J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, August 27, 2012

“A good way to check in on the invading force”

At the Awl, Robert Sullivan is sharing a series of discursive articles on “how the trail of the Battle of Brooklyn would pass across modern-day New York.”

For example, the British military’s crossing from Staten Island to Long Island:
A good way to check in on the invading force from your apartment right now—which assuming the time-space continuum allowed it—would be to watch the MTA’s live bridge cams, specifically the ones set up on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which are spotty and always under repair (like the bridge itself) but eventually would give you some idea of how things were going, invasion-wise. . . .

On August 24, 1776, the Constitutional Gazette would report that the “ministerial troops” had landed “between New-Utrecht and Gravesend on Long Island to the number of 7000 men.” A later report noted that there were a little over 12,000 British “on the Shore by 11 o’Clock.” As far as military logistics go, Brooklyn was a good place to invade; the farms in Brooklyn could feed an army, and the Dutch settlers in the area do not have a political dog in the fight. It was a big landing. The statistic that is invariably mentioned in post-World War II accounts of the 1776 British invasion is this: it was the largest invasion by military forces until D-Day.
And the day of the battle approaches:
The city itself, the rocks of it, are, grossly put, a combination of two big geologic stories—one that is a vertical story as you look down at the map (see the northeast trending valleys that create the East River the Harlem and Bronx rivers or the Palisades along the Hudson) and one that is a horizontal story: see the glacial moraine as it runs through Brooklyn and Queens, a miniature two-borough mountain range, usually invisible unless, say, you go to Ridgewood Reservoir in the fall and take in the amazing view of Manhattan on the one side, most of Long Island on the other. The vertical geology is the result of stresses and fractures that are related to the very old Appalachian Mountains; the horizontal geology is related to the not-as-old Wisconsin glacier, which pushed a lot of junk to New York from elsewhere and left the forward hills as if marking how far it had gone. . . .

In the days between the first British landing on Brooklyn and the face off itself, Washington and his staff could only make guesses as to what the British were thinking, as to whether the war would be fought in the glacial landscape, you might say, or the Appalachian one. Washington seems to have thought maybe the British were faking a Brooklyn battle, getting ready to swing in on the East River, or the Hudson. He had did not yet realize that there were upwards of 32,000 Redcoats preparing to march against his 10,000 poorly trained, gunshot-happy men. The Americans had built forts all along the moraine; the idea was to hold the Redcoats back at the passes, the cuts in the glacial hills.
Today’s the anniversary of the big battle, so check in on the sites of the fighting.

Sullivan appears to have taken a similar approach in his new book, My American Revolution: Crossing the Delaware and I-78. (Unaccountably its marketing copy begins, “Americans tend to think of the Revolution as a Massachusetts-based event orchestrated by Virginians…” Don’t people know the Virginians were working for us?)

TOMORROW: Another attempt to rediscover the landscape of the Battle of Brooklyn.

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