Spirits of Revolution, Freedom Mix In Living Tribute at Green-Wood

August 14, 2013 By Lore Croghan Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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Brooklyn’s big blowout for history buffs is almost upon us.

The time draws near, once again, for Battle of Brooklyn Week, an annual tribute to the heroism of Revolutionary War patriots who fought here on Aug. 27, 1776. Their brave stand allowed George Washington to escape Brooklyn Heights unharmed to fight another day – and ultimately break Britain’s hold on the American colonies.

Even folks who mostly focus on modern-day doings will get caught up in the spirit of the celebration marking the 237th anniversary of Brooklyn’s hometown battle. The Aug. 18 to 25 commemorative events run the gamut from a light-hearted pie-baking contest to a solemn ceremony honoring soldiers who died aboard British prison ships.

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“The American Revolution came incredibly close to being ended on the soil of Brooklyn – yet so few people know about it,” Jeff Richman, the historian at Green-Wood Cemetery, told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “Historians tend to shun the battles we don’t win.”

The first armed clash to follow the signing of the Declaration of Independence – and the largest of the entire war – took place, in part, on the hills of what is now a cemetery where celebs, scoundrels and blue bloods of bygone days are buried.

Green-Wood is devoting Sunday, Aug. 25 to bringing the Battle of Brooklyn back to life. In years past, nearly 1,000 visitors turned out for the events, which are free except for a $30 trolley tour.

The 10 a.m. tour, with Richman and historian Barnet Schechter as guides, starts off at Ocean Hill, the end of the terminal moraine that’s a prominent feature of the cemetery’s terrain.

In his book “1776,” author David McCullough describes Washington riding out on the eve of battle, looking to the south and seeing British troops massing. Based on McCullough’s description of the site, Washington probably was on Ocean Hill – which affords views clear to the Rockaways.

The trolley goes to the grave of Ebenezer Stevens, who took part in the Boston Tea Party, and proceeds along Martense Pass, the route of attack by British General James Grant. Along the way is the site of the Red Lion Inn, where Grant’s troops were met by Colonial forces.

Close at hand, there’s a monument to soldiers from Delaware who took part in the Battle of Brooklyn.

Then comes Sylvan Heights, where patriot sharpshooters fired on the British as they made their way west along Martense Pass.

As a finale, a quarter-mile from Ocean Hill, the trolley ascends Battle Hill, the highest natural point in Brooklyn at 217 feet above sea level.

Historians of earlier eras thought “not much occurred on Battle Hill,” Richman said. Only in recent years did researchers learn differently.

“It turned out to have the greatest triumph for the Americans in the midst of Washington’s defeat,” he said.

Eighty-six British soldiers were killed or wounded on Battle Hill – almost half of all the casualties their forces suffered that day, he explained. Three hundred men in units from Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Delaware took the hill from the British – and twice repulsed British efforts to take it back.

At 2 p.m. during the Aug. 25 festivities, new signs and plaques commemorating the bloody battle will be unveiled on Battle Hill.

The locale is already the site of a famous tribute to the Battle of Brooklyn: a 1920s statue of Minerva, whose left arm is raised in salute to the Statue of Liberty. Lady Liberty and her torch, hoisted in her right hand, are visible from Minerva’s perch.

So were the Twin Towers before the 9/11 terror attack. It’s painful to note the void where they once were visible, but heartening of late to see the new building, 1 World Trade Center, that has risen up from Ground Zero.    

Other events at Green-Wood include demonstrations of Revolutionary War weaponry by re-enactors and a parade, with replicas of Colonial flags that spectators can borrow to join the march.

See Green-Wood’s website to get further information and make trolley tour reservations.

The biggest drama of the Battle of Brooklyn took place at the historic site now known as the Old Stone House in Park Slope – which is offering a full calendar of events.

General William Alexander, aka Lord Stirling – a Scotsman from New Jersey whose personal quarrel with Parliament made him a fierce foe of the British – led the Maryland 400 there in suicidal attacks against 2,000 British regulars. Their heroism gave the rest of the American army time to escape.

Through a spyglass at Fort Ponkiesburg – located in Cobble Hill at present-day Atlantic Avenue and Court Street where Trader Joe’s now stands – Washington watched the Marylanders fight and die.

“Good God! What brave fellows I must this day lose,” he was heard to say.

When the battle was over, 256 of the Marylanders had been killed, and another 100 were wounded or captured, said Maggie Weber, director of education at Old Stone House.

Lord Stirling – who had a claim to a title in Scotland that Parliament didn’t recognize – refused to surrender to anyone British and insisted, instead, on surrendering to a Hessian.

After a war council convened at Declaration of Independence signer Philip Livingston’s mansion – located at the foot of present-day Joralemon Street in Brooklyn Heights – Washington and his troops made their getaway from Brooklyn. They retreated to Manhattan under cover of fog and night from the present-day site of Fulton Ferry Landing.

A Saturday, Aug. 24 event organized by Old Stone House will commemorate the retreat. The Great Escape @ Brooklyn Bridge Park will feature re-enactors from General John Glover’ s Marblehead Regiment. It will take place in BBP at Main and Plymouth Streets, starting at 11 a.m.

The real-life Colonial fishermen from Marblehead, Mass. participated in the retreat from Brooklyn – and also famously ferried Washington across the Delaware.

That evening, at Old Stone House, 18th Century-inspired dishes will be served up – and Colonial-era cocktails, too. Along with the night-time noshing, there will be a pie-baking contest for amateurs and pros. Tickets are $12 in advance, or $15 at the door. OSH is in Washington Park at 3rd Street and Fifth Avenue.

See the Old Stone website for more info and a full list of Old Stone House events – which also includes a Friday, Aug. 23 Battle of Brooklyn Neighborhood Walk, which takes off from Grand Army Plaza.

For those who want to read up beforehand on the political and military cataclysms of 1776, there’s Pulitzer Prize winner Joseph J. Ellis’s recently-published “Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence.”

The most solemn event of the week will be the Society of Old Brooklynites’ memorial tribute to America’s first POWs. It will take place on Saturday, Aug. 24 at 10 a.m at the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Fort Greene Park.

The SOBs had the monument placed in the park a century ago for Colonial soldiers – including nearly 1,000 from the Battle of Brooklyn – who were held captive and died aboard British war ships in Wallabout Bay.

The remains of thousands of American patriots who perished on the prison ships are buried beneath the 148-foot memorial column.

The keynote speaker at the commemorative will be Brooklyn Borough Historian Ron Schweiger, who is also the SOBs’ new president.

See the event’s Facebook page for more info.

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