The Shaws, POWs and a tiny diary

"They stopped up the hatchway, making it so close we had no air to breath (sic). They did not give us anything to eat or drink for about 24 hours, and then only a mess made of hogs' brains that they had caught on Groton bank. (They treated us) as though we were brutes about to be slaughtered."

Rufus Avery was captured at the Battle of Groton Heights and held on a British prison ship anchored in Wallabout Bay off Brooklyn. His account echoed the experiences of many men held aboard other such ships where thousands were abused and starved. During the Revolution, more than 11,000 men and boys perished in these disease-ridden floating hells.

There was a way out, though: a prisoner could be released if he agreed to fight for England. Most men refused this tempting but demeaning offer.

After reading about the horrors of British prison ships I was surprised to learn that America had them, too, although the conditions sound more humane. Three of them, the Penguin, Pease, and Retaliation, were anchored off New London. There was considerable drama in 1782 when 80 prisoners from the Retaliation escaped; most were recaptured but there must have been some anxious moments given New London's recent experience with British boots on the ground.

In Rufus Avery's case, his internment was terrifying but brief. A few days after Arnold burned New London, Nathaniel Shaw Jr. approached the British under a flag of truce and negotiated an exchange that brought Rufus and other detainees home again.

Nathaniel, who's remembered by Shaw Street and Shaws Cove, was the naval agent for both Connecticut and the Continental Congress. A successful New London merchant and ship owner with a network of influential contacts, he was perfect for the job. Naval agents' responsibilities included managing privateering offensives, determining the disposition of war prizes, procuring military supplies, arranging the care of sick seamen and negotiating prisoner exchanges - activities Nathaniel often carried out at his own expense.

Nathaniel's leadership made New London privateering incredibly effective, but he died in 1782 without witnessing the war's official conclusion. He'd lost his wife, Lucretia, a year earlier when she caught typhus while caring for prisoners in their mansion on Blinman Street. Their work on behalf of prisoners exacted a heavy price.

When Americans died on prison ships, the British jettisoned their corpses like so much garbage or forced other prisoners to bury the bodies in mass graves along the shore. During the next century bones kept washing up on New York beaches and were retrieved by people who felt they deserved a more fitting disposition. The collected remains were interred at Fort Greene Park near the Brooklyn Naval Yard, and in 1908 the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument was erected. At the dedication ceremony President-elect William Taft spoke to an audience of more than 40,000 Americans who'd come out, despite a snowstorm, to witness the moment and remember the heroes.

I had my own remembrance moment at the New London County Historical Society where I saw the diary of Christopher Brown, who kept it while he was held on one of the most notorious ships, the Jersey. When Christopher had an especially bad day (when a fellow prisoner died, for example) he would write, "I shall mention nothing more of this day." There must have been many dreadful days because this was a recurring phrase.

However Christopher was a man of faith who prayed that, "it would please God to deliver us out of the hands of our enemies." Ultimately, he was released in a prisoner exchange, perhaps orchestrated by Nathaniel.

Reading this tiny, fragile diary with its power to evoke despair tempered by hope was very moving. Its preservation made me feel emotionally what I already knew: this is why we have museums.

Carol Sommer of Waterford is a self-proclaimed history nut. She writes a monthly history column inspired by local street signs.


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