Americans and British clash as the Americans flee over the Gowanus Canal in the Battle of Brooklyn
1858 oil painting by Alonzo Chappel
Article by Frederick Fooy
George Washington Was Here
And It Was Not Pretty
The Revolutionary War battles of Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens and the Gowanus
By Frederick Fooy
As Veteran’s Day approaches it’s worth noting that, right here in our cozy pocket of Brownstone Brooklyn, we stand on blood soaked and hallowed national ground, as the biggest battle of the American Revolution was fought in Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Gowanus, Boerum Hill, Fort Greene and Brooklyn Heights, when today’s Court Street was surrounded by cornfields.
It may be hard to imagine British Red Coats barreling into Trader Joe’s on Court and Atlantic and thrashing young American men, but that very intersection saw intense military activity towards the end of August 1776, along with several other familiar South Brooklyn locations.
British infantrymen, Hessian grenadiers, kilted Highlanders and a plethora of soldiery battled American soldiers along Degraw Street, down Bond and over the Union Street Bridge on the Gowanus Canal. It was a hot, rainy and violent affair, as the rag tag assortment of Americans, few with uniforms and many in hunting shirts, untrained, took on the British regulars.
The Battle of Brooklyn, which took place on Aug. 26, 1776, was the first major action fought by an army of the United States, under the leadership of Gen. George Washington.
The Battle of Long Island
In 1776, the Americans had been at war with Britain for about a year, but the battling had been focused in and around Boston. On July 4, the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence, announcing that the 13 colonies of America regarded themselves as independent states, and no longer a part of the British Empire.
Washington commemorative plaque at Court and Atlantic erected in 1926 by the South Brooklyn Savings Institution
As history has it, Washington himself, observing a regiment of advancing Marylanders from his command post on Fort Cobble Hill — at today’s Trader Joe’s on Atlantic and Court — wrung his hands and cried out:
“Good God! What brave fellows I must this day lose!”
The British victory in Boston’s Battle of Bunker Hill, the first battle of the Revolution, on June 17, 1775, was Pyrrhic—the British took control of the hill, but lost about 1,000 of their 2,300 men in the process. The American forces lost several hundred, and Gen. Washington overtook the hill, overlooking Boston, shortly thereafter. It was a critical victory for the new Americans and filled the rebellious Patriots with confidence.
Lord Howe, the British commander, withdrew his troops on St. Patrick’s Day 1776 and set his sights on New York City, which was held by loyalists to the crown.
Howe set sail from Halifax on June 11 with an army of approximately 9,000, and between July 12 and August 12, a British fleet of approximately 400 vessels carrying 25,000 soldiers assembled off Staten Island, which was turned into a staging area.
The American soldiers were stationed in garrisons on Manhattan and Staten Island, and there were many troops on ships in the harbor. Reinforcements from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut and Virginia arrived to bolster the defenses. A fair number of invalids were included in these reinforcements, and many of the soldiers did not have firearms. Diseases in New York had further reduced the effective strength of the Americans.
By August, hostile British forces in and around the city numbered approximately 32,000, while Washington commanded just 19,000 men.
A severe thunderstorm lashed New York City on the night of Aug. 21. Several residents were struck dead by lightning, and some regarded this as a bad omen. Fears were realized when British troops landed at the villages of New Utrecht and Gravesend on Aug. 22. Two Tory regiments, all local militia with red badges in their hats and loyal to the crown, added 600 men to the British forces, and 800 slaves fled to the British, forming a labor regiment.
Other Long Island Loyalists acted as informers and guides for the British. However, further north into Kings County, rumors of the advancing British soldiers caused quite a commotion in the villages, and there were skirmishes between American and British troops. Howe spent four days gathering intelligence and planning his advance. At 9 p.m. on Aug. 26, he made his move. His units marched through the night and were ready to engage the Americans on a hot Tuesday morning, Aug. 27, 1776.
This industrial landscape was all marshes, lakes and streams in 1776.
Our neighborhoods did, of course, look somewhat different in 1776. The Brooklyn of yesteryear was dominated by the Heights of Guan, or the Brookland Heights, a rocky and heavily wooded glacial ridge that ran down the center of Long Island, roughly along the lines of today’s Greenwood Cemetery to Prospect Park and then northeast to Jamaica, Queens.
The ridge was covered with oak, ash, chestnut and pepperidge trees, with the occasional garden patch, or “English meadow” to break up the woods, and the area was sprinkled with farms and villages, many dating back to the 1600s.
Brooklyn was sparsely populated. The first census, taken just after the Revolutionary War in 1776, indicated there were 3,017 white residents and 1,478 residents of African origin in Kings County. New York City itself had a population of approximately 25,000.
According to a British traveler by the name of Smyth who visited New York during the war, two-thirds of Brooklyn’s population were of Dutch origin, though the culture was British in style.
Even then, Brooklyn evoked the fashionable sensibilities of today’s residents.
Hessian Adjutant-General Major Baurmeister described the western end of Long Island as follows: “The inhabited regions resemble Westphalian peasant districts; upon separate farms the finest houses are built, which are planned and completed in the most elegant fashion. The furniture in them is in the best taste, nothing like which is to be seen with us, and besides so clean and neat, that altogether it surpasses every description. The female sex is universally beautiful and delicately reared, and is finely dressed in the latest European fashion, particularly in India laces, white cotton, and silk gauzes.”
The new American soldiers
The American soldiers that fought the Battle of Brooklyn were to a significant extent inexperienced recruits from all walks of life, many of them drawn in by promises of cash or land grants: fortune seekers, farmers, freed slaves and paid substitutes, or “the young, the inexperienced, the unemployed, the socially expendable,” as history books put it.
There were some veterans and a few officers that had served previously under the British, but few of the troops that fought with Washington in Boston re-enlisted.
New York State provided around 4,500 men, while New York City contributed two battalions of companies with fancy names such as the Prussian Blues, the Hearts of Oak, the Oswego Rangers and the Sportsmen. Approximately 1,000 New Yorkers helped build fortifications in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Some of New York’s gentlemen paid considerable fees to hire workers that would exempt them from service, but most actually chose not to.
Eight of the 13 colonies sent contingents to New York, with Connecticut providing the most men. Few units wore anything that looked like uniforms, but there were exceptions such as Col. Haslet’s 1st Delaware Regiment and the “Dandy Fifth” Marylanders, the latter referred to as “macaronis” by the rest of the American soldiers. Col. John Lasher’s New York City, the “Battalion of Independent Companies of Foot,” was said to be extravagantly outfitted, and composed of young men “of respectability and wealth.”
Other units were dressed in civilian garb, or at best hunting shirts.
Looking back from the Redoubt at the Mill to the American lines.
The American forces were far from cohesive. There was rivalry between the colonies. Diarist Joseph Plumb Martin of the 8th Connecticut Regiment wrote that he “would rather serve alongside Indians” than men from Pennsylvania, whom were regarded as “mostly foreigners.”
The backwoods ways and habits of some of the riflemen from frontier states may have been embarrassing to their urban New York cousins, just as they had been to the pious New Englanders during the battles around Boston the previous year.
Morale was an issue—it soared with success, and desertion and insubordination followed even minor setbacks. Pay was another matter. The American soldiers were paid more than their British counterparts, but they were paid in Continental bills, often not accepted by merchants. Early in 1776, General John Sullivan complained that “not near half of the Massachusetts militia could be prevailed upon to tarry and many of them went off one day before their time was out.”
Yet for many recruits, service provided clothing and food they otherwise couldn’t afford.
Firearms were in short supply, with various muskets supplemented by hunting rifles, blunderbusses and anything that could fire a ball.
Indeed, the Americans were a haphazard force.
The Brooklyn troops were commanded by Maj. Gen. Israel Putnam, a colorful character and the subject of many a legend and anecdote. It is said that Putnam was almost burnt at the stake by Indians in 1758, was previously shipwrecked off Cuba, and later opened a tavern and married a wealthy widow.
“Old Put” was, however, an indifferent officer. When Gen. Greene fell ill to typhus, Putnam was appointed to his command as late as Aug. 24, on the eve of battle. He did not know Long Island, neither demographically nor geographically. Apparently he did very little to improve upon his lack of knowledge before the English attacked a few days later.
War preparations and Fortifications
The newly commissioned Brigadier General William Alexander, Lord Stirling, from New Jersey, was in charge of implementing the defense plan for New York. Stirling noted that everybody worked “with great spirit and industry” in building the fortifications. New Yorkers from all social classes, and blacks as well as whites, helped build the forts, and they were mustered each morning with fife and drum. Whites worked every other day, while blacks worked every day.
The Battle of Long Island
The excavation and construction of the forts was hard and dirty work. Officers complained about their inability to keep their men in clothes; garments wore out in very little time, and the officer in charge asked for a double supply of soap for the troops.
The accommodations for the soldiers were often decent for living in the field. Most lived in bell-shaped tents with wooden floors, and they could vary their fare with produce from Dutch farms in the area. Some soldiers were given leave to visit Manhattan.
Discipline was maintained by diligent individuals such as Lt. Col. Ezekiel Cornell, known as “Old Snarl.” Pilfering was strictly forbidden, but there were scoundrels about, and a Gen. Greene wrote that, “a few unprincipled rascals may ruin the reputation of a whole corps of virtuous men.”
Although deployment on Brooklyn offered less than Manhattan in terms of women or grog shops, Gen. Greene wrote that “complaints have been made by the inhabitants situated near the Mill Pond on today’s Gowanus Canal that some of the soldiers come there to go swimming in the open view of the women and that they come out of the water and run to the houses naked with a design to insult and wound the modesty of female decency.”
Both the British and the American encampments included a variety of civilian men, women and children in their respective baggage trains. German and British officers and non-commissioned officers were often allowed to bring “necessary women,” i.e. their wives, and there were various civilian contractors such as drivers, waggoners, sutlers and other craftsmen. There were also non-contracted followers, general hangers-on, odd-job men and prostitutes.
Battle site at Degraw and Bond.
In the summer of 1776, work on the fortifications of New York proceeded with considerable gusto. Initial plans called for three forts to be built on the crest of Brooklyn Heights to command the East River, but only one – Fort Stirling – was actually built. Its approximate location was at the intersection of Columbia and Clark streets.
Another massive fort, the Congress, was started on the plateau of Brooklyn Heights near today’s corner of Henry and Pierrepont streets. This was a hexagonal construction that was planned to cover a good five acres, mainly built by slaves. However, the construction was abandoned due to the inability of the fort to defend from an attack in the rear.
The Heights of Guan did in themselves offer a natural line of defense across Brooklyn. There were only four roads through the ridge, and they were located in and around the Gowanus, Flatbush, Bedford and Jamaica, respectively. The fortifications between Red Hook and towards the Brooklyn Navy Yards of this day would provide a second line of defense to protect Manhattan.
The fortifications were strung out along roughly a mile and a half between today’s Fort Greene, 100 feet above sea level, and the lower-lying lands owned by Rutgert Van Brunt and Johannes Debevoise around what is now the Gowanus Canal.
The northernmost redoubt was close to Wallabout Bay on today’s Cumberland between Myrtle and Willoughby. It was referred to as “the left redoubt,” which in turn was located at the Fort Greene Park of this day. Fort Putnam was a star shaped fort with four or five cannon, and it was named after the chief engineer, Colonel Rufus Putnam. The fort held a garrison of five companies.
South of Fort Putnam was Fort Oblong. It was, as the name implies, an oblong fortification that held three companies, located at DeKalb and Hudson Avenues. Fort Greene was a star-shaped fort with a well, two magazines and six cannon. Named after Gen. Nathanael Greene and commanded by a Col. Little, it was the largest fort on Long Island, having room for an entire regiment, and it could be found on Bond Street between State and Schermerhorn.
The southernmost fortification, Fort Box, was built in May and June of 1776 approximately a mile south of Fort Greene. Fort Box was a small diamond-shaped outpost on Bergen’s Hill, located approximately on Pacific Street above Bond Street. It was named after Major Daniel Box.
The British move in to Brooklyn
Fort Cobble Hill, also called the “Corkscrew Fort,” after the spiral road that was paved to move cannon to its top, was located on the corner of Court Street and Atlantic Avenue. The fort was also called “Smith’s Barbette” after Capt. William Smith, an engineer who commanded the fort. It was situated on the top of a cone-shaped hill rearing itself above surrounding cornfields.
Fort Cobble Hill overlooked New York harbor and South Brooklyn, and it mounted three or four cannon. Gen. Washington used it as his command post.
The construction, and especially the turf laying, of Fort Cobble Hill was apparently challenging. There were few turf-layers available, and the ones who volunteered were allowed half a pint of rum per day for their efforts.
Dutch settlers called the area Ponkiesbergh, but the name Cobble Hill may very well originate from the battles that took place around Boston, since the hill resembled a Cobble Hill in Sommerville, Mass., that held an American fortification during the siege of Boston. Gen. Greene’s brigade was posted close to the Bostonian Cobble Hill during the siege, and referring to Ponkiesbergh in Brooklyn as Cobble Hill may have been preferable to the New Englanders. It has also been claimed that the name Cobble Hill comes from the large amount of cobblestones—used for ballast on sailing vessels—that were disposed of around the hill.
Finally there was the Redoubt at the Mill, a small battery with breastwork on what now is Degraw and Bond streets. It was in form of a right angle with a single cannon facing a narrow bridge across the Gowanus, a bridge that subsequently played a part in the American retreat from the Heights of Guan.
Fort Defiance in Red Hook was the southernmost link in the fortification chain. It was built on a 75-foot hill on top of Cypress Tree Island that was located between today’s Pioneer, Dwight and Beard streets and the Buttermilk Channel. Also boasting access to the East River, Fort Defiance was probably built on top of an old abandoned fort from the 16th century, and it was completed overnight on April 8, 1776. The armaments consisted of four 18-pound cannon firing over breastworks.
Each fort was a surrounded by a wide ditch lined with pointed stakes. Trees had been cut down to a distance of around 100 yards in front of the forts to provide clear fields of fire and additional barricades.
The British commander, Gen. William Howe, hoped that the Americans would be over-confident after their success in Boston, leading to a battle in the open. Howe had served in the colonies throughout his long career, and had a reputation as a bold and even reckless soldier. But he was also a moderate Whig who sympathized with the colonists.
Howe’s units were composed of Brits, Scots and Germans, the latter being from Hessen and other German principalities. Loyalist who fought with the British included the New York Volunteers from Westchester. They lacked uniforms, and some of their numbers were tasked with infiltrating Washington’s forces. There were also a few black regiments from the West Indies in the ranks of the British, who were recruited from the slave population and promised freedom for service.
For the most part, the British soldiers were professionals, well-trained and well-led at the unit level, not to mention brutally disciplined. Ordinary soldiers were mainly recruited from the lower classes of society, and the army had a somewhat poor public image, since British taxpayers saw a peacetime army as an extravagance. It was difficult for His Majesty’s Army to find recruits, and by 1776 even Roman Catholics were allowed into the ranks. Howe was not pleased, since he deemed the Catholics “certain to desert if put to hard work, and from their ignorance of arms are not entitled to the smallest confidence as soldiers.”
In general, though, the British forces in the colonies were better trained and more experienced than their counterparts back in England. Scottish units were raised in a part of the United Kingdom that held soldiery in high regard, so these units tended to be of even higher quality.
The British also faced hardships: most provisions had to be shipped from England, and surveyors reported being fed “very old Bread… full of maggots, mouldy, musty and rotten and entirely unfit for men to eat.” Pork “seemed to be four or five years old. It was streaked with black towards the outside and was yellow further in, with a little white in the middle.”
Reports of cruelty circulated about both sides. German units from Hessen, Brunswick and other German principalities were typically from poor families and between the age of 16 and 30, and contracted to serve for 24 years; the Hessians had a particularly fear-inspiring reputation. They were described as indulging in rape and bloodshed as well as delighting in torture. Conversely, the British told the Hessians that the Americans were savage foes who indulged in cannibalism, noting as evidence the tomahawks many soldiers carried.
James Thacher, a physician serving with the Americans, reported that captured British officers and soldiers were led to believe that if taken, the Americans would stuff their bodies full of dry wood and burn them to death.
From the start, the battle was dominated by the British. The Americans had not left any troops to guard the roadways through the Heights of Guan, and the main American line was out-flanked by British light infantry and grenadiers coming from Bedford, Hessians advancing from Flatbush and British infantry advancing from today’s Sunset Park.
The battle started when two British soldiers were caught foraging for watermelons from a patch by the Red Lion Inn (39th Street and 5th Avenue) by soldiers from the Pennsylvania Regiment. The foragers beat a hasty retreat, but their 5,000 comrades were close behind.
Disciplined British troops advanced in line formation. As the tactics of that era mandated, long lines of men walking shoulder-to-shoulder shot massive volleys of musket fire at ranges of less than 150 feet before charging through the smoke with fixed bayonets. The Americans had tried to adopt the tactics, but Washington’s troops were not trained well enough to meet the British on equal terms. It would be a year before American troops would be able to take on the British in a pitched battle and win.
The British forces showed little mercy on the Americans, who quickly began to retreat down Porte Road (today’s First Street) to cross the tidal flats of the Gowanus Creek at Freeke’s Pond, over a wooden bridge that stood where the Union Street Bridge stands today. The bridge caught fire, forcing the American troops into the creek. Many drowned, weighted down by weapons and equipment.
The American retreat across approximately 80 muddy yards of the Gowanus Creek and adjoining marshes was less than orderly, and ended in disaster. Americans who were not drowned were bombarded by British artillery firing grapeshot, roundshot and chain, while “some of (the Americans) were mired and crying to their fellows for God’s sake to help them out; but every man was intent on his own safety and no assistance was rendered,” according to one account.
Other American soldiers were cut off by the British and forced to seek shelter in the woods around today’s Park Slope.
In a last ditch attempt to protect the retreating men, Lord Stirling counter-attacked the British at Gowanus Road near the Vechte Farm House (originally west of today’s Prospect Park and now the Old Stone House that stands on 3rd Street and 5th Avenue in Park Slope), with his regiment of about 400 Marylanders.
When the last shot was fired, 1,200 Americans were dead and another 1,500 wounded, captured or missing. Some 256 of the 400 Marylanders were lying dead in front of the Vechte Farm. Lord Stirling was captured, surrendering his sword to Hessian commander General von Heister.
The British suffered a mere 60 dead and 300 wounded or missing.
It was a disastrous battle for the Americans.
The capture of General Nathaniel Woodhull
American casualties included some individuals that are commemorated in street names, most notably Gen. Nathaniel Woodhull. He was surprised at an inn on Jamaica Road, where a British officer is said to have hacked him in the head and arm, purportedly for not saying, “God save the King,” as ordered, saying instead “God save us all.” Woodhull was carried off as a prisoner to New Utrecht, where he died on September 20.
Despite the convincing victory, British commander Gen. Howe did not follow the Americans across the Gowanus Creek. Instead, he started to prepare for a siege of American fortifications in Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill.
Washington was stuck with his back towards the East River and his troops defeated. Howe had a real opportunity to extinguish the revolution once and for all. But for various and historically controversial reasons, he didn’t.
There has been much speculation as to why Howe paused his advance. Did he prefer to avoid a frontal assault similar to Bunker Hill? Did he hope that the Americans would simply capitulate without a fight? Did he want a political instead of a military solution to the American rebellion? Regardless, Washington was left around Brooklyn Heights with around 9,000 mostly miserable soldiers.
Incessant rains poured down for two days following the battle, making it impossible to light campfires and to keep gunpowder dry. The Americans lacked tents and baggage trains, and food and drink were scarce. If food was available, cooking was impossible, and many Americans had to subside on hard biscuits and raw pork.
Entrenchments got drenched, and in some areas, the soldiers stood in water up to their waists. The mood was deteriorating. The only bright spot was heavy winds, which kept the British navy from entering the East River, thereby cutting off Washington from Manhattan.
On Aug. 29, the British trench lines stood only about 600 yards from the American lines, and another full day of digging would place the British within musketry range. Washington remained outnumbered two to one, and the Royal Navy was poised to attack from the sea.
The decision was made to evacuate over the East River to Manhattan.
Fortunately for the Americans, a dense fog rolled in, which concealed the Americans’ movements. The 27th Massachusetts and Colonel John Glover’s Marblehead regiment, both mainly composed of fishermen, led the river crossing. They would row approximately a mile to ferry 9,000 Americans as well as horses, cannon and supplies over to Manhattan.
Some of Glover’s men rowed across the river as many as eleven times before the evacuation was complete. The oarsmen were so careful not to make noise that some tied their shirts around the oars to muffle the sound as the oars hit the water. The situation was hazardous in the extreme. Washington rode all night among the troops on his white mule Magnolia, telling the men to, “keep quiet and keep moving.”
In the scant light of the early morning sun, Lt. Ben Tallmadge of the Continental Line looked back across the river from Manhattan. Through the receding mists, he claims to have seen a tall figure in a long black cloak with a three cornered hat. And with that legend, so it goes, George Washington may very well have been the last man out of Brooklyn.
Washington oversees the retreat over the East River
Considering the extensive memorials for other battles fought on American soil, the biggest battle of the American War of Independence — right here in brownstone Brooklyn — has received so little attention. There is a plaque on the side of Trader Joe’s commemorating the location of Washington’s observation post on Cobble Hill. And Gen. Washington’s retreat across the East River is noted by another bronze plaque by the sidewalk at Fulton Ferry Landing, just south of the River Café.
There are several other sites on the east side of the Gowanus Canal dedicated to soldiers, for example in the Greenwood Cemetery and around 9th Street and 4th Avenue, where the Marylanders that counterattacked to save the retreat may have been buried in a mass grave.
Perhaps it is due to our resounding defeat that so little is written or commemorated in display about those sad, wet and bloody days in revolutionary Brooklyn.
Thankfully for the Americans, not everyone at the time fell victim to the pervading anxiety.
Abigail Adams, wife of future president John Adams, wrote, “But if we should be defeated, I think we shall not be conquered. A people fired, like the Romans, with love of their country and of liberty, a zeal for the public good, and a noble emulation of glory, will not be disheartened or dispirited by a succession of unfortunate events. But, like them, may we learn the power of becoming invincible!”
Suggested further reading
Duffy, Christopher. The Military Experience in the Age of Reason. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1987.
Gallagher, John J. The Battle of Brooklyn 1776. New York: Da Capo Press, 1995.
Johnston, Henry P. The Campaign of 1776 around New York and Brooklyn. Brooklyn: The Long Island Historical Society, 1878.
Schechter, Barnet. The Battle for New York. The City at the Heart of the Revolution. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
Smith, David. New York 1776. The Continentals’ First Battle. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2008.