Today is the anniversary of the first battle of the Revolutionary War fought by the newly-declared United States. The Battle of Brooklyn (sometimes called the Battle of Long Island) was also the largest battle ever fought between Britain and her former colonists.
The British, 20,000 strong, launched an attack on George Washington’s 10,000 troops through what is today, Prospect Park (at Battle Pass), as well as surprising the Americans by having marching under cover of night, and attacking in a flanking maneuver from the east.
The Americans, under cannon fire from two directions, had to fall back. The only way to escape was through the marshes, and across Gowanus Creek, towards Brooklyn Heights. In order to buy time for the escape, a group of 400 citizen-soldiers from the 1st Maryland Regiment, in essentially a suicide-attack, repeatedly attacked the Old Stone House, (in today’s Park Slope), which 2,000 British and Hessian solders were using as an artillery base.
As John Gallagher writes of the action of the Marylanders,
In fierce fighting, the Marylanders charged the British forces six times to give their comrades time to make their way to safety with the rest of Washington's army in the Heights. Twice they managed to drive the British from the house, but as more British reinforcements arrived and the Marylanders casualties mounted, they finally had to give up the assault and try to get to safety themselves.
Only Major Gist and nine others managed to reach the American lines. Of the others, 256 lay dead in front of the Old Stone House and more than 100 were wounded/and or captured. The bravery of the Maryland Regiment earned them the name “immortals”. The dead were buried in a farm field. The gravesite is located on what is now Third Avenue between 7th and 8th Streets. Until the widening of Third Avenue in 1910, the site was marked by a tablet that read: “Burial place of ye 256 Maryland soldiers who fell in ye combat at ye Cortelyou House on ye 27th day of August 1776.”
But the Marylanders had succeeded in buying the time Washington needed. Under cover of night, he was able to evacuate his troops and equipment, from Brooklyn Heights to Manhattan.
This battle became the prototype for the war; the British winning the fight, but the Americans able to get away to re-assemble, and do it all again a few months later. Washington knew, that as long as he could keep an army in the field, he could keep dragging the British all around the country, something the British would eventually tire of (which they did, signing the Treaty of Paris, in 1783).
This Sunday, there will be a re-enactment of the battle, as well as a ceremony commemorating the Americans who fought.
On a personal note, I want to thank the Marylanders. Washington, watching the battle from atop his horse, at what is now the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Court Street (where Trader Joe’s is today), exclaimed,
“Good God, what brave fellows I must this day lose!”
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