In Brooklyn, a Lesson in Sacrifice

The Bona Fide Fuel Oil Company stood on Third Avenue between Seventh and Eighth streets in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn. “Bona Fide,” in this context, may be one of those names, like “People’s Democratic Republic,” which signal the opposite of what they appear to mean, for early in May there was what The New York Times called a “suspicious fire” on the site, after which the owners tried to demolish the building. The Times ran a picture of the spot in the metro section on May 26, all bricks, cinder blocks and tires.

Demolition was halted when the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission said that 256 Revolutionary War soldiers, casualties of the Battle of Long Island, could be buried in a mass grave there. The urban wasteland may be sacred ground.

The Times ‘ reporter was sketchy about the details of the Battle of Long Island, but happily, another New York writer, Washington Irving, has left an account of it.

In the summer of 1776, the Americans were trying to do the impossible: defend an island city, New York, from the world’s premier naval power. The British based themselves on Staten Island and landed at Gravesend in what is now Brooklyn. Gen. George Washington shifted some troops from Manhattan to a fortified position on Brooklyn Heights, with a line of American troops to the south.

The American right flank was commanded by William Alexander Stirling, a New York native who claimed a Scottish title of nobility. The British House of Lords ruled that his claim was bogus, but the Americans, with republican punctilio, referred to him as “Lord Stirling.” One of the units under his command was a Maryland battalion led by Col. William Smallwood. The Marylanders, about 400 strong, had scarlet and buff uniforms–a dashing sight when the prevailing look in the American Army was grunge. They were nicknamed “macaronis,” an 18th-century word for dandies (as “Yankee Doodle” says: “Stuck a feather in his cap and called it ‘macaroni'”).

Their uniforms would become more scarlet on Aug. 27. The night before, the British had marched around the American left flank at Jamaica. When day dawned, they hit the American forward line from before and behind. Stirling and his troops could still make it back to Brooklyn Heights by crossing Gowanus Creek (now the Gowanus Canal). “There was a bridge and milldam,” wrote Irving, “and the creek might be forded at low water, but no time was to be lost, for the tide was rising.” The British Army was also flowing in rapidly.

“Washington and some of his officers on the hill, who watched every movement, had supposed that Stirling and his troops, finding the case desperate, would surrender in a body without firing. On the contrary, his lordship boldly attacked … with half of Smallwood’s battalion while the rest of his troops retreated across the creek. Washington wrung his hands in agony at the sight. ‘Good God!’ cried he, ‘what brave fellows I must this day lose!'” The musical 1776 quotes this line slightly out of context; this is the source.

“It was indeed a desperate fight,” Irving went on, “and now Smallwood’s macaronis showed their game spirit. They were repeatedly broken, but as often rallied and renewed the fight.”

The British brought up reinforcements. “Only five companies of Smallwood’s battalion were now in action. There was a warm and close engagement for nearly 10 minutes … Broken and disordered, they rallied in a piece of woods and made a second attack. They were again overpowered with numbers. Some were surrounded and bayoneted in a field of Indian corn.”

The victorious British hesitated to storm Brooklyn Heights, and while they paused, George Washington managed to pull back to Manhattan, to fight another day–and to lose, and lose, until finally, at year’s end, he managed to pull the Battle of Trenton out of his hat. Then the following year, he lost some more. His record for the war was three wins and four losses, with one draw. It’s a good thing war is not the best out of seven. More than half of Colonel Smallwood’s troops did not live to see the victory. They slumber beneath the Bona Fide Fuel Company.

We use the word “decimate” to refer to awful losses. Decimate literally means a loss of one in 10. The Marylanders–who, surrounded and outnumbered, attacked twice–lost about two out of three. That was the survival rate of the Titanic . Leonardo DiCaprio could play Colonel Smallwood; Harvey Keitel could be Lord Stirling. But who for Washington? Who but Warren Beatty?

That little patch of Brooklyn is a solemn corrective for many of us. Seven weeks before the Battle of Long Island, Washington’s troops had been read the Declaration of Independence, that document beloved of politicians and columnists looking for a little rhetorical tailwind. It also means something, and the macaronis knew what it meant. But if they and their comrades had not fought and died, it would only be words. Right ideas are necessary, not sufficient.

The struggle over the spot also throws a bleak and unsparing light on the cult of self-esteem–what we teach our kids between lessons in recycling and grief counseling when some little bastard shoots up the cafeteria. The cult of self-esteem never asks whether the self to be esteemed has done anything estimable. But don’t blame the kids. Much adult public life is self-esteem defined collectively. We spend our civic life in T-shirts blazoned with the message Kiss Me, I’m [fill in the group].

Even our historical sense is too often self-esteem projected backwards. In the same metro section that reported on the graves, another Times reporter called the fight between New York and New Jersey for Ellis Island a struggle “over the very soul of America.” I think it is something to pull up one’s roots and start a new life in a new world. But the more serious question is, What kind of life did you then lead? The soul of America, if it has one, is not at Ellis Island–or Plymouth Rock–but places like Third Avenue in Brooklyn.

In Brooklyn, a Lesson in Sacrifice