George Washington stood atop a fort in Cobble Hill, today the site of downtown Brooklyn’s commercial intersection at Atlantic Avenue and Court Street, staring through a spyglass at his soldiers. They were scrambling through the mud along Gowanus Creek, some wounded and dying, others sinking into the bloody water, weighed down by their muskets and thick wool jackets. “Good God,” he reportedly exclaimed, “what brave fellows I must this day lose!” The date was August 27, 1776—just six weeks after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The British had amassed 32,000 professional soldiers on Staten Island. Washington had no navy, and his ragtag force of 20,000, composed primarily of untested farm boys, was divided between Brooklyn and Manhattan. Outnumbered and outfought on a hot afternoon, they were in full retreat, except for the Maryland Regiment and one crazed brigadier general who inconceivably attacked an enemy stronghold of 2,000 men. For more than an hour the regiment stood and fought, preventing the Redcoats from capturing or destroying the fleeing Americans.
For the Marylanders, the Battle of Brooklyn was a suicide mission, and arguably the most heroic moment of the seven-year war. Certainly it was crucial to the ultimate American victory, granting Washington’s army the chance to fight another day. You might think that the 256 volunteers who fell would be forever honored, their burial site memorialized in marble. But I live just a musket shot away from the site of the war’s bloodiest conflict, and it’s a well-kept secret. There are a few markers, if you know where to look—a plaque on a boulder, a weathered bronze eagle, an obelisk deep in nearby Prospect Park— but I’d missed them all in my two decades of living in Park Slope.
To rectify that lapse, I recently walked a full six minutes from my brown- stone to a small stone house with heavy wood shutters behind a playground off Fifth Avenue; you would be forgiven for assuming it houses restrooms. In fact, it’s a museum (www.oldstonehouse.com) that once served as the clubhouse for the Brooklyn Dodgers. When I arrived, executive director Kim Maier was racing out to move her car—a New York parking regulation ritual. “Be right back,” she said cheerfully. “Have a look around.”
Within these thick walls, the Battle of Brooklyn leapt to life. From their landing site near Coney Island, 5,000 Redcoats moved west along the bay, while 5,000 Hessians advanced through Prospect Park. A force of 10,000 led by General William Howe moved up from the east. Caught outside their fortifications in Brooklyn Heights, the 3,000 Americans were attacked from three sides.
“The greater part of their riflemen,” wrote one Hessian colonel, “were pierced to the trees with bayonets.” Realizing they were trapped, the Americans tried to reach safety on the far side of the Gowanus Salt Marsh. But it was high tide, and a bridge across a millpond had been torched. The retreating soldiers were easy pickings for British and Hessian troops massed at the old stone farmhouse they’d taken from the Americans.
“Cornwallis turned this house into a small fortress,” explained Maier, staring down at a diorama of the battle. “They had hauled a cannon to the second floor and were blasting away.”
Enter General William Alexander, a 50-year-old former British officer with a drinking problem. The self-proclaimed Lord Stirling assumed command of 400 Marylanders, the army’s best fighting force, and exhorted them to retake the house. They rushed it six times, twice gaining control, at a cost of 256 dead and 100 wounded. Stirling finally surrendered to a Hessian general, but the Marylanders had bought the army time to rejoin Washington in Brooklyn Heights and ultimately escape across New York Harbor—to fight another day.
“And where are the fallen now?” asked Maier. “That’s the great mystery.”
In The Battle of Brooklyn: 1776, historian John Gallagher writes, “The Marylanders were buried in their uniforms of scarlet and buff…near today’s Third Avenue, between Seventh and Eighth Streets.” That’s about a half-mile from the battle site. Maier is skeptical. “I’m a practical woman,” she said. “I’d have buried them here.”
I went to Third and Eighth in search of the plaque commemorating the fallen Americans but couldn’t find it. Finally, the resident of a century-old clapboard house near the corner showed me where a sign had been on the side of a building that had recently been painted.
“This whole area is a burial ground,” he said with a sweeping gesture, admitting that when he renovated his basement a while back, he dug extra deep, hoping to find relics. I asked why he believed soldiers killed five blocks and two avenues away would have ended up here. “Hundreds fled to the Gowanus,” he said. “There were dead men from Prospect Park to this corner and beyond,” he said. “Maybe the Marylanders aren’t here, but this is holy ground, too.”
I ranged over the whole large battle site, from Battle Pass in Prospect Park, down First Street to water’s edge. Here it was easy to imagine the labored breathing of terrified farm boys pursued by bayonet-wielding Hessians. Standing by the industrial Gowanus Canal on a still, sunny Sunday, I looked back across the one-time killing field to the modern world, marked by an auto body repair shop and a Staples superstore. Urban real estate is pricey, and maybe no one wants to commemorate a rout. But this was Washington’s first battle, the first one fought in the newly formed United States. Rout or not, it was more than redeemed by a display of breathtaking courage and audacity. That’s worth remembering.
Originally published in the May 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.