8/26/12

Heroes, History and Development

If a group of local historians led by Bob Furman, president of the Brooklyn Preservation Council, are right, the intersection of Third Avenue and Eighth Street in Gowanus is hallowed ground.

The historians believe that a few dozen yards to the east of this intersection is the mass grave of 256 members of the First Maryland Regiment, heroes of the American Revolution.

The Marylanders' burial site, they say, should be treated with the same reverence and respect as the military cemeteries at Gettysburg and Normandy.

The First Maryland Regiment, commanded by Col. William Smallwood, sacrificed two-thirds of its men to save Gen. George Washington’s army from being destroyed during the Battle of Brooklyn.

Furman is "confident" the Marylanders are buried beneath the vacant lot at Third and Eighth. But the owner, who wants to either develop or sell the lot, won't let Furman test his theory, calling efforts to conduct an archaeological probe there "gibberish".

Finding the Marylanders' burial place, holy grail of Brooklyn Revolutionary War buffs, is increasingly threatened by plans to develop the Gowanus Canal, a now Superfunded industrial site.

Developers -- Lightstone Group wants to build a 700-unit residential complex on the fetid Gowanus -- are afraid that if the historians find and mark the Marylanders' gravesite, it could foil their plans.

The story of the First Maryland Regiment is one of the most moving chapters of the Revolutionary War. Vastly outnumbered, the Marylanders held off the British regulars long enough to save thousands of Continental soldiers from being surrounded and captured or killed.

The Marylanders' sacrifice, by checking the British at Gowanus, Furman said, spared the Continental Army and saved the Revolution.

After the battle, the British forced the locals to gather the bodies and bury them near Gowanus Creek, now Gowanus Canal.

The key to locating the gravesite, archaeologists say, is tracking the changes to the marshes and millponds surrounding Gowanus Creek in 1776.  There were only a few places high enough to have served as a burial place at that time.

Beginning in the mid-19th century, Gowanus was transformed by industrial development.  The canal was dug in the 1860s and industrial sites sprang up on its banks. The leveling and filling made the area unrecognizable.

The Third Avenue site between 7th and 8th Streets, according to Revolutionary War-era maps, was once a hilly area, and 19th century histories tell of bones being dug up there.

Modern remote sensing techniques, including computer mapping and ground-penetrating radar, could end decades of speculation, Furman said.

He has partnered with urban planner and computer mapmaker Eymund Diegel to reconstruct the local topography. Last July, Diegel, using an aerial balloon to photographically document drainage patterns, found an unusual pattern in the cracks in the concrete covering the Eighth Street lot Furman believes is the gravesite. Furman wants to take up a patch of concrete and use ground-penetrating radar to probe the site.

A spokesman for Derby Textile Corporation, owner of the lot, scoffed at Furman's proposal, saying no bones were found when a foundation was dug on the lot in the 1900s.

But Furman says there is no public record of the site ever having been excavated or filled.

A Wikipedia entry based on John Gallagher's The Battle of Brooklyn corroborates Furman's belief that the Marylanders are buried at Third Avenue between 7th and 8th Streets.

According to Gallagher's account, a tablet that stood at the gravesite until Third Avenue was widened in 1910 read: "Burial place of ye 256 Maryland soldiers who fell in ye combat at ye Cortelyou House on ye 27th day of August 1776."

Once a farm, the gravesite over time became an open courtyard -- undeveloped because of a deeded restriction -- next to the Red Devil paint factory. When the factory was succeeded by an auto repair shop, the courtyard was roofed over.  The grave, according to Gallagher, is beneath the floor of the former auto repair shop.

Postscript

In a follow-up to this post, Furman offered as the earliest evidence of the Marylanders' burial site Thomas Field's 1869 memoir, The Battle of Long Island, with Connected Preceded Events, and the Subsequent American Retreat [Volume II of the collected Memoirs of the Long Island Historical Society.]

According to the memoir, written when the site was still relatively undisturbed, the Marylanders were buried on the shore of "Gowanus Bay" on a hillock in a marsh on land owned by farmer Adrian Van Brunt, who never ploughed or cut the timber there.

The site, Field said, was a miniature island about an acre in size, chosen for its quiet seclusion.

Third Avenue, according Field's memoir, intersected the burial mound at its west end, and 7th and 8th Streets ran on either side of the mound. The grade of these streets, Field said, was above the mound, which, by 1869, was far below street level.

The article from the New York Times.

A Maryland historian's website devoted to locating the Marylanders' graves.

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