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Society of Old Brooklynites continues tradition of honoring the Battle of Brooklyn

August 24, 2015 By Rob Abruzzese Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Leslie Lewis (center) presents Michael J. Spinner (left) and George Broadhead, of the Society of Old Brooklynites, with a proclamation from Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams’ Office during the annual rededication of the Revolutionary War Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, which took place Saturday at Fort Greene Park. Eagle photos by Rob Abruzzese

A weeklong celebration of the 239th anniversary of the Battle of Brooklyn kicked off in Fort Greene Park this past weekend as the Society of Old Brooklynites (SOBs) continued its annual tradition of re-dedicating the Revolutionary War Prison Ship Martyrs Monument on Saturday.

Dozens of members of the SOBs, local politicians and community members surrounded the 148-foot tall monument that was erected in 1908. The ceremony included a poetry reading by Professor Maurice Decaul, a performance by tenor Theron Cromer, a speech by Wilhelmena Rhodes Kelly who is a Daughter of the American Revolution and member of the SOBs, and an interpretive dance by Craig Gabrian. Myrtle Whitmore and Sherman Silverman laid a wreath at the base of the monument.

“Today we pay tribute to each of the 11,500 to 13,000 patriots of the American Revolutionary War,” said George Broadhead, president of the SOBs. “Soldiers, sailors and civilians, including women and children of all ethnic backgrounds, who would not disavow loyalty in the hopes of a new kind of government.

“For that they suffered the most inhumane cruelties in the hulls of decrepit rat-infested ships that were used by the British as floating jails.”

The ceremony celebrates the lives of the more than 11,500 prisoners of war (POW) who died upon British prison ships in Wallabout Bay (now the spot of the Brooklyn Navy Yard) during the Battle of Brooklyn.

Ron Schweiger, the official historian of Brooklyn, described the ships as unfit for actual service, which were stripped of every spar and rigging. He said that nearly every prisoner placed upon the dark and filthy ships perished upon them.

“Nobody really knew about the POWs until their bones were discovered a few years later,” Schweiger explained. “The British pushed the bodies overboard or buried them on the shore, covered them with sand, but eventually the waves unearthed their bones and they were later reinterred here.”

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Later Walt Whitman, a society member and editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, helped raise $100,000 with the help of the SOBs and the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution. That money was matched by congress and in 1908 the monument was erected and stands today as one of the few remaining monuments to the Revolutionary War in New York City.

As part of the ceremony, Michael Spinner conducted a Piping Ceremony, a naval tradition. Piping the side, as it’s called, is a mark of respect or honor for a high-ranking person or dignitary as they come aboard ships and is also used at funerals. Spinner remembered Bernard Flatow, who previously conducted the ceremony before he passed.

“I’m going to start with what Bernie would do,” Spinner said. “He would start by asking, ‘Do you hear me down there?’ We have not forgotten you and we know of your hardships and inhuman treatment by the British during your incarceration.”

Leslie Lewis also presented the SOBs with a proclamation on behalf of the Borough President’s Office and briefly read a part of it.

“On behalf of all Brooklynites, I salute the Society of Old Brooklynites for playing a major role in the development of the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn,” Lewis read. “It is a time honored tradition to recognize those individuals and organizations that demonstrate an outstanding appreciation for those who answered the call of duty for our great nation, who suffered and gave the ultimate sacrifice so that we may live free.”

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