revolution, plus grants by Congress and the cities of Brooklyn and New York, the Stanford White-designed monument was erected in 1908. It was dedicated by President-elect William Howard Taft, who later served as chief justice of the U.S.

The top of the column had a light known as the “eternal flame,” but that went out in the 1920s and was not replaced until 1997, with solar-powered lights.

Re-enactors in period costume fire muskets at Green-Wood Cemetery. Photo by Ted General

On Saturday, Aug. 28 at 10 a.m., in commemoration of the 245th anniversary of the Battle of Brooklyn (originally known as the Battle of Long Island), the Society of Old Brooklynites will hold its 114th memorial tribute to these gallant countrymen. The event will include opening ceremonies by the FDNY ceremonial unit color guard, with an ensemble of FDNY Pipes and Drums, the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem sung by Metropolitan Opera baritone Daniel Sutin.

The program will also include a narrative about the prison ship martyrs, a symbolic maritime piping ceremony, a brief ballet of mourning by a dancer from Young Dancers in Repertory, a sounding of “Taps,” the somber tolling of eight bells, and a wreath-laying. Michael Spinner, the society’s second vice president, will be the MC at the proceedings.

Brooklyn Borough Historian Ron Schweiger and Borough President Eric Adams at the monument. Photo by Ted General

Today, many people are unaware that this historic, sacred site in Fort Greene Park is reportedly the largest American Revolutionary burial ground in the nation. It really should be made a national monument.

Over at Green-Wood Cemetery at Fifth Avenue and 25th Street, on the same day, from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., re-enactors in Colonial-era garb will perform drills, fire muskets and host games. From 12:30 to 1:15 p.m., a “skirmish” will take place between the redcoats and Colonial militiamen on the grassy knoll near the main gate at Green-Wood.

The towering Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Fort Greene Park. Photo by Ted General

At 1:30 p.m., visitors will be led on a family-friendly walk to the top of Battle Hill. Battle Hill is the highest geographic location in Brooklyn. The hill has a view of both the local sculpture “Altar to Liberty: Minerva” by Frederick Ruckstull and the Statue of Liberty across the Harbor.

Incidentally, this is the first time in 76 years that the Green-Wood series of Brooklyn Battle Week events was moved from the last Sunday in August to Saturday.

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