When you think of American history, the cities of Philadelphia and Boston come to mind. Washington, D.C. and Williamsburg, Virginia are always known for their popular history. We've all known how the Borough of Manhattan is saturated in American History as well. But Brooklyn has more than her own place in the story of America. The first major campaign between The Continental Army and His Majesty's Royal Army happened in Brooklyn, U.S.A. It is here where important historical landmarks resulted from The Battle of Brooklyn in Flatbush and Brooklyn Heights.
Background: The impromptu skirmishes at 'Lexington and Concord', and the defeat of the surprised British garrison at Breeds Hill in Massachusetts late in 1775, locked America and England into mortal conflict. This changed the course of world history. Then, an ill-fated attempt by the American Congress to try to bring Canadian outposts, (especially Montreal and Quebec) into the war on our side, ended in catastrophe. Central New York contains the Hudson River and Lake Champlain forming a central inland water route which maps the United States interior, and would cut off New England from the other colonies. Control the Hudson River and you establish a strong hold on the interior. It was hoped in Philadelphia that Quebec and Montreal, upon being seized by American forces, would join the U.S. in revolt. But for reasons of religious and cultural differences, the Canadian townships, both heavily Catholic, were more than a little weary of an invading Protestant American army occupying their cities. They had just cause for concern. Protestant - Catholic conflict was still active in 1776 and colored much of European politics as late as the 18th century. Irish Catholics had problems being accepted in the U.S. even in the 20th century. English occupation of Canada was proving to be acceptable to Catholic leaders in both cities. The anti-Catholic sentiment was being heard loud and clear above the border. Our armies, beaten by the weather in the north were just not capable of holding Canadian territories without popular activism. The result were northern campaigns collapsing for logistical reasons, even in the face of weak English opposition. In the process, we nearly lost our hold on central New York and the Hudson/Lake Champlain axis. And without the victory of Saratoga, we would had certainly lost the War of Independence. By August 1776, we were being beaten back down the Hudson, towards New York City and the Ocean Harbor. While at the same time, the British were ready to take New York as its first major beach head against the Colonies.
Up until July of 1776, there were many English sympathizers, even within the Continental Congress. Many felt that it was Parliament which was causing our troubles with the Motherland. The King was expected to eventually intercede on our behalf. It’s hard for us to imagine in today's world, but during the 18th century which marked the end of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the small man looked to the King as his protector and the King was considered benevolent. It was Parliament run by small minded feudal Lords, and their inherent corruption and politics which people feared. As such, the thought that the King would intercede on behalf of the Colonies with the British Parliament was not a far fetched idea. At least not in America.
But King George III had different ideas. He declared to Parliament that the American rebellion would be crushed with the full force of the British Army. And barring its ability to raise enough troops to put down the rebellion with British citizen's, King George declared he would hire German mercenaries. It was this declaration which spawned the commission of the writing of the Declaration of Independence. The first theater of the war after its issue was right here in Brooklyn.
That March in 1776, George Washington, after being appointed Commander and Chief of the Continental Army, entered New York City and entrenched himself in New York and Brooklyn. The New England regiments involved with the scuffled at `Lexington and Concord' headed down from Boston to New York to meet with Washington. Many of who where left from Benedict Arnold's and Robert Montgomery's failed Canadian expeditions also arrived. Regiments from Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia joined Washington as well. The names of many who served with Washington in this crucial battle, and its aftermath, ring familiar for many a Brooklynite.
When finished reading this article, each of these men should become familiar to you, and you will better appreciate that Brooklyn is as holy ground as anywhere in the U.S.
The Main British Army was conveyed across the Atlantic Ocean under the command of General William Howe. Washington had nearly 20,000 soldiers at his disposal in New York. He built Fort Washington in northern Manhattan, at and around 180th Street on the west side. In Brooklyn he engaged Nathaniel Greene and Rufus Putman (Israel Putman's cousin). Putman and Greene traced out works around Brooklyn Heights that sloped gradually into the plains of Flatlands and Flatbush, and surveyed the Marshlands and beaches that makeup Brooklyn's south shore. At the Battery, Knox was to build, well, The Battery, - a line of cannon artillery that projected out into New York Harbor. Battery Park at this time in lower Manhattan was entirely under water.
Washington had his troops spread out over both sides of the East River and up and down Manhattan Island. Just prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, on June 29th in 1776, the British finally arrived in New York Harbor in perhaps the largest flotilla the harbor had seen to that point. Eyewitness Daniel McCurtin wrote, "the whole bay was full of shipping as it could be. I...thought all London afloat." Knox' Battery was a formidable force, which unfortunately was pointed in the wrong direction to be of any use. The British troops landed in Staten Island and formulated a plan, away from Knox' guns, and through that July, more and more transport ships met the British Fleet in Staten Island. Dick Howe, the brother of the General, brought in tremendous reinforcements to help his brother. In August, the British Fleet that was assigned and blockaded in the south, commanded by Admiral Peter Parker (no relation to Mary Jane Watson), joined Howe. General Clinton and General Cornwallis also sailed into New York Harbor. Together they made up Britain's greatest expeditionary force to date, ready to snarl Washington.
And if the British weren't enough, Dick Howe brought to his brother King George's promised German mercenaries. The psychological effect of the German troops could not have been over-estimated. New York City was a Loyalist hotbed. But the appearance of German soldiers was a wake up call to the common man in New York City. If the Brits weren't yet considered a foreign power, the presence of the Germans was greatly resented by the American population.
But all this mattered not, because Washington, without a Navy to control the waters around New York Harbor, was faced with a divided force. Much of it was in Brooklyn, cut off from an escape route if needed as Howe's fleet took control of the East River. On top of this problem, Washington's Army was barely more than a mob. Troops were undisciplined and had little respect for military rank. They were ill equipped without heavy artillery.They had no experience to use the artillery they had. Military drill was critical at a time when the musket firearm was not much more effective than the bayonet, and effective use of weapons depended on elaborately choreographed warfare which laid down thick lines of fire to make up for a lack of accuracy. Strict precision discipline in the ranks translated to successful campaigns. This was an art almost unknown by American troops. Even the senior staff command structure was in flux.
Israel Putman was suppose to be in command within the Brooklyn Heights main garrison. John Sullivan was a Major General who commanded what was known as the American Left in Brooklyn, and the Right Sector ( Western Brooklyn) was given to a New Jersian, William Alexander. Sullivan and Putman feuded as to their respective responsibilities. The entire operations in Brooklyn was supposed to be overseen by General Greene (as in Fort Greene). Greene, however, became ill just prior to the beginning of Howe's move from Staten Island to Brooklyn. The command structure had to be adjusted to compensate for Greene's absence. Hence, the three General command structure was implemented using Putman, Sullivan and Williams.
It was on August 22nd, 1776 when Howe began to move. Rather than face Knox' artillery at the Battery, Howe smartly navigated 88 frigates across the narrows where the Verrazano Bridge now stands, to land in Graves End. Each frigate was filled with German and English troops. Some of the English companies included the 17th Light Dragoons (as they spelled it) and the Black Watch Brigade ( A Scottish brigade with Black Kilts). 15,000 men landed on Brooklyn from Staten Island, along with Commanders Clinton, Cornwallis and the Hessian (German) Count von Donop.
While the move across the Narrows went smoothly for the British, the winds of New York Harbor favored Washington throughout the campaign and all but prevented Howe from sailing war ships up the East River. Washington quickly reinforced Brooklyn by ferrying by row boat more troops to the Brooklyn side of the River. On the 25th of August, after 3 days, winds shifted further in Washington's favor and Howe was unable to add more troops to Brooklyn's south shore. But by the 26th Howe was able to move the many German Troops to the theater of the Brooklyn War. Washington had split his Army in two, half of the Continental Army in Brooklyn, its back to the East River and vulnerable to naval assault, and half in New York City, with Knox' cannons facing the wrong direction.
In Boston the English made the mistake of underestimating the rebels and marched their columns directly in front of fortified American positions on Breed Hill. In Brooklyn, Howe was not going to make the same mistake. The terrain of Brooklyn is such that a large hill runs down the center of its spine from the terminal moraine which runs up Sunset Park, through Prospect Park and Lookout Hill, Mount Prospect behind the Brooklyn Museum, and out along Eastern Parkway. Washington fortified the hill tops and the southern slopes in Red Hook and Flatbush. 10,000 British troops simply marched around the American fortifications in what is called a flanking maneuver. After camping for 5 days in Flatbush, they marched east on what was called Jamaica Pass, which ran approximately along present day Empire Blvd., and was unguarded by the Americans. Unopposed they marched into New Lots and Brownsville. They stopped for drinks (yup - drinks) at a tavern called the Rising Sun Tavern and forced the tavern owner to show them a northern passage called Rockaway Path in today's Evergreen Cemetery, north to what today is the Eastern Parkway area, to the township of Bedford.
They then surprised the American troops, attacking behind their wall of fortified positions, hitting them from the side on the northern slope of the Heights. Sullivan's Left Wing was crushed and sent into turmoil. The American Rifle, superior in most respects to the common musket, was unable to fire more than one round at a time without reloading it and repacking it. Muskets, similarly needed to be reloaded after each shot. But Muskets, especially British Muskets, were fitted with bayonets, and as the British advanced, they would lay down firing column after firing column until in bayonet range at which point they rushed the American lines in a form of organized hand to hand combat. The American's simply couldn't combat this style of open warfare.
In essence, the British attacked the Americans from behind. In Prospect Park there is a marker for what is known as Battle Pass. Battle Pass had a large oak tree known as Dongal Oak. The tree was felled and the Americans took position behind it and along a corridor blocking Battle Pass. The British attacked from Bedford (around Fulton and Bedford Avenue) behind the defensive line. Americans fled in all directions. They were bayoneted near the Atlantic Ave. LIRR train station at Baker's Tavern. They were chased into the woods which are now remolded to Prospect Park, up Flatbush Ave., and down Park Slope on Port Road which was located near 1st street.
On the 26th, Washington came to Brooklyn to oversee the operation. There was little that could be done but to hope that the wind would keep Howe's war fleet out of the East River. Washington must have realized at this point that he had maneuvered his Army into a trap. On the American Right was William Alexander's (a.k.a.: Lord Sterling), and William Smallwood's Marylanders. Accompanying the Marylanders was Haslet's regiment of Delawares. Smallwood's and Haslet's regiments were the real heros of the Battle of Brooklyn. Aside from the flanking maneuver, the British also drove forward from Brooklyn's western shore line. In a strange quirk of history, and in typical Brooklyn fashion, 2 British soldiers were caught stealing watermelons from a field at the Red Lion Inn at 39th street in Sunset Park. They beat a hasty retreat and in an example of truth being stranger than fiction, returned.....but with 5000 more British troops. General Alexander then met the troops there with 1700 men. They arrived on the morning of the 27th badly outnumbered but prepared to die for America's honor. And die they did.
Under the command of Alexander, Haslet's Delawares and Smallwood's Marylanders where surrounded by the British grenadier and Scottish 42nd Black Watch. The Brits were amazed at the valor of these two groups. But they destroyed them anyway. Alexander tried to save his troops and ordered an organized withdrawal. Through the Gowanus Creek they withdrew, except for 200 Marylanders lead by the war hero, Mordecai Gist. At the Cortelyou House, Gist and his men counter attacked and nearly broke the British lines. Alexander had ordered his sixth counter attack when fresh British troops arrived. And Gist and his fellow Marylanders had to fight their way back to the American Line. Only 9, including Mordecai Gist survived. But the offensive on what is now known as the Stone House, allowed the rest of Alexander's Army to survive. 256 died at the Stone House, in an unmarked grave. General Alexander himself is caught by the British Army. More men came over from Manhattan, and then the rains began.
On August 29th, Washington at the Cornell Mansion on Pierpoint Place decides it is time to retreat from Brooklyn, while he still had the wind in his favor. Those of us who live in Brooklyn know what it is like in late August in a pouring rain. Not the sort of thunder storm that would suddenly appear but the kind of rain where it is overcast and raining for a couple of days, and when fog covers the Harbor. Howe composed a letter to Lord George Germain on his total victory in Brooklyn. He had a clear run to Brooklyn Heights. But in the wake of walking troops into barricaded Americans in Boston and suffering a terrible defeat, he hesitates to enter the Lion's Den of Brooklyn Heights with the weather as heavy as it was. He pulled back east and digs in for a seige. Hoping to push closer and closer to the American troops holed up in Brooklyn Heights from their protection of earthworks, rather than just marching into the American fortifications. In the mists of a full blown Nor'easter, similar to the one that ripped the shore off of Sea Gate a few years back, Howe steadily pushed forward. Washington finally decides to withdraw from Brooklyn. And yet in doing so, he knows that if the British discovered his retreat across the East River, half his Army and most of its command would to be caught in a massacre of British fire and bayonets.
Washington's Army in the moment of withdrawal was in deadly peril. John Glover was a leader of
a brigade called the Marbleheaders. They were seamen by trade, and along with the Massachusetts
27th regiment lead by Israel Hutchinson they rowed the Continental Army and their equipment, in
complete silence across the East River. One British Military critic had said, “Those who are best
aquainted with the difficulty, the embarrassment, noise and tumult which attend even by day, and
with no enemy at hand, a movement of this nature...will be the first to acknowledge that this
retreat should hold a high place among military transactions. While Washington's misjudgment put
the Army in extreme danger, on the strength of his leadership he was able to save the force. When
the British arrived at Brooklyn Heights that next morning, they found nothing more than some
Please note - I am neither a professional historian nor do I intend to make this page a notated thesis. If there are errors in it, my apologies. But I beleive it to be accurate I would like to note that the Stone House where Gist and Company fought and died is still in existence as a Park House on 3rd Street and 5th Avenue. It has an exhibit about the Battle. ~ Ruben
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