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Battle Still Rages Over Possible Revolutionary War Burial at New Pre-K Site

By Amy Zimmer | June 23, 2017 1:38pm | Updated on June 25, 2017 4:19pm
 Local historian Bob Furman would like to see a memorial park for the Maryland 400 where the city wants to build a new pre-K center at this Gowanus lot.
Local historian Bob Furman would like to see a memorial park for the Maryland 400 where the city wants to build a new pre-K center at this Gowanus lot.
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DNAInfo/Amy Zimmer

GOWANUS — Before the city builds a new pre-K center on a vacant lot on Ninth Street near Third Avenue, archeologists are sifting through the dirt to check for bones of Revolutionary War soldiers.

But watchdogs believe the dig is not going deep enough to fulfill what’s legally required — making it less likely to uncover the remains presumed to be buried there.

Some history buffs — including famed actor and Park Slope resident, Sir Patrick Stewart — believe the site is the burial ground of the legendary Maryland 400, most of whom died while holding off British forces during the Revolutionary War’s early pivotal Battle of Brooklyn on Aug. 27, 1776.

Even though the Continental Army lost that bloody battle, many believe the sacrifice made by the Maryland troops in staving off the Brits allowed General George Washington and some of his troops to retreat across the East River to Kips Bay.

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Because of the questions raised about the potential grave site, the state’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation mandated the city’s School Construction Authority to do a dig.

After the dig, which is expected to be completed next week, the authority must submit a report on its findings before building the 180-seat preschool slated to open in September 2018 to meet the growing demand in District 15, spanning from Carroll Gardens and Red Hook to Gowanus, Park Slope and Sunset Park.

Local historian Bob Furman is concerned that the dig isn’t being done properly.

From what he saw, he thought the trenches only reached about 5 feet deep even though he believes they should reach at least 10 feet.

“The mandate from the state is to go at least as far as the pilings for construction,” he said. “Because there’s a lot of landfill there, they would have to go down 10 feet [for the foundation].”

But School Construction Authority officials said the archeological investigation was being carried out in accordance with all professional standards and protocols.

► READ MORE: Archaeologist Digs for Ancient Outhouses in Gowanus

Furman has been working for years with the American Legion Post next door to the lot to get the property turned into a park memorializing the Maryland troops. There are presently two official state markers at the Legion post commemorating the Maryland 400.

“The city would like to, excuse the words, bury this whole thing,” he said.

But he noted the challenges posed by the area.

“You’re dealing with a site that’s been under development since the mid-19th Century,” he said. “Most of the entire area considered to be important has been constructed and reconstructed. We don’t know if they’ll find anything."

That has not stopped historians and buffs from searching for clues to pinpoint where the bodies might be buried, poring over historic topographic maps, old deeds and diaries of the former landowners in city archives.

A deed of the former land owner Adriance Van Brunt does show there was a burial ground on his estate, but it’s not clear who was buried there or where it was exactly.

Stewart, in a recent GQ interview, said he personally asked Mayor Bill de Blasio to have a memorial on the site in honor of the burial ground.

“All it is is a concreted-over car park, but underneath the concrete is the mass grave. It's worth making, I think, a bit of a fuss of,” Stewart said in the magazine.

The mayor reportedly said he was “on it.”

John Lonergan, a retired electrician and current commander of the American Legion Post, quoted Washington’s thanks to the men from Maryland: "Good God, what brave fellows I must this day lose.”

He hopes to see some sort of memorial park to the fallen soldiers, who must have known “they didn’t stand a chance” in the battle, yet still fought valiantly.

“We believe the Maryland 400 are scattered over the area here. They could be under our building,” Lonergan said. “They deserve some kind of memorial. We’d be speaking British if they hadn’t succeeded in giving their lives."