The last week of August is one of the most significant anniversaries in American, New York, and even our own local history, yet it is little known or talked about by most folks. Many New Yorkers, and even red-blooded Americans, are completely unaware that the first major battle of the American Revolution was fought right here in New York City, on August 27th, 1776, in what is today Greenwood Cemetery, in the borough of Brooklyn. Nor do they know that by the end of that August, the British Army occupied most of Brooklyn and Queens and parts of Long Island, and did so for the entire duration of the war.
The Battle of Long Island, more commonly known in these parts as the Battle of Brooklyn, was both the first and the biggest battle of the American Revolutionary War, in terms of the number of British and American soldiers engaged, as well as the number of American casualties, some 1,500. So why it passes each year, almost completely unnoticed, one can only guess. But what’s even more perplexing to me is the fact that one of the most interesting events leading up to the battle, that took place by dark of night, just hours before the attack, is known by so few, and that part of it happened right here in our own backyard of Southwestern Queens, in a cemetery called The Evergreens, and its surrounding countryside near the border of Brooklyn and Queens.
Of course I should mention that every year, on the weekend near the actual anniversary of the battle, Greenwood Cemetery puts on a spectacular day of special events and activities. It is a day of remembrance, where cannon are fired, and British officers on horseback gallop through the field as part of the re-enactment, in addition to marching in a parade and a memorial ceremony. But I’ve been a Queens resident all my life and I never knew that one of the most significant revolutionary battlefields was right here in our neighboring borough of “Breukelen,” as the Dutch originally spelled it in those days.
But as far as the mysterious events leading up to the attack of August 27th, luckily there is someone who seems determined to make sure this small, yet significant part of this huge event in our local history isn’t forgotten. Every year in mid-August Evergreens Cemetery worker and historian Donato “Danny” Daddario leads a tour through The Cemetery of the Evergreens, bringing visitors to the sites where portions of the British Army marched in the dark of night along the Indian footpaths between the border of Brooklyn and Queens known as the Rockaway Footpath. But that’s just a small part of the fascinating story Danny Daddario tells on his tour. He also brings you to the family grave of a man who was only 16 years old when he found himself caught between loyalty to our patriots and his own life.
But before I get to that part of the story I will need to share some background information leading up to those events.
In a book called, “Our Community Its History and People,” written and published by four members of the Ridgewood Historical Society in the year of our bicentennial, 1976, it states that from the time of the news of Lexington and Concord reached New York in April 1775, the entire area was preparing for war, and when news of the Declaration of Independence reached New York on July 9th, the local farmers of Ridgewood and the surrounding areas had “wished the entire affair could have been settled, and there were sharp divisions in the community, and even in families, over loyalty to the King or the new nation.”
The British Arrive in New York Harbor
On June 25th, 1776, General William Howe of the British Army arrived in lower New York Harbor, near Staten Island, with three British warships, two days later there were over one hundred ships, and by early July, there were nearly 200 British Vessels, bottlenecking the harbor.
On August 12th British Reinforcements arrived, with six more warships, 28 transport vessels, and 10,000 more soldiers, to add to the 32,000 British and hired Hessian soldiers who came earlier. By contrast, General Washington and Major General Charles Lee had approximately 19,000 mostly untrained and undisciplined farmers and merchants, who were poorly armed in both weapons and supplies.
On August 22, 1776, about 15,000 of General Howe’s soldiers land on the shores of Brooklyn, to begin their march to find Washington and his awaiting army. They camped out for several days, and then began moving, splitting into three groups. The first went straight up along the Brooklyn shores to the high ground held by Washington and the Americans at the Red Lion Inn, in what is now Greenwood Cemetery. The second traveled north, capturing Flatbush and then moved into the vicinity of Battle Pass, a battlefield that has been preserved in its honor in today’s Prospect Park.
But it is the third column of British soldiers that we are most interested in, because it was this group, under the Marquis General Cornwallis, that have found their way into our local folklore, and for which I am writing this article.
Going by the fact that most main roads in Brooklyn and Queens were known Indian passes, and by the research and maps I used, and the map given to me by Danny Daddario, its apparent that Cornwallis’ men marched northeast through Gravesend, and along what is now Kings Highway, through Flatlands, to the section of Jamaica Ave that is now East New York Avenue. They then followed the Jamaica Pass to the Bedford Turnpike, (now Broadway), intersection.
It was at this intersection that our story suddenly gets more interesting, and some of this information is excerpts of both an article from the Brooklyn Eagle dated September 8, 1899, and an 1868 book by T.W. Field about the history of Brooklyn, which contains a first hand account by William Howard Jr., who was 16 at the time of the Revolution, these sources were given to me by Danny Daddario.
In those days, at the intersection of the Jamaica and Bedford Turnpikes, there was a Tavern and Half Way House, known as Howard’s Half Way House. Before then it was known as the Rising Sun Tavern, both of which were owned by a William Howard Sr.. According to the Brooklyn Eagle, Cornwallis and his troops were traveling by roads and lanes to the Half Way house, where his guides were no longer able to lead the regiment due to their ignorance of the countryside.
When I drove to the intersection of Jamaica Avenue and Broadway, coincidentally on August 26th of this year, unfortunately the Historic Half-Way house is long gone, but if you were to look due north from that intersection, (although there are buildings in the way now) there is an enormous hill, now contained by the wall of the southwest side of The Evergreens Cemetery, which is known as Beacon Hill. So one can understand why the British needed someone with knowledge of the terrain to take them around that hill.
According the Brooklyn Eagle, the British advanced so silently that the Howard family were “wholly unaware of the danger they were in until the bursting in of the bar room door by the leaders of the Redcoats. The alarmed innkeeper was quickly brought before the English commander in chief and his generals. It was known that from this point to the Bedford Hamlet, the road was a narrow path through wooded and swampy hills, and that Howard was the only person acquainted with an obscure path that led over the “Green Hills” (now Evergreens Cemetery) to Bedford. This Route was then known as the Rockaway Path”.
EYEWITNESS William Howard Jr.
The first person account taken in 1868 by William Howard Jr., who was 16 years old in 1776, reads: “It was about two o’clock in the morning on 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 bar room 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 a field in front of the house. General Howe and another officer were standing in the bar room. General Howe wore a 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.’ General Howe replied: ‘That is all right, 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 have you shot through the head.’ A strong guard had been stationed by the British around our house, and every person compelled to remain in it. All the houses in the neighborhood were similarly guarded to prevent the escape of anyone to give information of their approach. The guns were drawn up the hill by horses at a full gallop. From the top of the hill on the Bushwick Lane they descended through a valley on the farm of James Pilling to the land now belonging to John Duryea, near the place where Halsey St. ends. Everything in the march was conducted in the most silent manner possible, as showed the enemy expected momentarily to be attacked by the Americans. All this pains was entirely unnecessary, for the pass had been left unguarded. On their reaching the turn in the Brooklyn and Jamaica Road, near the corner of Reid Ave and Macdonough St, my father and myself were released and sent back to the Tavern.”
There is a bit more to that first hand account, but what I was mostly compelled by was finding the route the soldiers took starting from the intersection of today’s Jamaica Avenue and Broadway, the point where the Howards Half Way House was located. When comparing the map of the routes of the British Soldiers, and the Rockaway Footpath, and a modern map, the route became clear. From that intersection they most likely continued on Jamaica Avenue, crossing and following what is now Highland Boulevard and the Interboro, or Jackie Robinson Parkway, near or on Vermont Place. They then crossed “The Heights of Guana” which is today Highland Park, and into the Green Hills, or the Evergreens Cemetery. Once they were up the hill, and almost at the exact border of the Brooklyn and Queens’s border, the Rockaway Footpath splits in two directions. The one path heads west, leading right past where the Evergreens cemetery office stands today, and where there is a flagpole, and a rock with a plaque memorializing the event. That path continues out of the cemetery near today’s Central Avenue, and it is believed that group of soldiers were heading to meet the first group, “forming a pincer movement to entrap the Americans at the Pass” (Greenwood Cemetery).
The other path of the Rockaway Footpath heads east and then north, exiting out what is now the entrance of Knollwood Cemetery (once part of Evergreens) at Cooper and Cypress Avenues. The British then took Cooper Avenue to Cypress Hills Street, which both roads got their names from the many Cypress trees there, many of which the British Soldiers had to cut down to get their army through, and as I found in a book called, Old Queens, N.Y. In Early Photographs, by Vincent F. Seyfried and William Asadorian, it states that “the British took no time in occupying all of Queens, occupying the high ground at Cypress Hills and Forest Park. And on August 28 took over Jamaica; Flushing fell on the 29th.
Finally, as I mentioned earlier, one of the stops on Danny Daddario’s tour is to the family gravesite of the Howard Family. William Howard Junior, who lived to the age of 84, was buried in the highest point of the Evergreens Cemetery, and possibly all of Brooklyn, on Beacon Hill, right near the old stone Evergreens sign. And the family grave would have been visible from the Historic Howard Half Way House. Now how’s that for a story!
It was through the research of John J. Gallagher, Author of “The Battle of Brooklyn 1776”, published in 1995, Rockaway Footpath was searched for, discovered, and eventually marked by Evergreens Cemetery.