THE ELEVEN THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED
Henry reached up and closed the shutters on the Apothecary Shop’s window. They had just arrived back in Chester a few hours before. It was seven weeks to the day that Jeremy had abandoned them and taken off on his own. He and Isak and Jeremy had chosen to come into town under cover of darkness, hoping no one would see them. The blacksmith had taken off for the forge immediately, leaving him and Jeremy to make their way through the empty streets. In the end, Jeremy had chosen to come to the shop with him. He said he didn’t want to wake his father.
Henry knew his friend meant what he said. But there was more to it than that.
They had parted at the edge of town from Captain Upton Tabard. Tabard’s home lay to the west in West Chester itself. He, like Jeremy, had made contact with his family by post before their return, seeking to ease their worry and – in part – preparing both them and himself for their reunion. Tabard had shaved his beard and appeared the proper soldier now. He wore a uniform Lafayette had had made especially for him by one of the McAllister women. The captain walked with a limp, and though the last few weeks comfort and care had begun to put weight on him so he no longer appeared a walking skeleton, the effects of his confinement on the prison ship were apparent. Upton was thin and unwell, gaunt and haunted of eye. Henry glanced at Jeremy where he leaned with a hand on the shop’s mantelpiece, staring into the fire they had kindled upon arriving in the apothecary shop.
Or, should he say, just plain haunted.
Jeremy Larkin’s passions fueled him. His rebellious nature fit well with the rebel’s life. He was proud, sure of himself, and certain he could lead others. He had led them many times to victory.
Looking at him now, Henry wondered if he ever would again.
“You should sleep, Jeremy,” he said at last.
For a moment Jeremy said nothing. Then only, “I know.”
He didn’t want to, but Henry was beginning to feel frustrated with his friend’s indifference. “You are home, now. Can you not take some joy in that? And you did what you set out to do. You brought firsthand information back about the prisoners and…the ships.”
“To what end?” Jeremy countered. Then he whirled and all but shouted, “To what end, Henry? The ships are still there. The British are still murdering the men they are pledged by honor to care for. And they will continue to do so until this war is brought to an end!”
So it was not indifference. Jeremy’s calm exterior was a blind, masking the rage that boiled within.
Henry hid a relieved smile. “General Lafayette has pledged to speak to His Excellency,” he began.
“Henry, the war does not go well.” Jeremy sat down gingerly in the chair before the fire. He picked up the paper Henry had been reading the day he and Isak had left; the one with the story about Wallabout Bay. Without looking at it, he tossed it to the floor. “General Washington has other things to worry about. Like keeping his men from being taken prisoner in the first place.”
“So what is to be done?”
Jeremy looked at him. The anger that had sparked in his eyes, quickly passed into despair. “Nothing. There is nothing that can be done. So long as the British refuse to see our soldiers as soldiers and not common criminals, the actions of men like Major Cripps, like Skern and Crawley will be tolerated if not rewarded. The things I suffered…. The things done to those around me….” He fell back in the chair and closed his eyes. “They will continue and no one, not one will care. It is all about living and fighting and dying, Henry,” his friend said, sounding utterly weary, “no one will remember those they cannot see.” Jeremy snorted and then opened his eyes and looked at him. “Was I any different? Are you?”
“Jeremy, I….” Henry stopped. He had heard something outside the shop door. Maybe it was Isak returning for some reason. He was going to mention it to Jeremy, but the other man had turned his face toward the fire again and fallen into silence.
Henry crossed to the door and opened it. Then he stepped out into the frigid night air. As he did, a lone figure walking on the street in the opposite direction turned to look. Whoever it was started as if they had been shot, and then began to run toward him.
He should have known. It was Elizabeth.
“What are you doing here?” Henry asked as he went out to meet her.
She caught his arms with her hands. “Jeremy? Is he here?”
He hesitated. Then, when he saw it frightened her, he said, “Yes, but I do not think you should see him.”
“What is wrong?”
Ah, how to answer that? Unsure, he chose to lie instead. “He is sleeping. He was quite worn out from the labor undertaken to pay off his debt. I am afraid the man did not treat him well. I….” Elizabeth’s large dark eyes challenged him. “I…am lying, and poorly it seems. It is just not a good idea.” Then he asked again, “What are you doing here? Where is your uncle? Does he know what you are about?”
“I ran into Jeremy’s father,” she said, her eyes never leaving the shop door. “Mayor Larkin told me Jeremy was due any day. I told my uncle I was staying with a friend – which I am – so I could be here when he got home.”
“And how did you come to be here, on the street alone, at this time of night? Does this friend know?”
Elizabeth’s smile was sheepish. “She thinks I am meeting some other lad. I told her I was done with Jeremy as he had been away so long.” She drew a deep breath. “Henry, where has he been? Where have you all been?”
Henry thought a moment. It would do no good to protect her. Once she saw him, she would know the circumstances had been dire. Jeremy was recovering, but he was thin still. His muscle-strength was gone and he was given to outbursts, both of tears and of anger. It was Henry’s hope that over the next month or so, now that Jeremy was home, the horrific memory of what he had gone through would become just that – a memory and not an ever-present ghost that threatened to displace reality. Still, he could not make Elizabeth wait a month. She would see Jeremy tomorrow, if not tonight.
“Jeremy undertook a secret mission in New York, its aim to help the soldiers held captive there by the British army. He was to have been imprisoned – briefly – in one of the better prisons, if I can use that word.” Henry paused and his eyes sought hers. “Instead he ended on one of the prison ships in Wallabout Bay.” Everyone had read about them. He knew she knew what that meant.
“How did he escape? Is that why you were gone? Was Lafayette with you?”
The general had gone on to Albany as he had to. By this time, he was probably on his way to John’s Town with General Schuyler. But the Frenchman had refused to leave them until he knew Jeremy was all right.
Well, as ‘all right’ as he was going to be for a while.
“It is a long tale, Elizabeth. One Jeremy has only told us in part. The men on the ship rose up and burned it to the water line. Some escaped. Many, many more did not.”
She shivered. He didn’t know if it was from the cold, or what he said. For a moment, Elizabeth remained silent, then she asked, “Is he well?”
“He is whole in body, though still recovering from his injuries.”
“And his spirit?” she asked.
Henry shook his head as tears welled up. He blinked and removed his glasses. “The catarrh,” he said as he wiped his eyes. “I never had a chance to get over it.”
Elizabeth reached up and brushed one of the tears away. “I want to talk to him.”
“No, I do not think that would be wise.”
“Henry. Do you really think you can stop me?”
He replaced his glasses and looked down. Henry saw before him a child; a round-faced girl who had seen no more than sixteen summers. Elizabeth was wrapped in a shawl and shivering, and dressed in a pale blue dress much too lightweight for her late-night wandering. But he also saw all of the women who waited; all of the mothers and sisters and daughters and sweethearts who loved, and he knew – he knew – that all of the armies of General Cornwallis and Howe could not prevent her mounting the step and entering the apothecary shop.
“You may not know him,” he warned quietly.
She shook her head. “Yes, I will.”
“You may not like him.”
matter,” she answered in her light voice, “I love him. Now, Henry, please step aside.”
Jeremy was sitting before the fire with his head in his hands. Elizabeth paused in the doorway of the apothecary shop, wondering how she should greet him. Should she exclaim and tell him how much she missed him and how glad she was to have him back? Should she cry and let him know just how much his hunched back showing through a shirt that had grown too large for him pained her? Or should she damn the Redcoats, cursing them for their barbarous cruelty, and ask God to condemn them as she wanted to for all eternity to Hell for what they had done to this man she loved?
In the end she said nothing. She walked to his side and simply stood there. When Jeremy stirred and lifted his head to look at her, she knelt and took his hand. She held it for a moment, noting how she could feel bone where there had been none before, and then she bent her head and kissed the rough flesh, wetting it with her tears.
“Bess,” he said, and then he faltered.
She pressed a finger to his lips. “Hush. Don’t say anything.”
For a moment he didn’t. When he did, his voice shook. “I am so angry. I don’t know what to do with it. I think I could…kill… something, someone, any one.” He drew a deep breath and then added softly, “Myself.”
His words frightened her, but she didn’t show it. She caught his other hand and pressed both between her own. He was shaking so hard his pain rattled through her. Elizabeth drew a breath and then, in the voice her mother had often used said, “And what good would that do?”
Jeremy started. “What?”
“What good would that do? Jeremy Larkin, I know you. You cannot bear the guilt that you are alive while so many others are dead. You would sacrifice yourself for all. But that is not what you have been called to do, is it?”
“What have I been called to do?” he growled, pulling away.
“To live. You have been called to live, and that may take far more courage than fighting or dying”
For a moment he said nothing. Then he reached out and touched her hair. “You sound like Upton.”
“Upton?” she asked.
“A man I met on the
prison ship. He…saved my life.
He too told me I had to choose to live.”
“I think I should very much like to meet this Upton,” she said softly.
“You will,” he answered as his fingers brushed through her hair. A moment later he rose and crossed to the fire. She held her tongue and did not offer to assist him, even though he moved all too much like an old man. When he got there, he turned and looked at her. “Can I tell you my worst fear, Elizabeth?”
She nodded. “Always.”
“It is my worst fear that these men will be forgotten. That their pleas will go unheard, and that the thousands who die will not be remembered for shame and fear; shame, that we did nothing, and fear that that truth will be known.”
“When the war is over, certainly then….”
“And what if, as some want, we come out of this conflict still allies with England in some sense? Will it be politick, do you think, to press then for reparation and recompense? For justice?” He shook his head sadly. “I think not.”
Elizabeth rose and crossed to him. “Well, Jeremy Larkin, the last time I checked neither you or I could read the future. Unless you know someone else who can, we will just have to wait for it to unfold.”
He looked at her and then, to her surprise and joy, opened his arms. As he wrapped them around her, he whispered close to her ear. “You are good for me, Bess. Do you know that?”
Elizabeth looked up at him. His face was close to hers.
In the end, she said nothing.
General Lafayette stood in his room looking out the window at the snow falling silently on the countryside. Albany was a beautiful city. His visit was a moment of peace in the midst of what seemed an eternity of war. And yet, he felt disconnected and as if he did not belong. In his heart he was still standing on the shore of Wallabout Bay like a stone parting the waters of desperate, dying and despairing men who ran about him. He had seen hunger before. It was rife among France’s peasants. He had seen sickness, in his own house and in others. And since he had come to America, he had seen more than his share of death and dead bodies, of men blown apart and breathing their last bleeding, gurgling breath. So why did the image haunt him so? Why could he not put it aside?
He knew why. It was that one man.
He had known when he went for the horses that it would prove a difficult maneuver to bring them through the sea of escaping prisoners. He had thought about taking Jeremy to them, but had known instinctively that the sick and injured man would not make it. He had known his friend did not have the strength. So he had chanced it, and paid a heavy price for the decision. A mob had gathered about him, clawing at his boots and thighs; seeking to drag him down from the horse he rode. They sought to break the straps that tied his mount to the others. He knew if he lost them that Isak and Henry and Sergeant Boggs would be abandoned to whatever fate awaited the men on the shore who did not make it. It was at that point that he made a command decision. He fired in the air. That startled and frightened most of the men into running. But there was one. One man who would not stop. One man who, somehow, had managed to find a weapon – taken, no doubt, from a dead Redcoat. A man who would not listen to reason, or shouting, or threats.
A man he had been forced to kill.
He had killed others. One did not make it through war without doing so. But he did not kill outside of war. And never had it been a man whose act was the very breath of desperation.
What was it he had thought at the beginning of Jeremy’s mission – that the young man from Chester would never be the same?
How ironic, that the one who had changed was him.
“Sir, I saw your light. Are you still unable to rest?”
Lafayette turned to find Daniel Boggs standing in the doorway. His aide occupied the room beside him. They had been up late talking over plans for the trip to come, and he had thought the other man asleep.
“Oui. I cannot help but think of those we left behind. Of the men on the Whitby and her sister ships. Of the ones who languish in the Sugar Houses and the Provost. Who is their advocate, Daniel? Who cares?”
“General Washington cares. You do. So do I.”
“Oui. Though I do not know what good it does. They are still there and will remain there until this conflict ceases.” He turned away from the window and faced his aide. “Can you imagine, Daniel, what it must be like? To be taken from the life you know and thrust into such a place? To lose control of where you sit, of when you eat and where you sleep? And what of the ones you love? What of the women left behind?”
“Sir.” Boggs crossed over to him. “I’m sure someone like you will never know.”
Lafayette was silent a moment. Then with a slight shrug he answered, “Most likely. But perhaps I would be a better man for it.”
His aide frowned. “It’s that man, isn’t it? The one you had to shoot on the beach? Why didn’t you tell me about that when it happened?”
“We all have our private demons to dance with, Daniel.” His smile was worn, if affectionate. “I did not think you would understand. Not my pain, but my feeling it. You are always so sure of yourself. I am…well…. I am not.”
“You’re young. I am not,” Boggs laughed. “When I was a lad your age, I questioned myself plenty. Through a long hard life I have learned that a man can do all the questioning he needs, but he needs to do it before he makes his choice. Once it’s made, it’s done. There’s no going back. And if that man is a good man, and he has thought it through, then the choice he makes is the right one.” Sergeant Boggs was not often familiar, but he reached out and touched Lafayette’s shoulder. “And you are a good man. Whatever you did, it was what you had to do.”
“Does that apply to allowing Jeremy to go to New York in the first place?” he asked.
“Jeremy will be all right. So will you.” Boggs lifted his hand. “So the answer is ‘yes’, sir.” The older man yawned and then added, “Now, will you please go to sleep? We leave early in the morning.”
Lafayette nodded and then turned back to the window. The snow was still falling, the war was still on, and there were men still in the bowels of the foul ships anchored on Wallabout Bay. But for all of that, he thought he could sleep.
The choice had been made.
- End -
The Eleven Thousand Five Hundred was written as a direct result of reading Edwin G. Burrows’ Forgotten Patriots, a book which covers, in great detail, the plight, the horror, and the deaths of what history now believes were tens of thousands of American prisoners of war at the hands of their British captors. The title comes from a number used in the 19th century to describe the deaths on the prison ship The Jersey alone – that there were 11,500 who perished on it. Today, it is thought that number is escalated for The Jersey, but low for the total overall that might reach upwards of 17,000. The deaths occurred for many reasons. It was part neglect, part the obvious outcome of shoving hundreds of men into a space meant for five or ten, and partly, willful malice. American prisoners were not regarded as soldiers but damn rebels; criminals who deserved to be put to death for their actions.
Jeremy’s journey is based on this book and on the firsthand accounts of men like Jabez Fitch who lived to tell the tale. All instances of disease, death and cruelty have their parallel in the real life stories of these men. The two escape scenarios are based on actual attempts by prisoners, and their punishment is also real. The burning of one of the ships by the prisoners is as well. Cripps, Skern and Crawley are patterned after real men, the worst of which were William Cunningham and a man named Sproat who were, respectively, the chief of prison operations in New York and the commissary of prisons for the city. Both admitted to outright murder, acknowledging that – among many other offenses – they had used the British soldiers to force the people who lived nearby the Provost to shutter their windows and stay inside while they hung American POWs in the alley behind the prison.
When I read something like this, it has to come out – to be purged in a way. This story is my homage to these men. I hope, by writing it, that more people will seek the truth, and that the story of the Uptons and Leeds of the Revolution will be told. I recommend the book, Forgotten Patriots, though it is one of the most unrelentingly grim tales every told.