standard Amid Thinning Crowds at Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, a Call For Renewed Remembrance

106th Re-dedication Ceremony For Revolutionary-Era Soldiers at Fort Greene Park
Prison Ship Martyrs Monument (Photo by Matthew Taub)

Ron Schweiger, President of the Society of Old Brooklynites, addressed the audience at the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Fort Greene Park (Photo by Matthew Taub)

“Keep in mind that in 1908, at the one year commemoration of this monument, there were twenty thousand people in attendance, including military regiments and civilian personnel,” said Society of Old Brooklynites member Daniel Cardona. “At the hundred year anniversary, in 2008, there were only two hundred people.”

The 1908 Ceremony (Fort Greene Park Conservancy

The 1908 Ceremony (Fort Greene Park Conservancy)

“And now–well,” Cardona scanned the crowd. “Each of us here needs to tell three people about the significance of this monument, and bring them with us next year. Let’s get attendance back up to five hundred, then a thousand, and beyond.”

The event in question was the annual re-dedication ceremony for America’s first prisoners of war. Before the great world wars, before our civil war, before our aspirational country could even call itself a sovereign nation, some 11,500 Continental Army soldiers paid the ultimate sacrifice, enduring torture and untold horrors at the hands of the British, who interned them in “prison ships” in Wallabout Bay (today known as the Brooklyn Navy Yard) until they ultimately perished.

Myrtle Whitmore of the Society of Old Brooklynites (Photo by Matthew Taub)

Myrtle Whitmore of the Society of Old Brooklynites (Photo by Matthew Taub)

The worst among them was the HMS Jersey: this “hell afloat” was discovered to have been holding 8,000 prisoners alone when the British evacuated in 1783.

Rededication ceremony, 1937 (Brooklyn Public Library)

Rededication ceremony, 1937 (Brooklyn Public Library)

Some of the deceased were buried in shallow graves. Others were dumped overboard and their bodies washed ashore. Groups like the Daughters of the American Revolution saw to it that they would have a proper final resting place, and many of their bones are now entombed under the 149-foot tall monument at Fort Greene Park erected in their honor.

“I’m so glad you’re here today to continue the history of what we’re all about,” said Ron Schweiger, President of the Society of Old Brooklynites (S.O.B.), which hosted the event on the 238th anniversary of the Battle of Brooklyn, America’s first major battle after declaring independence.

Among the patriotic tributes were a maritime piping ceremony, invocation, taps, 8 mournful slow bells, a wreathe laying and operatic selections by the Martha Cardona Opera Company.

But encircling this fitting tribute were groups performing exercise drills of pilates, jogging, and yoga. Some stopped to survey the commemoration, and were touched upon learning the details. But others continued on with their routine, oblivious to the hallmark above them, or the hallowed ground below.

Congressman Hakeem Jeffries (Photo by Matthew Taub)

Congressman Hakeem Jeffries (Photo by Matthew Taub)

Congressman Hakeem Jeffries was in attendance, and tried to bridge the divide between modern times and the important events from centuries ago.

“All of the diversity and culture we now see was made possible because of sacrifices of men and women, such as those who were entombed here at prison ship Marty’s monument,” Jeffries said. “They had a vision. Time and again as a nation we find ourselves in a tough spot, but we always make it to the other side.”

The Congressman reiterated his support for legislation he sponsored to register the location as a national monument, and advised that Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) was “working hard” to ensure passage of companion legislation in the Senate.

Jeanie Prall Wing, Norman Goben, and Barbara Skinner dressed up and adorned flags for the occasion (Photo by Matthew Taub)

Jeanie Prall Wing, Norman Goben, and Barbara Skinner dressed up and adorned flags for the occasion (Photo by Matthew Taub)

Remarks were also presented by S.O.B. Vice President Michael J. Spinner, Parks Advocates Ruth Leonard Goldstein and Wilhelmina Rhodes Kelly, and Eric Radezky on behalf of Assemblyman Joe Lentol (D-Brooklyn).

The Society of Old Brooklynites' banner at the Prison Ship Martyrs Memorial in Fort Greene Park (Photo by Matthew Taub)

The Society of Old Brooklynites’ banner at the Prison Ship Martyrs Memorial in Fort Greene Park (Photo by Matthew Taub)

The Society of Old Brooklynites was founded in 1880 by former mayors of the City of Brooklyn, which was not incorporated with Manhattan until the “great mistake” of 1898. John W. Hunter, a former member of Congress and a Brooklyn mayor, was the society’s first president. Prominent members of the group have included Walt Whitman (briefly an editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle) and Seth Low, a former Brooklyn and then New York City mayor. While the society carries the word “old” in its moniker, residents age 25 and up are eligible for membership.

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