The Battlefield Under Our Feet

August 27th marks the 240th anniversary of the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Brooklyn – known to other people, as the Battle of Long Island.

Less than two months after we declared our independence from Great Britain, the Battle of Brooklyn was the first major battle in that war. And the Continental Army did not win the Battle led by General George Washington, but was, to put it kindly, a strategic retreat.

And to state it more clearly, we lost the battle, but won the war.

Just walk through Park Slope and the Gowanus neighborhood, and history is just under your feet. When you spend a day in Prospect Park, either biking, or spending time in the Long Meadow, you are walking in the footprints of Washington’s troops.

Bike up the East Drive from Prospect Park Zoo, and then walk across the Long Meadow in Prospect Park; just near the Garfield Tot Lot, cross Prospect Park West, and work your way down First Street; then make your way to Third Street and Fifth Avenue, the site of a block-square playground and athletic field, and the home to the Old Stone House; then cross the Union Street Bridge over the Gowanus Canal and stand at the Fulton Ferry Landing. You’ve just travelled the path of George Washington’s Continental Army.

The Battle’s two major confrontations between the Continental Army and the British took place at Flatbush Pass (now called Battle Pass on Prospect Park’s East Drive) and at the Vechte-Cortelyou House that is now known as the Old Stone House at Fifth Avenue and Third Street in Park Slope.

The British employed a pincer movement involving two major groups of soldiers, one coming East from Staten Island and Gravesend Bay, and another heading West from Long Island. The Continental Army was outmanned two-to-one, and the British forces moved to attack Washington’s troops from two directions.

At Battle Pass, with their backs to the Long Meadow, the Continental Army of around 1,300 men blocked 5,000 Scottish and Hessian attackers coming up from the area which is now Empire Boulevard, Flatbush Avenue and Washington Avenue. They chopped down a large oak tree – The Dongen Oak -, and temporarily held their line at the Pass.

Today, on the East Drive, just North of the Zoo, to the right of the roadway, is a monument to the Dongen Oak, and then further up, on your left, is the Battle Pass Marker. Another marker is a bit further up the hill, on your right.

Washington’s army was overwhelmingly outmanned, and retreated at mid-day over what is now the Long Meadow. This was wooded land at the time, and crossing what is now Prospect Park West, the troops retreated down First Street, eventually arriving at the Old Stone House.

The pincer movement by the British Army almost worked. About 10,000 Redcoats had marched up from Jamaica Pass, what is now Atlantic Avenue, and put pressure on our troops, hoping to trap them at the Old Stone House.

But for the sacrificial bravery of 400 Maryland soldiers against 2,000 British troops, the Continental Army would have been trapped. The Marylanders’ holding action enabled the Colonists to regroup and retreat over the Gowanus marshes where the Union Street Bridge now stands.

Just North of the Park’s Wellhouse Drive between the Lake and Lookout Hill, you will encounter the Maryland Monument, unveiled in 1895,  donated by the Maryland Society of the Sons of the American Revolution. It honors the Maryland 400.

When you walk past the local American Legion Post at 193 Ninth Street between Fourth and Third Avenues, you can see a permanent memorial to these brave soldiers who were buried in a plot of land now honored.

Washington watched his troops in battle and retreat from a small hill-top called Cobble Hill at what is now Atlantic Avenue and Court Street. Shopping at the Trader Joe’s at that location, you can see a memorial plaque affixed to the building.

The Continental Army made it to Brooklyn Heights, and under the cover of rain and darkness, were ferried across the harbor from Fulton Ferry Landing into lower Manhattan. George Washington’s Continental Army was saved.

The Continental Army lost the Battle of Brooklyn, but because of their successful and strategic retreat, and especially the sacrifice of the Marylanders, the Continental Army was able to regroup and eventually accept General Cornwallis’ surrender five years later at Yorktown, in October 1781.

Films can magically superimpose image upon image, and if we just look around us and use that bit of movie imagination when we walk, we can almost see the British troops and Continental Army blending in with the Brooklynites, the Dongen Oak crashing down on the East Drive, just missing the joggers and bikers, musket fire punctuating the air, leaving clouds of gun smoke among the picnickers and Frisbee tossers on the Long Meadow, Park Slope Brownstone Brooklyn residents on First Street, and with shoppers and children holding ice cream cones on Fifth Avenue strolling along as the troops rush to the marshes over the Gowanus Canal.

And picture the boats filled with Continental Army soldiers rowing through the rain from the darkened battlefield of Brooklyn toward Manhattan, the boats in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge as traffic hums by overhead.

So go to Battle Pass and read the plaques and monuments on both sides of the East Drive; Visit the memorial to the Marylanders North of the Lake and on Ninth Street near Third Avenue; Acknowledge the memorial to the Marquis de Lafayette at the Ninth Street entrance to the Park; When shopping downtown at Trader Joe’s, realize you’re standing at George Washington’s observation post for the Battle; And visit the Old Stone House.

Aaron Isquith