As much as we love and respect the 4th of July as a time to watch fireworks, put anything and everything we can plausibly think of onto a grill, and whip bang snaps onto the sidewalk with one hand while drinking non-stop Budweiser out of those American flag cans with the other—really, it's one of the best holidays on the calendar—it's also a holiday about history.
No need to belabor any points about patriotism or respecting your forefathers or even just generally appreciating the significance of things that have happened in the past (for that, this 2005 interview with David McCullough is a total delight, and Henry has a great recent round up of local war memorials), but still, Brooklyn played a hugely significant role in this whole thing ("this whole thing" being the existence of America as we know it), and one that's often skimmed over and sorely under-appreciated. No more. Before we totally give ourselves over to blowing things up and scream-singing "Born in the USA" without really thinking about the lyrics—though even if you do, isn't protest sort of inherently patriotic? Aaaah! USA! USA!—let's take a look at a few of Brooklyn's more significant sites from the war. Some have been better preserved than others, to put it lightly.
Battle Pass in Prospect Park
Now North Drive (and the site of multiple monuments) in Prospect Park, Battle Pass (also known as "Flatbush Pass") was one of the more significant locations in the Battle of Brooklyn, the largest battle of the entire war, which is also sometimes dubbed "The Battle of Long Island" or "The Battle of Brooklyn Heights." Here, a group of American soldiers (this was in August of 1776, not long after the Declaration of Independence had been signed) led by General John Sullivan were overrun and surrounded by Hessian troops, but not before cutting down an entire tree to block the roadway on Flatbush (the tree, or the "Dongan Oak," has its own monument elsewhere in the park
). The fight was far from a success—troops who didn't manage to escape were mostly surrounded by German soldiers in the woods and bayoneted, and Sullivan himself was captured—but is considered important strategic groundwork for American tactics that eventually (spoiler) won the war.
The Old Stone House
- Photo via TheOldStoneHouse.org
Probably the most well-preserved and well-publicized of Brooklyn's war locations, the Old Stone House on 3rd St. in Park Slope was reconstructed in 1937 and now functions as a Revolutionary War museum. The former Dutch farmhouse was also the site of one of the gorier encounters in the Battle of Brooklyn,
in which a small number of troops, the so-called "Maryland 400," held off British forces in order to buy time for other American troops to safely retreat, but did so at close to a 90 percent casualty rate among their own ranks. Of around 270 men, just 10 managed to escape back to safety in Brooklyn Heights.
Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and John Paul Jones Park
- Photo via Bridge and Tunnel Club
Technically not the bridge itself—it didn't exist yet!—but the oft-mocked Verrazano does almost exactly mark the spot on the Verrazano Narrows
where 15,000 British soldiers crossed over from Staten Island (from the area where Fort Wadsworth now stands) in August of 1776, forcing the 200 American soldiers on the other side into a fairly immediate retreat. On the Brooklyn side, John Paul Jones Park (or Cannonball Park, as it's known to most people) marks the exact spot of the landing, and features the above monument, which technically commemorates a separate conflict but is appropriately majestic nonetheless.
Trader Joe's in Cobble Hill
Formerly the site of Fort Cobble Hill, which at one point was used as a lookout point by George Washington himself! This was before the vantage point was captured by British soldiers, who destroyed the top of the eponymous hill entirely
, rendering it useless as a lookout.
According to some accounts, this is also where, during the Battle of Brooklyn (and possibly the fight over at the Old Stone House), Washington looked out over his troops and said, "Good God! What brave fellows I must this day lose!" Oof. Either way, there's a nice plaque at Court and Atlantic commemorating Washington's time in Cobble Hill.
Another one of the major Battle of Brooklyn sites, the Greenwood Cemetery is home to "Battle Hill," the highest point in Brooklyn, which was used by American soldiers as a stronghold. But, as with most Battle of Brooklyn stories, this one ends tragically, with American soldiers being surrounded and slaughtered. The Altar to Liberty monument (more widely known as the cemetery's Minerva statue) was built here in 1920, and every year the cemetery plays host to Battle of Brooklyn day
, which is commemorated with trolley rides, a parade, a memorial service, and most importantly, cannon-firing, horse-riding re-enactors.
Fort Greene Park
Fort Greene Park is mostly known for the Prison Ship Martyrs monument, which commemorates roughly 11,000 American soldiers who died aboard British prison ships (used after they ran out of space for prisoners on land) that were docked in New York's harbors during the war. But the park was also the site of one of the borough's more important forts (hence, the name of the entire neighborhood), originally named after Israel Putnam, but later renamed after Major General Nathanael Greene.
That Lot in Gowanus?
This one is still up for debate, but a small, fervent group of historians is still on the lookout for a mass grave of soldiers (many of them from the Maryland 400) that has never been found, and theories have been floated recently
that it may be located under a nondescript lot on 3rd and 8th in Gowanus. If further proof is turned up (currently, this is based on careful reading of old, hand-drawn maps), supporters are hoping to turn the site into some sort of public space, but for now, as with most things, the land is slated for an expensive development.
Follow Virginia K. Smith on Twitter @vksmith.