Today is Independence Day in the U.S. and I’m taking you on a special Tourist in My Town trip to a little place a few blocks from my apartment in Brooklyn. The first and largest conflict of the war is about to begin, and this stone house is going to play a crucial role. It’s August 1776 and Brooklyn is mostly wilderness. There are a few ports and farms dotting the landscape. There are more sheep than people. Inside this stone house were the Vechte family of Dutch origin. They harvested oysters from the nearby Gowanus marshes and took them to market in Manhattan. They will eventually live in this house under British occupation and quarter British soldiers, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
When they look out into the harbor, they see 400 British ships, carrying more than 32,000 soldiers. There is a general feeling of panic, especially among Dutch settlers who number in the thousands. They have no loyalty to the crown or to the rebellious colonists. They came to America for some peace and quiet and religious freedom.
General George Washington has brought the Continental Army to Lower Manhattan, convinced this is where the British will attack. Control of Manhattan means control of the harbor and the Hudson River, a crucial supply line. But he is wrong. The British go with the element of surprise and instead move into Brooklyn.
It is now the First Maryland Regiment’s task to keep the the British contained in Brooklyn. Unfortunately, the Marylanders are seriously outnumbered. Early this morning Washington has realized his mistake and sent some of his Continental Army by boat to Brooklyn Heights for reinforcement. He heads to the top of Cobble Hill (which the British will soon level) to gain a vantage point of the fighting. Watching the Marylanders, Washington reportedly says, “Good God, what brave fellows I must this day lose!” The Old Stone House becomes the focal point of one of the skirmishes, changing hands several times until finally a fresh group of Hessian troops (serving the king) joined the British to take the little house for good. The First Maryland Regiment loses about 260 men—some take direct fire and some drown when retreating through the marshes. Fewer than twelve men make it back alive.
Ignoring advice from his subordinates, British General Howe decides not to press on to Brooklyn Heights where he has most of Washington’s Continental Army nearly surrounded. He probably figures Washington will see the hopelessness of his situation and surrender, thereby avoiding more casualties. But on this night, a great fog rolls in over the East River allowing what remains of the Continental Army (including cannons, horses, and supplies!) to steal away in rowboats to Manhattan. The men row a mile each way, some as many as eleven times, hoping the fog will conceal them from the hundreds of British ships in the harbor. At daybreak, Washington himself is the last man on the last boat and the British awake to find the Continental Army has vanished.
Have you recently visited any historic sites in your city?
Have a great weekend, everyone!