The Morris-Jumel Mansion

Battlefield New York

By Russell Shorto.  NYTimes, Nov. 13, 2017

New York City is a battlefield. I know what you’re thinking — psychological warfare, the endless grim clashing of economic forces — but I am being literal. When we ponder America’s defining war, the Revolution, we think of Bunker Hill, or Saratoga, or Lexington and Concord, yet its largest battle, a vast and ferociously fought chess match in August and September of 1776, right after the formal declaration of the colonies’ independence, ranged over what are now the five boroughs. As to why the place was so hotly contested, you already know the answer. Then, as now, as ever, New York City was the center of it all. Both sides believed that if the British took control of New York and the Hudson River, the American resistance would likely collapse.

The battle isn’t as well known today as other encounters during the Revolution, in part because the city has done an excellent job of removing most traces of it. Where Boston sets aside hallowed historic precincts and wends a handsome brick Freedom Trail through its Revolutionary sites, New York City buries its past under mountains of concrete and steel. Hills have been flattened, islands swallowed up by landfill, shorelines redrawn.

But I was determined to find Revolutionary New York, and I did eventually, after a fashion. It helped that I had an organizing principle. I was researching a book, and, since my book isn’t about military strategy I wasn’t trying to cover all of the complex maneuverings of troops. I write narrative history, which to me means focusing on people’s lives. Getting to know the places in which those lives unfolded helps me in my efforts to get into the individuals’ heads and hearts.

The book tells the story of the founding era by following the interwoven stories of six people from the period, from birth to death. They include a Connecticut slave, a Seneca warrior, a British aristocrat and an Albany shoemaker. But it was because of the other two — a Virginia planter and the teenage daughter of a British officer — that I found myself going from subway to bus to ferry around the five boroughs, with old maps in one hand and Google Maps in the other. These two figures of 18th-century America were caught up in the mayhem of New York. They gave my journey through the city’s past what I always crave when I write, research or travel: a personal angle.

George Washington is everyone’s touchstone for the Revolution, and I made him mine as well. To orient myself alongside the commander of the American Army in New York, I began at “the commons,” now City Hall Park, joining municipal workers on the benches at lunch hour. On July 9, 1776, as British soldiers were gathering on Staten Island and preparing to attack Manhattan, Washington arrayed his troops here and had the newly minted Declaration of Independence read aloud to them. The men were so roused up they charged southward and pulled down the statue of King George at what is now Bowling Green. I hiked down to the same spot and stood there, surrounded by the skyscrapers of the Financial District. Washington was furious at the lack of discipline, but pleased at the men’s ardor.

The cheery mood of the troops ended abruptly. Walking a few blocks westward gave me a view of the Hudson River, where Washington was able to join the rest of the shocked town in observing two British warships race up the river with their guns blasting, sending cannonballs careering into the streets. It was a test of the American defenses; they failed.

George Washington retreated to Long Island during the Battle of Brooklyn in 1776. Credit De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images

In truth, it was a harrowing situation for the would-be nation, and Washington was frankly uncertain of his ability. His military record was mixed, and most of his service had come two decades earlier, in the French and Indian War. Much of what he had learned of military leadership had been from a book. He was 44, burning with ambition but saddled with an inferiority complex due to his lack of formal education. He was learning on the fly.

While he was trying to perform the impossible task of defending miles of shoreline, an odd diplomatic comedy ensued. The British wanted to negotiate, and officers arrived bearing letters intended for Washington. But the letters did not give the American commander his proper title. Washington knew how important protocol was, and refused to accept them.

1 Broadway in Lower Manhattan. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

I chose young Margaret Moncrieffe as one of my subjects in part because of this slender connection to Washington, in part because of the vibrancy of her personality, but most of all because as her life unfolded I saw her as embodying one aspect of the wider yearning for freedom that America’s Revolution was a part of: the desire of women for some measure of independence. In the summer of 1776, Margaret was only 14, but she was about to reveal her nature by standing up to the most powerful man in America.

Washington likely had no idea who this girl was when the letter arrived, but he soon found out. While standing in the little grassy teardrop of Bowling Green, I focused on one of the office buildings before me, 1 Broadway, and held up over it an engraving of the structure that had once stood on or about this same spot. That building had served as the American military headquarters. Here, in the midst of preparations for war, and following the collapse of peace negotiations, Washington hosted a formal dinner. A toast was offered to the Continental Congress, the gathering of representatives from the 13 colonies in Philadelphia. General Washington noticed that the girl at the table did not raise her glass. Margaret Moncrieffe had been invited to join the American officers while they decided what to do with her. Despite having partly grown up in the city, Margaret followed her father’s loyalties and, like thousands of other New Yorkers, was rooting for the British. She now scandalized the gathering and personally affronted Washington by offering a counter toast, to Gen. William Howe, Washington’s opposite on the British side.

The hills of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn give a sense of the fighting terrain during the Revolution. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Since the building at the foot of Manhattan was alive with military secrets, and seeing as this girl was both observant and openly disposed toward the enemy, Washington thought it prudent to send her away until arrangements could be made to transfer her to the British. She found herself shipped to one of the many fortifications the Americans had constructed, at Kingsbridge, in the Bronx, just opposite the northern tip of Manhattan.

I went there too. From the 231st Street subway it was a steady uphill hike. The fort is gone, of course. In place of farms and military outposts I found Chinese takeouts and check-cashing outlets. Then I was met by a steep set of stairs — a step-street — flanked by a Kingsbridge Heights community art project: two painted trees.

A view of New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty from Battery Park. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Here young Margaret was meant to wait until diplomats could arrange for her to be reunited with her father. And here, improbably, she fell in love. None other than Aaron Burr, who at age 21 was already known as a ladies man, was stationed at Kingsbridge. The two young people apparently managed to find some time alone amid the soldiers and the gathering chaos, for Margaret later declared that Burr “subdued my virgin heart.”

As a result, suddenly, she changed her mind. She had been desperate to reach her father, but now she didn’t want to leave Burr. But the two enemy commands had made their arrangements. Against her will, she was rowed out into the Hudson River and southward, toward Staten Island.

[Mr. Shorto has boggled the Moncreiffe/Burr affair by believing the secondary sources who have misread Mr. Burr’s place in the Battle of New York for a couple of centuries now.  They met at Israel Putnam’s, where she was staying downtown, to whom Burr was aid-de-camp.  She was exiled to Kingsbridge when Burr apprehended her communicating military secrets to her father in a cyphered language of flowers she drew.  In her memoirs – thought to be the first of a Grand Horizontal in the New World – she describes her paramour as someone other than Burr.]

The reconstructed Old Stone House in Washington Park, Brooklyn. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

From the terminal on Staten Island I marched uphill to Tompkinsville Park, which I understood roughly marked the place where the British Navy gathered as General Howe prepared to attack. It was a windswept little triangle of urban greenery, hemmed in by traffic, but with a bit of wandering I was able to get a view down onto the bay, which would have been crowded with naval vessels flying the British flag.

Those ships, 400 of them, were now fully occupying Washington’s mind. Where would Howe choose to strike? With no way of knowing, Washington strung his men out in a long, skinny line across six miles of Brooklyn and Manhattan shoreline.

Then Howe moved: On Aug. 22, 22,000 British soldiers crossed from Staten Island more or less where the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge stands, hit the beach at Gravesend Bay in Brooklyn and began decimating the American forces.

Exhibits at the Old Stone House in Brooklyn depict the battle near the site. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Washington stayed on Manhattan for a time, believing Howe would launch another strike there. Then from the East River shore he saw the signal lights of his men on Brooklyn Heights indicating that the whole British force was enveloping Brooklyn. He crossed the river.

Cobble Hill is now the name of a neighborhood, but in the 18th century it was an actual hill. The Americans had built a fort atop it, and from here Washington oversaw the action to the south. The former bank building at Atlantic Avenue and Court Street sits where the hill stood. My plan was to get to the roof and give myself the same view Washington had. But the manager of the Trader Joe’s that now occupies the building informed me that the staircase to the roof was unsafe. I tried piecing together Washington’s view of the Battle of Brooklyn (which is also known as the Battle of Long Island) from the upper floors of the YMCA on Atlantic Avenue and the roof of a nearby apartment building.

A view of the Narrows from the Staten Island Ferry. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Crossing the Gowanus Canal, which then was a creek, I reached the center of the fighting. With the American forces in disarray, Gen. William Alexander made a stand here, in front of the stone farmhouse of Nicholas Vechte, leading a Maryland regiment in a furious counterattack that bought time for much of Washington’s bedraggled army to retreat to Brooklyn Heights.

Imagining the fight was made immensely more satisfying by virtue of the fact that the Old Stone House, a reconstruction of Vechte’s farmhouse, stands snugly in the middle of Washington Park, at Third Street between Fourth and Fifth Avenues. Parts of the original Dutch house, around which the fighting took place, were used in the 1933 reconstruction, and the building was moved across the park from where it originally stood, but it’s still as evocative of the period as it is anomalous in the neighborhood.

Entry hall of the Morris-Jumel Mansion.
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