Brooklyn commemorates 1776 battle America lost

Sunday, August 24, 2008

NEW YORK -- It was during the dog days of August when the British launched a massive attack to smash the rebellion spreading through the colonies. Landing from ships on the Brooklyn shore, 15,000 redcoats and Hessian mercenaries outflanked and then routed Gen. George Washington's amateur army in what would be the biggest battle of the American Revolution.

Trapped, outnumbered and facing certain defeat, the ragtag Americans managed a stealthy escape across the East River to Manhattan, where they would continue the fight, losing battle after battle until they won the war seven years later.

That near-miraculous exploit on Aug. 29, 1776, ended the Battle of Brooklyn, being remembered on its 232nd anniversary -- a lopsided British victory that humiliated Washington in his first outing as commander and nearly scuttled the American patriots' fight for liberty, less than two months after the Declaration of Independence.

The observance of Battle Week began last weekend with a ceremonial reading of that document and ends today when re-enactors in Revolutionary War uniforms stage mock battles.

On Saturday, history-minded citizens marked the 100th anniversary of the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, a 149-foot granite obelisk erected over the mass grave of 11,500 people who died aboard British prison ships off Brooklyn during the revolution.

"These were America's first POWs," notes Ted General, vice president of the Society of Old Brooklynites, one of whose members, Brooklyn poet Walt Whitman, first proposed the monument.

For all its historical significance, the Battle of Brooklyn has never achieved the iconic status of Paul Revere's ride, the Minutemen at Concord or Bunker Hill. It even competes with itself by another name -- the Battle of Long Island.

"The reason is simple -- we lost," said Kenneth T. Jackson, a history professor at Columbia University and former director of the New-York Historical Society. "Americans like happy stories. Disaster for the American side does not fit into the larger narrative of American history."

The escape of Washington's defeated army from Brooklyn to Manhattan was accomplished in a flotilla of small boats. Aided by darkness, fog and winds that kept Admiral Richard Howe's fleet from entering the East River, the operation was so deftly executed that the British didn't know it was happening.

Jackson compares it to Britain's famous evacuation of troops trapped on French beaches at Dunkirk in 1940. "Dunkirk is better known, but this was more dramatic," he said. "If it fails, essentially the war is over."

Brooklyn being no Gettysburg, one must look hard to find the places where fighting occurred. Many are immersed in residential neighborhoods, layered with subsequent history unrelated to the birth of a nation.

Easily missed, for example, is a plaque on a building in downtown Brooklyn, where Washington is said to have watched the British overwhelm his forces at Gowanus Creek. That mile-long waterway through south Brooklyn is now the Gowanus Canal, notorious for industrial pollution.

Two blocks further east is the reconstructed Old Stone House, a 1699 Dutch farmhouse where 400 Maryland soldiers fought a bloody delaying action allowing 10,000 of Washington's troops to get away.

Some 256 Marylanders are buried in nearby Prospect Park, where a monument is inscribed with Washington's remark to his second-in-command, Gen. Israel Putnam: "Good God, what brave fellows I must this day lose."

The Old Stone House, now a center for interpretive history, had 14,000 visitors last year despite being open only on weekends, said director Kim Maier. As part of Battle Week, a new plaque detailing its history was erected nearby, replacing one that disappeared after being put into storage in 1970.

Graceful townhouses and a public esplanade now top the 66-foot bluff called Brooklyn Heights, from where the battered colonials escaped to Manhattan. The only clue to this history, until now, has been a small plaque at the site of a temporary fort.

On Monday, two new markers also were put in place in Brooklyn Bridge Park, an 85-acre park scheduled for completion in 2012 along 1.3 miles of the East River waterfront.

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