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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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Looking at Brooklyn Then and Now

While speaking in Morristown last week, I had the pleasure of meeting Jason R. Wickersty, a National Park Service ranger.

He just wrote an article about the Battle of Brooklyn for the latest issue of Hallowed Ground, the magazine of the Civil War Trust: “Lost Battlefield: The Disastrous Battle for New York.”

Wickersty provides a straightforward account of what led up to that major battle and how it turned out. Here’s a taste:
The opening gambit came on August 22, 1776. Covered by the guns of five men-of-war, 15,000 British and Hessian soldiers made an amphibious landing at Gravesend Bay on the southwestern shore of Long Island. The plan, conceived by General Henry Clinton, was to split the army into three divisions. Two divisions would make feints directly against the Americans entrenched on the wooded hills of the Heights of Guana (in the area of Greenwood Cemetery and Prospect Park today). The largest division, 10,000 men personally under the command of General Clinton, would take an unguarded pass on the left of the American line and turn the flank by surprise.

When battle was joined on August 27, the plan worked perfectly. The British smashed through American positions, sending the mostly raw troops fleeing for their lives. Washington watched helplessly from Brooklyn Heights as a regiment of Marylanders sacrificed themselves in repeated charges to buy time for the routed army to escape, lamenting, “What brave fellows must I lose this day!”
Wickersty also took the photograph above of one place where the Maryland regiment fought, now public basketball courts. That change illustrates the theme of this magazine—that some important American battlefields have already been “lost,” in the sense of not being commemorated as parkland or visible memorials.

Of course, the process of putting those lands back into productive use started early. Most of the earthworks that surrounded besieged Boston were plowed under within a generation or two; the Dana family of Cambridge was unusual in preserving a few in what is now a city park. A few decades after the war, there was new public interest in putting up memorials, such as the big obelisk for Bunker Hill and the smaller obelisk at Concord’s North Bridge. Meanwhile, America’s population, and especially its urban population, was growing tremendously.

The idea of preserving great swaths of landscape more or less as they looked during the time of a battle—our modern idea of “hallowed ground”—is made possible by our move away from an agricultural economy. And it’s worked best in rural or semi-rural areas. A place like Charlestown or Brooklyn has been changed for good. Fort Stanwix is an exceedingly rare example of recreating an eighteenth-century landscape within a city, and that city had to hit hard times first.

Brooklyn, in contrast, has been bustling for decades, and never more vibrant than today. Indeed, Brooklyn has fed far more into American culture than that disastrous battle of 1776, and our image of it probably has a lot to do with public basketball courts.

1 comment:

G. Lovely said...

While little remains untouched, thankfully from the high point in Green-Wood Cemetery one can still see the strategic importance of the site, even today. It is well worth visiting, especially after reading an account of the battle.