In terms of triumph and tragedy, the Clark family could be called the “Kennedys of Early America.” Of the six sons born to John and Ann Rogers Clark between 1750 and 1770, five fought in the service of Virginia during the Revolution (William Clark, the youngest son, was too young). Two of the brothers died as a result of the conflict. Three of them ended up as prisoners of war.
Lieutenant John Clark, age 19, was captured at the Battle of Germantown in August 1777 and spent almost five years as a prisoner of war. He was held first in the “New Jail” in Philadelphia, which was then under British occupation. In the summer of 1778 he was removed to Long Island. In 1780, John Clark became one of the unfortunate prisoners who were part of a new experiment in the way that the British dealt with their burgeoning number of captives. The British anchored 12 old ships in Brooklyn Harbor and crowded the American POWs aboard.
Conditions on all the prison ships were ghastly, but the worst of all these “hell ships” was the notorious HMS Jersey. The prisoners would later recall that they had nothing to wear but rags, and that the ship was teeming with vermin and filth. Each day they were issued “moldy biscuit filled with worms, damaged peas, condemned beef and pork, sour flour and meal, rancid butter, sometimes a little filthy suet, but never any vegetables.” Prisoners were allowed to go above deck during the day, but at night, their British captors ordered them below, yelling “Down, rebels, down!” In the morning they were let out with the order, “Rebels, turn out your dead!”
Under such circumstances, the death toll mounted quickly. The prisoners testified later that a dozen men died every night from a variety of causes: dysentery, typhoid, smallpox, yellow fever, food poisoning, starvation, and torture. In the end, 10,000-12,000 American prisoners died on the hell ships, and only 1400 survived the ordeal. Years later, when the Brooklyn Navy Yard was built on the spot where the prison ships were anchored, thousands of remains were found at the bottom of the bay.
Young John Clark spent two years on the Jersey. Released in an exchange in 1782, he was never a well man again. He died just two years later, at age 27, from the tuberculosis he contracted as a prisoner.
Hulk ships were also used in Savannah and Charleston, where two more of the Clark brothers, Jonathan and Edmund Clark, were taken prisoner in May 1780 when the city surrendered after an awful and dispiriting siege. Jonathan, a 29-year-old colonel, was held prisoner for a year. Edmund, only 17 years old, was held for two. Many men broke under the misery and hardship of captivity on the hulks. Of the 1900 prisoners held in Charleston, more than 500, “maddened by torture and almost heart-broken on account of the sufferings of their families,” enrolled in the royal militia to get off the ships and were sent to do service in Jamaica. About 700 prisoners were eventually exchanged, including Jonathan and Edmund.
Touched by the plight of the prisoners, many Charleston women made it a point to visit the prison ships and bring the men food and comfort. One such woman was Elizabeth Jackson, a tough and outspoken Irish immigrant. Mrs. Jackson was a widow and mother of three sons, two of whom had already died in the war. Two of her nephews were among the prisoners, and she became known as an angel of mercy for her repeated visits to nurse the men and bring them food and medicine. In a cruel twist of fate, Mrs. Jackson herself became a victim when the scourge of cholera swept through the prison ships. She was buried in an unmarked grave. Her youngest and only surviving son, the future president Andrew Jackson, vowed to find her bones and rebury her alongside his father and brothers, but was never able to find her grave.
Further reading: an excellent article about Revolutionary War POWs from American Heritage.