Dressed for battle, real gunpowder: Re-enactors fire when ready at Green-Wood’s 241st Battle of Brooklyn
Revolutionary War Scholar Gene Procknow Presents Updated View of Battle
Fate vouchsafed a perfect, late summer day to backdrop Green-Wood Cemetery’s annual re-enactment of the Battle of Brooklyn, a pivotal 1776 engagement that took place just weeks after the colonies declared themselves an independent nation.
“Although the battle has been considered a tactical loss by historians,” explained Battle of Brooklyn Memorial Society President Eric Kramer at the event on Aug. 27. “It was more of a strategic victory for the patriots because the British, having been set back in Boston and Charleston, made an all-out effort here in New York, bringing 30,000 troops from all over the Empire, and spending a fortune on German mercenaries … Eventually they captured New York, but they failed to capture the American Army.”
The boom of cannon fire like distant thunder helped set the stage as cannoneers representing the Huntington Militia tested their three-pounder well before the start of the battle.
“It would have been ‘His Excellency, General Washington,’” veteran George Washington re-enactor Michael Grillo explained as he described the proper form of address for the fledgling country’s first generalissimo. “They really had nothing to go on but the example of the British army, which of course, Washington and many of his senior leaders had fought in during the French and Indian War. Most of the top British commanders were aristocracy — that explains the use of honorifics.”
Examples of campsites, 18th-century ammunition trundles and wood fires filled the grass just beyond the cemetery’s large, rectangular north lawn. Most of the lawn itself was already cordoned off. Within, mounted officers wearing the king’s red trotted by, some already in character, sneering at audience members, while more humbly attired Americans worked their drills, sporting a variety of period weapons that lacked the military uniformity of their opponents’ arms.
It was left to about three dozen re-enactors to fulfill the roles of some 6,000 men. But what they lacked in numbers, they made up for in sound and fury and sheer enthusiasm. The ground shook slightly every time the Continental Army’s three-pounder spoke; rifles fired and misfired, initially in volleys nearly as loud as the cannonade, then individually. Red-coated officers rode back and forth, waving short, cavalry sabers and firing their pistols. A dozen discharges in close proximity made enough smoke to momentarily hide the combatants from each other.
One could only imagine how smoke must have filled the scene 2 1/2 centuries past after more than a thousand black powder weapons fired at once.
With the outcome of the battle never in doubt (the Brits claimed this one), both sides retrieved their fallen, reformed their lines and saluted one other before retiring to clean weapons and pose for pictures with members of the audience.
Part two of Sunday’s commemoration was a march up Battle Hill to the site atop Green-Wood where a statue of Minerva stands, erected by India ink merchant Charles Higgins to commemorate the sacrifices made by Continentals in a battle Higgins believed had been given short-shrift by later historians. Leading the procession was the U.S. Merchant Marine Marching Band, blindingly resplendent in their dress whites.
Upon the summit, Redcoats assumed their traditional positions in front of the Bashir mausoleum, while Yankee militia prepared to fire a salute. The Knickerbocker Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution were on hand sporting their red, white and blue banner, and members of the Irish-American Parade Committee occupied one row of chairs.
First-time speaker, historian and Journal of the American Revolution contributor Gene Procknow described key decisions that led to what would become the war’s most significant confrontation to date: “Blame has accrued to American generals Putnam and Sullivan,” Procknow told the assembly. “But throughout the war, the British never lost a battle less than 50 miles from the coast, while they never won one more than 50 miles inland — New York is a series of islands, clearly indefensible. It was the Continental Congress, and Washington himself, who believed New York had to be defended in spite of the odds.”
After a benediction in memorial to those who sacrificed all on behalf of the fledgling nation, Continental re-enactors fired a salute into the air, bringing the 241st anniversary commemoration to a close.
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