It's Peaceful - Now

The biggest battle of the Revolutionary War took place in a 
bucolic corner of Brooklyn

Up the hill they charge. The cyclists pump their muscular legs like pistons. 
The walkers swing their arms and swivel their hips. The runners, their faces 
grim behind sunglasses, extend their strides, some gasping hard, others hardly 
working. Seven days a week, almost any time of day, you can find people testing 
their quads and cardiovascular systems as they attack the steep hill 
in the northeast corner of Brooklyn's Prospect Park. 

When the British attacked here 227 years ago, they weren't looking for a 
good workout, but rather a decisive blow that would end the American struggle 
for independence in its early stages.

They came very close.
On Aug. 27, 1776 - less than two months after America declared its 
independence - the area that we know today as the borough of Brooklyn 
was the setting of the largest battle of the Revolutionary War. Here, 
in the woods, hills and pastures of western Long Island, 20,000 British 
and mercenary Hessian troops under the command of Sir William Howe crushed 
an army of 9,000 Americans led by an inexperienced general named George Washington.

The battle was fought along a 4-mile front, extending roughly from what is now 
Green-Wood Cemetery near Sunset Park, northeast to today's Cemetery of the 
Evergreens in Bushwick. But it is in Prospect Park - the very center of 
the action during the battle - where nature can still help the mind's eye 
discern what it was like here 227 years ago. To help uncover some of the 
secrets of this forgotten battlefield, we enlisted the help of historian 
Barnet Schecter, whose acclaimed new book, 
"New York: The City at the Heart of the American Revolution" (Walker, $30) 
recounts the critical and often-forgotten role the city played in our war 
of independence. But before we even step into the park, he says, a brief 
history lesson on Brooklyn is in order:

In 1776, Kings County - 
what is now Brooklyn - was bucolic; a few small villages established by 
the original Dutch settlers and a network of wagon roads were about the 
only traces of civilization. As in much of the rest of western Long Island, 
the area's dominant features were the Terminal Moraine - a spine of hills 
left behind from the last glacier - and, below it, a southern, coastal 
"outwash" plain of sandy but fertile soil. "You can still see the outlines 
of that ridge on the map," says Schecter, pointing to three green swatches 
in a large fold-out map of Brooklyn. 

"Notice how Green-Wood Cemetery, Prospect Park and the Cemetery of the Evergreens 
line up."  It was along this natural barrier that the colonists planned to defend 
against the British, whose armada had arrived off Manhattan on July 2, 1776 - 
more than a year after the battles of Lexington and Concord had ignited the 
long-simmering conflict between the 13 colonies and Britain - the very same 
day that delegates to the Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, had 
approved the draft of the Declaration of Independence.

The British landed unopposed on loyalist Staten Island, and set up camp. 
Howe and his brother, Richard - the admiral commanding the armada anchored 
in the Narrows - had hoped for a negotiated peace with the rebels. But when 
talks broke down, they began to plan their campaign. They knew they needed 
control of Brooklyn to sail unimpeded up the East River. So on Aug. 22, 
Gen. Howe landed an advance force of 4,000 troops at what is now Dyker 
Beach Park, to attack the American forces on the western end of Long Island.

Washington suspected that the landing in Brooklyn was a diversion for an 
attack on Manhattan, where he and the bulk of the American forces were based. 
So he hesitated to send significant reinforcements to his troops on the other 
side of the East River. Washington's commander in Brooklyn, Maj. Gen. 
John Sullivan of New Hampshire, concentrated his forces at the points where 
Brooklyn's four main thoroughfares - the Gowanus, Bedford, Flatbush and 
Jamaica roads - cut through the hills.

One of those points - or passes - was in what is now Prospect Park. 
It's a short walk from the park entrance at Grand Army Plaza 
(a memorial not to the American army of the Revolution, but the Union Army 
of the Civil War, 85 years later), along East Park Drive and up to the crest 
of the hill known as Battle Pass. The name, of course, hints at its history. 
So do a few old plaques, standing unnoticed in the shade on this brilliantly 
sunny day.

While most traces of Revolutionary New York have vanished under the 
infrastructure of the modern city, this is one spot that has not changed 
significantly. The park drive follows the original route of what was then 
the Flatbush road. When the landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and 
Calvert Vaux came in the 1860s to design Prospect Park, they left this area 
undisturbed. "They knew the battle was there, but that's not why they left it," 
says Tupper Thomas, president of the Prospect Park Alliance. 
"They didn't mess with anything that looked good already."

It still does. But to properly appreciate the battle, Schecter says, we 
need to get a slightly different perspective. With the blue-suited historian 
taking the lead (a stark contrast, no doubt, to the ragged, homespun uniforms 
of the American soldiers once positioned here), we step off the park drive 
and clamber up the wooded cliffs overlooking the road. Suddenly, the pedestrian 
traffic of modern-day Prospect Park vanishes, and we're in the midst of a 
tangled bramble that, Schecter says, is pretty close to the way things looked 
in 1776. What's this? A trench, dug on the top of the hill, filled with leaves. 
The hole, we learn later, was probably dug by an overzealous parks volunteer 
looking for Revolutionary artifacts. However, Schecter confirms that there 
was a redoubt - an earthen fort - on this spot. Here, cannon were positioned, 
ready to take aim at Redcoats coming up the hill, no doubt as conspicuous as 
the two colorfully clad cyclists I see down there at that very moment.

As you stand atop the hill, those American volunteer soldiers - teenage boys, 
many of them - become more tangible. You can begin to imagine what it must 
have been like for them that morning, crouched behind the trees they had felled 
to provide defense, their homemade "Liberty" flags waving, as they waited 
anxiously for the inevitable attack by the world's mightiest military force.

But they were in for a surprise that day. Howe's second-in-command, Henry Clinton - 
who had grown up on Long Island while his father was New York's royal governor - 
knew the area and had devised a bold plan. He proposed to send small detachments 
against the Americans at the four passes, while the main force would execute a 
nighttime flanking march around the American defenses and then come up behind them.

Had the British won the war, Clinton's daring midnight march probably would be 
as famous as Paul Revere's midnight ride is today. Four thousand men and 14 
artillery pieces moved in silence, following footpaths along the edge of the 
woods, behind the American lines. They found the Jamaica Pass - located near 
the intersection of today's Jamaica Avenue, Fulton Street and Broadway - virtually 

The trap was about to be sprung: Two hours later, General Howe 
joined Clinton with 6,000 more men behind the American lines. Soon they were in 
position for their attack. To communicate to his forces facing the Americans 
that they were ready, Howe fired off three signal guns. "Imagine what it must 
have been like for these men," Schecter says. "Here they are, up in these woods, 
looking down this road, waiting for the British onslaught. Suddenly at 9 a.m., 
we're standing here and we hear 'boom, boom, boom' ... behind us!"

The British attacked and the American position in Battle Pass disintegrated: 
Hessians and the elite Scottish Highlanders came charging up the hill and 
through the woods, swarming over the rebel defenses. By some accounts, a 
massacre ensued.

"The enemy," wrote one Hessian officer later, "were mostly pierced by the 
bayonets to the trees. These men deserve more pity than fear."

"The Hessians and our brave highlanders gave no quarter," wrote a British 
officer. "It was a glorious achievement ... and will immortalize us and crush 
the rebel colonies."

Colonists who could fled Battle Pass through what is now the park's 
magnificent Long Meadow, down Park Slope and toward the Gowanus Creek. 
With the enemy in hot pursuit, the Americans retreated all across the line - 
except for one unit: a regiment of Marylanders, under the command of an 
American general with the very British- sounding name of Lord Stirling. 
At the site of a stone house owned by the Vechte family (a rebuilt version 
of which is today a museum in J.J.Byrne Park), they turned and fought. 
Although they suffered heavy casualties, they charged the British six times, 
holding up the enemy advance long enough to allow a substantial part of 
the American force to get beyond the creek and to the relative safety of 
their forts closer to the East River.

The brave Marylanders are remembered in a monument in Prospect Park - 
but it is on the other side of the park from Battle Pass, atop a hill named 
Lookout Mountain. With Schecter leading the way, we head off to find it. 
Along the way, we pass Lefferts Homestead - a reconstruction of a home that 
stood near here during the battle and that was burned in the early skirmishing. 
It is now a children's museum.

We walk on, through the meadows and over the streams of Prospect Park. 
Unlike Battle Pass, most of this was not here during the Revolution, but 
was landscaped by Olmsted and Vaux in the 1860s. Consulting maps, and 
reversing directions at one point, we continue to walk. "You wanted secrets," 
says Schecter. "I think this fits the bill."

The Maryland Monument is so off the park's beaten path that it takes Schecter, 
who had visited there once before while researching the book, nearly an hour 
to finally locate it. But it's worth the walk. After crossing the top of 
Lookout Hill (where American scouts were stationed during the battle), we 
hike down a muddy trail along its slope and suddenly there it is - a beautiful 
and poignant memorial, all the more so because it is tucked into a relatively 
obscure corner of the park. Designed by renowned architect Stanford White in 
1895 (and restored by the state of Maryland in 1991), the monument is a 
granite pillar with an orb on the top - surrounded by a wrought iron fence, 
and backed by a semicircular stone wall. On one side is the inscription: 
"In honor of the Maryland 400 who on this battlefield on August 27, 1776 
saved the American army."

Washington himself watched the Marylanders' defense from a nearby hill. 
The words he supposedly spoke at seeing their valiant stand are inscribed 
on the monument, too: "Good God! What brave fellows I must this day lose."

The fate of those fellows turns out to be a mystery. For years, it was believed 
that 256 of them were killed and buried in a mass grave, now located ignominiously 
underneath an auto repair shop in Park Slope. Schecter, who re-examined numerous 
eyewitness accounts of the battle, says the number killed is far fewer; in fact, 
he estimates total American losses in the battle at about 200 killed or wounded 
and 900 captured (including both generals Sullivan and Stirling), compared to 
63 killed, 293 wounded for the British.

Who or what is buried in that grave is uncertain. Still, he says, 
"I don't think any of this uncertainty diminishes ... [the Marylanders'] 
actions during the battle at all. Getting captured by the British was in 
some ways worse than being killed on the field. One was likely to die a 
slow death in a prison ship instead."

Despite the crushing defeat, the bulk of Washington's army was able to slip 
across the East River back to Manhattan on Aug. 29. Still, few in those dark 
days of August 1776 would have imagined that the war would last until 1783, 
and that America would ultimately win its independence. The very thought was 
probably as far-fetched then as the idea of a battle being fought in Prospect 
Park is today.

(John Hanc is a regular contributor to Newsday.)

It's a natural
Ah, the Lullwater. What a fine name for this freshwater stream that runs 
through the heart of Prospect Park. Here, you can lull yourself into a sense 
that you're in the country somewhere, not the middle of Brooklyn; lull yourself 
into peace and tranquillity on the banks of this nearly mile-long waterway; lull 
yourself into thinking ... well, that the Lullwater is real.

"The whole water system in Prospect Park is fake," admits Tupper Thomas, 
president of the Prospect Park Alliance. "It's all man-made." It's designed 
to be in harmony with nature - even though it's unnatural. The great landscape 
architects Frederick Law Olmsted and his associate Calvert Vaux (the same 
dynamic duo that created Central Park) laid out the park with that very idea 
in mind. "To Olmsted, a great park should be a tranquil, rural landscape, 
where people could recuperate from the incessant pace of life," according 
to one park history. In Prospect Park, the hard-working citizens of Brooklyn 
(and anywhere else, for that matter), "could find a bit of the country right 
in their own backyards."

One of the best places to discover the "country" in Prospect is along the 
Lullwater - specifically, the new Lullwater Nature Trail, which follows the 
stream from the Boathouse to Prospect Lake, and features benches and rustic 
bridges, interpretive signs and marvelous views of the park's wildlife. 
"It's great for kids, great for people who are interested in being out in 
nature, as well as a good excuse for a nice walk," Thomas says.

Because of its location along the Atlantic flyway - the migration path for 
many species of birds - Prospect Park last year was designated as the country's 
first urban Audubon Center. About 200 species of birds can be seen here, many 
many of them along the Lullwater, the first of a series of trails that will be 
opening in the next year in what officials refer to as the park's "restored" 
natural environment. And that's a good way to think of all 526 acres of 
Prospect Park - not a place that's man-made, but a place that man made in 
order to let nature reassert itself. -John Hanc 

The article above was taken from Long Island Newsday 
By John Hanc
July 2, 2003

To view other interesting Articles and Pictures of Long Island History:


"The Prospect Park Archives 
was established by the Prospect Park Alliance in 1996 to support the restoration of the 
Park by making accessible an accurate record of its history. 
Since then, the Archives has amassed close to 20,000 images, including historic and 
contemporary photographs, a growing digital image collection and primary and 
secondary materials that chart the history of Prospect Park from its original plan in 
1859 through its current restoration."

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