Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Union Jack and deserting seamen: Sandy Hook's Halyburton memorial

Just before you get to Fort Hancock on Sandy Hook, you might see a smallish stone wall with a replica ship's mast just behind it. Topped by an American flag, the mast also holds the British Union Jack and the Red Ensign flown by the Royal Navy. Why is the flag of the United Kingdom being flown at what used to be a United States Army base?

Halyburton Memorial Sandy Hook Ft. HancockThe nearby Sandy Hook Lighthouse was commandeered by British troops during the American Revolution, but that doesn't have much to do with the story. Instead, this unusually-placed pole and monument memorializes the deaths of several crew of the HMS Assistance at Sandy Hook more than a year after the British Parliament voted to end the war and armed hostilities had pretty much come to an end.

Their deaths came not as the result of enemy fire or rough seas, but from the weather and possibly poor planning. The Assistance had been one of many British vessels stationed in and around New York Harbor, and in late December 1783 she was anchored in Sandy Hook Bay in preparation for the Navy's departure from the newly-victorious United States. Capitalizing on the proximity to land, several of the ship's crew decided to desert.

When their absence was discovered, the ship's captain ordered a recovery team to search Sandy Hook for the errant sailors. Led by Lieutenant Hamilton Douglas Halyburton, 12 crew members made their way to the Hook to begin their search on December 31. It's not clear whether they found any of the deserters; what is known is that Halyburton's group became trapped by a snowstorm, and all died of exposure.

According to the Park Service wayside marker near the memorial, the remains of the unfortunate party lay at the site of the memorial untouched until 1909 when workmen at Fort Hancock discovered them. They were moved to Cypress Hills National Cemetery in Brooklyn, which also holds the graves of Civil War Soldiers (both sides) and a memorial to the War of 1812. While the men of the Assistance are no longer present on Sandy Hook, the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps built a monument in their memory. The stone marker, made from local puddingstone, includes a plaque that tells the story of Halyburton and his search party, leaving out the part about the deserters.

You have to wonder: did the searchers find any of the deserters? If not, did any of the deserters survive? Could there still be remains of unhappy, frostbitten former British soldiers in the salt marshes of Sandy Hook?


  1. I live in Fair Haven, down the Navesink from the memorial. I was once told that some of the original families on the Peninsula (Rumson, Fair Haven, Red Bank) were decended from British deserters. On another site there is a list of deserting sailors, including one George Cooney. There is a Cooney Terrace in Fair Haven. I wonder if there is a connection?

    1. Thanks for your comment. That's a great question! I hadn't heard the deserter story, but it's definitely something we need to look into.


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