BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- Just off Third Avenue, in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn only a few miles from the bustle of Wall Street, the unlikely gold, black, red and white of Maryland's state flag stirs in a lazy summer breeze.
Beneath it lies what is surely one of the most forlorn military gravesites in the country.
Near this spot 220 years ago this week, British forces dug three 100-foot trenches and buried the corpses of 256 Maryland soldiers. They were casualties of the Battle of Brooklyn on Aug. 27, 1776. Their 400-man brigade's bravery and sacrifice had just given George Washington and his army time to escape the overwhelming British onslaught and kept America's 8-week-old revolution alive.
But there are no marble markers or grassy lawns here. A bronze historic marker was stolen. That left only a gritty urban streetscape that includes an auto repair shop, the Picolo Iron Works and some vacant storefronts.
That, and the Michael Rawley Jr. American Legion Post 1636, where James R. McMahon and his fellow Legionnaires try to keep the memory of the Marylanders' burial place alive.
"We have a Mass on the first Sunday of every May, and somebody comes from Maryland and they join us," said McMahon, 63, a retired transit worker, Korean-era veteran and second vice-commander of the post.
With a uniformed color guard and men in Legionnaires' caps, he said, "we march around the neighborhood. It's not much of a march; the guys around here are getting kind of old."
New York City's mayor is invited every year, McMahon said, "but he never shows up. He might send somebody in his place."
Beneath the Maryland flag that flies over the post's rear parking lot, members in 1993 placed a bronze marker. It reads: "In Honored Memory of Maryland's 400. Forever Remembered."
There is also a sign above the front door: "Maryland Heroes," it says. "Here lie buried 256 Maryland Soldiers who fell in the Battle of Brooklyn, Aug. 27, 1776."
There is a more formal memorial to the Maryland 400 more than a mile away in Prospect Park. A marble shaft topped with a sphere, it was erected in 1895 by the Maryland Society of the Sons of the American Revolution.
It was restored in 1991 by Maryland taxpayers and rededicated by then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer. Since then, a half-dozen letters have vanished from its pedestal, which is marred by graffiti. But otherwise it remains in "excellent condition," said Christopher DiMatteo, an assistant landscape architect at the park. The graffiti will be removed, he said.
Although few Americans know much about the battle (more often called the Battle of Long Island), it was in reality the largest clash of the Revolution, involving 64,000 men -- with 1,100 Americans and 349 British dead or missing at day's end. Had Washington and the 9,500 men he had in Brooklyn been captured, as they nearly were, the rebellion might well have ended there.
The clash came on a landscape dramatically different from today's grid of city streets. The western end of Long Island then was farm and woodlands, with several ridges east of the town of Brooklyn. Washington established his main positions on those heights to protect shore batteries defending the harbor.
The Marylanders were among those sent south and east across marshy Gowanus Creek to defend the roads and high points leading into Brooklyn from British landing sites near Coney Island.
British Gen. Sir William Howe, after ending his occupation of Boston, had sent a force of 32,000 disciplined and experienced troops and Hessians -- German mercenaries -- to take the city. Their objective was to cut the rebel colonies in half.
During the night of Aug. 26-27, the main body of 14,000 British troops circled unseen to the Americans' left flank, which was only lightly defended. The left quickly collapsed, leaving the Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania battalions on the right surrounded on three sides and vastly outnumbered.
The fighting began before sunrise. This time, the Americans held their ground. But thousands of British reinforcements and the arrival of the Hessians made it clear to the American commander, Brig. Gen. Lord Stirling, that his men would be overwhelmed.
He ordered the bulk of his 2,000 troops to retreat west across Gowanus Creek while he and a brigade of 400 well-trained and well-equipped Maryland riflemen, led by Maj. Mordecai Gist, held off the British for as long as they could.
The Marylanders fought their way north to a stone farmhouse, called the Cortelyou House, to clear a corridor across a passable part of the creek for the others. British Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis had captured the house earlier, and the stronghold now threatened the Americans' escape.
To Cornwallis' astonishment, the Marylanders twice nearly drove the Redcoats out. With furious bayonet assaults, they charged six times into the British fire. Each time they lost dozens of men, reformed and charged again.
Stirling was captured. But the bulk of the American right escaped across the creek to Washington's inner defenses before noon, when the Marylanders were silenced.
Washington watched the fighting from a hilltop to the west. "My God, what brave men I must this day lose!" he told an aide.
Of the Maryland 400, 256 were dead. More than 100 were wounded or captured. Only 10 made it safely back to the American lines, according to historian John J. Gallagher's new book, "The Battle of Brooklyn 1776."
Later, Washington would call the time purchased by the Marylanders' lives "that hour more precious to American Liberty than any other."
Exhausted, the British delayed their assault on the Americans' main fortifications in Brooklyn. Two nights later, under the cover of a storm, Washington and his surviving troops slipped away across the river to Manhattan. The British would later capture the city, but Washington's retreat preserved his army to fight again.
A century later, the trenches where the British buried the Maryland dead were overgrown but still visible. In the 1890s, however, the site was covered by 12 feet of fill. It became a coal yard, then a paint factory. Historic markers were repeatedly vandalized or lost.
Today, Franco Cicero and Julio Najarro, and sometimes Charlie Lopez, balance tires and do wheel alignments over the gravesite. They work for C 'n' C Auto Specialists, which now occupies part of the property. Cicero is patient with those who come by and ask questions, but he reminds them that it's not just the repair shop that sits on the graves. "It's all around here," he said, waving his arm from beneath a truck.
The late James A. Kelly, once a deputy Kings County clerk, fought for 40 years to have Congress declare the site a national shrine so more people would know about it.
In 1951 he called the site "more sacred than the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier [at Arlington National Cemetery] because Maryland's soldiers died to establish what that [unknown] soldier lived under." He wanted the buildings, dilapidated even then, replaced by a memorial park. But it never happened.
The old Cortelyou House, sometimes called the Old Stone House of Gowanus, fared better. Demolished by a Gatling gun demonstration and buried in the 1890s, its stones were rediscovered by ditch diggers in 1933. In 1934, they were used to reconstruct the house at J. J. Byrne Park, a few blocks from its original site.
New York City planner Robert Moses had toilets installed and a locker room. More recently, it has undergone a $217,000 face lift, with new toilets, offices and recreation rooms for the neighborhood park.
Several organizations in Brooklyn now work to preserve the memory of the conflict. The First Battle Revival Alliance will open an information center at Cortel-you House in November and offers programs in Brooklyn schools to connect students to the history that surrounds them.
The Society of Old Brooklynites held a memorial service Saturday for those who fell and for those who were captured and later died aboard disease-ridden British prison ships.
On Sunday, Herb Yellin of the revival alliance led Brooklynites on a tour of battle sites and monuments in Prospect Park. The Maryland memorial was one of the stops.
The Battle of Long Island Committee also held ceremonies Sunday for the Maryland 400 on Victory Mount -- an old battle site in today's Green Wood Cemetery.
"Had it not been for those soldiers," said John "Johnny O" Oszustowicz, a member of the Rawley Legion post, "we would have lost maybe the whole war. It's a tribute to them that we feel we have to keep the history of the neighborhood."
The soldiers themselves sleep on beneath the city, just off Third Avenue, under a Maryland flag.
Pub Date: 8/27/96