Society of Old Brooklynites commemorates Prison Ship Martyrs

FORT GREENE — For 111 years, the Society of Old Brooklynites has held its annual memorial service in Fort Greene Park to remember 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 and held aboard prison ships moored in Wallabout Bay. The actual remains of those brave POWs are entombed in a large crypt under the towering monument.

The ceremony took place on Saturday, Aug. 4 at the base of the 149-foot Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument on the top of the hill in Fort Greene Park.

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

Re-enactor Norman Goben carries American flag at ceremony.

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 remains would self-exhume along the Brooklyn shoreline.

A temporary structure was erected in 1808 to mark the remains of the men who were America’s first POWs near the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The remains were ultimately transferred to Fort Greene Park in 1873. In 1888, the society 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 group has held an annual memorial service in Fort Greene Park to honor these patriots.

The Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, built in 1908, 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 society 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.

Young Dancers in Repertory’s Zoe Warshaw performs a haunting silent ballet at ceremony.

The Society of Old Brooklynites 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 society officers are President George Broadhead, First Vice President Ted General, Second Vice President Michael Spinner, Treasurer Sherman Silverman and Secretary Ellen Haywood.

Spinner served as master of ceremonies for the monument’s re-dedication. The FDNY Ceremonial Unit Color Guard opened the ceremony with the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem. The invocation was delivered by USMC veteran Dr. Fredric Monderson, and the Young Dancers in Repertory’s Zoe Warshaw performed a haunting silent ballet beside the monument.

The keynote speaker was Society of Old Brooklynites Director Wilhelmena Rhodes Kelly, one of the highest ranking women of African-American heritage in the National Daughters of the American Revolution, as well as a new New York State Regent. Other speakers included Charles Jarden, chairperson of the Fort Greene Park Conservancy; Nicole Joy Mitchell and Greg Trupiano.

The society 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.

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

“Since the founding of the Society of Old Brooklynites in 1880, we have been holding an annual memorial tribute to the prison ship martyrs in Fort Greene Park, even prior to the erection of the Stanford White-designed 149-foot monument in 1908,” General told this paper. 

“This is a signature event for the society,” he added, “and the present day directors and members are duty-bound and honored to continue the legacy of this historic remembrance.”

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