Society of Old Brooklynites Hosts 106th Re-Dedication Ceremony for Revolutionary-Era Soldiers
By Matthew Taub
Special to Brooklyn Daily Eagle from Brooklyn Brief
“Keep in mind that in 1908, at the one year commemoration of this monument, there were 20,000 people in attendance, including military regiments and civilian personnel,” said Society of Old Brooklynites member Daniel Cardona. “At the 100 year anniversary in 2008, there were only 200 people.”
Cardona scanned the crowd. “And now — well. Each of us here needs to tell three people about the significance of this monument and bring them with us next year. Let’s get attendance back up to 500, then 1,000 and beyond.”
Cardona spoke on Saturday at the annual re-dedication ceremony for America’s first prisoners of war — one of several events held each year to commemorate the Battle of Brooklyn, America’s first major battle after declaring independence. The ceremony was held at the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Fort Greene Park.
Before the world wars, our civil war and the independence of our nation, some 11,500 Continental Army soldiers paid the ultimate sacrifice, enduring torture at the hands of the British, who interned them in prison ships in Wallabout Bay (today known as the Brooklyn Navy Yard) until they perished.
The worst among them was the HMS Jersey. This “hell afloat” was discovered to have been holding 8,000 prisoners when the British evacuated in 1783.
Some of the deceased were buried in shallow graves — others were dumped overboard and their bodies washed ashore. Groups like the Daughters of the American Revolution saw to it that they would have a proper final resting place, and many of their bones are now entombed under the 149-foot tall monument at Fort Greene Park, erected in their honor.
“I’m so glad you’re here today to continue the history of what we’re all about,” said Ron Schweiger, president of the Society of Old Brooklynites (SOB), which hosted the event on the 238th anniversary of the Battle of Brooklyn.
Among the patriotic tributes were a maritime piping ceremony, invocation, taps, eight slow bells, a wreathe laying and operatic selections by the Martha Cardona Opera Company.
Encircling this tribute were groups performing exercise drills of Pilates, jogging and yoga.
Congressman Hakeem Jeffries was in attendance and tried to bridge the divide between modern times and the important events from centuries ago.
“All of the diversity and culture we now see was made possible because of sacrifices of men and women, such as those who were entombed here at Prison Ship Martyrs Monument,” Jeffries said. “They had a vision. Time and again as a nation we find ourselves in a tough spot, but we always make it to the other side.”
Jeffries reiterated his support for legislation he sponsored to register the location as a national monument, and advised that U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) was “working hard” to ensure passage of companion legislation in the Senate.
Remarks were also presented by SOB Vice President Michael J. Spinner, Parks Advocates Ruth Leonard Goldstein and Wilhelmina Rhodes Kelly, and Eric Radezky on behalf of Assemblymember Joe Lentol (D-Brooklyn).
The Society of Old Brooklynites was founded in 1880 by former mayors of the city of Brooklyn, which was not incorporated with Manhattan until 1898.
John W. Hunter, former member of Congress and Brooklyn mayor, was the society’s first president. Prominent members of the group have included Walt Whitman (briefly an editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle) and Seth Low, former Brooklyn and New York City mayor. While the society carries the word “old” in its moniker, residents ages 25 and older are eligible for membership.