Where is unmarked burial place from 1776 Battle of Brooklyn?
A military author says it’s time to find where scores of Maryland soldiers are buried in New York City so a monument can be erected to honor their sacrifice during the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Brooklyn 240 years ago this summer.
“My goal is to make people aware of the story, and hopefully someone will put the resources together to find out where they’re buried,” said Patrick K. O’Donnell, whose book “Washington’s Immortals” portrays the Maryland troops as some of Gen. George Washington’s most dependable fighters during the eight-year war.
Local lore in Brooklyn says they were buried somewhere in what is now Park Slope. They died, along with hundreds of other Americans, during the August 1776 engagement, also known as the Battle of Long Island, that was the war’s largest.
Hundreds of Maryland soldiers made several assaults against a larger British force centered around a stone farmhouse. The ferocious bayonet charges prevented two wings of the advancing redcoats from attacking the 10,000 Americans — outnumbered about 2 to 1 — who had retreated to Brooklyn Heights.
The British commander decided to put off resuming the attack until the next day. The delay gave Washington time to ferry his entire army across the East River to Manhattan in the dead of night.
The British took control of New York the next month, but Washington’s forces escaped to continue the fight for independence.
“They saved the army there, but they saved the army several times, especially in the South,” O’Donnell said. “They’re Washington’s shock troops.”
According to some accounts, more than 250 out of what became known as the “Maryland 400” died in the fight at the farmhouse, although the exact number killed remains murky. Their burial place has never been found. Some historians believe they were buried in unmarked trenches next to the farmhouse, while others say the more likely burial spot is nearby, under what is now a vacant private lot.
The last official archaeological excavations, conducted in the 1950s, failed to turn up any evidence of military burials from the battle.
The burial location remains “one of the great questions of the battle, one of great mysteries of history in Brooklyn,” said Kim Maier, executive director of the Old Stone House, a museum reconstructed nearby in 1933 from material from the original battlefield structure that was torn down nearly 120 years ago.
“Washington’s Immortals” is a bit of a departure for O’Donnell, author of nine previous books, most of them about World War II spies and elite American units such as the U.S. Army Rangers. He said he became obsessed with the Marylanders’ story after touring the Brooklyn battle’s sites in 2010.
O’Donnell, who lives outside Washington, D.C., spent the next five years researching the Marylanders’ exploits, visiting every battlefield where they fought from New York to South Carolina and combing through archives in the U.S. and Britain. What he learned prompted him to dub those patriots America’s original band of brothers, men who continued the fight despite overwhelming odds and constant lack of food, clothing and equipment.
“These volunteers marched — often barefoot, starving and unpaid — thousands of miles and battled the one of the finest armies in the world at the time,” O’Donnell said.
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Letter to the Editor
To the Editor:
We should all be thrilled that yet another effort could be made to find the burial site of the more than a hundred members of the Maryland companies that died in the Battle of Brooklyn. And, as always, the Old Stone House appreciates the coverage and support we and the battle get from your papers.
As a longtime supporter of the Old Stone House, and as one who has given some study to the events that swirled around the house on Aug. 27, 1776, please note that there is a factual error in the story that I hope can be corrected in the institutional memory of the Brooklyn Heights Press and the Brooklyn Eagle.
The error is following: It is correct to say, “The British commander decided to put off resuming the attack [on Brooklyn Heights] until the following day.” But it is incorrect to say “The delay gave Washington time to ferry his entire army across the East River to Manhattan in the dead of night.” That suggests that the Marylanders sacrificed their lives so Washington could lead an escape that night. The truth is they attacked to delay the British so the rest of the American soldiers in the field in the Gowanus Valley could escape to the Heights, and many did.
Further, Washington was so impressed with the performance of the Marylanders under Lord Stirling that he was resolved to stay on the Heights and fight. It was only the next day, as they watched the British begin digging trenches and hauling in siege guns, that he began to listen to his advisers who pointed out that there was a large river immediately behind them, and they were, in fact, trapped. It was then that the call went out to boatmen all over New York Harbor, and one of the great retreats in the history of war began to be organized.
Obviously the delay helped the Americans. But success in an attack on Brooklyn Heights was not guaranteed. The commander (Gen. Howe) had sent his army up Bunker Hill and had lost 40 percent of his men. The Heights were well fortified. And the retreat was still possible.
Conflating these two stories diminishes both.
With best regards,
Joseph M. McCarthy
Joseph McCarthy is a Cobble Hill resident who was amazed to learn, back in 1997, that the largest battle of the American Revolution had been fought within a mile of his home. A filmmaker by profession, he produced “The Brave Man” in 2001, a film focused on Gen. William Alexander, Lord Stirling — commander of the Maryland companies — and the fight at the Old Stone House. He has served on the board of the Old Stone House for many years, and for two years as interim executive director.
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