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Society of Old Brooklynites Remembers the Prison Ship Martyrs on 110th Anniversary

For 110 years, the Society of Old Brooklynites (SOB) has held its annual memorial service in Fort Greene Park to honor a group of heroic American patriots at the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, which honors the confirmed 11,500 American prisoners of the Revolutionary War who were captured by the British.

Conditions aboard those prison ships were said to have been horrible with almost no food, no medical supplies and a lack of sanitary conditions.

The prisoners died at an alarming rate and the British even buried some in shallow graves in the sand along the shore. Nobody knew about the POWs until years after the war when their bodies and remains would self-exhume along the Brooklyn shoreline.

A temporary structure was erected in 1808 to mark the remains of the POWs near the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The remains were ultimately transferred to Fort Greene Park in 1873. In 1888, the SOB obtained from the British War Office the names of 8,000 prisoners in an effort to highlight the need for a permanent memorial.

Every year since its incorporation, the SOB has held an annual memorial service in Fort Greene Park to honor these tragic patriots.

The Prison Ship Martyrs monument  — which stands 148 feet tall — also owes a debt to Walt Whitman, a society member and editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, who helped raise $100,000 with the help of the SOB, and the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution.

That money was matched by Congress and in 1908 the monument was erected and stands today as one of the few remaining monuments to the Revolutionary War in New York City.

The SOB has a long and distinguished history dating back to when James Garfield was elected president of the United States. The group has been part of the fabric of this borough for 138 years. It is one of Brooklyn’s oldest and most venerable organizations.

Current SOB officers are President George Broadhead, First Vice President Ted General, Second Vice President Michael Spinner, Treasurer Sherman Silverman and Secretary Ellen Haywood.

General was responsible for making the arrangements for the Prison Ship Martyrs ceremony and overseeing the day’s program.

“It is with deep emotion and pride that I once again had the opportunity to participate and help coordinate this annual memorial tribute, to these sometimes forgotten patriots who were subjected to such horrific cruelty and died aboard British Prison Ships,” General said.

Spinner served as master of ceremonies for the re-dedication. The FDNY Ceremonial Unit Color Guard marched before Nicole Joy Mitchell performed the national anthem. The invocation was delivered by Rev. J.W. Forchalle, and the Young Dancers in Repertory’s Zoe Warshaw performed a haunting silent ballet beside the monument.

The keynote speaker was Charles Jarden, chairperson, Fort Greene Park Conservancy. His remarks included ruminations about the history of the martyrs and the enormous struggles they endured.

The SOB received a special proclamation from Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and the ceremony concluded with a wreath laying by Commissioner Myrtle Whitmore and Silverman, a benediction and a rendition of “God Bless America” by Daniel Sutin.

Broadhead recalled the 2008 memorial for the Martyrs as a gala ceremony that included a mobile city stage, horse drawn wagon rides for children, re-enactors dressed in American Revolution uniforms, and elected officials giving speeches.

The 2018 memorial was a far more subdued affair. Nonetheless, said Broadhead, “It might be that the turnout for this memorial service, without bands and political speeches, was outstanding, a true tribute to those who gave their all.”

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