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The Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn, serves as a chilling testament to the suffering endured by American soldiers, sailors, and privateers during the American Revolution. The monument stands at 150-feet tall and honors the estimated 11,500 patriots who died aboard British prison ships on the East River. Many of these individuals are buried in a crypt beneath the monument, with their identities known only to God.

During the American Revolution, more Americans died on prison ships than in combat. Conditions aboard these vessels were described as hellish, with prisoners facing extreme heat, brackish water, starvation, vermin infestations, disease, and dehydration. Despite offers of release in exchange for renouncing American independence, none of the prisoners accepted. Instead, the emaciated and diseased individuals were either thrown overboard or buried in shallow graves without any ceremony or recognition of their sacrifice.

Historian David McCullough has likened the significance of the crypt beneath the Prison Ships Martyrs Monument to that of the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery. The monument itself was dedicated in 1908 in a ceremony led by President William Howard Taft. The park where it stands has a rich history and is the final resting place for thousands of American and allied heroes who fought for independence.

The Prison Ships Martyrs Monument also serves as a reminder of the international support for American independence, with allies from France, Netherlands, Spain, and other countries also dying aboard British prison ships. It is estimated that about 16 British ships housed prisoners in the East River during the revolution, with the HMS Jersey being the most notorious among them. The suffering endured by these individuals underscores the global nature of the fight for American independence.

The remains of the prison ship martyrs were exposed due to poorly dug graves eroding, and some washed up on Brooklyn beaches for years after the war. Their bodies were eventually gathered by grateful local residents and initially buried near Wallabout Bay in 1808. The area later became home to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which built many of the U.S. Navy’s warships, including the USS Missouri.

The Fortress in the park was renamed Fort Greene during the War of 1812, and efforts to create a permanent monument to the prison ship martyrs began in the late 19th century. The monument was designed by McKim, Mead and White, and sculptor Adolph Alexander Weinman, and was restored in 2008. Today, the monument is a solemn reminder of the sacrifices made by those who fought for American independence, and it serves as a poignant symbol of remembrance and honor for the martyrs who lost their lives on those prison ships.

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