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, August 28, 2012

Seeking a Mass Grave in Brooklyn

In other news tied to the Battle of Brooklyn in 1776, the New York Times reported on Sunday about local historian Bob Furman’s attempts to locate the grave(s) of the 200+ Maryland soldiers who died resisting the British advance.

However, one recurring theme of that article is skepticism from other historians about the feasibility or importance of that quest, given how much Brooklyn has changed over the centuries:
The Marylanders’ story is among the more underappreciated chapters of the Revolutionary War. Vastly outnumbered, they launched a series of counterattacks that stymied rapidly advancing British forces, enabling thousands of American soldiers to evade encirclement and certain death or capture. Had the British not been checked, it is possible that the Continental Army would have been smashed, forcing Washington to surrender and effectively bringing the war to an abrupt, inglorious end. “These soldiers saved the Revolution,” Mr. Furman maintains.

Other experts don’t go as far but agree that many historians have shortchanged the Marylanders. . . . As many as 256 Maryland soldiers, almost two-thirds of the regiment, were killed. According to several accounts, the British forced local civilians to gather the bodies shortly after the battle and bury them at a site near what was then Gowanus Creek.

The mass grave has long been a source of fascination for amateur archaeologists and Revolutionary War enthusiasts. In the 1940s and ’50s, city officials considered mounting a comprehensive search, and Robert Moses even drew up plans for a memorial park. Ultimately, the park never materialized because of a lack of money, and the one dig undertaken, in 1957, found no remains.

Various archaeologists say geography is the main reason the grave’s location has remained a secret. In 1776 the area featured marshland and millponds surrounding Gowanus Creek. Only a few dots of high ground would have been suitable for a grave.

The area was transformed beginning in the mid-19th century. The canal itself was dug in the 1860s, followed by industrialization along its banks. The neighborhood was made level, and both sides of the canal were lined with landfill. “Historically speaking, it’s like night and day,” said Alyssa Loorya, owner of Chrysalis Archeological Consultants Inc., which has surveyed the area.

Grave hunters’ attention in recent decades has focused on a stretch of Third Avenue between Seventh and Eighth Streets, because Revolutionary War-era maps show hills in the area. Written reminiscences, compiled mostly in the 1950s but dating as far back as the 1890s, also tell of bones being found when basements were dug.

Many archaeologists are skeptical.
New mapping software, ground-penetrating radar, and other technology may turn up things where older techniques failed. Then again, this might be a reminder that we’re much more concerned about preserving ordinary graves than most people of past centuries have been.

The photo above, from mikkime via Flickr under a Creative Commons license, shows one of the existing, weathered memorials to the Maryland soldiers. There are other signs in the borough, but it’s not clear how close they are to any identifiable graves.


EJWitek said...

This article reminds me of another memorial located in Brooklyn, unknown to most Americans and even to those interested in the Revolutionary War. It's the "Prison Ships Martyrs Monument" in Fort Greene Park; a monument to the estimated 17,500 American prisoners of war who died in captivity in New York City and in British Prison ships anchored in Wallabout Bay, northwest of Brookyln. The number of deaths suffered by these prisoners of war far exceeds the estimated 7,000 colonials who died in battle.
A good introduction to this almost forgotten story is Edwin G. Burrows' "Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War."
Central to this story and the cruel conditions under which the prisoners were kept and starved to death was the notoriously corrupt Massachusetts Loyalist Joshua Loring, Jr who was the high- sheriff of Suffolk County when the Revolutionary war broke out and later served as Great Britain's Deputy Commissary of American Prisoners of War. He was discharged from his office at the end of the war for corruption.

J. L. Bell said...

Joshua Loring, Jr., like his colleague William Cunningham, was the subject of a lot of nasty rumors after the war, probably pleasing formerly imprisoned Americans and often repeated without investigation by American authors.

There’s no doubt American prisoners complained about Loring and Cunningham as early as 1775. But as to whether Loring deserves blame for being "notoriously corrupt" or for having "starved to death" prisoners given the resources he had available, I'm not convinced.