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 from September 23, 2016 to January 8, 2017. 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 Battle of Brooklyn 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.
Focusing on the year 1776, The Battle of Brooklyn 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 King George III, followed by profiles of American and British politicians and thinkers on both sides of the conflict. A copy of Thomas 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. As John Adams explains in his January 1776 letter to George Washington that will be on view, “New York is…a kind of key” that would allow the British to divide the colonies by taking control of the Hudson River.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 George Washington’s camp cot, a bass drum, and a rare hunting shirt worn by the Pennsylvania riflemen, a style which 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.
Cornered and outnumbered on Brooklyn Heights after the battle and suffering from exposure to the stormy August weather, the Continental Army faced annihilation. George Washington made the bold decision to evacuate his troops. An immersive media element in the exhibition will evoke the overnight retreat. Atmospheric projections of smoke, clouds, and fog and the sounds of oars in the water will help visitors will feel as though they are taking part in the retreat, which was made possible by John Glover’s Massachusetts regiment of sailors and seamen—one of the few integrated units—who rowed the 9,000 American troops from Brooklyn to New York. The battle was lost, but the army remained.
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. 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. The British would go on to occupy the city of New York for seven years.
In marked contrast to his earlier treatise, Common Sense, Thomas Paine’s American Crisis captured the dim mood of December 1776. A 1790 portrait of George 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—his 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 eight-foot tall wooden submarine fashioned after the 18th-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.
Programming: Public Programs
Lectures, conversations, walking tours, and gallery tours will add insights into the battle, the people who fought in it, and the borough where it all took place. On September 29, noted architectural historian Barry Lewis will survey the enormous changes that Brooklyn underwent in the decades before the Brooklyn Bridge opened. Military historian Patrick K. O’Donnell joins moderator Richard Brookhiser on October 20 as they bring to life the Battle of Brooklyn and reveal how, thanks to the heroism of a small group known as the “Immortal 400,” the Continental Army lived to fight another day. On October 26, legal experts will analyze the contention between the Revolutionary ideals of freedom and security and discuss their implications for present-day America. Barry Lewis returns later in the year to discuss the history of the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge (November 22) and the evolution of the borough and the growth of new neighborhoods after it opened (December 6). On December 14, Richard Brookhiser will shed light on Alexander Hamilton’s best friend, Gouverneur Morris, who sat beside Hamilton during his final hours following his fatal duel with Aaron Burr.
An off-site walking tour on October 15 will tour the battlefield and find little-known monuments that commemorate the heroes of the battle. Curator-led exhibition gallery tours at the New-York Historical Society will also take place on October 21 and December 5.
Programming: Educational Programs
Through educator-led field trips, students will experience an interactive journey through the lead-up, action, and aftermath of the greatest battle of the American Revolution, allowing young New Yorkers to discover the history that happened in their own backyard. A range of professional development days and an educator open house will be held throughout the fall in conjunction with The Battle of Brooklyn. New-York Historical’s education department will also produce a teacher curriculum guide to accompany the exhibition, which will be distributed to all educators who visit with their class for a field trip or attend a professional development day.
Programming: Family Activities
The Battle of Brooklyn will be a destination for families to discover more about this critical battle. Kids can engage in fun, age-appropriate activities throughout the exhibition with an educator-created Family Activity Guide that is available at the gallery entrance.. Battle of Brooklyn Family Day will take place on Saturday, September 24 with craft activities and the opportunity to meet General George Washington, who will mingle with families and recount how he learned from his mistakes during the battle. Historical reenactors will also be on hand to demonstrate what life was like during the start of the Revolutionary War.
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.
Generous support for The Battle of Brooklyn is provided by Bernard L. Schwartz, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, Con Edison, and the William T. Morris Foundation. Exhibitions at the New-York Historical Society are made possible by H.M. Agnes Hsu-Tang and Oscar Tang, the Saunders Trust for American History, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.