Touring the Battle of Brooklyn at Green-Wood Cemetery

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This past Sunday a fellow member of Metropolitan Wargamers and I climbed aboard a trolley tour at historic Green-Wood Cemetery. The occasion was the cemetery’s annual Battle of Brooklyn Commemoration, fortuitously held this year on the exact date — 241 years later — of the battle on August 27, 1776.

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Leading the two-hour tour were the cemetery’s resident historian, Jeff Richman, and Barnet Schecter, historian and author of The Battle for New York. Schecter’s book is the long-held standard text on the battle, variously known as the Battle of Long Island or the Battle of Brooklyn. I’ve had a copy of his book for years and I’ve heard him lecture previously, but the tour offered a great chance to get up close with both Schecter and Richman as they spun a narrative of the battle’s events more than two centuries previous.

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Barnet Schecter presents the view toward eastern Long Island where British troops were observed landing in August 1776

One of the first stops on the tour was along a ridge affording an southeast-facing view from the cemetery out into Long Island. From this position, the historians presented with some certainty,  General George Washington and his staff were able to make their first accounting of the landing of General William Howe’s British forces at Gravesend Bay August 22nd-24th. The prospect sits atop a terminal moraine known as the Heights of Guan, the furthest point of a glacier’s advance millennia ago, and opens into a wide view across the flatlands of Brooklyn where only farms, fields and open ground stood between British and Continental forces. On the beautiful, clear morning of the tour, our view stretched to the horizon, making it easy to imagine how important the high ground had been in an era when first-hand observation was often the only information a commander had to go on in the field. From this view, Washington’s observations came to the (incorrect) conclusion the bulk of the British force would march here to his west flank and attack. The British command had other plans.

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The mausoleum of Robert Troup, lieutenant colonel of the Continental Army

Green-Wood being the final resting place of many prominent New Yorkers of the past couple hundred years, there were several stops along the tour at notable graves. One example was at the mausoleum of Robert Troup. A college roommate of Alexander Hamilton and junior officer in the Continental Army at the time of the battle, Troup was one of just five men sent to stand watch at the far east flank of Washington’s position at the Jamaica Pass on the eve of the battle. Unfortunately for the Colonials, the British secretly divided their force on the evening of August 26th and silently marched some 10,000 men, 40 guns and a long baggage train through the darkness to Jamaica Pass. In this audacious flanking maneuver, the British would capture Troup and his comrades and begin closing on an unsuspecting Washington from the east.

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The Delaware Regiment monument at Green-Wood Cemetery

Washington had thrown the bulk of his force on the west flank, led by William Alexander (aka “Lord Stirling”). Just as the British were moving in from the east, a British decoy force led by James Grant had made its way toward Stirling’s lines. Our tour traced Grant’s advance and made our next stop near the approximate site of the first clash of Stirling and Grant late on August 26th. The skirmish, now remembered in a typical mixture of fact and folklore, was recounted as being fought through near a watermelon patch at the now-vanished Red Lion Inn. This far edge of the cemetery property now houses a parking lot and maintenance sheds, so it really takes a stretch of the imagination to transport oneself to those opening shots of the battle. The one nod to the historic events there is in a relatively recent monument to the the Delaware Regiment which would play a part near this spot the following day as the Battle of Brooklyn commenced.

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Our guides for the morning, Jeff Richman (left) and Barnet Schecter (right)

It was here, Richman and Schecter both pointed out, that American troops for the first time in the war formed European-styled firing lines and exchanged volleys with British soldiers, then the most powerful military force in the world. Our tour then followed the action of the Colonial’s right flank as Stirling’s men -including the Delaware regiment and Pennsylvanians — repositioned at an angled rise, firing into Grant’s advancing troops. It was there that two distant cannon blasts, far to east, signaled the surprise advance of the main British lines that had snuck through the Jamaica Pass overnight. In one echoing report, the British had announced themselves and the Americans found themselves enveloped by a force more than twice its size.

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The statue of Minerva, placed atop Battle Hill by Charles Higgins in 1920

Following the retreat of Stirling’s troops, we made our way to our final tour stop at what became known as Battle Hill in the 20th-century. Standing before the statue of the goddess Minerva, Richman recounted the story of the monument’s placement by Charles Higgins, an Irish immigrant who made his fortune in India ink. Archival research unveiled Higgins’s original intent to have the statue face the Woolworth Building although we can be thankful today for its dramatic placement facing of the Statue of Liberty across the harbor.

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And it was on the hill 241 years ago this past weekend where a couple hundred Americans seized the 200-foot hill and held off 2000 British troops over several attacks. Out of ammunition, the Colonials eventually surrendered but they allowed for the majority of Stirling’s men to slip toward the Gowanus Creek. There, outgunned and outnumbered, the Americans (led by the 1st Maryland Regiment) made head-on attacks British dug in at the Vechte–Cortelyou House, known today as the Old Stone House. Once again, the sacrifices and delaying actions of Stirling’s force against the British allowed the vast majority of the Americans to flee toward the East River. Two evenings later, on August 29, 1776, Washington led a nighttime evacuation to Manhattan. Not only had the young Continental Army and most of its leadership been saved, but most probably the Revolution was saved, too.

I’ve lived in Brooklyn for more than twenty years and I’m an avid history fan, but sharing a morning with two passionate guides walking historic ground really brought long-ago events alive anew. New York and Brooklyn are not places that evoke the Revolution for most Americans. Boston, Lexington-Concord, Bunker Hill, Saratoga and Yorktown — those are sites of the War of Independence we all learn as children, not Brooklyn. But both Richman and Schecter hit on the importance of the Battle of Brooklyn over and over again on the tour — the first battle after the Declaration of Independence as Americans; the largest battle of the American Revolution; the first time Americans faced British in traditional open field battle; and, the event where Washington managed to snatch a victory (of sorts) out of a defeat. The war continued another seven years, but had the events in Brooklyn gone differently it may very well have ended less than two months after tAmericans had taken the radical first steps toward independence. One thing we Brooklynites are good at is promoting our local brand, but when it comes to the Battle of Brooklyn, it most certainly warrants repeated commemoration every August.

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New Game Weekend: King of New York

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As the blog states, I’m a New Yorker (a Brooklynite to be exact), so playing a game based in my city of residence is always a plus. Prancing around a game board depicting the five boroughs as a towering, cartoonish monster with a nasty temper is even better. And so, King of New York hits the sweet spot for me as a gamer and occasionally cranky denizen of the city that never sleeps.

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Sample monsters from King of New York

Released late in 2014 by IELLO Games, KONY is a follow-up standalone game to the popular King of Tokyo from 2011. KONY expands on KOT but it is not an expansion but a largely different game based on a similar premise and set of dice and card mechanics. Each of the 2-6 players chooses to be a gargantuan monster represented by a cardboard stand up figure and a scoring card. The monsters begin the game in one of the four outer boroughs with no more than two monsters allowed per borough. Within each borough are placed three stacks of three cardboard tiles each depicting buildings on one side and military units (jeeps, tanks and jet planes) on the reverse.

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Sample cards from King of New York

A new set of six special dice are rolled by each player on their turn with faces for healing, attacks on other monsters, attacks on buildings, military attacks on monsters, energy cubes and victory point stars. Players roll the dice up to three times, keeping those dice they wish on each roll and re-rolling the rest. With the resulting dice, monsters resolve a number of actions. Buildings may be wrecked to earn healing points, victory points or energy cubes to purchase cards. Destroyed buildings flip over to reveal jeeps, tanks or jets which may attack other monsters in the same borough or across the board. Accumulated cubes are used to buy cards to provide permanent or one-time effects on monsters. Regular attacks take swipes at the other monsters on the board or the current “King of New York” romping northward through Manhattan. Monsters occupying Manhattan can remain on the island and earn victory points and energy cubes each turn or jump out to be replaced by an attacking monster. The first monster to earn 20 victory points wins the game to be crowned King of New York.

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A recent game of King of New York

There’s a lot more going on in KONY than its predecessor. New dice and the building and military unit chips add options and flavor to play. Two new special cards — Super Star and Statue of Liberty — add extra mechanics to the game as cards earned through dice rolls and then swiped by other players who also roll specific results on subsequent turns. The rest of the cards can be a bit overly wordy at times yet they pump up the interest by utilizing a lot of familiar New York landmarks like Columbia University, the Unisphere in Queens, Carnegie Hall, the Holland Tunnel, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Empire State Building, Coney Island in Brooklyn and the infamous New York City Subway. Even with the new additions, KONY plays fast and fun with all ages.

If you’re a fan of King of Tokyo, giant monster films like the Godzilla series and board games set in New York City, King of New York is a towering success.

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.

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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

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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.

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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.