Places that Matter

Prison Ship Martyrs Monument

Martha Cooper
Martha Cooper
Memorial to American Revolutionary War prisoners
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A visual focal point of the Fort Greene community since it was added to Fort Greene Park in 1908, the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument was created to memorialize and entomb the remains of Revolutionary War soldiers who died on British Prison Ships.

The Prison Ship Martyrs Monument is an imposing 200-foot Doric column designed by the well-known architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White. Erected in 1908, the monument had been planned as early as 1855 when the "Martyrs' Memorial Association" was first established. A place for the monument, including the creation of a grand staircase and crypt, was included in Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux's 1868 plan for Fort Greene Park, but it was not fully realized for another 40 years. This long process was perhaps partly due to the controversial nature of the monument, which honored common mariners rather than a famous military leader. Once the monument was finally in place and had been dedicated by President Taft, it became a prominent and recognizable addition to the Fort Greene landscape.

The monument pays tribute to the American Revolutionary War soldiers held as prisoners on British ships moored in what is now Brooklyn Navy Yard. Many of these prisoners died of starvation or disease, and their bodies were tossed overboard. Their bones washed up along the shore for many years, especially during the construction of the Navy Yard in 1801. In 1808 Fort Greene residents began to collect these bones in a crypt near the Navy Yard, now referred to as “Monument Lot.” These bones were subsequently moved to the crypt in Fort Greene Park.

A small Neo-Classic building near the monument, associated with the McKim, Mead, and White design, was originally a comfort station and now serves as the (sometimes open) park's visitors' center.

Sources:

Cray, Robert E., Jr. "Commemorating the Prison Ship Dead: Revolutionary Memory and the Politics of Sepulture in the Early Republic, 1776-1808." The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Volume 56, Issue 3, July 1999.

United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service. "National Register of Historic Places Inventory--Nomination Form." Fort Greene Historic District.