The World Trade Center attack was the most traumatic event to have happened in this country, both for the loss of civilian life and its sinister pre-emptive quality. Now that we are about to celebrate the 226th anniversary of our nation, it is worth recalling another event that happened during that tumultuous time, was just as devastating, much more damaging to our fledgling country, and could have easily changed the course of history. Ironically, it happened across the East River in Brooklyn about five miles from Ground Zero.
The Battle of Brooklyn was the first major clash between a patchwork colonial army made up of citizen soldiers, and experienced British regulars supported by Hessian mercenaries. It could have easily ended the revolution almost before it began.
In March 1776 the British forces evacuated untenable positions in Boston. They moved south by ships to New York harbor and disembarked at Staten Island where they mainly encountered Dutch merchants and farmers interested in maintaining the status quo. Crossing the narrows by boat into Brooklyn where Ft. Hamilton is today, they prepared to launch an attack against the defending colonial army encamped around the present day Prospect Park, Greenwood Cemetery and Brooklyn Heights.
The untested colonials consisted of units from most of the neighboring states, but also well disciplined militia from Maryland and Delaware who would prove crucial in the ensuing battle.
On Aug. 27, 17,000 of the best troops of Europe launched a three pronged attack against 5,500 inexperienced colonial militia. The first thrust moved north by way of the Shore Road where they were stopped in their tracks by the Marylanders, Delawares, and Pennsylvania long rifles. The Hessians and Highlanders moving north on what is now Flatbush Ave. decimated all units that tried to stop them. The colonial left flank was rolled up by a force that marched east on the Kings Highway to New Lots, marched west and fell upon the defenders with devastating results. Upon witnessing the whole front dissolve, Brig. Gen. William Stirling and his Maryland 5th regiment reversed, moved north to battle the Hessians, Highlanders and the forces from the east to a standstill.
The remnants of the colonials tried to escape across the Gowanis Creek, but the British forces brought cannon up to the Cortelyou Stone House to block the escape. The Marylanders charged the house six times under withering fire, twice driving the British and Hessians out, sacrificing themselves for the sake of saving Washington's army. They became known as "the immortals" and left 256 dead to be buried where they lay, but the remnants of the colonials were able to be evacuated across the East River, leaving 2,000 killed and about 1,000 captured.
Today, on an American Legion Post at Third Ave. and Ninth St. stands a blue metal plaque memorializing the Marylanders' brave stand. On each Sunday closest to Aug. 27 at the actual site of the mass grave, an area now occupied by an auto repair shop, a small group from the Society of Old Brooklynites regularly holds a quiet memorial service. Lest we forget, the fate of the nation was in their hands that day.