Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Battle of Brooklyn: A Barkeep’s View

We’ve all been there. You’re having a grand old time at a drinking establishment — the stories and the drinks are flowing, an air of comaraderie permeates — and suddenly the music screeches to a halt because a few boneheads decide to get into a fight. Typical.

Brooklyn has certainly seen some fights in its day, but nothing will ever quite compare to the battle witnessed by tavern-goers on August 27, 1776. This was one for the history books. Literally. The Battle of Brooklyn.

This week marks the anniversary of that fateful fight, also known as the Battle of Long Island, and I thought I’d take a look at some of the Revolutionary era taverns and inns of Brooklyn — since some of them saw a bit of the action during that conflict.

If you’re fuzzy on the battle’s details, roughly speaking, it went down like this: After ominously amassing in New York Harbor in the weeks following the signing of the Declaration of Independence, British forces came ashore in Brooklyn near present day Fort Hamilton under the command of General William Howe and streamed along Brooklyn’s rugged roadways, or “passes,” toward the Continental Army’s network of forts surrounding Brooklyn Heights, engaging in a number of skirmishes along the way.

The most northern of these routes and the least direct — Jamaica Pass — was sorely undermanned, the British learned, and so Howe sent through thousands of British soldiers augmented by Hessian mercenaries in what military historians like to call a “brilliant flanking maneuver.” The battle climaxed at the Vechte-Cortelyou house, today a museum and cultural center known as the Old Stone House at present day Fifth Avenue and Third Street in Park Slope.

There, the rebels’ General William Alexander (aka Lord Stirling) led his heavily outnumbered Maryland soldiers against the British, delaying them from reaching the Heights, so that Washington and the rest of the troops could escape to Manhattan and live to fight another day. Phew.

It was the first major battle of the Revolution, and it was to be the biggest in terms of the number of soldiers on the field. But all flanking maneuvers aside, what has always sparked this reporter’s imagination were the eye-witness bystanders, such as a certain tavern owner who was forced to guide British soldiers through the rugged hills of Brooklyn.

In East New York at the junction of Broadway and Jamaica Plank Road stood an inn, alternately referred to in old Eagle articles and elsewhere as Howard House, the Howard Halfway House or the Howard Inn (pictured above). It was owned by generation after generation of the Howard family, a brood of British lineage, and was an ongoing establishment into the 1920s.

It sat at a crossroads with one path leading out further onto Long Island, one leading to Flatlands and Flatbush and another toward the Fulton Ferry and Manhattan. Its location put it directly in the path of the British Army on August 27, 1776. General Howe became confused along the craggy road and entered the tavern, demanding that proprietor William Howard lead them through the pass. The episode was later recalled by his son, Joseph Howard, then 14 years old:

“It was about 2 o’clock in the morning of the 27th of August that I was awakened by seeing a soldier at the side of my bed. I got up and dressed and went down to the barroom, where I saw my father standing in one corner with three British soldiers before him with muskets and bayonets fixed. The army was then lying in the field in front of the house ...General Howe and another officer were in the barroom. General Howe wore a camlet cloak over his regimentals. After asking for a glass of liquor from the bar, which was given him, he entered into familiar conversation with my father, and among other things said, ‘I must have some one of you to show me over the Rockaway Path around the pass.’

“My father replied, ‘We belong to the other side, General, and can’t serve you against our duty.’ General Howe replied, ‘That is alright; stick to your country, or stick to your principles, but Howard, you are my prisoner and must guide my men over the hill.’ My father made some further objection, but was silenced by the general, who said, ‘You have no alternative. If you refuse I shall shoot you through the head.’”

At the point of a sword, Howard complied. He and his son, who was also pressed into service, conducted the British soldiers through Jamaica Pass where they would ultimately descend along with the other columns of British soldiers in a battle that came to a head at the Old Stone House.
William Howard also lived to fight another day — or at least serve drinks another day — and it was said that after the war, he kept a bronze statue of George Washington and never took a drink without first turning to it and reverently saying, “Here is [to] your very best health, General.”

When Brooklyn was a collection of small villages and farms connected by a handful of rustic roads, journeying through one end of Kings County to the other was no small undertaking, and taverns and inns were welcome respites during the trek.

Another such place was the Red Lion Inn. It also was the site of a significant scene in the wee hours of August 27, 1776.

British General James Grant was leading 5,000 soldiers along Gowanus Road when they spotted a watermelon patch and couldn’t help but partake. But the melon patch belonged to the Inn, at the junction with Martense Lane Pass (near present day Fifth Avenue and 36th Street), and the seizure of the oversized fruit resulted in the first shots of the battle. “The largest Battle of the Revolution was set in motion by an unexpected encounter in a watermelon patch,” historian Barnet Schecter has pointed out.

The British were fired upon by Edward Hand’s riflemen stationed at the Inn, and the redcoats briefly retreated before returning with a bigger force, and the skirmish expanded. Ultimately, this confrontation only helped to distract the Americans from the British forces secretly marching through Jamaica Pass.

At the end of the battle Washington and much of the Continental Army fled Brooklyn at Fulton Ferry Landing to Manhattan, where they pretty much kept running, leaving New York to the British for the duration of the war. And since a British occupier liked a drink as much as the next chap, some of Brooklyn’s taverns became their favored saloons — such as the one at Fulton Ferry.

The foot of Fulton Street was where the first ferry service between Brooklyn and Manhattan commenced in 1642. The earliest known tavern at this location was built by Egbert Van Boreum, who became ferry master in 1655 and built a combined ferry house and tavern. “It was not notable for its size or ornamentation, but contained the characteristics of snugness, economy and safety,” according to an 1888 Eagle article. The bedsteads at Boreum’s inn were “constructed like a cupboard, with doors closing upon it when unoccupied.” In this way “the sleeping apartment of an inn could accommodate several travelers and yet, in the daytime, the room would answer for a public room.”

By 1750 a man named Andrew Ramsay was in charge of the ferry house and tavern, and it was known as the Corporation House. It was described as a “large, gloomy stone building, about 60 feet square and two stories high.” Before the Revolutionary War, Captain Adolph Waldren was the landlord, “but he espoused the American cause and retired to New Jersey on the capture of Brooklyn by the British,” according to an 1888 Eagle article titled, “How It Used to Be Taken in Old Brooklyn Times.”

During the war the tavern was taken over by loyalists Charles Loosely and Thomas Elms and was called the Kings Head, until 1780, when it became Brooklyn Hall. Loyalists and British soldiers who occupied New York were said to have fun here, engaging in “all kinds of sporting, such as horse racing, fox chasing, athletic sports, bull baiting, etc.”

One British officer wrote to a friend in England, “On crossing the East River from New York you land in Brooklyn, which is a scattered village consisting of a few houses. At this place is an excellent tavern, where parties are made to go and eat fish, the landlord of which has saved an immense fortune this war.”

The Eagle archives allude to other taverns that existed during the Revolutionary War, but they are achingly short on details. Where Flatbush crosses Atlantic was a Baker’s Tavern during the Revolution, which later became the Bull’s Head. On what is now the eastern end of Prospect Park was the Valley Grove Tavern. There was apparently a Black Horse Tavern near what is now Flatbush Avenue around DeKalb and Fulton streets. A little further down Flatbush, there was a tavern with a hay scale that during the Revolution (and British occupation) had a profile of King George on top, but once the war was over the name “Franklin” was put under the profile.

There were other tavern owners whose loyalties shifted with the tide of war. A tavern on Flatbush known as the King’s Arms was run by a Mrs. Schoonmaker. After the war an American eagle was added — depicted flying away with the King’s Arms.

Although there were certainly many Brooklynites that took strong sides with the Patriots or Loyalists, the area was still thoroughly populated with Dutch farmers at the time and was not known as a hotbed of Revolutionary fervor, which is why, perhaps, Boston and Philadelphia have received so much more ink in the history books.

On the 100th anniversary of the battle in 1876, the Eagle published a long commemorative article, noting, “The wave of Revolutionary sentiment rolled over the community, but it created scarce a ripple on the phlegmatic placidity of the Dutch inhabitants. If they were disturbed at all, it was by the fear of pecuniary loss and personal inconvenience. No thrill of patriotism animated their breasts, and though their farms and hillsides were destined to become the theater of the first essay of the new nation in behalf of its recently asserted independence, they relaxed naught of their outward seeming of indifference to the approach of the coming storm … Indeed, had the future of Kings County depended solely upon the efforts of her own citizens, Kings County would have had no future.”

Well, maybe us Brooklynites would rather just go get a beer than go to battle. And who could blame us?

1 comment:

tapeshare said...

The Howard House of Revolutionary War fame did not last into the 1920s. This misperception exists because a second Howard House was constructed on Alabama and Atlantic Avenues in 1853. This building survived into the 1920s. The original was demolished in 1880 and was replaced by the BRT Railroad Mens Building.