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

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New York Harbor Defense History and Civil War Weekend at Governors Island

CastlewilliamsgiShuttling back and forth between Brooklyn and Manhattan every day on the New York City subway system, it’s sometimes easy to forget I live and work in area surrounded by coasts. This past weekend I hopped a free mid-morning ferry from Brooklyn to Governors Island National Monument for some immersion in NYC’s coastal defense history and annual Civil War Weekend sponsored by the National Park Service.

New York Harbor Defense History

From the beginning of European settlement of New Amsterdam on the island of Manhattan by the Dutch in the early 1600s, the importance of New York Harbor as a gateway to a system of  trade and military defense was clear. The Dutch colony’s main defense at Fort Amsterdam eventually ceded to the British who maintained fortifications on the spot until after the American Revolution. In the post-Revolution centuries, the defense of New York Harbor remained a focus of the US military against foreign and domestic would-be aggressors.

Governorsislandplan1908 US Army Corps of Engineers map of Governors Island with Fort Jay (center) and Castle Williams (left)

Governors Island offers a good historic overview of the development of New York’s coastal defense works from the 18th through 19th centuries. Fort Jay dates from the late 18th-century when American colonists and British troops exchanged control of the island with various earlier wood and earth forts. The existing facility is a classic European-style star fort with masonry and earthen walls is typical of the design built all over the world from the 15th through 19th centuries. Entering through elaborate gates, a visitor walks into a peacefully idyllic central courtyard surrounded by Greek Revival colonnaded buildings with welcoming porches. Several cast iron Civil War era 10 and 15 inch Rodman cannons survive on the fort’s walls, pointing toward the harbor.

IMG_4073Guns overlook New York Harbor from Fort Jay

The later Castle Williams was built between 1807 and 1811 as a fortification just ahead of the War of 1812. The state-of-the art, circular casemate sandstone pile was designed by Col. Jonathan Williams, at the time the chief of the US Army Corps of Engineers. The first fort designed by an American engineer, Castle Williams presents three tiers of gun ports from which a nearly 360-degree field of defensive fire across the harbor.

IMG_4074The imposing walls of Castle Williams

Together with Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island, Fort Wood (today the base of the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island), Castle Clinton at the southern tip of Manhattan and Fort Gibson at today’s Ellis Island, Fort Jay and Castle Williams served as part of the interlacing network of forts protecting New York Harbor through the 19th-century. Both Fort Jay and Castle Williams would go on to other roles as the site of a Confederate prisoner of war camp during the Civil War, a US Army prison in the middle of the 20th-century and the site of a large US Coast Guard base until closing in 1996. Gone is the military use of Governors Island today, but the spaces still serve the public as place to walk amid important and usually unseen history of New York.

Civil War Weekend

Each August the National Park Service presents the only Civil War encampment of reenactors in New York City. With about a dozen tents in a small camp and more than twenty staff and volunteer reenanctors, the weekend’s events gives New Yorkers an up-close glimpse of a solder’s life during the Civil War.

IMG_4068Reenactors encamped at Governors Island

IMG_4076A Civil War era soldier’s equipment sits at the ready in camp

IMG_4072A reenactor discusses a Civil War soldier’s life with visitors to Governors Island

IMG_4075An officer reenactor speaks with with visitors to Governors Island

Aside from an opportunity to speak with reenactors and view some typical soldier’s equipment and life in camp, demonstrations of canon firing, drilling and infantry weapons are presented. For the less militarily-minded, period music was also offered in the comfort of shaded grass and rocking chairs inside the walls of Fort Jay.

IMG_4069Officer inspection of the troops at Governors Island

IMG_4070Canon firing demonstration during Civil war Weekend at Governors Island

IMG_4071Civil War era cannon shot, canister and ordinance loads

Although the use of Governors Island has primarily been military for several centuries, visiting the island today serves up multiple experiences. While the historic forts and sites under the governance of the National Park Service occupy approximately 22 acres to the north, the remaining 150 acres is now overseen by the Trust for Governors Island. The Trust has worked to create an oasis of recreational areas for picnicking, play, bike riding, strolling and relaxing among historic buildings, allays of trees, wide grassy lawns, outdoor sculpture and newly designed landscapes. Whether you are a visitor looking for a step back into American history or just unwind from the city’s usual hustle, Governors Island can give a whole new perspective on New York at the center of the harbor and world.

A Trip to Brooklyn’s Trainworld

trainworldbknyI’ve written several times about my lifetime love for model trains which served as my gateway to the scale modelling hobby and eventually to miniatures wargaming. Walking into a model train convention or local hobby shop as a kid was like opening an alternate fantasy world of endless possibility. On occasional nights after dinner as a young hobbyist, my dad’s announcement that we were climbing into his truck to take a trip to Kurt’s Trains & Hobbies in nearby Caledonia, NY was like declaring we were about to take a journey to another universe.

So, after some 16 years living in Brooklyn, NY I recently made my first stop at Trainworld in the Kensington neighborhood just a few subway stops from my front door. Located in an light industrial stretch of McDonald Avenue right under the elevated F line, Trainworld is an old slice of Brooklyn brimming with charmingly coarse but knowledgeably helpful staff and one of the largest inventories anywhere of model railroading and related hobby supplies.

IMG_2906Trains running on the layout at Trainworld in the Kensington area of Brooklyn, NY

Trainworld and their Trainland location in Lynbrook, NY in nearby Nassau County lay claim as “America’s Largest Discount Mail Order Discount Train Store” powered by their extensive and well-built website. The retail location in Brooklyn features a main store space packed from floor to ceiling with N, HO, O, G and S scale model trains, track, buildings, scenery and supplies. A small phone staff manages customer service queries in a second space off the main store which also features a small train layout which loops and clatters around all day long. The enormous warehouse opens through a door just past the main retail counter space, granting any walk-in customer full access to the store’s massive inventory.

IMG_2904Scale scenery supplies at Trainworld

It’s been years since I’ve had my own model railroad layout, but having a place like Trainworld nearby is a huge resource for a wargamer and miniatures modeller like myself. On my recent visit, I was able to grab a few bags of various ground cover products from Woodland Scenics right off the racks stretched the entire length of one wall. When one specific color I needed wasn’t on display, a quick call to the warehouse brought a package to the counter in about five minutes.

IMG_2905Shelves of trees and natural modelling details at Trainworld

A little further down the aisle are several shelves of ready-made model trees of varying quality, size, coloring and price point, as well as other packaged details like rocks, gravel, crop fields and a flowering meadows. All these scenic materials are just the thing  I enjoy in making my various tabletop battlefields come alive, a topic I touched on in one of my earliest posts on this blog.

I’ve got a number of scenery projects on my list for the coming months, including a re-basing of my trees and scratch-building bocage hedgerows. Discovering a place like Trainworld just 10-minutes from my apartment is going to make these projects all the easier and provide fuel for more ideas for some time to come.

A Place To Play: Brooklyn Game Lab

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Living and gaming in New York City is all about space. While gamers worldwide enjoy games in their basements, garages, dining rooms and even dedicated spaces, gamers living in the five boroughs wage a constant struggle for tabletop real estate. It’s in this context that Brooklyn Game Lab opens today and joins a mini-boom in storefront gaming spaces and stores that have opened over the past five years throughout New York.

Brooklyn Game Lab is the vision of Robert Hewitt, a former Silcon Valley game developer, designer, co-founder of game app company HashGo and ESL teacher in Brazil. Carrying his start-up experience and a passion for games and teaching, Bob’s mission for the Brooklyn Game Lab is to provide not only a space for play but to challenge players to think about games beyond what comes right out of the box.

Located in the heart of Brownstone Brooklyn’s Park Slope, the core of the Brooklyn Game Lab is an afterschool program focusing not just on kids playing games but evaluating games and creating homebrewed expansions. The curriculum involves player self-evaluation of gaming mechanics, strategy and tactics, as well as a reward system which will allow kids to earn merits as their gaming prowess develops. Euro, cooperative, social and conquest games like Settlers of Catan, Forbidden Island, King of Tokyo, Werewolf and Small World will serve as jumping-off points.

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Aside from the afterschool program, the Brooklyn Game Lab also features a number of After Hours gaming events targeting adult players. Mondays are Miniatures Night with a revolving series of fantasy and war-themed minis games the likes of Star Wars X-Wing, Space Hulk, Warhammer 40K and Flames of War for experienced players and curious newcomers alike. Wild Card Night on Tuesdays invites outside groups to host favorite go-to games for their own members and drop-ins from the general public. Thursdays are Singles Night, bringing in 20-somethings to roll dice, play cards and mingle. The old mainstay, Magic: The Gathering, occupies the Friday night slot, and weekends will provide opportunity for open gaming.

The 32-seat space will focus solely on the game curriculum and  special events for the time being, although there may be room for retail and private party rentals in the future. Things are off to a great start for Brooklyn Game Lab which is opening with a fully-booked afterschool program including my oldest son who will be a particpating Monday afternoons. Meeting with Bob for coffee last month, I was glad to connect with another passionate gamer looking to put a spin on New York’s gaming spaces. Getting kids engaged in games for life and igniting a developer mindset in them makes Brooklyn Game Lab a very welcome new space for the community.

New Game Weekend: King of Chicago & RoboRally

Friday night at Metropolitan Wargamers in Park Slope, Brooklyn had a decent crowd of six of us collected in the back with a few other people up front continuing play of a multi-week and fairly dense American Civil War battle. Coming to agreement on an ad hoc game together for a half-dozen guys is a challenge on its own, but we managed to settle on two games which are standbys at the club but pretty new to me.

King of Chicago

Produced in Denmark in 2005, King of Chicago takes place in the Prohibition-era Windy City where each player takes on the guise of gangster looking to rule the streets by creating and breaking alliances, building their empire and whacking the competition along the way.

The game begins with each player owning a gangster, a car, $1000 and a few resources. Resources in the game are booze, henchman and girls, and additional resources are picked up in various landmarks spread throughout the city. Combinations of booze, henchmen and girls in your gang allows you to build bars, casinos and brothels which create income at the completion of four turns in each round of play. At the end of a round, players collect income, new gangsters are put into play and resources get set on the board. Bidding takes place for gangsters to add to your mob, gaining you bonuses of speed, income, protection and lethalness. Players also bid to bribe the cops, controlling them through the next round of play.

The game offers a lot of strategic play in how a player chooses to build their empire and also in managing relationships with the other mob bosses on the board. Drive-by shootings, shutting down competing businesses and sending the other guys to the hospital or the morgue makes for a lot of opportunity for deals to be struck and double-crosses to take place. Certain cards cause “events” like police raids to be played and others send players on “jobs” which net substantial sums of income. The player who quickly amasses ten points from money, businesses and influence wins the game.

The game looks great with simple components and a wonderful collection of historic photos from the Chicago gangland days depicted on the cards. The many paths players can choose to build their mob empire adds significant replay value to the game.

King of Chicago was released with a limited print run and can be hard to come by in the United States. However, for lovers of gangster movies and the period when the underworld ruled Chicago, chasing down a copy is well worth the effort.

RoboRally

After a couple hours on the mean streets of Chicago, we had a seventh player show up. Our second game of the evening took us in a different direction with the hilariously chaotic RoboRally. The game was originally published by Wizards of the Coast way back in 1994 but was created a decade earlier by Richard Garfield who would go on to design the insanely-popular Magic: The Gathering card game.

The game takes place on a factory floor with each player’s tiny robot attempting to navigate through a set number of flagged gates. This seemingly-simple mission is hampered by moving conveyor belts, rotating gears, solid walls and laser arrays spread throughout the factory. Robots controlled by other players also wreak havoc on your path by bumping into and zapping your robot with their lasers.

At the beginning of each round, players draw up to nine cards each with directional actions such as left and right rotations, u-turns and movement backward and forward. Players secretly place their cards face down in front of them defining their robots’s moves for the round. In turn, players reveal each card and move their robots in order of card value and according to the movements selected. The fun and craziness comes in when well-thought plans quickly go awry as robots beginning bumping into each other and throwing each other off course. Just when you think you have a direct route neatly plotted out to a flagged gate space, some other robot (or two or three) ram straight into you, sending you wheeling off in some other direction.

Lasers cause damage to your robot, reducing your movement choices in a round and only made better by spending a turn shut down repairing. Occupying repair spaces can also provide fixes for damage, and even special robot upgrade cards. The truly unlucky robots will find themselves bumped off the board, returning to their last starting point at the beginning of the next round.

The more players who play only contributes to greater chaos on the board. Our late night seven-player game stretched to nearly two hours of mechanized madness until one player managed to get through a few gates and away from the crowd. My sad little robot, on the other hand, wound up spending the game unluckily bumping into his mechanized comrades and finished the game exactly where it started.

RoboRally has won multiple awards, and its many versions and expansions have ensured its continued love among gamers for nearly two decades. After the cold-bloooded and calculating play in King of Chicago, it was great to end the night on a much more lighter but no less challenging game like Robo Rally.

Memorial Day 2013 in Brooklyn

Memorial Day in Brooklyn saw a crowd of the guys gaming and grilling at Metropolitan Wargamers, but I chose to spend the sunny day with my youngest son retracing the historic military past in my own backyard.

I live about a 15-minute walk from Green-Wood Cemetery, a National Historic Landmark celebrating its 175th anniversary this year. The cemetery occupies a 478 acre hilly, picturesque landscape traced with winding roads and paths. It is a who’s who of New York City and American history, and the design of its entry gates, grave markers and mausoleums provides a visual history of how Americans have celebrated themselves in the afterlife across three centuries.

What we celebrate today as Memorial Day began as Decoration Day when freed slaves decorated the graves of Union dead following the American Civil War. Green-Wood’s marking of the war is found with 1869’s Civil War Soldiers’ Monument (photos below). The pillared monument ringed with four bronze statues was restored and re-dedicated in 2002. The re-dedication kicked off interest in documenting and marking the Civil War dead interred at Green-Wood, and to-date the Civil War Project has identified some 3,300 residing for eternity in the cemetery.

    

    

The Civil War Soldiers’ Monument sits along Battle Avenue and atop Battle Hill, the highest point in Brooklyn. The hill won its name for its important strategic role in 1776’s Battle of Long Island as Colonial forces held off multiple attacks on the far left of the invading British line. Standing on the hill today, you can clearly see the military importance of the hill with its broad views of the sloping land down to New York Harbor to the west and the island of Manhattan to the north. The battle is marked with the Altar of Liberty (photo at right), a 1920 monument installed as part of the plot of Brooklyn India ink magnate Charles Higgins. The bronze statue of Minerva raises her arm to the Statue of Liberty standing in the distant harbor, making the view from Battle Hill on a clear, sunny day one of the most breathtaking vistas in the city.

Next, we wound our way toward the center of the cemetery and to the family plot of Abram Duryée (photos of Duryee and his monument below). I’m a fan of Duryee and his command of the 5th NY Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War. Known as “Duryee’s Zouaves,” these Manhattan men saw action throughout the war at such battles as Second Bull Run, Antietam, Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg. I’ve made the 5th NY with their baggy red chasseur trousers, dark blue jackets with red braiding and fezzes with yellow tassels a big part of my 28mm American Civil War painting project this past year, so it was great to stop and pay tribute to him at his final resting place.

    

Our final destination of the afternoon was to the grave of General Henry Wager Halleck, a relative of mine (photos of Halleck and his monument below). Halleck served as General-In-Chief of Union forces for about two years of the Civil War before being replaced by the much more famous General Ulysses S. Grant. Known more for his intellect than his military exploits, Halleck was nicknamed “Old Brains” during the war and spent his years after the war as a lawyer and author. While by no means a household name, I was glad to have the opportunity to visit his grave again after many years.

    

As a wargamer, my hobby wouldn’t exist without wars and the men and women who fight and die in them to this day. On this Memorial Day, it was a good change of pace to put down my dice, step away from the tabletop and venture out for a few hours visiting the monuments to those who have paid the ultimate price throughout American history.

New Games Weekend: Small World & Lords of Waterdeep

The first weekend of the New Year brought me an intro to two new games – Small World and Lords of Waterdeep. Both games are based in a fantasy realm with the mechanics of a Euro boardgame, and each offer a different take on some fast-paced group play of control and development of an imaginery world.

Small World

You can pick up a copy of Small World at specialty game shops and in book stores like Barnes & Noble. The game has been around for about three years, but my brother just tipped me off to it being a great game to play with a mix of kids and adults in about an hour-and-half’s time.

Small World comes with four maps on two game boards comprised of different regions of hills, fields, forests, mountains and water areas. Players take on the role of some 14 races including Elves, Humans, Giants, Dwarves, Amazons, Sorcerers and Ghouls. Each race comes combined with one of twenty random special powers such as Commando, Diplomat, Alchemist or Flying. Using a combined special power and race, each player spreads out across the board occupying regions, fighting other races and scoring coins toward victory. Once a race becomes over-extended, a player marks that race in “decline” and selects a new race.

The nearly endless permutations of races and special powers creates immense replay value in the game. One turn, you may have Diplomat Dwarves battling Flying Ratmen. A few turns later, Hill Giants and Mounted Haflings may be vying for control of the board. The art and combinations of races and special powers make Small World funny, fierce and a great entree for players new to strategy boardgames.

Lords of Waterdeep

I spent Saturday afternoon at the Metropolitan Wargamers club in Brooklyn, and the guys turned me on to my first game of Lords of Waterdeep. Longtime D&D players know Waterdeep to be one of the main cities within the storied Forgotten Realms campaign. The Lords of Waterdeep, released just last year, takes the history of Waterdeep as a jumping-off point for a strategy boardgame that can be played by 2-5 players in about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

You begin the game as a Lord with two agents in your employ. Using these agents, you recruit parties of thieves, warriors, priests and wizards to complete Quests selected from a pile a cards. Along the way you also gain and play Intrigue cards which can be used to block or reward other players as loyalties shift. As you complete quests, construct buildings and reap gold, the play quickly switches-up throughout the game as your opportunity to change the turn order and grow your pool of agents and influence.

My first go-around with the game was with a group of experienced players, yet I quickly picked up on the raucous tone of the game as competition grew more heated yet good-natured. Five players seemed a bit cumbersome, and the other guys said a 3-4 person game is ideal. I’d recommend Lords of Waterdeep for veteran strategy gamers looking to bang out a quick, fun game or for a group of players who are looking to graduate from a game like Small World.