When he staggered down the gangplank of the prison ship Jersey, Joseph Hiester had accomplished far more than the other Continental soldiers with whom he had been imprisoned – he had survived. That was no small feat since the British prison ships anchored in Wallabout Bay in the New York harbor claimed more American lives than all the battles of the War for Independence.
According to Department of Defense records, there were 4,435 American battlefield deaths, yet, in a story that remains largely untold even today, more than 11,000 Americans died aboard 16 decrepit old converted prison ships, lined up side by side right off what is now the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
They came from all 13 colonies, and even then, 13 different nationalities were represented among the American prisoners. Words can barely describe the horror of the prison ships, most notorious among them, the Jersey.
“Built in 1735 as a 64-gun ship, the Jersey was converted to a prison ship in the winter of 1779-1780. Virtually stripped except for a flagstaff and derrick for taking in supplies, the Jersey was floated rudderless in Wallabout Bay, about 100 yards offshore. … Its portholes were closed and supplanted by a series of small holes, 20 inches square, crossed by two bars of iron.”
Into the hold, the British crammed more than 1,000 prisoners, subjecting them to unspeakable conditions that stain British maritime history to the present day.
“Rebels, turn out your dead!” was the cry that rang out each morning, as the hatch was unsealed.
It was the first order of gruesome business, as the soldiers handed up the bodies of their compatriots who had died during the night.
A survivor, Christopher Vail of Southold, who was a prisoner aboard the Jersey in 1781 recounts: “When a man died he was carried on the forecastle and laid there until the next morning at 8 o’clock when they were all lowered down the ship sides by a rope round them in the same manner as tho’ they were beasts. There were 8 died of a day while I was there. They were carried on the 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.”
As late as the summer of 1782, with the war’s end in sight, DeWan tells how the American prisoners on July 4 hung a makeshift flag and began singing patriotic songs to celebrate independence.
He quotes from Stiles “History of the City of Brooklyn” to describe what happened next when the British sent armed men below: “The helpless prisoners, retreating from the hatchways as far as their crowded condition would permit, were followed by the guards, who mercilessly hacked, cut and wounded every one within their reach; and then ascending again to the upper deck, fastened down the hatches upon the poor victims of their cruel rage, leaving them to languish through the long, sultry summer night, without water to cool their parched throats.”
We can only stand in awe as we consider the bravery, courage and perseverance of such men. Yet, in the providence of God, He used such experiences to unite the colonists and instill in them a hatred for the abuse of power. Joseph Hiester would typify the attitude of many who survived the prison ships.
Joseph Hiester was born the son of John Hiester, a German Protestant who emigrated to the New World in search of land and a better future. The family settled in the Goshenhoppen region of Pennsylvania where the young lad would epitomize the attitudes, struggles, sacrifices and successes of the young nation of immigrants.
“The Statutes at Large of Pennsylvania,” published in Harrisburg, Pa., in 1911, records the following: “His father often told him that he was induced to leave the old country because the peasantry were kept perpetually poor and dependent by the burdens and taxation imposed by the government and the nobility, with no prospects of improvement. Accounts reached them of prosperous settlements in the New World, gave them hope, and upon reaching the colonies sought in the wilds of Pennsylvania a habitation.”
Hiester received the rudiments of an English and German education. Later, as a representative of the Whig party, he was chosen a member of the State Conference, which met in Philadelphia on June 18, 1776, which assumed the government of the colony, called a convention to frame a new constitution, gave instructions for the guidance of its representatives in Congress and authorized troops for the Continental army.
He was then a captain of militia, and upon adjournment of the Conference hastened home to arouse the young men to join the national standard, which at that time was feebly supported. He convened about 25 or 30 men in Reading Village and aroused their sympathies to march to the assistance of Washington.
His regiment joined the patriot army and often came in conflict with the enemy, and many were wounded or killed. Finally the captain and his surviving men were taken prisoner and were confined on board the notorious prison ship, the Jersey, where they were subjected to every indignity that refined cruelty could invent.
From this prison ship Captain Hiester was taken and confined in New York, where the want of food and general harsh treatment of the captives was scarcely a remove better than on board the Jersey. He was attacked by a low fever and became so feeble and emaciated that he was obliged, in passing upstairs, to crawl on his hands and knees.
After several months he was exchanged and set at liberty, whereupon he made his way to Reading, regained his strength, and returned to the army. He arrived in time to participate in the battle of Germantown, where he received a wound in the head, but not of a dangerous nature. He remained in the army till the end of the war and then returned to the bosom of his family.
He was chosen a member of the convention assembled in Philadelphia in 1787 for the ratification of the Constitution of the United States, and in 1789 he was a member of the convention that framed the State Constitution of 1790. Later, as governor, his administration was characterized for promoting the growth and prosperity of the Commonwealth.
For the unabridged article, please visit www.leben.us.