Ask anything about Brooklyn

May 8, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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Q: Was there ever a Fort Reliance in Red Hook and if so where was it?     —Dave Foss


A: Dave, I think you may be thinking of Fort Defiance, which was in Red Hook during the Revolutionary War. I checked in with Richard Cox, curator at the Harbor Defense Museum at Fort Hamilton (the only active military base remaining in all of New York City), and he was unaware of any Fort Reliance. He did however send along some information on Fort Defiance. Here are a few passages from Robert B. Roberts’ book “New York’s Forts in the Revolution”:

“On April 4, 1776, Gen. Israel Putnam arrived in New York City to take over the command from Gen. Stirling. ‘Old Put’ quickly assessed what had been done so far and added to the already constructed or planned Patriot fortifications, Governors Island and the peninsula opposite it on the Brooklyn shore, Red Hook (Roode Hoek), so named for the color of its earth.

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“On the same night of April 10, when one thousand continentals took possession of Governors Island, a regiment occupied Red Hook, the northernmost point of the land above Gowanus Bay. There they constructed a redoubt for one three-pounder and four eighteens en barbette, designed to prevent enemy shipping from proceeding through Buttermilk Channel behind Governors Island and entering the East River. The redoubt was named Fort Defiance by Col. Henry Knox’s artillerymen stationed there. 


“Col. Washington in May described Fort Defiance as ‘small, but exceedingly strong.’ During the early summer months, the fort was strengthened by additional works which, according to a Hessian military map, consisted of a second and larger redoubt, called Smith’s Barbette, connected to the first by an enclosed way. On July 5, Gen. Greene wrote his commander in chief that he considered Fort Defiance ‘a post of vast importance’ and he suggested the posting of a strong force there permanently; three days later Col. Varnum’s regiment joined the Red Hook garrison.
Gen. Israel Putnam

“Stiles [Brooklyn historian Henry Stiles] places the fort’s site near the intersection of today’s Conover and Van Dyke streets in the Erie Basin in Red Hook. It has since been determined that the actual sight is at Dwight and Beard streets, several blocks to the southeast. There, in 1952, a bronze tablet was attached to a brick building to commemorate Fort Defiance. The attending ceremony was held on the 176th anniversary of the Battle of Brooklyn (August 27), during which a flotilla of six British Man-of-War attempted to pass Fort Defiance and enter the East River to attack the Patriots’ flank and rear. In the face of a stiff northeast breeze, five of the vessels had to drop down to New York Bay, but the frigate Roebuck managed to get as far as Red Hook. The fort’s cannon, while not causing any damage, forced the Roebuck to retire out of range.


“One month to the day later, September 27, the British destroyed the works of Fort Defiance.”


The area’s revolutionary history has since been commemorated with signs indicating a “Red Hook Heritage Trail,” thanks to the work of local historian and lifelong Red Hook resident John Burkard.


The next great flurry of fort-making activity in New York was during the years leading up to the War of 1812, when New York awaited a British invasion that never came. R.S. Guerney’s “New York and the Vicinity During the War of 1812” (1889) makes no mention of a Fort Reliance, and he takes thorough account of the fortifications erected during that time.

My feeling is that if there had been a Fort Reliance, it would have been during the Revolutionary War or the War of 1812, and I can find no record of one. If it were more recent in our history, there would be ample record of it. So, as I said at the top, I’m inclined to think you may actually be thinking of Fort Defiance. But if any reader knows about a Fort Reliance, I encourage them to write in. Hope this was helpful.    

— Phoebe Neidl 

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