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How a ‘mini-navy’ of fishermen helped win the Battle of Brooklyn

First battle after Declaration of Independence

May 27, 2021 Jeff Rowe, Associated Press, and Raanan Geberer, Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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Little has been written about the Marblehead mariners and their pivotal role in the American Revolution, especially during the Battle of Brooklyn — until now.

Author Patrick K. O’Donnell has turned five years of research into an engrossing tale of the Marbleheaders — a group of soldier-sailors from the port of Marblehead, Massachusetts who were forged by a tough life fishing from boats sometimes no match for the unruly north Atlantic Ocean.

In his book — “The Indispensables: The Diverse Soldier-Mariners who Shaped the County, Formed the Navy, and Rowed Washington Across the Delaware” — America’s pre-navy emerges as a diverse force. They were men of many ethnicities drawn together by the lure of the sea, tested by extreme adversity and dependent on each other’s skills, stamina and heart. 

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On the night of Aug. 29, 1776, Gen. George Washington’s army was trapped in Brooklyn Heights against the East River after losing the Battle of Brooklyn, the first battle of the American Revolution after independence was declared. 

But the Marbleheaders’ “motley collection of sailed and rowed vessels” ferried Washington’s army to safety from Fulton Ferry Landing to Manhattan in the dead of night. While marching to the landing, they were forbidden to talk so as not to awaken the British, who were camped nearby but sleeping.

In one of the highlights of the Battle of Brooklyn events, The Green-Wood Cemetery holds tours, ceremonies, reenactments with Redcoats and Patriots, horses, cannon fire and parades. Eagle photo by Andy Katz
A Battle of Brooklyn reenactment. Eagle file photo by Andy Katz

Once in the rowboats, the Marbleheaders put cloth over their oars so the British could not hear their paddles. 

Most Americans can perhaps claim a nodding familiarity with the story of Gen. George Washington crossing the Delaware River later in the year and surprising the British – and himself. As the author notes, Washington recently had written to his brother saying, “I think the game is pretty near up.” Many of the troops were barefoot and starving.

Then on Christmas night, 1776, the Marbleheaders tamed the swirling currents and ice in the Delaware River to carry 2,400 of Washington’s troops to the other side without the British knowing.

O’Donnell concludes that were it not for the Marbleheaders’ skill and daring, the American Revolution might well have ended on the cold, snowy banks of the Delaware River, or even beforehand, during the Battle of Brooklyn.

And he notes that would have been all right with the Loyalists in the American colonies, because we were “a divided country.”

So here we are in America’s third century, divided still and often having great difficulty working through our differences.

What would the Marbleheaders say to us?

“The Indispensables: The Diverse Soldier-Mariners who Shaped the County, Formed the Navy, and Rowed Washington Across the Delaware,” by Patrick K. O’Donnell (Atlantic Monthly Press)


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