Do New Yorkers know they owe Maryland a thank you?
Saturday marks the 240th anniversary of the Battle of Brooklyn. Local history lovers call this Battle Week. A few days before and after the actual date of this Revolutionary War battle, August 27th, 1776, they get together to mark the event, with re-enactments, talks, exhibits, neighborhood walks, lots of waving of old flags, music and more.
One event features colonial cocktails and another invites families to join in for lots of trivia and games including a “Brooklyn vs. Britain” scavenger hunt.
But what few of them seem know is that a group of Maryland Continental Army soldiers, known as the Maryland 400, played a key role in the fight.
The battle happened just a little more than two months after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Fourth of July, 1776. George Washington and his men, including that special group of soldiers called the Maryland 400, headed to New York to fight the British Empire, facing overwhelming odds.
It was the first and one of the largest battles of the war. And at the end, Washington knew he and his forces had to retreat across the East River or face the possibility of losing all of his men. The Maryland 400, however, repeatedly charged the British, losing nearly two-thirds of their force, but covering Washington's escape.
One of the main parts of the Battle of Brooklyn happened right in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. So, on a lovely summer day with crowds of people jogging, biking and walking by - do they see the reminders of the fight?
They should know something. It’s part of Hamilton, the hottest musical on Broadway. Check out the lyrics:
British Admiral Howe’s got troops on the water.
Thirty-two thousand troops in New York harbor.
[ENSEMBLE 1] Thirty-two thousand troops in New York harbor
When they surround our troops!
They surround our troops!
When they surround our troops!
We are outgunned
Cool, right? Add to that, there are three traditional battle markers on each side of the main road running through Prospect Park, the plaques within about 100 yards of each other.
One person from San Diego walking by says he’s seen the markers and knows a little about the battle; another person knows a little more, saying he thinks Washington retreated to Long Island in the early morning. Not judging anyone here, but General Washington actually headed to Manhattan when things got bad.
You can get another look at the Battle of Brooklyn from actor John Turturro, telling the story on the Old Stone House website. He did audio narration, covering the lead up to the battle all the way through to Washington’s retreat. And he mentions "Maryland and Delaware troops" waiting for the enemy.
So, on a beautiful early August day, 240 years after the fight, Josephine Gleeson, a New Yorker who's originally from Australia, walks by wearing a Yankees cap. She says she knows a little about the Battle of Brooklyn. She reads aloud from one of the battle plaques about Washington’s forces having to retreat from the English in fighting inside of what is now Prospect Park.
The American soldiers cleared out of there, devising another plan of attack, heading to the Old Stone House to try to hold off the British at that location. Others headed to Brooklyn Heights where the Continental Army had built a fortification.
The Stone House, a 1930s recreation of the Dutch farmhouse that was there during the Revolution, is the main spot where the Maryland 400 fought. Those elite soldiers stood their ground, while Washington planned what to do next, eventually deciding to withdraw across the East River and save his army.
Records about the Stone House say it changed hands a few times during the fighting between the British and Americans.
Mark Wolin, a Brooklyn resident for 11 years, is one person who knows the story. He says he admires the Maryland 400 for holding their ground after coming all the way from Maryland.
"It’s a good distance away from New York, especially back in those days," he said. "So yeah, that was a surprise for me. I found it very interesting. It kind of shows you what a group effort it was."
Wolin also says the Battle of Brooklyn tells him a lot about General Washington’s ability to think on his feet and get out of a jam rather than fight to the last man.
Now, local historians and others are pushing to build a memorial to the Maryland 400 and to the battle. They have been working for years to figure out exactly where a mass grave may be.
One spot they've looked at, not far from where intense fighting happened at the Stone House, could soon become a new school. But before any possible construction, archaeologists would check out the area for human remains, to see if any soldiers are buried there.
At the end of the battle, the Old Stone House website says, many Marylanders fell, regrouped, and attacked again, but eventually their losses became too great and they finally surrendered.
So the British won the battle; they occupied Brooklyn and Manhattan for seven years until the end of the Revolutionary War. But Washington saved his army, withdrawing before the British even noticed he was gone. And he and his men lived to fight another day and, eventually, win the war.
And that’s why you’ll see a Maryland flag hanging from the Stone House in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Check it out next time you're in New York.
Tom Moore teaches journalism at York College in Queens, New York, a part of the City University of New York, and is a free-lancer for CBS radio news.