The Jersey Prison Ship as moored at the Wallabout near Long Island, in the year 1782
|Launched:||14 June 1736|
|Fate:||Abandoned and burned to prevent capture, 1783|
|General characteristics |
|Class and type:||1733 proposals 60-gun fourth rate ship of the line|
|Tons burthen:||1,065 long tons (1,082.1 t)|
|Length:||144 ft (43.9 m) (gundeck)|
|Beam:||41 ft 5 in (12.6 m)|
|Depth of hold:||16 ft 11 in (5.2 m)|
|Sail plan:||Full rigged ship|
HMS Jersey was a 60-gun fourth rate ship of the line of the Royal Navy, built to the 1733 proposals of the 1719 Establishment of dimensions at Plymouth Dockyard, and launched on 14 June 1736. She is perhaps most noted for her service as a prison ship during the American Revolutionary War.
Jersey was built during a time of peace in Britain. Length: 44 m; 1,068 bm tons; Crew: 400; Armament: 24x24 pdr, 26x9 pdr, 10x6 pdr; built in 1736. Her first battle was in Admiral Edward Vernon's defeated attack on the Spanish port of Cartagena, Colombia, around the beginning of the War of Jenkins' Ear in October 1739. She was badly damaged in battle in June 1745, with her captain's log recording the loss of all sails and:
The braces, bowlines shot away several times, also the staysail halyards. The running rigging very much shattered. The main topsail yard shot ... the foremast shot through about the collar of the mainstay, and another wound in the after part of the mast ... the mainmast shot about two thirds up from the deck and divided [to] the starboard. Ship making 11 inches of water an hour occasioned by two shots in the counter, under the water line.
In March 1771, the aging Jersey was converted to a hospital ship In the winter of 1779-1780, she was hulked and converted to a prison ship in Wallabout Bay, New York, which would later become the Brooklyn Navy Yard. She became infamous due to the harsh conditions in which the prisoners were kept. Thousands of men were crammed below decks where there was no natural light or fresh air and few provisions for the sick and hungry. As many as 1,100 men were imprisoned at a time in a ship designed for 400 sailors, and as many as 8,000 prisoners were registered on Jersey over the course of the war.James Forten was one of those imprisoned aboard her during this period. Political tensions only made the prisoners' days worse, with brutal mistreatment by the British guards becoming fairly common. As many as eight corpses a day were buried from the Jersey alone before the British surrendered at Yorktown on 19 October 1781. When the British evacuated New York at the end of 1783, Jersey was abandoned and burned.
Christopher Vail, of Southold, who was aboard Jersey in 1781, later wrote:
When a man died he was carried up on the forecastle and laid there until the next morning at 8 o'clock when they were all lowered down the ships sides by a rope round them in the same manner as tho' they were beasts. There was 8 died of a day while I was there. They were carried on shore in heaps and hove out the boat on the wharf then taken across a hand barrow, carried to the edge of the bank where a hole was dug 1 or 2 feet deep and all hove in together. It is reported that 11700 and odd was buried at this place and in this manner.
In 1778, Robert Sheffield of Stonington, Connecticut, escaped from one of the prison ships, and told his story in the Connecticut Gazette, printed 10 July 1778. He was one of 350 prisoners held in a compartment below the decks.
The heat was so intense that (the hot sun shining all day on deck) they were all naked, which also served the well to get rid of vermin, but the sick were eaten up alive. Their sickly countenances, and ghastly looks were truly horrible; some swearing and blaspheming; others crying, praying, and wringing their hands; and stalking about like ghosts; others delirious, raving and storming,--all panting for breath; some dead, and corrupting. The air was so foul that at times a lamp could not be kept burning, by reason of which the bodies were not missed until they had been dead ten days.
The Department of Defense currently lists 4,435 US battle deaths during the Revolutionary War. Another 20,000 died in captivity, from disease, or for other reasons. Estimates of deaths aboard the New York prison ships vary around 8,000. Prisoner exchanges were hardly possible for two reasons: the British often captured far more prisoners than the Americans did, and George Washington did not favor exchanging veteran British soldiers for ragtag American troops, as it would only put his army at a greater disadvantage.
During October 1902 as the keel of the ship USS Connecticut was under construction at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that HMS Jersey had been found. While pile driving a new dock, the wood from the ship was encountered, precisely where the burned hulk was reported to lay after the British abandoned the ship and she was set on fire. 
The remains of those that died aboard the prison ships were reinterred in Fort Greene Park after the 1808 burial vault near the Brooklyn Navy Yard had collapsed. In 1908, one hundred years after the burial ceremony, the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument was dedicated.