The Ratzer Maps At The Brooklyn Historical Society

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Now in its final weeks at the Brooklyn Historical Society, the tiny second floor exhibition Unlocking Two Revolutionary War Maps: The Ratzer Maps at BHS showcases two incredibly important maps of the American War of Independence and the 1776 Battle of Long Island in particular. Alternately known as the Battle of New York and the now-popular Battle of Brooklyn, the Battle of Long Island was the first of the new nation after announcing its independence on July 4, 1776 and the largest of the entire war. For anyone with an interest in the American Revolution or 18th-century New York history, these maps unlock a close-up view of the ground fought over between the British Empire and the upstart Colonials nearly 240 years ago.

IMG_5426The “Percy Map” used during the Battle of Brooklyn in 1776 (left) and the restored 1770 “Ratzer Map” (right) at the Brooklyn Historical Society

Drawn by British cartographer Bernard Ratzer in 1766-1767, the Ratzer Map is one of the seminal documents of early New York. The BHS copy of the full 1770 edition of the Ratzer Map is only one of four in known existence and showcases an early snapshot of Manhattan and nearby Brooklyn in their early days where farms and rural roads still dominated the landscape. The smaller map on display, showing only the lower portion of the Ratzer Map, was carried by British General Hugh Percy during the Battle of Long Island in August 1776. The Percy Map is now co-owned by the BHS and nearby Green-Wood Cemetery, the high ground for much of the battle, and was first put on public view in the summer on 2014 at the cemetery. The current exhibit of these maps at the BHS after a restoration of the full Ratzer map in 2011 is a wonder of 18th-century map making and 21st-century preservation.

schecterbfnyBarnet Schecter’s classic “The Battle For New York” from 2002

The exhibit features text from BHS President Deborah Schwartz and historian Barnet Schecter whose compellingly-detailed The Battle For New York: The City At the Heart Of The American Revolution has become the standard narrative of the battle. Additionally, the BHS has produced a free educational resource entitled Exploring Pre-Revolutionary New York: The Ratzer Map which digs into much of the historical detail found in the map including panoramic views of the shoreline and major landmarks of the era.

History can feel so large and abstract, buried in long ago events which are difficult to square with the present day. The Ratzer Maps at the BHS bring history remarkably into the present and allow a modern viewer to trace pivotal events along lines carefully set down on paper and battlefields more than two centuries ago.

Battle of Brooklyn Commemoration at Green-Wood Cemetery

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Buried and hidden amid the 21st-century streets and neighborhoods of New York City is an enormous trove of history of the nation’s formative years and the battles waged here during the American War of Independence.

I live on a former battleground where British and American troops fought the first and largest battle of the Revolution, the Battle of Brooklyn. Here in late August of 1776, just weeks after the Declaration of Independence was signed, some 35,000 British troops landed to face 10,000 Americans seeking to defend their new country. The series of engagements became a running retreat for General George Washington to the edge of Long island, over the East River, north through Manhattan and then on to safety in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

At historic Green-Wood Cemetery near my home, the Battle of Brooklyn’s 238th anniversary was commemorated this past weekend with reenactors, period weapons demonstrations, military music, a parade featuring more than eighty regimental flags and speeches by various local dignitaries. Also on display was the “Percy Map,” a contemporary map of the American positions during the battle made by British General Hugh Earl Percy. The map was recently acquired through a joint partnership between Green-Wood and the Brooklyn Historic Society and will be on display again beginning this week at the society’s exhibit “Unlocking Two Revolutionary War Era Maps.”

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Various local dignitaries such as Borough President Eric Adams and historian Barnet Schecter spoke during the official ceremonies held near the monument to the Battle of Brooklyn at Battle Hill in the cemetery this weekend. Schecter’s seminal 2002 book, The Battle For New York: The City At The Heart Of The American Revolution, places New York at the center of the War of Independence and grandly documents the events leading up to the Battle of Long Island and its aftermath. Using extensive primary written sources from the period, Schecter shows how the British obsession with maintaining control of New York drained precious resources from other fronts in the war and strengthened the newly-born nation’s resistance to their former English rulers. Schecter’s book documents that British General William Howe’s failure to follow-up his victories¬† during the August and September 1776 campaign allowed Washington’s army to retrench and prolong the war another seven years until eventual American victory.

Schecter’s book is a must-read for those of us interested in the story which unfolded here in the early days of the new American republic’s fight against overwhelming odds with the world’s most dominant military power at the time. Like the hundreds of other people in attendance at Green-Wood Cemetery, experiencing the place where the United States fought its first formative battle brought this history alive again on a sunny afternoon in Brooklyn, New York.

IMG_4128A Revolutionary War era encampment stood near the entrance to Green-Wood Cemetary

IMG_4126A variety of reenactors spoke to attendees about the soldier’s experience during the American War of Independence

IMG_4127Firing demonstrations of artillery pieces and mounted British officer reenactors helped bring the Revolutionary War period to life

IMG_4130Reenactors portraying General George Washington and his staff were present

IMG_4129The United States Marine Academy Regimental Band provided musical accompaniment for the ceremonies

IMG_4131Reenactors were recognized for their depiction of African-American contributions to the War of Independence