Reading History

I grew up in a family car that pulled to the side of the road at every sighting of an historical marker. Climb out of the car, read what it says, stand around for a moment or an hour to imagine what had been, who had lived, or what had happened a century or two ago. Return to the car and continue on toward the family’s real destination that other families would have completed in an hour but ours a good while more.

“Oh, look! A plaque! Let’s get out and read it!,” the husband has said from the time of our first road trip together. You would think he wouldn’t be so mocking since, like my dad before him, he was a history major. It’s actually unfair to say he’s mocking me. It’s more teasing about yet another Willard instilled characteristic–taking responsibility to know our history combined with enjoyment of a good story. I like to think that, besides being schooled to run gleefully into bad weather, I’ve instilled in our sons a duty to stop in front of every damn historical marker they ever come across in life.

Today, we will follow the markers that commemorate the first major engagement of the Revolutionary War, which took place on this date 244 years ago.

The Battle of Brooklyn (officially known as The Battle of Long Island but no one in Brooklyn calls it that) was taking shape as early as June when British war ships anchored off the coast of Staten Island. By August 12, there were over 400 fully armed ships, including 73 war ships, in the harbor and 32,000 troops milling around Staten Island.

George Washington brought in about 19,000 ill-equipped and indiscipline troops to New York City. He sent only 6,000 soldiers across the East River, figuring the British’s real target was the city instead of sparsely populated farmland. 500 men were position at the southern edge of a plateau known as the Gowanus Heights. Another 1,800 were deployed to defend two roads on the eastern side of the Heights–the Flatbush and Bedford Passes. Five men were station to protect Jamaica Pass. The rest of Washington’s troops stayed behind in Brooklyn Heights to squash a potential effort to cross the river into the city.

By the morning of August 22, 19,000 well-equipped, battle-proven, highly disciplined British soldiers landed on shore. They split in two. The majority would hook around the eastern side of the Heights while the rest would head straight toward the American’s line. The soldiers they met at Fort Narrows gave no resistance and, instead, fell back toward the Heights, destroying crops and farm animals to keep them from British hands.

The first shots sounded around 9 a.m. on August 27 with American snipers picking off British soldiers as they marched along what today is 4th Avenue.

39th Street and 4th Avenue where there should be an historical marker about the shot.

The American line was spread out in front of the Heights between an orchard, a swamp and the Gowanus Creek. The British immediately captured the plateau but the Americans rallied in one of the most bloody skirmishes of the day.

What the landscape looked like at the time of battle.

After marching all night, 10,000 Hessian soldiers marched through the Flatbush and Bedford Passes. The Americans waited for them in the surrounding thick forest.

The Hessians eventually pushed them back across a long grassy knoll, where they joined forces with a contingent from the Maryland troop. They massed around a stone farmhouse with orders to delay the British from reaching Brooklyn Heights. Through the day and into the next, the troops withstood several attack waves. Known today as the Maryland 400, they lost 256 men. Others were captured. Those that were left retreated into the swamp to try to join forces with Washington and his remaining troops.

Full disclosure: I couldn’t get to the Old Stone House to photograph the plaque.

The following morning broke stormy and, although the Americans continued to blast the British lines, Washington agreed with his generals that it would be better to retreat. He ordered a flotilla of boats to be floated down the East River from positions north of the city. The wounded were the first to be evacuated. An impenetrable fog rose over the river as artillery, canons and horses–wheels and hooves wrapped in hay to silence them–were carefully packed aboard. Soldiers, told not to speak, crowded together. When the last of his men were safe, Washington stepped into the final boat. The next day dawned in silence, the British left to wonder where their enemies had gone.

The British recorded 64 dead and 294 wounded. Approximately 300 Americans lost their lives and at least a thousand were held prisoner on ships in the harbor, most of them left to die of starvation and disease.

The dead were thrown overboard or tossed to shore. The fallen Marylands were buried in a mass grave.

Ft. Greene Monument and the soldiers’ burial vault.