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For Re-Enacting Revolutionary Times: "The Battle of Brooklyn"

Let me just start out by saying I love a good re-enactment. I love it so. I love the idea of it, seeing it on TV, and now I can say it is in better in person. To say it is fun is by no way even a fraction of how much I was amused by this. I was prancing and dancing on the inside. But first let’s start where all good stories start, at the beginning. I know, I know, I want to skip to the end too. But I promise this will be worth it.

About a year or two ago, I learned that Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York was a national historic landmark. It is famous and significant for many reasons but the initial reason I was so interested in its background was its history. Greenwood Cemetery is the site where the Battle of Brooklyn was fought in August of 1776 making it the first after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. As my regular readers know I have visited Battle Hill in Greenwood Cemetery before ( have been planning to attend the annual anniversary celebration events for a long time ( Last year the big two hundred thirty fifth anniversary day was rained out and canceled because of Hurricane Irene.  This just made me even more excited and anxious to attend this year.

I knew this was a very popular event and I knew that I had to plan ahead. The only activity that you had to book ahead of time and pay for was the Battle of Brooklyn Trolley Tour ( I loved the previous trolley tour I had taken and knew that this one would be great too as it focused solely on this momentous event in our nation’s history. Even better was the fact that the tour was being led by an author and historian with expert knowledge in this field.

After the tour was what I had been looking forward to all year- the re-enactment. When I hear those words I automatically picture people in the Deep South dressing up and recreating the Civil War, don’t ask me why I have never even seen a re-enactment of any kind. But it is what I associate it with. But the thought of seeing one in the middle of Brooklyn, in a cemetery, with Revolutionary era costumes was too much. I don’t know what I was picturing but boy was I in for a surprise or two.

On the big day, two weeks ago this Sunday, I woke up early to charge my camera and get my gear in check. The weather was perfect and even a little cool in that early morning air. I was thrilled and hoped it would stay that way as long as possible. While waiting after arriving at the cemetery, I saw the horses being brought in and a few people already dressed for the re-enactment that would begin later. It was strange but awesome at the same time especially because I was in a cemetery.

In that early morning light the bright green grass was gorgeous. As I waited for the trolley tour to begin, I wandered around taking photographs and taking in the scenery. Even though I had been there before it is truly a beautiful place. I know that might sound strange but Greenwood is known for its natural landscape. In fact, the land is another reason it qualifies for landmark status not just for history but also for its natural beauty. In today’s ever changing world it is rare to accept something for remaining the same and untouched for so long.

Once the tour was about to kick off I was the first to proudly board the trolley. After the other visitors got on I was in for a nice surprise. When I booked this tour I knew in advance that our guides would be an author and a historian both obviously quite knowledgeable about the Battle of Brooklyn. However there is a difference between knowing something and being able to communicate that to others in an effective and interesting way. Minor details from two hundred years on being displayed on tiny maps is a sure fire way to lose an otherwise captive audience. But I was instantly hooked on these two men and all they had to say and show us.

I will begin first with the Greenwood historian, Jeff Richman. He had an interesting personal story also. He shared with the group that after taking several tours at Greenwood he felt he could do this also and began taking groups out himself. He was able to bring a great deal to these tours and even stressed the importance of the Battle of Brooklyn tour. He had a lot of great input, places for us to stop, and places to point out. I look forward to taking many more of the tours he is a part of. Mr. Richman made history come alive and when you can make anything come alive in a cemetery it is always a success story.

His fellow lecturer was author Barnet Schecter. Mr. Schecter is an expert on this topic and has written several books about these years in history. On hand that day on the trolley, he passed around copies of Revolutionary Way maps from George Washington’s personal collection. I was like a kid in a candy store. It was like being in school again. I have always loved history and political science so this tour was even better than I bargained for. When David McCullough’s book “1776” was mentioned I was flying high. I too had read that book and it was amazing for the detail and play-by-play vantage you get of the lives of soldiers and what war was like for them.

Mr. Schecter was a bonus on this tour and what he was able to add is not something easily described. He was able to rattle off facts and figures but while also making sure he put them in context. When he was describing the scene anyone could follow the story even someone that was not as aware of the history. The backup documents he shared with us as well as the handouts we got to keep show his dedication and passion for the subject. I could have listened to him talk all day long. I was elated when he said that he would sign copies of his books after the tour. Naturally I was the first one on that line too.

As for the tour itself, I am afraid I cannot capture all that we saw and learned. But I encourage everyone to go and see it for themselves. My favorite part however, was one that I had seen before at my previous tour, Battle Hill. Still, seeing it on this particular day somehow changed everything. You became more aware of it. As the tour progressed we were leading to this destination. We had taken a trolley but Washington’s soldiers had marched here in deteriorating clothing, with whatever ammunition was left, and in the dark of night. We had learned how they had faced their enemy up close and personal. They found an unfathomable battle where there was no shelter on land that even today you can picture open, exposed, and rough.

On this day, the ground even seemed more hallow. You knew you could be standing on unmarked graves. It made you proud to be standing near Minerva as she looked to her counterpart, the Statue of Liberty. It made me wish that this tour was a requirement for every American.

After my trolley tour was over and my book was signed, I could hear guns being fired and some commotion from the meadow. I knew this was the area where the re-enactment was being staged. At different points on the trolley tour I could hear some of it too, depending on where we were. I didn’t want to miss too much so I raced over. Apparently it had started early than I was told so it was pretty backed. I pushed my way to the front of the line and as close as I could get. The fake redcoats (British army) were in front of me. All men on either side were on horses firing rounds at each other. They were speaking to their men but I couldn’t really hear what they were saying. There were women off to the side cooking fish on flames and standing there for support. Someone even “died”. 

I was very excited to be watching this scene and if the crowd were smaller and if the weather had remained cooler I would have stayed longer. But by that point it was unbearably hot and I knew the re-enactment would be ending soon and the next portion of the day’s events would proceed. Next up was the parade up to Battle Hill and then a ceremony up there would take place. I loved see all of the flags that led up to Battle Hill and as our trolley drove us back at the end of our tour I was able to take a picture.

The part of the re-enactment I really didn’t care for was the ESPN style announcements that were going on. For some reason it never occurred to me that anyone would be explaining what we were seeing. I thought we would watch like it was a live movie or something. But there was this constant voiceover, so and so is talking and then moving etc. It was annoying. There were also a lot of kids there. I realize that is probably why there were announcements but I can pretty much guarantee they weren’t listening and I am sorry if you don’t understand what is happening go home. Yes I am a re-enactment snob. If your kid wants to see horses up close go to a petting zoo not a cemetery.

I still don’t know where that voiceover was coming from but that combined with the heat forced me out within five minutes. But at least I got to meet Mr. Benjamin Franklin who was holding his kite under a tree providing him some shade first. I am happy to report he was delightful although you can imagine my confusion as I visit his grave every time I am in Philadelphia.

Speaking of trips, I am and have been so eager to visit Boston for such a long time. The last few weeks I have been feeling the itch even stronger. This visit and thinking about the Revolutionary War is pushing that trip even closer.

There was an interesting article recently in the New York Times ( the Battle of Brooklyn and a project a local historian is working on to preserve the land near the Gowanus Canal that might be the site of the graves for some of these soldiers. This site is currently under a superfund due to the mass pollution it has endured. Mr. Bob Furman hopes that some day when this site is cleaned up the history behind this land will create for Brooklyn what Boston has in its Freedom Trail. He is so poetic in this article articulating that once again these soldiers will be saving the landing for America. I hope he is right.

It will just be another tour put on my to-do list for another year and I will gladly squirm with excitement on the inside and out for that too.

I wonder if there will be re-enactments. I am just saying, where there is a will there is a way.

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