Recalling Revolution's biggest battle


NEW YORK - What does Angela Yurman know about the Battle of Brooklyn? "Just living in Brooklyn is a battle every day," she says.

In fact, Yurman, 59, is well aware that she has been surrounded by ghosts of the battle her entire life. She grew up across the street from the Old Stone House on the edge of Park Slope, a reconstruction of a 1699 Dutch farmhouse where some of the battle's most ferocious fighting took place on Aug. 27, 1776.

"We played handball against the walls," Yurman recalls.

Although she now lives in Bay Ridge, Yurman works as the director of alumni relations at Poly Prep Country Day School, whose main campus abuts Fort Hamilton and the approach to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the area where more than 20,000 British troops landed in August 1776.

The Battle of Brooklyn, or the Battle of Long Island, as it is also known, has left its traces across the city, but on its 225th anniversary, it remains a mystery to many New Yorkers.

Kenneth T. Jackson, the president of the New-York Historical Society, has several possible explanations. "Not only did we lose, we lost badly," he said.

Battlefield changes

He also notes radical changes in the topography of Brooklyn, which in 1776 was a collection of Dutch and English farming villages with fewer than 5,000 people. "The landscape is so different," he said. "It's been flattened out, and you can't get a sense of the battle."

Jackson said that ignorance of New York's role in the American Revolution extended beyond the city's borders. "The national attitude is that Boston or Virginia is where American history happened," he said. "But New York? That's where you go to see a play or a ballgame or tall buildings."

John J. Gallagher, the author of The Battle of Brooklyn, 1776 (Sarpedon, 1995), said another reason is that publishing in the 18th century was centered in Boston. "In most books," Gallagher said, "we're lucky to see a dependent clause about Brooklyn."

Arguments over the name of the battle - Brooklyn vs. Long Island - only add to the confusion. Gallagher said that he had Gen. William Howe, who commanded the British land force, on his side. "The day after the battle, he sent the king a letter telling him he had won a great battle in Brooklyn," Gallagher said. On the other hand, even as die-hard a Brooklynite as Walt Whitman referred to "the Battle of Long Island" in an editorial he wrote for The Brooklyn Daily Times in 1858.

There is, however, little dispute among historians about the importance of the battle. Technically, Brooklyn was the first battle the United States and its army fought, in the sense that neither really existed until a month earlier when the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia.

It could also easily have been the new nation's only battle. After heavy losses, Gen. George Washington and his army barely escaped capture or annihilation with an overnight evacuation to Manhattan on Aug. 29. "We all came close to becoming Canadians," said John Manbeck, the Brooklyn borough historian.

Herb Yellin, chairman emeritus of the Old Stone House, joked that "Washington's press agent" may have had something to do with how the battle is remembered: "The spin became, 'Don't talk about the battle. Talk about Washington getting his troops across to Manhattan after he lost the battle.'"

According to Ray Raymond, the political officer with the British Consulate General in New York, who teaches at West Point, not only was Brooklyn the biggest battle of the war, "it was also the one real chance for the British to win it."

"New York was the centerpiece of British strategy," said Raymond, who spoke at a recent re-enactment of the battle at Fort Hamilton. "The idea was to secure New York, where the British had a great deal of support; cut off New England, which they regarded as the real hotbed of revolutionary activity; link up with a British army coming south from Canada; and bring the whole thing to a halt."

After the British loss of Boston in March 1776, Washington and most of his army came to New York. The British started sailing into the Narrows and landing troops in Staten Island in June, and by August their forces totaled 430 ships and 45,000 soldiers and sailors - the biggest British expeditionary force until Normandy in World War II. In August, they started moving their troops to Brooklyn, with their headquarters at what is now Kings Highway and Flatbush Avenue.

Fighting started Aug. 27, 1776

When the battle began Aug. 27, about 6,000 American and 30,000 British and Hessian troops were in Brooklyn, according to Thorin Tritter, a historian at the New-York Historical Society. As Washington expected, 5,000 British soldiers marched north from the Narrows through what are now Bay Ridge and Sunset Park, while 5,000 moved through Flatbush, both groups engaging the Americans in the areas around Prospect Park and Green-Wood Cemetery.

What Washington did not know was that 15,000 more troops had marched overnight through Flatlands, East New York and Bedford-Stuyvesant in a flanking maneuver to attack him behind his lines.

By midday, the Americans were retreating through Park Slope in a desperate attempt to cross Gowanus Creek (now Canal) to their fortifications in Brooklyn Heights. In one of the most heroic episodes of the war, Gen. William Alexander (who was also known as Lord Stirling) and 400 troops from Maryland and Delaware diverted the British with a series of attacks on the Old Stone House. About 250 of the men were killed, wounded or captured, according to Susan Miller, acting director of the Old Stone House, but the diversion worked. Hundreds of Washington's troops crossed the creek and made it to the Heights.

Washington expected a follow-up attack on his vulnerable troops trapped on the Heights. But Howe did not strike to finish off Washington, his army and possibly the Revolution itself. The reasons have been a source of speculation among historians for two centuries.

After heavy rain and fog rolled in the next night - "You Americans like to think that God sent the fog," Raymond said - Washington staged a silent evacuation of his troops across the East River to Manhattan while the British literally slept.

With the British again in pursuit, Washington moved his headquarters to the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights. After the Battle of Harlem Heights in September and the fall of Fort Washington in Washington Heights on Nov. 15, all of what is now New York City was in British hands and remained so for the rest of the war.

The chief lesson Washington learned from Brooklyn, according to Jackson, was to protect his army, not places. Raymond said that from then on Washington largely fought a war of attrition, avoiding engagements against the more professional British army.

This summer, the battle has been getting more attention, with several remembrances. A 33-minute film about it, "The Brave Man," shot last summer in the streets of Brooklyn, was shown in June at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Thousands of people turned out for the recent re-enactments in Prospect Park and Fort Hamilton.

What remains?

So what remains of the battle? The Old Stone House is on Fifth Avenue and Third Street in Park Slope. Towering over Fort Greene Park (named for Gen. Nathanael Greene, who helped Washington prepare Brooklyn's defenses) is McKim, Mead and White's 1908 Prison Ship Martyrs Monument to the thousands of Americans who died on British prison ships in the harbor.

In Staten Island, the Conference House was where Benjamin Franklin and John Adams attended a failed peace conference with the British in September 1776. That same month, the British hanged Nathan Hale as a spy; a plaque on the Yale Club on Vanderbilt Avenue and East 44th Street in Manhattan claims to mark the spot of his death (although Tritter said a competing spot on Third Avenue at East 66th Street has a better claim).

But putting up a plaque is one thing. Getting New Yorkers to look at it is another.

Washington watched the Battle of Brooklyn from Cobble Hill, a patch of high ground at Atlantic Avenue and Court Street and today the site of an Independence Community Bank branch. Somehow John Macaluso, 23, the bank's assistant manager, has never noticed the large plaque on the building featuring Washington on his horse and an explanation of the corner's importance.

"So George Washington hung out here and watched the battle?" he asked. "I've never heard of it. I'm just so bad about history."

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