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NY Historical Society Examines 'Embarrassing Defeat' at Battle of Brooklyn

By Amy Langfield | August 29, 2016 8:44am
 The Acorn Submarine, 2007; made of wood, resin, steel and glass. Courtesy of the artist and Magnan Metz Gallery, New York.
The Acorn Submarine, 2007; made of wood, resin, steel and glass. Courtesy of the artist and Magnan Metz Gallery, New York.
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Duke Riley

UPPER WEST SIDE — There are certain challenges in setting up an exhibition that takes a deep dive into one of the most crushing military defeats — and the pivotal retreat — in U.S. history. 

It can be difficult to get crowds interested in coming to see "a story of American defeat," said Valerie Paley, chief historian at the New-York Historical Society.

While Paley said "you hear all about Lexington and Concord, Yorktown, Saratoga," the largest single battle of the American Revolution, the Battle of Brooklyn, is often left out.

"It's an embarrassing defeat," added Paley, a co-curator of the museum's upcoming Battle of Brooklyn exhibition.

 New York: Virtue & Co. Publishers; New-York Historical Society Library
New York: Virtue & Co. Publishers; New-York Historical Society Library
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Michael Angelo Wageman, engraved by James Charles Armytage

Facing 34,000 British troops in August 1776, roughly 1,000 American soldiers were killed, 2,000 were captured and countless others fled from the fighting in areas now home to Prospect Park, Green-Wood Cemetery and the Old Stone House. On the night of Aug. 29, Gen. George Washington made the dangerous decision to order his remaining 9,000 men to retreat from Brooklyn Heights across the East River under cover of darkness.

Although Washington was criticized at the time, historians generally agree the revolution may have been lost had he remained. "It was not at all certain we were going to win," said co-curator Jean Ashton.

"The great Founding Fathers were committing treason, and we don't usually think of them in that way," said Paley, who is also the historical society's vice president and dean of scholarly programs.

In addition to the topical challenge, there are some logistical hurdles to presenting the upcoming exhibition. With about 100 objects set to go on display Sept. 23 through Jan. 8 at the NY Historical Society, one contemporary object is once again causing trouble.

Last week, the NYHS curators were considering whether artist Duke Riley’s infamous one-man submarine would fit through gallery doors.

Riley's Acorn was built to emulate the Turtle, an early one-man submarine built in 1776 with the goal of blowing up a British ship in New York Harbor. When he took his submersible on an underwater tour of the harbor and approached the Queen Mary II docked at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal in 2007, he was promptly arrested.

Curators have yet to decide whether to include the "unorthodox guerrilla" object in the collection.

Other items in the exhibition include a copy of Thomas Paine’s "Common Sense," wartime maps of the city annotated by the British, anti-war Declaration of Dependence petitions circulated in taverns, vases buried by the Beekman family so the British wouldn't take them, and a re-enactment of scenes from a play British soldiers performed to mock the Americans after their defeat.

The exhibition will feature a re-creation of the retreat to Manhattan, complete with projections of fog and the sounds of oars in the water as Washington's troops and horses were ferried across the river by an interracial regiment (including some former pirates.)

The historical society also secured a loan of artist John Trumbull's portrait of a victorious George Washington.

Despite the big loss at the Battle of Brooklyn (which is sometimes also called the Battle of Long Island,)  the curators have a lot of things working in their favor, now 240 years after Washington's retreat.

There is a contested presidential election that has a lot of people thinking about the country's founding principles, and of course there’s the "Hamilton” effect.

Rock star musical director and performer Lin Manuel-Miranda "has made this period relevant to a lot more people again," Paley said of the creator of the Broadway musical.

And for the record, the Battle of Brooklyn exhibition was in the works even before the curators heard "Hamilton" would be staged Off-Broadway. But they have seen it, and the historical society is on great terms with Ron Chernow, who wrote the Alexander Hamilton biography that inspired Miranda. (And in case there’s any question about whether the NYHS was big on Hamilton fans before it was cool, the museum mounted a blockbuster Alexander Hamilton exhibition – in 2004.)

 Représentation du feu terrible à nouvelle Yorck, 1776; New-York Historical Society Library
Représentation du feu terrible à nouvelle Yorck, 1776; New-York Historical Society Library
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Franz Xaver Habermann; engraved by J. Chéreau

While Hamilton wasn't involved in the Battle of Brooklyn, as he was only 19 at the time and was not yet Washington’s aide-de-camp, the Broadway show has inspired new interest in the era and new artifacts are still being unearthed, says Ashton, who is the senior director, resources and programs, and library director emerita at the historical society.

Federal officials working to restore the Gowanus Canal recently said they expect to find more Revolutionary War artifacts and earlier this month, curators at NYHS were notified of another cannonball a Gowanus resident dug up in his back yard.

Part of the goal of the exhibition is to remind residents of the history still under foot, and to help them understand what the drama was like to live in New York in 1776.

"The DNA of New York is a constantly churning nexus," Paley said. And unlike the history still standing in a Philadelphia or Boston, "in New York, so much of it gets torn down and rebuilt."


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