Eileen P. Driscoll – Captain Stephen Buckland (1742 – 1782)
Stephen Buckland, born in 1742, was the grandson of William Buckland Sr., the head of a prominent, east-of-the-river settler family, which had been well established as early as the 1670s.
Stephen fought in the Revolutionary War with the rank of captain, a rank befitting his station in Colonial society. After his service in the army, he was commissioned by Gov. Trumbull and then later the Continental Congress, as a privateer. He was captured and imprisoned by the British in April of 1782 on the notorious ship HMS Jersey and died in captivity one month later at the age of 39.
The aging HMS Jersey had been hulked in 1771. It had originally be used as a as a hospital ship but when the American Revolution began it was transformed into a prison ship for captured Continental Army soldiers. Land jails in and around Manhattan had been filled when the British began housing prisoners on decommissioned warships in Upper New York Bay near the still existing Brooklyn Navy Yard. Prison ships like the Jersey make up one of the most gruesome chapters in the colonists struggle for independence.
Unfortunately for Stephen Buckland, his fate brought him to the infamous Jersey, simply called by all who knew of it as “Hell” because of its harsh, inhumane conditions in which the prisoners were kept with no natural light or fresh air, food and water both scarce and bad, and no care for the sick or wounded. Starvation and torture were the norm.
Captain Lemuel White, a prominent town citizen and a survivor of the Jersey, who is also buried in Center Cemetery, was quoted as saying, “the fare was so abominable that the swarming vermin was actually a relish for it.”
More than one thousand prisoners would be jammed in at one time, with turnover being a constant. Diseases and illnesses such as small pox, dysentery, typhoid and yellow fever were rampant. A dozen men would die each night and their bodies just tossed overboard.
Even after the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781, prisoners were kept aboard the prison ships and were not released until the end of the war in 1783. By that time more than 11,500 men and boys had died aboard these horrific ships over the course of the 7 years that it took for the colonists to win their freedom.
During an expansion of the Brooklyn Naval Yard in 1808, the remains of thousands of those who perished on the ships were found in the mud flats near shore. These remains were collected and buried on the grounds of a nearby estate with plans for a permanent resting place and memorial.
These plans took one hundred years to come to full fruition. It was in 1908 that President Howard Taft dedicated the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument which was designed by the famous architect, Sanford White.
The monument is both grand and melancholic and stands in the middle of Fort Green Park in the Vinegar Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn. It is a 150 foot tall fluted Doric column of granite topped by an eight ton, bronze funeral urn. It stands over 20 coffins, each containing bone fragments of thousands of those who lost their lives in such deplorable conditions so many years ago.
Since Stephen Buckland’s remains never made it back to Connecticut, we must assume that the monument before us is his hometown memorial and that his actual remains are with those of the thousands of patriots interred at the Prison Ship Martyr’s Monument in New York.