Published: September 20, 2016
NEW YORK CITY — This fall, to commemorate the 240th anniversary of the largest single battle of the American Revolution, the New-York Historical Society will present “The Battle of Brooklyn,” on view September 23–January 8.
A story of American defeat in the first major armed campaign after the Declaration of Independence, the Battle of Brooklyn took place in August 1776, but does not occupy the same place in history as the more victorious engagements at Bunker Hill or Yorktown. Also known as the Battle of Long Island, the event is seen by some as the biggest missed opportunity for Britain to end the American rebellion and marks a pivotal moment when the fight for American independence teetered on the edge of failure.
“The Battle of Brooklyn was a major part of American history that happened right here in our backyards but is often overlooked in stories of the founding of our nation,” said Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the New-York Historical Society. “On the surface it could be seen as a moment of defeat, but this exhibition will show the resilience and strength of New Yorkers, who fought bravely and endured occupation of their city before finally becoming independent and free citizens.”
The exhibition will capture the volatile time when the Continental Congress and the American Colonists turned ideas into action and broke their ties with Britain. The year 1776 opened with the publication of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, sparking the call for separation across the colonies; it closed with the publication of his American Crisis, marking the sense of despair among supporters of independence. With more than 100 objects documenting major political and military figures, the dynamic debates over independence, and the artifacts of combat and British occupation, the exhibition will convey the atmosphere of New York City as it faced invasion by a British force that exceeded its own population. “The Battle of Brooklyn” is curated by the New-York Historical Society’s Valerie Paley, vice president, chief historian, dean of scholarly programs and director, Center for Women’s History; and Jean Ashton, senior director, resources and programs, and library director emerita.
Focusing on the year 1776, “Battle” will be organized chronologically to explore the political and ideological context leading up to the battle, the timeline of the battle itself, and the consequences of its immediate aftermath. The exhibition will open with large portraits of iconic figures George Washington and George III, followed by profiles of American and British politicians and thinkers on both sides of the conflict. A copy of Paine’s Common Sense, published in early 1776, which drew many to the revolutionary cause, will illustrate the arguments made for separation.
The first section of the exhibition will also examine why the British targeted New York, the second largest Colonial city at the time. Maps by John Montresor and Bernard Ratzer will show the city’s geographical advantages, including a deep water port that provided the British navy access to the city and lush farms on Staten Island and Long Island that could keep an army fed. Tensions rose as American forces poured into the city in spring 1776. Documents on view relating to this time will include Washington’s broadside warning residents to evacuate, Solomon Nash’s manuscript diary noting a plot to kill General Washington and Hugh Gaine’s printing of the Declaration of Independence, all illustrating the mood and consciousness of what was at stake. While some New Yorkers cheered independence, others predicted years of turmoil, shown through drawings, broadsides, almanacs and orderly books that provide a fuller picture of how the city was affected.
The second section of the exhibition will center on the week of the battle itself. An animated media piece on a projection table will dynamically show the order of events, depicting troop movements, the passage of time and the skillful British maneuver that upended the American defenses and could have finished them for good. A custom-built model of the Vechte farmhouse (today’s Old Stone House in Gowanus) hidden within the projection table will illustrate one of the battle’s most dramatic moments: the outnumbered Maryland regiment fighting on to allow their fellow soldiers time to retreat across Gowanus Creek.
An American encampment scene filled with weapons, uniforms and accessories will feature Washington’s camp cot, a bass drum and a rare hunting shirt worn by the Pennsylvania riflemen, a style that later became a de facto uniform. A loyalist coat, a British Grenadier’s cap and a Hessian helmet provide examples of what residents of Staten Island might have seen as the island’s population of approximately 2,000 exploded with the arrival of 34,000 British soldiers and sailors. Maps will also be on view, as topography influenced military strategy tremendously during the battle.
The concluding section of the exhibition will cover the final months of 1776, a catastrophic time for the Continental Army and for the city, which faced invasion, occupation and fire. Highlights on display will include a British orderly book recording the execution of American spy Nathan Hale, as well as vases belonging to the Beekman family that were buried when the family fled the impending British occupation. The British housed many prisoners in Manhattan sugar houses and on dilapidated ships in Wallabout Bay (now the site of the Brooklyn Navy Yard), where more Americans would perish in captivity than in battle. An oak cane made of relic wood from a sugar house prison (circa 1852) will be on view, recently donated to the New-York Historical Society by descendants of Major Salmon Moulton, a volunteer US soldier who fought in the battle and was held as a prisoner by the British.
Some New Yorkers declared their allegiance to the king, adding 547 signatures to a Loyalist petition at a local tavern. Manuscript maps, a revolutionary flag and watercolor sketches on view mark the battle of Fort Washington, after which the Americans would abandon the island of Manhattan. In marked contrast to his earlier treatise, Common Sense, Paine’s American Crisis captured the dim mood of December 1776. A 1790 portrait of Washington by artist John Trumbull from the Governor’s Room at City Hall, alongside a 1781 plan by Washington to recapture the city, will show how the battle weighed on the general — the British would occupy New York for seven years and Washington’s dream of recapturing the city would not be fulfilled until 1783.
To complement the exhibition, “Acorn,” 2007, a piece by contemporary conceptual artist Duke Riley, will be on display. An 8-foot-tall wooden submarine fashioned after the Eighteenth Century Turtle, a submersible that the Americans built and used in an unsuccessful attempt to blow up a British ship in New York Harbor, “Acorn” was part of Riley’s 2007 project commemorating the original mission in which he navigated within yards of the Queen Mary 2 before getting arrested.
The New-York Historical Society is at 170 Central Park West. For further information, www.nyhistory.org or 212-873-3400.
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