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Brooklyn Bridges pan

Exploring Brooklyn’s battlefield

In 2014, I spent part of the summer in Washington, DC, researching for my dissertation at the National Archives and Library of Congress. On weekends and some afternoons, I explored the city and surrounding region, and I even made longer trips to Pennsylvania and New York. As I traveled around, I kept running across sites or artifacts associated with the American Revolutionary War. The more I saw and read about the Revolution, the more I became aware of how little I knew about that part of history.

I made up my mind to read The Glorious Cause, by Robert Middlekauff, the volume of the Oxford History of the United States about the Revolution. The book is long, so it took me a while (I had to take a lengthy break in the middle), but it was worth reading, because I learned much that I, as a historian of the twentieth century, had never before had occasion to learn. (Since my fateful summer of 2014, interest in the Revolutionary War has gone mainstream, thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda and Hamilton.)

While reading The Glorious Cause, I was particularly fascinated by Middlekauff’s narrative of the Battle of Long Island, also known as the Battle of Brooklyn—an engagement I had never heard of before. The Battle of Brooklyn (August 26-30, 1776) was the first major military engagement of the American Revolution after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence two months earlier. British troops, under the command of General William Howe, landed on Long Island and attacked the Americans under George Washington. (These events are covered in the Hamilton song “Right-hand Man.”) The American forces were protected behind the hills known as the Heights. The passes nearest the American positions in Brooklyn (then a village independent of Manhattan) were well defended, but the British circumvented the defenses by taking the lightly-defended Jamaica Pass to the east. A contingent of Marylanders died holding the main body of the British troops off at the Vechte farm, but most of the rest of Washington’s army escaped across the East River to Manhattan, surviving to fight another day.

In the 240 years since the battle, Brooklyn has grown to engulf the farmlands and woodlands where British and Continentals clashed. Scattered around the borough are sites associated with the battle, some marked with plaques, others not (but all listed in detail in this comprehensive guide). In addition to gentrified brownstones, hipster lofts, and forbidding project housing, Brooklyn has its own Revolutionary War battlefield. Brooklyn has it all.

In March this year, I spent a day exploring Brooklyn, looking for sites that had to do with the battle or the Revolution in general. I found two sites particularly interesting.

The first was Prospect Park, site of a pass where American troops were routed by Hessian mercenaries fighting on the British side. The park, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead (whose other credits include Central Park in Manhattan and the US Capitol grounds) preserves part of the landscape of the battlefield, which has been lost under buildings and streets most everywhere else in the borough.

On a hillside in the park stands a monument to “Maryland’s Four Hundred,” who fell holding back the British (or “saved the American army,” in the exaggerated wording of the monument). The mention of the number of Marylanders is a not-so-subtle reference to the Three Hundred Spartans, who held the Persian army off at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, while the armies of other Greek city-states escaped to regroup and ultimately defeat the Persians. The placement of the monument to 400 Marylanders in the park, near the battle pass, is another reference to Thermopylae, because the Spartans died defending a pass. But despite the monument’s claim that the Marylanders performed their great deed “on this battlefield,” they did not fight in a pass; they fought on a farm, more than a mile from the monument.

Memorial to "Maryland's Four Hundred" in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.

Memorial to “Maryland’s Four Hundred” in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.

Misleading inscription on the memorial to "Maryland's Four Hundred."

Misleading inscription on the memorial to “Maryland’s Four Hundred.”

The site of that farm is the other especially interesting site related to the Battle of Brooklyn. The old farm is also a park—not a grand park like Prospect, but a small municipal park with a playground and athletic fields. In the middle of the park stands the Old Stone House. Originally built in 1699, the Vechte Farmhouse went to ruin and was demolished around 1900, but then in the 1930s the stones were dug up and the house reconstructed from drawings. The ground floor contains a small, free museum about the battle and its context.

The reconstructed Vechte farmhouse, Washington Park, Brooklyn.

The reconstructed Vechte farmhouse, Washington Park, Brooklyn.

The Old Stone House isn’t exactly the Vechte Farmhouse that stood there during the battle. It is a twentieth-century building made of seventeenth-century parts. But that doesn’t matter to me. What does matter is that there is plenty of continuity with the past, there and at other sites associated with the Battle of Brooklyn. There may be no national park for the battlefield, as there are for Saratoga and Yorktown. Instead, remnants of the eighteenth-century battle and its memorialization live on in twenty-first-century New York City.

Stonewall Jackson statue, Richmond.

The Strange Case of the Bronze Confederates

Two weeks ago, workers in New Orleans dismantled a monument that had originally been erected in 1891 to celebrate the fight of white supremacist vigilantes against the city’s police forces during Reconstruction (1865-77). The workers were acting on a December 2015 city council resolution that this monument be removed, along with statues of Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard, and Jefferson Davis. Although the city council was overwhelmingly in favor of removing the monuments—the vote was six to one—a minority of the city’s population was strongly opposed to removal. To protect themselves against violent reprisal, the workers removing the monument wore bulletproof vests, helmets, and masks.

Like New Orleans, most major southern cities have monuments to the failed Confederate States of America and its defeated leaders. Although they represent the Civil War (1861-65), these monuments belong to a later period, as they were built after the war’s end and reflect the concerns of the time when they were built.

Monuments built in the first fifteen years after the war were funereal (gravestone-like), usually obelisks with urns or drapes. The symbolism of the monuments, many of which were located in cemeteries for war dead, represented a sense of grief for the great numbers of men lost in battle.1

It was only after 1880, when the horrors of battle receded a little in the collective southern memory, that monumental memorials to the Confederacy began to appear. New Orleans completed its monument to General Lee—now slated for demolition—in 1884. In Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, city leaders developed a new street for Confederate statues, Monument Avenue. Richmond’s own Lee monument was dedicated in 1890, and a busy (I would say ugly) memorial to Jefferson Davis in 1907. The Davis memorial was the last major Confederate monument built in the South.2

Robert E. Lee monument, Richmond (dedicated 1890).

Robert E. Lee monument, Richmond (dedicated 1890).

Jefferson Davis Memorial, Richmond (dedicated 1907).

Jefferson Davis Memorial, Richmond (dedicated 1907).

Detail of Jefferson Davis statue.

Detail of Jefferson Davis statue.

Before 1880, Confederate monuments commemorated grief and loss; after 1880, they boasted of heroism and moral rectitude. What changed in the last two decades of the nineteenth century was that the South adopted the ideology of the Lost Cause, which claimed that even though the Confederacy had lost the war, it had acted justly and with honor. This ideology was accepted by a North jaded about industrialization and beset by labor unrest and endless crises in its capitalistic economy. In doing so, the North also accepted white supremacy, a decision that continues to haunt the nation more than a century later.3

Confederate monuments have been caught up in the controversies of our own day. Two years ago, after a white supremacist murdered nine members of a Bible study group at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, activists graffitied “BLACK LIVES MATTER” on monuments in several southern cities. The Jefferson Davis memorial in Richmond was one that got the spray can treatment. The monument vandalisms were part of a general rejection of Confederate imagery by much of the South’s white population, in reaction to the shocking mass-murder at the church. At the same time, Confederate flags disappeared from public monuments, the shelves of WalMart, and many private residences.

Alabama Confederate Monument, Montgomery (dedicated 1898). With CSA flags in 2011 (left); without flags in 2016 (right).

Alabama Confederate Monument, Montgomery (dedicated 1898). With CSA flags in 2011 (left); without flags in 2016 (right).

This newfound willingness to reinterpret the Confederate past—especially as it was reimagined decades after the war—is a good thing, and I only wish it hadn’t taken such an appalling crime to bring it about. As for the Confederate flags, good riddance, I say. The use of the Confederate flag to represent the South only dates back to the 1960s, when it was deployed in opposition to Civil Rights activists—so it really is a racist symbol.

The New Orleans city council also made the right decision to dismantle its Confederate monuments. The Confederacy only has a weak claim on New Orleans, because the city spent three-quarters of the war under Union occupation.

Other cities may make similar decisions, and they too may be making the right call. But when it comes to most Confederate monuments, I would not be in favor of demolition. Demolishing the monuments would amount to an attempt to erase the past, which we shouldn’t try to do lest we forget it. Instead, we should change how we remember the past. Rather than destroying monuments we now find distasteful, we should reinterpret them with interpretive signage, plaques, or even extensions to the monument that subvert the original white supremacist message. Some of the monuments can be moved to museums, but others should be left where they are, because it is easy to ignore things in museums, and harder to ignore what is in the middle of the street or in front of the statehouse.

  1. Gaines M. Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, 1865 to 1913 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 41. []
  2. Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy, 91, 100-102, 158. []
  3. Nina Silber, The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865-1900 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 4. []
Alabama State Capitol

Good Bye Wallace!

Fifty years ago, every American who paid any attention to the news was familiar with George Wallace, four-term governor of Alabama and perennial presidential candidate. To many people who lived outside of Alabama—and especially outside the South—Wallace was a reactionary and antagonist, the stereotype of the race-baiting Southern Democrat and white supremacist. Baby Boomers like my parents remember Wallace’s calling for “segregation forever” in his inauguration speech in 1963, and then making a show of bodily blocking a doorway to oppose the desegregation of the University of Alabama. It was during Wallace’s first term as governor that vigilantes and law enforcement intimidated, beat up, and even killed civil rights activists. The villainous image of Wallace was passed down to later generations by that great repository of Boomer nostalgia, the 1994 film Forrest Gump, which features a scene set at the University of Alabama during Wallace’s desegregation protest.

As I found when I moved to Alabama for graduate school six years ago, Alabamians have more positive memories of George Wallace. He is not a villain but an influential, if flawed, leader. In his later terms as governor, Wallace reversed his stance on segregation and voting rights, and ultimately welcomed racial minorities into his administration. In 1972, while running for president, he was shot by a would-be assassin. The attack left him paralyzed below the waist. Popular memories of Wallace usually identify this attempt on his life as the Damascus Road experience that led to the reversal of his views on race.

It may be that Wallace had a real change of heart, but it is also true that he was, to his core, a politician who always knew what would appeal to voters. His first bid for the governorship, in 1958, ended in defeat when his integrationist platform was a flop with Alabama’s overwhelmingly white electorate. Between this defeat and his first victory four years later, Wallace reinvented himself as a segregationist, the image that would define him for so many Americans outside Alabama. By 1972, Alabama’s African Americans had been enfranchised by the Voting Rights Act, and Wallace needed black votes to stay in office. An accurate image of Wallace is neither a racist, nor a man who (like Darth Vader?) became good in the end. Rather, he was a cunning politician and a populist, who played to the fears of voters.

Six years ago, George Wallace’s name and image were everywhere in Alabama. Wallace’s likeness stared out from plaques at rest areas on Interstate 85, which was constructed during his tenure as governor. On the campus of Auburn University, where I studied, several of the prominent buildings were built in the Wallace era. On my way to assist for history classes in Haley Center each day, I walked by a plaque with the name Lurleen Wallace, George’s wife who won election handily in 1966 when he was forbidden by state law from running for a second consecutive term. I occasionally went to the architecture library in Dudley Hall, which had a plaque of George Wallace himself.

Plaque with George Wallace's likeness at rest area on I-85.

Plaque with George Wallace’s likeness at rest area on I-85.

Plaque on Haley Center, Auburn University, bearing Lurleen Wallace's name.

Plaque on Haley Center, Auburn University, bearing Lurleen Wallace’s name.

The rotunda of the state capitol has spaces for four portraits of governors. In 2011, I was surprised to find that only two of the spots were occupied by recent governors; the other two featured George and Lurleen Wallace. The capitol tourguide claimed that these paintings were on permanent display because George was Alabama’s longest-serving governor, and Lurleen was the state’s first “lady governor.” To me, this seemed like a rationalization, the real reason being the state’s Wallace cult.

Portrait of George Wallace in rotunda of Alabama State Capitol, 2011.

Portrait of George Wallace in rotunda of Alabama State Capitol, 2011.

Context of George Wallace portrait in Alabama State Capitol, 2011.

Context of George Wallace portrait in Alabama State Capitol, 2011.

Two years after moving away from Alabama, I recently returned to attend commencement, and I used the opportunity to reacquaint myself with the state. I was surprised to find that George Wallace was much less visible in 2016 than he had been earlier. The plaque at the Alabama Welcome Center on I-85 was hidden behind a brochure rack and a Christmas tree. The portraits in the rotunda of the state capitol were gone, having been replaced by more recent governors. At Auburn, Lurleen’s plaque on Haley Center was still in place, but George’s plaque on Dudley Hall had disappeared entirely. The building was recently remodeled, and the plaque didn’t survive the renovation.

The ghost of George Wallace has finally been served its eviction papers. Good riddance, I say. Even though George Wallace was not the meat-headed segregationist and racist that many people remember, he did support views like this for much of his political career, and by memorializing Wallace, it seemed as if Alabama was giving tacit approval of the ugly parts of the governor’s legacy. Alabama shouldn’t forget either the good or bad things Wallace did, but he has no right to be a hero. I’m glad to see that Alabama has begun to move on from the cult of Wallace.

Exterior view of Alabama State Capitol in 2014.

Exterior view of Alabama State Capitol in 2014.

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