Walt Whitman Agitated
For Monument‚Äôs Creation
By Alex Palmer
Special to Brooklyn Daily Eagle
FORT GREENE PARK ‚ÄĒ The Fort Greene Park Conservancy and Greenlight Bookstore co-hosted a discussion and tour of the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument on Saturday afternoon, offering a look at the monument‚Äôs history and Walt Whitman‚Äôs role in its creation.
The tour was led by David Swain, editor of the new edition of Thomas Dring‚Äôs Recollections of the Prison Ship Jersey, as well as Greg Trupiano, artistic director of the Walt Whitman Project. Swain explained how the 149-foot-tall column in the center of Fort Greene Park was built to honor the more than 11,000 individuals who died aboard the British prison ships during the Revolutionary War.
The ships ‚ÄĒ hulls of nonfunctioning Navy vessels ‚ÄĒ were located off of Wallabout Bay, at the current site of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and used as makeshift prisons for the American soldiers and privateers captured during the war.
‚ÄúIt was a new experiment for the British, and they were capturing so many Americans so fast that they did not have anywhere to put them,‚ÄĚ said Swain. ‚ÄúBut it turned out to be an incredibly inhumane operation.‚ÄĚ
Swain read excerpts from Recollections of the Prison Ship Jersey, in which Dring describes his brutal experiences over several months in 1782 on board the largest of these ships. The terrible conditions, including widespread starvation, disease and overcrowding, led to the deaths of many, who were then buried in the mud nearby.
As these bones were uncovered years later, they were buried together in a massive crypt and then moved in 1873 to their current location in the brick vault at the base of Fort Greene Park.
The overcast sky and steady sprinkling on Saturday helped reinforce the somber atmosphere as Swain and Trupiano guided attendees to explore the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument itself. Designed by famous New York architect Stanford White, the monument was erected in 1908 after decades of public demand.
The handful of attendees had the opportunity to step inside the monument, which is not usually open to the public.
‚ÄúI had never actually been inside of it,‚ÄĚ Trupiano said.
Moving inside the Fort Greene Park Visitors Center to stay dry, Trupiano explained to the audience that one of the individuals instrumental in making the monument, and Fort Greene Park itself, a reality was Walt Whitman.
Trupiano described how as editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Whitman wrote numerous editorials calling for the creation of the park and monument and organized a Fourth of July celebration in 1846 near the site of the crypt.
‚ÄúHe said, ‚ÄėLet‚Äôs put a park right here on Fort Greene,‚Äô because Whitman wanted a park but was also cognizant of the Revolutionary War associations here,‚ÄĚ said Trupiano. ‚ÄúFor a year, it was harangue after harangue.‚ÄĚ
Nicole Mitchell, mezzo-soprano, sang Whitman‚Äôs poem ‚ÄúOde,‚ÄĚ which he had published in the Eagle to coincide with the Independence Day event. Sung to the tune of ‚ÄúThe Star-Spangled Banner,‚ÄĚ its lyrics include such lines as, ‚ÄúWhere the Martyrs were buried: Nor prayers, tears, or stones/Marked their crumbled-in coffins, their white, holy bones!‚ÄĚ
The entertainment continued as tenor Cameron Smith sang two later works of Whitman‚Äôs that also wrestled with the deaths of the prisoners: ‚Äú1861,‚ÄĚ published in 1861, and ‚ÄúThe Wallabout Martyrs,‚ÄĚ published in 1882. Though Whitman would die 16 years before the monument was erected, Swain emphasized that his efforts were key in immortalizing the martyrs.
‚ÄúMen like Whitman cared, and they did something about it to make sure it was commemorated,‚ÄĚ said Swain. ‚ÄúIt was horrible and we must remember.‚ÄĚ
Charles Jarden, the chairman of the Fort Greene Park Conservancy, also spoke. He described his organization‚Äôs work to help preserve and improve the park, including the renovation and rededication of the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in 2008.
The Conservancy is developing conceptual plans to develop the park further in the years to come, as funding becomes available, and will be holding a town hall meeting on June 23 to discuss the plans further.
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