This 1776 Map of Brooklyn Illustrates Battle Positions Instead of Subway Lines

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Screen Shot 2015-08-27 at 4.31.41 PMHistory nerds, rejoice: This Sunday, Revolutionary War re-enactors will descend upon Green-Wood Cemetery to commemorate the Battle of Brooklyn, fought on August 27th, 1776. It was the first battle of the American Revolution fought after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the largest battle in the war in terms of troop size.

“Good God!” General George Washington cried as he watched his soldiers perish by the hundreds, from a spot now occupied by Trader Joe’s. “What brave fellows I must this day lose!” Though the British won this first battle (the Americans were outnumbered 5 to 1), the tides turned when the British failed to storm the American lines, enabling George Washington to evacuate his troops across the East River. An intricately illustrated map, owned by one British Lt. Gen. Hugh Percy, the second duke of Northumberland, reveals the Redcoats’ failed plan to crush the American rebellion. 

The 3’x2′ Lord Percy Battle Map was acquired from a rare book dealer for $47,500 in 2013 by the Brooklyn Historical Society and the Green-Wood Historic Fund, an offshoot of Green-Wood Cemetery. “It’s been said that the Declaration of Independence was signed in ink in Philadelphia, but signed in blood at the Battle of Brooklyn,” historian and author Barnet Schecter said in a statement. “Percy’s map is a unique artifact of that battle, bearing markings in blood-red ink showing the American positions that the British intended to overrun in their drive to capture Brooklyn Heights…. In Brooklyn, the British lost their best chance to win the war with a single decisive battle.”

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Created by British engineer and cartographer Bernard Ratzer, the map depicts a wild terrain filled with forests and bluffs and snaking rivers. It’s marked up by General Percy’s red pen, outlining his failed plan to defeat the rebellion, with numbers and dots signifying troop positions of the Continental Army under the command of General George Washington.

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Of course, the map bears little resemblance to today’s Brooklyn, now being colonized by the likes of former governor Eliot Spitzer. But there are some recognizable features: The Red Hook peninsula, roads to Flatbush, Jamaica and New Town, and the hamlet of Bedford.

And though it’s hard to imagine soldiers in weird hats with muskets on horses storming down Atlantic Avenue, there are still a few memorials of the battle around the borough–a plaque on the Trader Joe’s on the corner of Court and Atlantic Street marks the location of Red Lion Tavern, from which Gen. George Washington watched his troops suffer. Much of the battle was waged in what’s now Green-Wood Cemetery, on Battle Hill, which now provides a view of the Statue of Liberty.

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Green-Wood Cemetery isn’t the only Brooklyn institution commemorating the event this weekend. On Saturday, the Old Stone House hosts a Remembrance Ceremony at 12 p.m; the Vander Ende-Onderdonk House in Ridgewood hosts a dramatic reading of the Declaration of Independence; and there’s a Battle of Brooklyn-themed walking tour of the borough with William J. Parry, an archaeology professor at 4 p.m.

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But if you like weird costumes, horses, games, music by The Regimental Band of the United States Merchant Marine Academy, and colonial era-inspired food (including Jefferson’s Vanilla Custard Ice Cream, Maple Syrup Ice Cream, Raspberry Shrub, and Cherry Bounce Shrub), Green-Wood is the place to be.
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Green-Wood Cemetery’s Commemoration of the Battle of Brooklyn starts at 10am on Sunday, August 30th. 

All photos courtesy Green-Wood Historic Fund and Brooklyn Historical Society. 


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