2001: Brooklyn Holds a Bash for "The Maryland 400"

By Gerry Regan
For The Wild Geese

WGT Photo/Gerry Regan
Thousands take to the streets Saturday to help commemorate the Maryland Regiment's heroic assault.

BROOKLYN, N.Y., Aug. 18, 2001 -- Two hundred and twenty-five years have passed since they went to their deaths, but "The Maryland 400" were grandly introduced to those Park Slope neighbors who may not have made their acquaintance.

Nine days shy of the anniversary of the regiment's heroic August 27, 1776, assault on the Vechte house, a landmark even today in this historic brownstone neighborhood, the regiment's heroics, and even most of their soldiers' names, echoed through the streets and yards.

It was an exuberant pageant, whose various events drew thousands on a brilliantly sunny day, one made all the more poignant by the circumstances of these men's deaths, and the nearly obliterated landscape that marked their battleground.

"These gallant men did the unimaginable, a frontal assault against 2,000 British soldiers, right in this area," said John A. O'Malley, speaking at a morning commemoration sponsored by the Brooklyn Irish-American Parade Committee. The ceremony, at 3rd Avenue and 8th Street, is thought by historians to be a few dozen yards from a yet-to-be discovered mass grave created by the British for the slain Marylanders.

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Washington's 10,000-man force in Brooklyn faced 25,000 British and Hessian troops, who had arrived in the borough five days earlier. A well-executed British flanking movement against the Americans' left wing caught the Americans by surprise and the wing collapsed, setting the stage for the Maryland 400's heroics. Seeing that the Vechte house commanded the only escape route for Washington's beleaguered right wing, wing commander William Alexander ordered the Marylanders to attack the house to buy time for the escape of the army.

WGT Photo/Gerry Regan
Today surrounded by a playground, The Old Stone House once was ground zero for "The Maryland 400."

O'Malley, who had two ancestors serve in George Washington's Continental Army, noted that Irish blood was freely spilt that day. As many as half of Washington's army was Irish, he noted, and many of the soldiers of General John Sullivan, who commanded Washington's left wing at the battle, were bayonetted by Hessian mercenaries the British brought to subdue the "rebellious" colonists. The Battle of Brooklyn (or Battle of Long Island, as it is also known) was the first major battle of the revolution and the perhaps the largest as well for numbers of troops engaged.

The Parade Committee also honored Brevet Major General Edward Hand, born near the Offaly-Tipperary border, who commanded the First Continental Regiment during the battle. But it was the Marylanders' exploit that clearly was center stage today.

Six times the men of the Maryland Regiment threw themselves at the Highlanders and Grenadiers holed up in the house, who fired artillery from upstairs windows, until they finally silenced the guns, only to be driven off by British reinforcements. The battalion, drawn from some of Maryland's wealthiest families, lost more than 250 of its number. The incident is little known but by students of American military history, the American War of Independence, and perhaps kids in Maryland.

During the morning ceremony, parade committee historian Joe Ferris; John Gallagher, author of "The Battle of Brooklyn, 1776," and others took turns reciting the names of most, if not all, the names of Maryland's lost soldiers, company by company. There were many Irish names among those called, including Sgts. John Mitchell and Alexius Conner, and Privates James Hoge, William Clark, John Neary, Thomas Walsh, John Hughes, Paul Haggerty, Timothy Collins, Benjamin Kelly and James Murphy.

WGT Photo/Gerry Regan
Kathleen McDonagh offering her salute to the men of the Maryland Regiment.

Speaking in front of the 100 or so present, Kathleen McDonagh, chairwoman of the committee, thanked the Marylanders, highlighting the debt that Americans, and particularly Irish Americans, owe to them. The Tipperary native noted, "Otherwise, we would be saying 'God bless the Queen, instead of 'God bless America.'"

The Rev. John O'Halloran, 72, chaplain of the New York City camp of the Sons of Union Veterans, a neighborhood native and retired Episcopalian priest, pointed out to a reporter the longstanding mystery surrounding the remains of the Marylanders. They are thought buried in a shallow grave on what was then marshy land on the farm of Adrian Van Brunt, now containing 19th century brownstones, businesses and apartment buildings.

About 50 years ago, O'Halloran said, the then-historian for the borough led volunteers on a futile dig to try to locate the graves in backyards, focusing on the yard of an iron works on 8th Avenue. A plaque noting the that they were buried nearby lay in the sidewalk by the foundry for more than 50 years until a new plaque went up in 1952. This now hangs from the second floor of Michael A. Rawley American Legion Post 1636 a block away.

The Brooklyn Irish American Parade Committee placed a wreath at the flagpole in the yard of the post, and five post members fired a salute, with blank shells flipping to the pavement after each volley. Former Marine Joe Clark, a member of the Leatherneck Pipes and Drums, piped a tribute.

WGT Photo/Gerry Regan
Re-enactors portraying the Maryland Regiment fire on advancing British troops as thousands look on in Brooklyn's Prospect Park.

While the morning's events were somber, the afternoon's activities were exuberant. At 1 p.m., the Commander-in-Chief's Guard, formerly A Company, Third U.S. Infantry, the chief ceremonial unit of today's U.S. Army, took to the Long Meadow of nearby Prospect Park. With narration by an Army staffer, the unit, with about 54 soldiers, with precision, panache, period equipage and arms, and blue colonial uniforms, demonstrated the military tactics that Washington's volunteer army adapted from the great European armies.

Then, 250 or so re-enactors -- about 160 portraying companies from Washington's forces in Brooklyn, the remainder the British and Hessians, took to the field.

The introduction of those portraying the British elicited a smattering of boos, as did that of British deputy consul Duncan Taylor, who noted, "Never can it be truer to say we won the battle and lost the war." He noted the great distance traveled by the United States and Washington since then, noting that they are today staunch allies.

George Newman, a uniformed narrator from the Brigade of the American Revolution, the group that provided the event's re-enactors, provided a dramatic and rivetting counterpoint to the movements of the two forces up and down Long Meadow. He set the stage for the Maryland Regiment's fateful charges, as the re-enactors provided the sound and visuals, firing volley after volley, shouting orders to advance or retreat, and firing a cannon from atop a nearby ridge.

WGT Photo/Gerry Regan
This 1952 marker reads "Maryland Heroes: Here lie buried 256 Maryland soldiers who fell in the Battle of Brooklyn, August 27, 1776.

Finally, "in retreat," those portraying the American and British troops marched with what seemed thousands of spectators for four long city-blocks, from the meadow to the Vechte house, today called The Old Stone House, nestled on less than a quarter acre in J.J. Byrne Park.

Filling the tree-lined streets, the parade, organized but not too, turned heads as the re-enactors and throng made its way the half-mile or so. A boy on a scooter stopped and started with the Maryland Regiment's front rank, while a half-dozen or so boys in bathing trunks found this history cascading right by their front-yard, birthday party and vinyl pool.

At The Old Stone House, meanwhile, 25 members of the Old Guard Fife and Drums went through their paces for the early arrivals in the small field in front. This heralded unit, part of the Army's 3rd Infantry, put on a stunningly evocative display of music and marching, playing the fifes, drums and bugles so integral for both leading and inspiring troops.

Sadly, this reporter missed the finale, which called for those portraying the Marylanders to finally seize the house and fly their flag from the house's 2nd story window before being driven off.

About 20 re-enactors portraying Highlanders, looking bedraggled and defeated, were in the van of the crowd, presumably to repair to the upstairs perch of their ancestors. Their fatigue looked propitious for the Americans. Sadly, though, history teaches us that the arrival of reinforcements would force the Maryland 400 to retreat, leaving some 250 dead to become permanent Brooklyn residents.

Copyright © 2001, GAR Media.
All rights reserved.

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Tags: Battle of Brooklyn, Diaspora History, Edward Hand, Maryland, Maryland 400, Military History, Revolutionary War, United States


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