Something Happened Here
Barnet Schecter, The Battle for New York: The City at the Heart of the American Revolution (Walker & Co., 2002).
For a city that supposedly shrugs off its past to make way for a perpetually unfolding future, New York City can sometimes barely conceal its ghosts. From the African burial grounds that are occasionally dug up downtown to the winding streets of the financial district, there’s a rich history we just don’t seem that interested in. It is precisely this somewhat willful ignorance that makes The Battle for New York such a fascinating read.
The pivotal role New York played in the Revolutionary War is often overlooked, as is, in particular, the Battle of Brooklyn. This disorganized, drawn-out fight (which was called the Battle of Long Island at the time) was the first major engagement ever conducted by an organized American army (Lexington and Bunker Hill were little more than militia skirmishes), and the largest battle of the entire war. It was also a barely averted disaster in which Washington’s troops were outmaneuvered and trapped— although, through some luck and cunning, they did manage to escape to Manhattan before the rout was complete.
At the time the Revolution broke out in 1775, New York was a city of 4,000 wood and brick buildings hugging the southern tip of Manhattan. It had an excellent port, and as the mid-way point between New England and the South, both the British and the rebels felt that it was, as Washington said, "a post of infinite importance." The city was so pivotal to British plans that they left a disproportionate number of troops garrisoned here for the duration of the war, allowing the American Army to move throughout the other colonies with greater ease.
Beginning with the tribal politics of pre-Revolutionary New York, in which the DeLancey, Montresor and Livingston families vied for power, Schecter paints a portrait of a city we might recognize— a bustling urban center broiling with religious, political and racial tension, rife with crime, prostitution and radical political ideas; all of which were brought to a head by the outbreak of hostilities in 1775.
The Battle of Brooklyn started as a chance encounter between some (possibly drunk) American sentries and British and Hessian troops in a watermelon patch near today’s 5th Avenue and 36th Street, and quickly developed into a major engagement consisting of some 30,000 troops covering the whole of Brooklyn. After the initial encounter, the Americans fell back to the wooded hills of what is now Prospect Park— fighting a pitched battle, at the Stone House on today’s 5th Avenue and 3rd Street in Park Slope, with a few thousand British and Hessian troops as they tried to make their way back to the American fortifications at Brooklyn Heights, Fort Greene and Cobble Hill.
With the Americans disorganized and in full retreat, the British missed a perfect opportunity to finish them off when their commander, General Howe, refused to order his men to assault the forts, thinking time was on his side. With about 20,000 men under his command in Brooklyn, as compared to the Americans’ 8,000–10,000, it seems, in retrospect, to have been an obviously foolish move. Neither would it be the first time during the war Howe would refuse to capitalize on an opportunity to finish the Americans off, much to the shock of his subordinates and the American commanders.
Still, stuck between the powerful British fleet ready to sail up the East River and the large British Army just outside the encampments’ walls, it looked like the end for the Revolution. And it probably would have been if not for what Schecter calls "one of the greatest moments in the annals of warfare."
On August 29th, with the Americans trapped and running low on food and ammunition, a storm blew in from the north, keeping the British from sailing up the East River and completing the encirclement. Taking advantage of the situation, Washington gathered up as many small boats as he could and, beginning at 8pm and ending sometime around dawn, started moving his army across the river and into the still unoccupied city without tipping his hat to the British. Thus did Washington save his army and in the process the hope for an independent Republic.
What Schecter does so well is to marry stories like this one with diary entries and letters written by citizens, soldiers, officers and generals in the middle of the action, resulting in a gripping first-hand account of life on the front lines on both sides of the conflict. In particular, he uses the words of the teenage rebel soldier Joseph Martin throughout the book. When, for instance, Martin fled the British invasion of Manhattan at Kip’s Bay:
Every man that I saw was endeavoring by all sober means to escape from death or captivity, which at that period of the war was certain death. The men were confused, being without officers to command them. I do not recollect of seeing a commissioned officer from the time I left the lines on the banks of East River in the morning until I met with one gentlemanly one in the evening. How could the men fight without officers?
Schecter also manages to draw Walt Whitman into the narrative, relating how as a boy in the 1820s Whitman would find the bones of some of the 11,000 American soldiers who died on British prison ships in New York Harbor washed up on the Brooklyn shore, and how this led him, and others, to plead for some sort of memorial to the fallen, the kind which now stand in Prospect Park and Greenwood cemetery.
Another high point is the author’s retelling of the British "invasion" of Manhattan two weeks after the Americans’ escape from Brooklyn, and the chase from today’s Financial District up the east side and into Harlem, where the Americans made a stand on today’s 125th Street and Broadway, winning their first pitched battle of the war before falling back to the relative safety of Westchester to wait out the winter. Schecter also does an outstanding job of giving the reader an idea of contemporary landmarks, like the line of forts Washington had stretched out across much of today’s Grand Street and the British landing at what is currently East 34th Street.
The detail Schecter goes into while constructing his narrative is never anything less than riveting, particularly in describing the fuzzy political situation in New York during the war. Once the rebels were driven out, the city became a refuge for loyalists from New England who suppressed rebel sympathizers in a brutal fashion, even refusing to rebuild much of the west side after it was destroyed by one of the frequent suspicious fires, forcing hundreds to live out the war homeless and hungry in what became known as "canvas town."
To Schecter’s credit, his book never falls into the soporific trap to which many historians are vulnerable, as they excessively quote documents or get bogged down in extraneous detail. What he offers is not a textbook account of the war, but an intensely personal tale of the sacrifices made by common men and women who lost as much as they gained in fighting for what looked, on more than one occasion, to be a losing cause. The writing throughout is crisp, concise, and evocative of historical context, with an eye to the modern reader who has some knowledge of New York’s not-so-distant past.
PAUL MCLEARY has written for Social Policy magazine and the New York Observer.