Three Rivers
Hudson~Mohawk~Schoharie
History From America's Most Famous Valleys


American Prisoners of The Revolution

BY DANSKE DANDRIDGE

CHAPTER XXXIV
THE NARRATIVE OF CAPTAIN DRING

By far the most complete account of life on board the Old Jersey is contained in Captain Dring's Recollections. His nature was hopeful, and his constitution strong and enduring. He attempted to make the best of his situation, and succeeded in leading as nearly a tolerable life on board the prison-ship as was possible. His book is too long for insertion in these pages, but we will endeavor to give the reader an abstract of it. T

his book was published in 1865, having been prepared for the press and annotated by Mr. Albert G. Greene, who speaks of Captain Dring as "a frank, outspoken, and honest seaman." His original manuscript was first published in 1829.

Dring describes the prison ships as leaky old hulks, condemned as unfit for hospitals or store ships, but considered good enough for prisoners doomed to speedy annihilation. He says:

"There is little doubt that the superior officers of the Royal Navy under whose exclusive jurisdiction were these ships, intended to insure, as far as possible, the good health of those who were confined on board of them; there is just as little doubt, however, that the inferior officers, under whose control those prisoners were more immediately placed, * * * too often frustrated the purposes of their superior officers, and too often disgraced humanity, by their wilful disregard of the policy of their Government, and of the orders of their superiors, by the uncalled-for severity of their treatment of those who were placed in their custody, and by their shameless malappropriation of the means of support which were placed in their hands for the sustenance of the prisoners."

However that may be, the superior officers must have known that the prison ships were unfit for human habitation; that they were fearfully overcrowded; and that the mortality on board of them was unprecedented in the annals of prison life.

The introduction to Captain Drings's recollections declares, what is well known, that General Washington possessed but limited authority; he was the Commander-in-Chief of the army, but had nothing to do with the American Navy, and still less with the crews of privateers, who made up a very large portion of the men on board the Jersey. Yet he did all he could, actuated, as he always was, by the purest motives of benevolence and humanity.

"The authority to exchange naval prisoners," to quote from this introduction, "was not invested in Washington, but in the Financier, and as the prisoners on the Jersey freely set forth in their petition, the former was comparatively helpless in the premises, although he earnestly desired to relieve them from their sufferings.

"It will be seen from these circumstances that no blame could properly attach to General Washington, or the Continental Congress, or the Commissary of Prisoners; the blame belonged to those who were engaged in privateering, all of whom had been accustomed to release, without parole, the crews of the vessels which they captured, or enlist them on other privateers; in both cases removing the very means by which alone the release of their captive fellow seamen could be properly and safely effected.

"From the careful perusal of all the information we possess on this interesting subject, the reader will arise with the conviction that, by unwarrantable abuses of authority; and unprincipled disregard of the purposes of the British Government in some of its agents, great numbers of helpless American prisoners were wantonly plunged into the deepest distress; exposed to the most severe sufferings, and carried to unhonored graves. * * * Enough will remain uncontradicted by competent testimony to brand with everlasting infamy all who were immediately concerned in the business; and to bring a blush of shame on the cheek of every one who feels the least interest in the memory of any one who, no matter how remotely, was a party to so mean and yet so horrible an outrage. * * * The authors and abettors of the outrages to which reference has been made will stand convicted not only of the most heartless criminality against the laws of humanity and the laws of God, but of the most flagrant violation of the Laws of Nations, and the Law of the Land."

These extracts are all taken from the Introduction to Captain Dring's Recollections, written by Mr. H. B. Dawson, in June, 1865.

Captain Dring was born in Newport, R. I., on the third of August, 1758. He died in August, 1825, in Providence, R. I., and was about 67 years of age at the time of his death. He was many years in the merchant service, and wrote his recollections in 1824.

"I was first confined on the Good Hope, in the year 1779, then lying in the North River opposite the city of New York, but after a confinement of more than four months, I succeeded in making my escape to the Jersey shore."

Captain Dring is said to have been one of the party who escaped from the Good Hope in October, 1779. The New Jersey papers thus described the escape.

"Chatham, N. J. Last Wednesday morning about one o'clock made their escape from the Good Hope prison ship in the North River, nine Captains and two privates. Among the number was Captain James Prince, who has been confined four months, and having no prospect of being exchanged, concerted a plan in conjunction with the other gentlemen to make their escape, which they effected in the following manner: They confined the Mate, disarmed the sentinels, and hoisted out the boat which was on deck; they brought off nine stands of arms, one pair of pistols, and a sufficient quantity of ammunition, being determined not to be taken alive. They had scarce got clear of the ship before the alarm was given, when they were fired on by three different ships, but fortunately no person was hurt. Captain Prince speaks in the highest terms of Captain Charles Nelson, who commanded the prison-ship, using the prisoners with a great deal of humanity, particularly himself.

"I was again captured in 1782," Dring continues, "and conveyed on board the Jersey, where * * * I was a witness and partaker of the unspeakable sufferings of that wretched class of American prisoners who were there taught the utmost extreme of human misery. I am now far advanced in years, and am the only survivor, with the exception of two, of a crew of 65 men. I often pass the descendant of one of my old companions in captivity, and the recollection comes fresh to my mind that his father was my comrade and fellow sufferer in prison; that I saw him breathe his last upon the deck of the Jersey, and assisted at his interment at the Waleboght; * * *

"In May, 1782, I sailed from Providence, R. I., as Master's-mate, on board a privateer called the Chance, commanded by Captain Daniel Aborn, mounting 12 six-pound cannon, and having a crew of 65 men."

This vessel was captured in a few days by the Belisarius, of 26 guns, commanded by Captain Graves. The prisoners were brought to New York and the Belisarius dropped her anchor abreast of the city. A large gondola soon came alongside, in which was seated David Sproat, the much-hated British Commissary of Naval Prisoners. He was an American refugee, universally detested for the insolence of his manners, and the cruelty of his conduct. The prisoners were ordered into the boats, and told to apply themselves to the oars, but declined to exert themselves in that manner, whereupon he scowled at them and remarked, "I'll soon fix you, my lads!"

David Sproat found America too hot for him after the war and died at Kirkcudbright, Scotland, in 1799.

Dring says: "My station in the boat as we hauled alongside, was exactly opposite one of the air-ports in the side of the ship. From this aperture proceeded a strong current of foul vapor of a kind to which I had been before accustomed while confined on board the Good Hope, the peculiar disgusting smell of which I then recollected, after a lapse of three years. This was, however, far more foul and loathsome than anything which I had ever met with on board that ship, and it produced a sensation of nausea far beyond my powers of description.

"Here, while waiting for orders to ascend on board, we were addressed by some of the prisoners from the air-ports * * * after some questions whence we came, and respecting the manner of our capture, one of the prisoners said that it was a lamentable thing to see so many young men in the prime of health and vigor condemned to a living grave." He went on to say that Death passed over such human skeletons as himself as unworthy of his powers, but that he delighted in making the strong, the youthful, and the vigorous, his prey.

After the prisoners had been made to descend the hatchways, these were then fastened down for the night. Dring says it was impossible for him to find one of his companions in the darkness.

"Surrounded by I knew not whom, except that they were beings as wretched as myself; with dismal sounds meeting my ears from every direction; a nauseous and putrid atmosphere filling my lungs at every breath; and a stifling and suffocating heat which almost deprived me of sense, even of life. Previous to leaving the boat I had put on several articles of clothing, for the purpose of security, but I was soon compelled to disencumber myself of these. * * * Thoughts of sleep did not enter into my mind."

He discovered a gleam of light from one of the port-holes and keeping hold of his bag endeavored to make his way to it, but was greeted by curses and imprecations from those who were lying on the deck, and whom he disturbed. At length he arrived at the desired spot, but found it occupied. In the morning he saw himself surrounded by a crowd of forms, with the hues of death and famine upon their faces. At eight o'clock they were permitted to ascend on deck, and he found some of his friends.

"Pale and meagre, the throng came on deck, to view for a few moments the morning sun, and then to descend again, to pass another day of misery and wretchedness. I found myself surrounded by a motley crew of wretches, with tattered garments and pallid visages. * * * Among them I saw one ruddy and heathful countenance, and recognized the features of one of my late companions on the Belisarius. But how different did he appear from the group around him * * * men who, now shrunken and decayed, had but a short time before been as strong, as healthful, and as vigorous as himself. * * * During the night I had, in addition to my other sufferings, been tormented with what I supposed to be vermin, and on coming upon deck, I found that a black silk handkerchief, which I wore around my neck, was completely spotted with them. Although this had often been mentioned as one of the nuisances of the place, yet as I had never before been in a situation to witness anything of the kind, the sight made me shudder, as I knew at once that as long as I should remain on board, these loathsome creatures would be my constant companions and unceasing tormentors.

"The next disgusting object which met my sight was a man suffering from small-pox, and in a few minutes I found myself surrounded by many others laboring under the same disease in every stage of its progress."

Dring was obliged to inoculate himself, as that was thought to be the safest way of taking the disease. He borrowed some virus from a sufferer, and scarified the skin of his hand with a pin. He then bound up his hand. Next morning he found that it had festered. He took the disease lightly, and soon recovered, while a very large proportion of those who contracted smallpox in the natural manner died of it.

All the prisoners from the Belisarius were obliged to fast for twenty-four hours. Dring had some ship biscuit with him, in his bag. These he distributed to his companions. They then formed themselves into messes of six each, and next morning drew their scanty pittance of food.

We have said that Dring and the other officers on board solved the problem of living with comparative comfort on board the Jersey. As they were officers, the gun-room was given up to their use, and they were not so terribly crowded as the common sailors. Also the officers had money to supply many of their wants, but all this will appear in the course of the narrative.

He says that, even on the second day of their confinement, they could not obtain their allowance of food in time to cook it. No distinction of rank was made by the jailors on the Jersey, but the prisoners themselves agreed to allow the officers to occupy the extreme afterpart of the ship, between decks, called the gun-room. Dring soon became an inmate of this place, in company with the other officers who were already in possession, and these tendered him all the little services in their power.

The different messes were all numbered. At nine o'clock the steward and his assistants would take their places at the window in the bulk head in the steward's room, and ring a bell. A man from each mess stood ready to be in time to answer when his number was called. The rations were all prepared ready for delivery. They were on two-thirds allowance. This is the full allowance for a British seaman:

Sunday--1 lb. biscuit, 1 lb. pork, and half a pint of peas.
Monday--1 lb. biscuit, 1 pint oatmeal, 2 oz. butter.
Tuesday-1 lb. biscuit, and 2 lbs. beef.
Wednesday--1-1/2 lbs. flour, and 2 ounces suet.
Thursday--Same as Sunday.
Friday--Same as Monday. Saturday--Same as Tuesday.

Two thirds of this allowance for each man would have been sufficient to sustain life, had it been of moderately good quality. They never received butter, but a rancid and ill-smelling substance called sweet oil. "The smell of it, accustomed as we were to everything foul and nauseous, was more than we could endure. We, however, always received it, and gave it to the poor, half-starved Frenchmen who were on board, who took it gratefully, and swallowed it with a little salt and their wormy bread."

Oil had been dealt out to the prisoners on the Good Hope, but there it was hoarded carefully, for they were allowed lights until nine P.M., so they used it in their lamps. But on the Jersey, Dring declares that neither light nor fire was ever allowed.

Often their provisions were not dealt out in time to be cooked that day, and then they had to fast or eat them raw. The cooking was done in the "Great Copper" under the forecastle. This was a boiler enclosed in brick-work about eight feet square. It was large enough to contain two or three hogsheads of water. It was square, and divided into two portions. In one side peas and oatmeal were boiled in fresh water. On the other side the meat was boiled in salt water, and as we have already stated the food was poisoned by copperas. This was the cause, it is believed, of many deaths, especially as the water was obtained from alongside the ship, and was extremely unwholesome.

The portion of each mess was designated by a tally fastened to it by a string. Hundreds of tallies were to be seen hanging over the sides of the brick-work by their strings, each eagerly watched by some member of the mess, who waited to receive it.

The meat was suffered to remain in the boiler a certain time, then the cook's bell was rung, and the pittance of food must be immediately removed, whether sufficiently cooked or not. The proportion of peas and oatmeal belonging to each mess was measured out of the copper after it was boiled.

The cook alone seemed to have much flesh on his bones. He had been a prisoner, but seeing no prospect of ever being liberated he had offered his services, and his mates and scullions were also prisoners who had followed his example. The cook was not ill-natured, and although often cursed by the prisoners when out of hearing, he really displayed fortitude and forbearance far beyond what most men would have been capable of showing. "At times, when his patience was exhausted, he did, indeed, make the hot water fly among us, but a reconciliation was usually effected with little difficulty.

"Many of the different messes had obtained leave from His Majesty the Cook to prepare their own rations, separate from the general mess in the great boiler. For this purpose a great many spikes and hooks had been driven into the brick-work by which the boiler was enclosed, on which to suspend their tin kettles. As soon as we were permitted to go on deck in the morning, some one took the tin kettle belonging to the mess, with as much water and as many splinters of wood as we had been able to procure during the previous day, and carried them to the Galley; and there having suspended his kettle on one of the hooks or spikes stood ready to kindle his little fire as soon as the Cook or his mates would permit. It required but little fire to boil our food in these kettles, for their bottoms were made concave, and the fire was applied directly in the centre, and let the remaining brands be ever so small they were all carefully quenched; and having been conveyed below were kept for use on a future occasion.

"Much contention often arose through our endeavors to obtain places around the brick-work, but these disputes were always promptly decided by the Cook, from whose mandate there was no appeal. No sooner had one prisoner completed the cooking for his mess, than another supplicant stood ready to take his place; and they thus continued to throng the galley, during the whole time that the fire was allowed to remain under the Great Copper, unless it happened to be the pleasure of the Cook to drive them away. *[...] Each man in the mess procured and saved as much water as possible during the previous day; as no person was ever allowed to take more than a pint at a time from the scuttle-cask in which it was kept. Every individual was therefor obliged each day to save a little for the common use of the mess on the next morning. By this arrangement the mess to which I belonged had always a small quantity of fresh water in store, which we carefully kept, with a few other necessaries, in a chest which we used in common.

"During the whole period of my confinement I never partook of any food which had been prepared in the Great Copper. It is to this fact that I have always attributed, under Divine Providence, the degree of health which I preserved on board. I was thereby also, at times, enabled to procure several necessary and comfortable things, such as tea, sugar, etc. so that, wretchedly as I was situated, my condition was far preferable to that of most of my fellow sufferers, which has ever been to me a theme of sincere and lasting gratitude to Heaven.

"But terrible indeed was the condition of most of my fellow captives. Memory still brings before me those emaciated beings, moving from the Galley with their wretched pittance of meat; each creeping to the spot where his mess was assembled, to divide it with a group of haggard and sickly creatures, their garments hanging in tatters round their meagre limbs, and the hue of death upon their careworn faces. By these it was consumed with the scanty remnants of bread, which was often mouldy and filled with worms. And even from this vile fare they would rise up in torments from the cravings of unsatisfied hunger and thirst.

"No vegetables of any description were ever afforded us by our inhuman keepers. Good Heaven! what a luxury to us would then have been even a few potatoes!--if but the very leavings of swine. * * *

"Oh my heart sinks, my pitying eyes o'erflow,
When memory paints the picture of their woe
Where my poor countrymen in bondage wait
The slow enfranchisement of lingering fate,
Greeting with groans the unwelcome night's return,
While rage and shame their gloomy bosoms burn,
And chiding, every hour, the slow-paced sun,
Endure their woes till all his race was run
No one to mark the sufferers with a tear
No friend to comfort, and no hope to cheer,
And like the dull, unpitied brutes repair
To stalls as wretched, and as coarse a fare;
Thank Heaven one day of misery was o'er,
And sink to sleep, and wish to wake no more."

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