By Lore Croghan
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The Sons of Liberty fought and died for independence on our soil on Aug. 27, 1776 in the biggest battle of the American Revolution. The annual commemoration of their valor on the field – and near-miraculous escape from war-ending annihilation at the hands of the British – draws crowds. And this year was no exception.
An estimated 1,200 visitors mustered at Green-Wood Cemetery Sunday for the 237th anniversary of the Battle of Brooklyn, Jeff Richman, the historian at the famous burial ground, told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
Folks turn out in full force because “it’s about what we value as Brooklynites – individual freedom, freedom of speech, political activism,” Kimberly Maier, executive director of the Old Stone House, told the Eagle.
“We have to remember the good that came out of the American Revolutionary War,” she said.
Maier laid a wreath before the cemetery’s iconic statue of Minerva on top of Battle Hill during a solemn ceremony where the Governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley, was the headliner.
It capped a weekend of activities that ranged from 18th Century-style rum punch drinking at a Colonial-era food fest at Old Stone House to a Fort Greene Park commemoration where a bell was rung eight times for an estimated 11,500 POWs who perished on British prison ships.
LIFE, LIBERTY AND THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS
Following humiliating defeat by American forces in Boston earlier in 1776, the British sent the largest armada Europe had ever seen to Staten Island. The plan was to crush the city of New York, take control of the Hudson River and divide and conquer the colonies.
Brooklyn was their initial point of assault – and they were just barely prevented from destroying the newly independent colonies’ army.
On the fateful day of the Battle of Brooklyn, the British set a trap for George Washington’s troops by flanking them from the rear with a huge contingent while thousands of other troops made a frontal assault.
One of the day’s heroes was General William Alexander, known as Lord Stirling – a second-generation American with a claim to a Scottish title that Parliament ignored. He led a suicidal diversion at a home in present-day Park Slope that is now called the Old Stone House.
Lord Stirling deployed troops from Maryland – the Maryland 400 – to make a brave stand that allowed thousands of fellow Americans to retreat safely.
At times of crisis in American history, “it has been Maryland’s duty and Maryland’s place to stand up – not because times were easy, but because they were hard,” Gov. O’Malley told the crowd on Green-Wood’s Battle Hill.
The Marylanders were the only Colonial regiment at the Battle of Brooklyn that was equipped with bayonets, he said.
The British took canons up to the second floor of Old Stone House and fired deadly volleys. But the Marylanders fought with stunning courage – and in the end, 256 were killed and another 100 wounded or captured. A small handful escaped.
Their commander’s valor also became the stuff of legend. Lord Stirling’s biographer called the Scotsman from New Jersey “an overweight, rheumatic, vain, pompous, gluttonous inebriate,” author Joseph J. Ellis wrote in his new book, “Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence.”
But on the day of the battle, “General Lord Stirling fought like a wolf,” a Pennsylvania Rifleman recounted.
To honor the Maryland 400, a delegation that included Maryland state Senator Mike Miller and Candice Quinn Kelly, president of the Charles County, Md., Board of Commissioners, read their names at the cemetery ceremony.
A Green-Wood vice president, Ken Taylor, recited part of the Declaration of Independence to underscore what was at stake for Colonial troops: “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
A new plaque was unveiled to honor the valor of Colonel Jedediah Huntington’s 17th Continental Regiment from Connecticut, who held Battle Hill though wildly outnumbered by the British. However, nearly all of them died, either on the battlefield or due to inhumane treatment as prisoners of war.
RED COATS IN GREEN-WOOD
Before the hilltop ceremony, Richman and historian Barnet Schecter took visitors on a trolley tour of battle sites on terrain that was turned into Green-Wood Cemetery in the 19th Century.
“This was where the British lost the war,” Schecter said; the Battle of Brooklyn had been “a chance to nip rebellion in the bud.”
When the tour was over, living, breathing Red Coats – nicknamed “lobsterbacks” by Colonial patriots – appeared in Green-Wood Meadow, brought to life by re-enactors. They faced off against American troop re-enactors armed with a thunderous canon that set off car alarms when it was fired.
Smoke drifted across the field from replica muskets as American “casualties” fell onto the grass. When the battle demonstration was over, spectators swarmed to take cell-phone photos and pepper the make-believe soldiers with questions.
General Charles Cornwallis, on a fine horse named Guinness, told The Eagle that in real life, he’s an actor and horseman from Orange County named Hugh Francis.
“There’s a shortage of men who act and ride well,” he said.
“Sometimes I play George Washington – though I lean to the red side.”
The red uniform jacket he was wearing is handmade, and weighs almost 20 pounds.
Spectators from Bay Ridge were happy they’d come to the re-enactment.
“I loved it,” said Joan Bennett.
“I was always interested in history; I majored in it in college,” said Marie Mahler, a Pace University alum.
Bath Beach resident Ray Carbona decided to attend because “I’m a little patriotic,” he said.
“You get to appreciate the original intent of the country: economic freedom and the wellbeing of the common man,” he said.
“Everything in politics is so convoluted now.”
EAST RIVER EXODUS
Saturday, another regiment of Colonial re-enactors turned up on the shores of Brooklyn Bridge Park to recollect the extraordinary post-battle evacuation of surviving Colonial troops from Fulton Ferry Landing to Manhattan.
The real-life Marblehead Mariners carried out “a feat of extraordinary seamanship” by navigating the “swift, contrary currents” of the East River in heavily loaded boats in the dead of night without running lights, Pulitzer Prize-winner David McCullough wrote in his book “1776.”
Under late-summer sunshine, the re-enactors pitched a tent on a pebbly park beach and charmed children and parents who came by to visit.
“My son William played George Washington at school – he’s fascinated by the Revolutionary War,” said Hike Dugan, a Bay Ridge mom.
The 9-year-old and his 5-year-old sister Elizabeth were in a group of children who got a lesson in how to handle kid-sized replica muskets. The Mariners’ adult-sized guns had powder in them. Their thunderous roar could be heard down the shoreline inside the glass enclosure of Jane’s Carousel.
“When the fire of the Revolution was down to embers, it was the Marblehead Mariners who kept it going,” said re-enactor Robert Scordia of Bristol, Pa. – who said he had no interest in switching sides to play a British soldier.
“I couldn’t do that,” he said. “It’s all about Liberty; that’s what we try to keep alive today.”
BONES, PILED ALL OVER
The weekend’s other somber commemoration took place Saturday at Fort Greene Park – for Colonial soldiers and civilians who died on British prison ships in Wallabout Bay near the present-day Brooklyn Navy Yard.
The ceremony was held at the foot of the 148-foot column known as the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, which stands over a crypt where the prisoners’ remains are buried. The Society of Old Brooklynites, a civic group that campaigned to have the memorial built more than a century ago, was the host.
“To me, this is the most sacred meeting of any Brooklynites,” Holly Fuchs, the group’s corresponding secretary, told the Eagle.
Disease and starvation killed the prisoners, who were offered freedom if they would join the British forces. They chose death over dishonor.
“I have been in the crypt,” Ken Kasowitz, a Brooklyn Heights resident and SOB member, told The Eagle. “It’s very solemn.
“There are bones, piled all over. It’s a very emotional experience, even for a person who doesn’t show emotion.”
A historic note: Ellis wrote in “Revolutionary Summer” that the man who supervised the heinous death ships was a Colonist from Massachusetts whose wife, beautiful, 20-something Betsy Loring, carried on a scandalous affair with British commander General William Howe.
Society of Old Brooklynites members Myrtle Whitmore and Sherman Silverman placed a wreath to honor the dead in front of the McKim, Mead and White-designed monument. The ribbon on the wreath said “Lest We Forget.”
As long as history buffs keep passing on the story of Brooklyn’s role in the Revolutionary War to succeeding generations, we won’t forget.
The 18th-Century style rum punch that was part of the weekend festivities was served at a Saturday evening event to raise money for a new “family learning exhibit” at Old Stone House. Want to help with the fund-raising? See www.theoldstonehouse.org for contact info.