Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Fort That Saved America

By John J. Burkard Red Hook Area Historical Researcher Brooklyn, New York

Located in an area of present day South Brooklyn, is a neighborhood called Red Hook. Almost completely surrounded by water, it holds a secret which for unknown reason has never been told. Not in history books, and never, ever, recognized as a worthy happening when annual celebrations of the "Battle Of Brooklyn" of Revolutionary War fame take place. Yet, it can be said and indeed has been said, by many notable people, the events which took place in Red Hook on August 27, 1776 had been directly responsible for saving George Washington's Colonial Army from certain defeat.

Unlike today, the Red Hook of 1776 was completely surrounded by water. It consisted of a teardrop shaped hill close to 60 feet high in part, and extended east from the Buttermilk Channel, westerly to today's Dwight street, then north from Wolcott street, southerly to Reed street. Roughly six by eight square city blocks in area at its widest points.

On April 08, 1776, a regiment of men from George Washington's Colonial Army made up of hardened volunteers, under the command of one Major Shaw, using shovels, axes, and two man rip saws, felled trees and dug out an elongated entrenchment the entire west to east length of the Island. Which was also know as "Cyprus Tree Island", because the southern portion of the hill was covered with Cyprus trees as well as locust, poplar, cedar, and a rare one called the sassafras tree. But the name Red Hook as it is called to this present day became the official name of the island. These trees also effectively blocked the British ships from viewing the Fort while passing Red Hook in lower New York Bay.

The Fort became know as Fort Defiance, and was equipped with four heavy 18 pound cannons, brought down from West Point and Massachusetts. Because of the location on top of the hill, according to Major Shaw the Fort's young Commander, "We are able to fire enbarbette (over the top of the enclosures,) which is vastly better than firing through embrasures (small openings in the Forts wall). " Little did these brave men realize, just a short time later, that fateful August 27, they would be called upon to defend their Fort, and face extreme life threatening and dangerous conditions, by taking on the lead Man-O-War of the British Fleet, Commanded by Lord Viceroy, Admiral Howe.
With the American's boxed in on three sides, north, east, and south, by the British, and Hessian troops, Admiral Howe (brother of General Howe) decided he could sail around the Hook and up the East River, thereby successfully encircling Washington's Army on all sides. He sent the heavily armed ship the HMS Roebuck on a trial attempt at this endeavor, but was met with fierce northerly winds as the ship approached the East River, and because sailing vessels in those days were square riggers, they could not effectively sail against the strong winds. The soldiers at Fort Defiance witnessed this and at great risk to themselves commenced firing on the struggling ship just a few hundred feet away in an effort to take advantage of its predicament. They were so close, the Soldiers and Sailors could be heard shouting at each other. The man-o-war instantly returned their assault, with far superior firepower, and began to inflict great damage to the Fort, as well as the brave Americans who initiated the barrage.

However, the consistent wind gusts coupled with the fierce cannon fire from Fort Defiance, proved too much for the lone floundering ship, and Lord Admiral Howe ordered it to return to anchor with the rest of His fleet.

This tiny Fort, with its small complement of men saved the day for General Washington and the American Army. Surrounded on three sides by over 17,000 British and Hessian troops, the Americans had just under 10,000 ragged, tired, poorly equipped, and underfed men. Defeat by surrender or annihilation a certainty. For had the British Armada succeeded in occupying the East River that day, the over 200 ship based cannons would have made short work of them. Instead, on the evening of August 29, two days later, the Continental Army under orders from General Washington was able to successfully withdraw to Manhattan under cover of darkness, at pre-designated strategic points along the westerly shore of South Brooklyn, where he had his men locate escape vessels a month before. They then regrouped and went on to defeat the British, and win independence for the United States of America.

But history is often unkind, or blind to many facts of heroism and even acts of God. Alas, the story I relate through information and research was found quietly stored away at the bottom of shelves in the Brooklyn Public Library main branch. And for all practical purposes, never to be told. The story of "The Fort That Saved America" had been consigned to the identical fate of oblivion, that the British if successful that day in August 1776, would have rendered. Ironically, Mr. Gabriel Furman in his book (see note*) lamented this cruelty of history, when he wrote about incidents of the "Battle Of Brooklyn" He said, " I write of these happenings, ever fearful that in time they will be forgotten by all, but with fervent hope and prayer one day, a nobler pen than mine may bring them to light, that the brave forgotten soldiers involved may be given their just due and recorded properly in our history books. Indeed as it was meant to be."

Note* Gabriel Furman (Towne Of Brooklyn, published 1865)

A Nobler Pen

By John J. Burkard Area Historic Research, Red Hook, Brooklyn, New York

In my previous contribution to, (History Uncovered) I wrote about growing up and residing all my life in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn (75yrs), and my fascination with the historic association my neighborhood has (though often kept secret) with the "Battle Of Brooklyn" during the Revolutionary War.

I need to speak now of a folklore, of tradition, rumor, or call it old wives tale, regarding a Revolutionary War burial site? This was the talk of Red Hook for many years, but no one it seems ever did any research or took the time to find out just how true this belief, perpetuated by the neighborhood residents actually was. After rendering a presentation to the local Chamber of Commerce regarding a Heritage Trail I'm trying to establish, I was approached by the community affairs officer PO Michael De Martino of the 76th police pct. He asked me "What are you doing about the burial site?" I must confess I was taken by surprise, simply because it never crossed my mind to include this site in my Heritage Trail project, as it had never been looked upon as anything more than an undocumented rumor. My curiosity got the best of me, and I decided to dig a little into this long standing neighborhood folklore.

I set about to contact the occupant of the building where this triangular patch of land is located. He told me of his knowledge of the rumors, and of the local public school teachers bringing their charges to the corner site and explaining to them of the significance of the location. He told me they seemed to believe deceased soldiers killed in Prospect Park about 3 miles away were brought here and interred. This made no sense to me, so I set about researching various historic publications relating to the Battle Of Brooklyn, and came across "The Town Of Brooklyn" by Gabriel Furman published in 1823.Mr Furman was born in 1800, and died in 1854 on November 11, date sound familiar?.. And though he lived a relatively short life, it was an active and fruitful one. He was an author, a New York State Supreme Court Justice, a State Senator, and a practicing attorney.

In his book Town Of Brooklyn, he spoke of the Battle of Brooklyn, and of a lane that wound its way down into Red Hook. He wrote of American snipers hiding in trees along this trail and firing upon the British troops who were pursuing them hoping to cut off their escape during the famous withdrawal General George Washington ordered the night of August 29, 1776. This withdrawal was credited with saving the Continental Army from certain defeat. Mr. Furman went on to write of one sniper who though fully aware he would be discovered, continued to fire at the British allowing his comrades to escape. When he was eventually exposed, he was shot and killed, and his body lay where it fell for a number of days. This was the British way of setting example for the Colonists, to let the American dead remain and rot and have their flesh eaten by the vultures.

Eventually he was interred by friendly locals, in a hollow tree trunk that had been struck by lightning during a storm, this became his final resting place. However he had slain two British soldiers, a Major Grant and an aide during this heroic action. They are also said to be buried at this site along the lane. It is unfortunate, we do not have the name of the heroic American soldier. But it just so happens, the gravesite I mentioned, is only one half block from where this Lane ran on its way to Fort Defiance located at the lanes end and terminating in Red Hook.

Gabriel Furman also wrote in his book, "Many of the minor events connected with this battle and the Revolutionary contest are fast sinking into the shades of oblivion. I have therefore thought it proper to relate this piece of history. Not with the idea that I can be immortalized by the events I relate, but with the hope that my efforts will call forth some nobler pen, to do justice to the memories of many of the almost forgotten heroes of these hard fought battles, and arduous contests"

Now let me emphasize very strongly, in no way does this amateur historian/writer consider myself nobler than such a giant of a man as Gabriel Furman, in fact had I to write in those days with the quill pens etc, I would barely be able to scribe my name. But with a computer, we can all look much more competent than we really are, don't you agree?

But perhaps in my mentioning this historic incident it will highlight this location, and the burial site will no longer be just a rumor, but can take its proper place in my Heritage Trail, and the annals of American History.

Some interesting notes; The one story building that is adjacent to this plot was constructed in 1932. It was built leaving the corner triangular piece of land intact. It seems highly improbable this was done for any other purpose except they were prohibited from building on the site. However, researching this building back to the original construction date proved fruitless, since all data pertaining to its construction had been removed from the archive files of the Brooklyn Department of Buildings, and are not available?

I can readily cite a number of instances where historic data and plaques seem to have vanished into the oblivion Gabriel Furman refers to in his Town Of Brooklyn. More recently, the marker at the beginning of Red Hook lane (called Washington Memorial) in downtown Brooklyn vanished about 15 years ago. Now planners are contemplating eliminating the historic lane completely. Thankfully they are meeting with some opposition from many concerned citizens. The plaque marking the end of Red Hook Lane also disappeared some 50 years ago, now the site is being demolished for an Ikea superstore project. A bronze marker on a building in lower Manhattan where Robert Fulton resided while working and testing his steamboat engine, went missing about five years before the original structure was demolished and a large office building now occupies the spot, minus the bronze plaque of course.

Perhaps Mr. Furman, what we really need in New York City, is many, many, more nobler pens, and nobler voices, nobler citizens and if we're lucky a few nobler developers and contractors. But I guess I'm just asking for a little too much nobility.

John J. Burkard: Area historic research, Red Hook, Brooklyn, New York
Source: Information from his own personal research and readings.

Friday, November 4, 2011


A.) Getting To Know Mimi (B.) N.Y.C. History (C.) Italian Harlem(D.) Spanish Harlem (E.) Black Harlem (F.) New York State (G.) Tenement Living: Social Issues Of Urban Life (Poverty, Crime&Vice, Homelessness, Group Conflicts, Diseases, Gays&Lesbians: Gender Identity, Domestic Violence, Drug&Alcohol Abuse, Police Brutality )

(H.) Chit-Chat Over Coffee Swirls

(I.) Jewish Knowledge (K.) Historical Facts On England & United States

Table of Contents (4a)

Positive Thinking and Self-Improvement

Table of Contents (5)
(L) Miscellaneous (M.) Timetables (N.) Ethnic Groups (O.) Legal Talk(P.) Entertainment: Backward Glances (Q.) Immigration

R.) Women__Bio Sketches, Feminine Fancies, Recipes, Kitchen Talk.(S.) Worship

(T.) A Little Taste of History, (U.) U.S. History-Transportation, (V) U.S. History-Panics, Economic Depressions, Business Matters

(W) El Rincón En Español (The Spanish Corner: ) . This section is dedicated to articles of historical facts, poetry, self-improvement, human interest stories etc. written in Spanish.

(X) So Mr. President, What Did You Do During Your Term in Office....? (The Series)

(Y) Brusciano, Italy News/Events

Y) Brusciano, Italy News/Events

(Z) The Italian Niche

Pensieri di uno scrittore italiano: dott. Antonio Castaldo

Thoughts of an Italian Writer: Dr. Antonio Castaldo

I) "El Rincón Borinqueña"

II) Arts and Entertainment

III Architecture

IV Education

V Wisdom: Thoughts From the Indian Masters

VI Understanding Music

VII Published Articles Written by Miriam B. Medina

Click on Icon to view articles on Ezine or on Table of Contents

VIII New York City Neighborhoods

IX Memories (Brooklyn, Manhattan and Personal)

John J. Burkard

X Red Hook, Reflections on History

MESSAGE BOARD FOR THEHISTORYBOX.COM (Feel free to express your comments or ask questions regarding: "" which will be reviewed before posting.

Thank You. ************ . Contact: or miriam@thehistorybox