BROOKLYN IS SOAKED IN BLOOD. In 1776, Kings County was the site of one of the Revolutionary War’s bloodiest engagements. While American forces, outnumbered and unable to withstand the British onslaught, took heavy casualties in the Battle of Brooklyn—with more than 1,000 killed, wounded, missing, or captured—the Continental Army managed to escape to fight another day.
Although it would never again reprise its role as a battlefield, Brooklyn has continued to play a critical supporting role in our national defense—on air, land, and on sea. The Brooklyn Navy Yard, founded in 1801, churned out the ships whose names echo across American maritime history, including the nation’s first steam-powered warship, the Fulton; the ill-fated Maine and Arizona; the mighty battleship Missouri; and the massive aircraft carriers of the Cold War. Across town, Floyd Bennett Field in southeastern Brooklyn hosted the nation’s busiest naval air station during World War II, its pilots guarding the coast from German U-boats and ferrying thousands of newly built warplanes into active duty. And the cannons of Fort Hamilton and its predecessor gun batteries defended New York harbor from the British Navy in the War of 1812 and Confederate raiders in the Civil War.
But all that is in the past. The Navy Yard closed in 1966. Today it is a post-industrial industrial park. Floyd Bennett Field’s naval airbase was deactivated in 1971. It has been left for the birds as a nature preserve. And just this past year, Brooklynites breathed a sigh of relief as Fort Hamilton, its strategic importance much diminished, was spared by the Pentagon’s latest list of proposed base closures.
Yet even as the places that bind the borough to our nation’s military have faded into history, for Brooklynites with loved ones in the armed forces, service and sacrifice remain very present-day realities. According to the Web site icasualties.org, 10 Brooklynites have lost their lives serving our country in Iraq. May they never be forgotten.
On April 9, 2003, the eyes of the world were focused on a 23-year-old Marine from Bensonhurst. That was the day Corporal Edward Chin climbed the gargantuan statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square and draped the American flag over the soon-to-be-toppled tyrant’s face. Although Chin promptly replaced Old Glory with an Iraqi flag, those looking for something to tut-tut about, tut-tutted about how his initial action had sent a terrible message—one of occupation, not liberation—to the Arab world (which hardly batted an eye as Saddam Hussein murdered countless Iraqis, but apparently gets very worked up at the sight of an American flag). Actually, as Chin later explained to the Daily News, “We weren’t doing it to show dominance. It was just 21 days of war, hardly any sleep, and we wanted to show our colors.”
It is a beautiful landmark with a macabre history. The Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Fort Greene Park pays tribute to the more than 11,000 captive Americans who perished aboard British prison ships in New York Harbor during the Revolution—victims of disease, food poisoning, abuse, overcrowding, and starvation. These floating chambers of death, parked in Brooklyn’s Wallabout Bay, present-day site of the Navy Yard, held men, women, and children, some of whom had served the Revolutionary cause as merchant mariners. The monument, erected in 1908, rises above the crypts where these martyrs’ remains were reinterred in 1873.
When Colonel Tracey Nicholson took charge of Brooklyn’s historic Fort Hamilton earlier this year, she became a part of history: the garrison’s first female commander. Founded in the 1830s, the fort played a key role in guarding New York’s harbor and mobilizing troops for the two world wars. Today, Fort Hamilton—the city’s only active military installation—hosts the city’s recruiting battalion, the North Atlantic Division of the Army Corps of Engineers, the 1179th Transportation Brigade, and the 722nd Aeromedical Staging Squadron. “Basically, Fort Hamilton is a small town,” said Ray Aalbue, the base’s public affairs officer. “Colonel Nicholson can be referred to as mayor.”
At the Battle of Bull Run—which produced more than 4,000 casualties—you had to be particularly bad-ass to stand out. But the Brooklyn 14th Regiment managed to do it. These Brooklyn boys—who wore blue jackets and baggy red pants—were dubbed “the Red-Legged Devils” by the Rebel soldiers who had the misfortune of facing them on the battlefield. Renowned for their valor, the Red-Legged Devils also participated in the battles of Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg (where they were the only regiment to fight all three days of the battle), the Wilderness, and Spotsylvania, before returning home in 1864 to a heroes’ welcome.
Every August men with muskets descend upon Brooklyn. That is when Brooklynites mark Battle Week, the annual commemoration of the Battle of Brooklyn of 1776 (also known as the Battle of Long Island). While the army of the newly independent United States of America, commanded by General George Washington, was badly beaten by superior British forces, there were moments of considerable heroism. At the Vechte farmhouse in Gowanus—since relocated to Park Slope’s Fifth Avenue and better known as the “Old Stone House”—400 soldiers from Maryland and Delaware repeatedly charged a much larger contingent of Redcoats, briefly capturing the stronghold twice before finally being beaten back, taking 256 casualties in the process.
The Civil War was won in Greenpoint—or at least one could argue that’s true for its naval component. On March 8, 1862, the Confederacy’s Virginia—a captured Union warship that the Rebels had outfitted with iron plating—was busy at Hampton Roads thrashing any wood-hulled Yankee ship that crossed its path. The next day, a savior arrived in the form of a funny-looking, swivel-turreted ironclad called the Monitor, built at Greenpoint’s Continental Iron Works. Designed by Swedish-born engineer John Ericsson, the Monitor held its own against the Virginia, providing a model for a new generation of iron fighting ships.
Daniel Treiman is the editor ofThe Brooklynite.