Following the Battle of Long Island in August, 1776, and the fall of New York City soon after, the British found thousands of prisoners on their hands, and the available prisons in New York filled up quickly. Then, as the British began seizing hundreds of seamen off privateers, they turned a series of aging vessels into maritime prison ships.
There were 4,435 battle deaths during the Revolutionary War, according to the Department of Defense. One historian estimated that there were between 7,000 and 8,000 prison ship deaths, but other sources claim even more. A letter-writer from Fishkill in 1783 claimed that on the Jersey alone, 11,644 died. Although that figure is unlikely for the one ship, it is reasonable for all the prison ships together, and is cited regularly.
Built in 1735 as a 64-gun ship, the Jersey was was converted to a prison ship in the winter of 1779-1780. Virtually stripped except for a flagstaff and a derrick for taking in supplies, the Jersey was floated, rudderless, in Wallabout Bay, about 100 yards offshore of what is now the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Its portholes were closed and supplanted by a series of small holes, 20 inches square, crossed by two bars of iron.
There were various ways to get off the prison ships. The British had a standing offer that any prisoner could be released immediately if he joined the British forces, and an unidentified number did so. Prisoners who carried money with them could buy their way off the ship. Others managed to escape. Also, prisoner exchanges were quite common, with officers exchanged for officers, seamen for seamen, soldiers for soldiers. But for vast numbers of prisoners, there were only two possibilities: death or the end of the war, whichever came first.
Daugherty, Greg. “The Appalling Way the British Tried to Recruit Americans Away from Revolt.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 31 Jan. 2020,
History.com Editors. “The HMS Jersey.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 19 Mar. 2010, www.history.com/topics/american-revolution/the-hms-jersey.
“History: Tragedy: Prison Ships & General Slocum.” East River NYC, 2008, www.eastrivernyc.org/content/history/tragedy/index.html.
“Prison Ship Jersey.” Wikimedia Commons, New York Public Library, 13 May 2016, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki