J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, October 27, 2016

“It would mortify Mr. Adams and please Mr. Washington”

The Philadelphia Dancing Assembly planned to honor George Washington’s birthday with a ball on 22 Feb 1798, but then elections were scheduled on that Thursday. So the group postponed their event for a day.

Meanwhile, President John Adams had declined his invitation. On 23 February, the Aurora General Advertiser published that response with some editorial commentary about Adams’s “impolite & arrogant terms.” Its printer, Benjamin Franklin Bache, wrote sarcastically that he did not expect “that the president of the U. States would so far forget the dignity of his station as to mingle with shop keepers.”

Adams had privately written that one problem with such birthday balls was “those Things give offence to the plain People of our Country, upon whose Friendship I have always depended. They are practised by the Elegant and the rich for their own Ends, which are not always the best.” So each side was accusing the other of being elitist.

The dispute also had a personal dimension. Eliza Custis Law, Martha Washington’s eldest granddaughter, was in Philadelphia that month, urging all gentlemen to attend the birthday ball. The Federalists would normally have been happy to do so, but now that seemed disloyal to President Adams. Meanwhile, their Jeffersonian rivals were for once all about having a big party for Washington.

On the evening after the ball, the Swiss-born businessman Albert Gallatin (shown here) wrote to his wife about the situation:
Do you want to know the fashionable news of the day? The President of the United States has written, in answer to the managers of the ball in honor of G. Washington’s birthday, that he took the earliest opportunity of informing them that he declined going.

The court is in a prodigious uproar about that important event. The ministers and their wives do not know how to act upon the occasion; the friends of the old court say it is dreadful, a monstrous insult to the late President; the officers and office-seekers try to apologize for Mr. Adams by insisting that he feels conscientious scruples against going to places of that description, but it is proven against him that he used to go when Vice-President.

How they will finally settle it I do not know; but to come to my own share of the business. A most powerful battery was opened against me to induce me to go to the said ball; it would be remarked; it would look well; it would show that we democrats, and I specially, felt no reluctance in showing my respect to the person of Mr. Washington, but that our objections to levees and to birthday balls applied only to its being a Presidential, anti-republican establishment, and that we were only afraid of its being made a precedent; and then it would mortify Mr. Adams and please Mr. Washington.

All those arguments will appear very weak to you when on paper, but they were urged by a fine lady, by Mrs. Law, and when supported by her handsome black eyes they appeared very formidable. Yet I resisted and came off conqueror, although I was, as a reward, to lead her in the room, to dance with her, &c.; all which, by the by, were additional reasons for my staying at home. Our club have given me great credit for my firmness, and we have agreed that two or three of us who are accustomed to go to these places, [John] Langdon, [Richard] Brent, &c., will go this time to please the Law family.
Gallatin was pleased to have won the respect of his Jeffersonian colleagues, but he seems to have been equally eager to gain credit from his wife for resisting Law’s “handsome black eyes.”

The young, first-term Massachusetts Congressman Harrison Gray Otis explained the Federalist side of the controversy to his wife:
The Birth night ball of last evening was I am told respectably attended, tho by no means equal in splendour & numbers to the last. . . . The President did not attend, & his refusal has given considerable offence, even to some of the federal party.

To be sure his apology was rather formal, but I think he acted rightly upon principle. As President, he ought to know of no distinction among private citizens, whatever may be their merit or virtue; & having never received from the Philadelphians, the slightest mark of attention, he was in my mind quite excusable for declining to be the pageant, to do honor to another.

Many families who usually increase the flutter of the beau monde were absent. The Morrisites of course. The Binghams who have lately lost a relation, & the Chews on account of a Mrs. Pemberton who died last Sunday; I am told too that the whole house was very damp and believe I have not lost much.
Abigail Adams declared that by leaking her husband’s note the Jeffersonians had “defeated their own plans. as soon as it was known, it went through the city like an Electrical shock—and the Ball was meager enough, so much so, that tho it was by subscription I have heard but 15 Ladies were present.”

TOMORROW: What Jefferson himself thought of this all.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

“Celebrating Birth Nights, not of a President, but a Private citizen?”

When we left President John Adams in 1797, he had privately expressed disapproval of the balls that Philadelphians had regularly held on George Washington’s birthday.

“In Countries where Birth is respected and where Authority goes with it, there is congruity enough in such Feast: But in Elective Governments the Question is more doubtful,” Adams wrote; and “those Things give offence to the plain People of our Country.”

As a result, when President Adams’s first birthday in office came on 30 Oct 1797, there was no birthday ball in Philadelphia.

Then February 1798 rolled around. Even in Boston there was another public celebration of Washington—a public dinner with music.

On 12 February the leaders of the Philadelphia Dancing Assembly sent Adams an invitation to the Washington’s birthday ball they had scheduled for the 22nd.

The President quickly responded, in his wife’s words, “that he had received the card of invitation, and took the earliest opportunity to inform them, that he declined accepting it.” That was all he had to say about the subject.

Abigail Adams said more in a private letter to her sister Mary Cranch on 15 February. For the First Lady, whether such a celebration was appropriate in a republic was less important than how it made the second President seem secondary.
These Philadelphians are a strange set of people, making pretensions to give Laws of politeness and propriety to the union. they have the least feeling of real genuine politeness of any people with whom I am acquainted.

as an instance of it, they are about to celebrate, not the Birth day of the first Majestrate of the union as such, but of General Washingtons Birth day, and have had the politeness to send invitations to the President Lady and family to attend it. The President of the united states to attend the celebration of the birth day in his publick Character, of a private Citizen!

for in no other light can General Washington be now considerd, how ever Good how ever great his Character, which no person more respects than his successor, but how could the President appear at their Ball and assembly, but in a secondary Character, when invited there, to be held up in that light by all foreign Nations.

but these people look not beyond their own important selves. I do not know when my feelings of contempt have been more calld forth. . . . that the Virginians should celebrate the day is natural & proper if they please, and so may any others who chuse, but the propriety of doing it in the Capital in the Metropolis of America as these proud Phylidelphians have publickly named it, and inviting the Head of the Nation to come and do it too, in my view is ludicrous beyond compare.

I however bite my Lips, and say nothing, but I wanted to vent my indignation upon paper. you must not however expose it, nor me. it will be call’d pride it will be calld mortification. I despise them both, as it respects myself—but as it respects the Character I hold—I will not knowingly degrade it—
To her son-in-law William Smith, Abigail later added:
In what light would such a step be looked upon by foreign Nations? The President the chief Majestrate of an independant Nation, placing himself in a secondary Character, celebrating Birth Nights, not of a President, but a Private citizen?
However, the organizers of that ball and Washington’s relatives in town were determined to go through with the celebration. And the Adams administration’s rivals were determined to make his response into a political issue.

TOMORROW: Birthday bashing.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Call for Papers on “The Adams Family and the American Revolution”

The Sons of the American Revolution has announced that its 2017 Annual Conference on the American Revolution will take place in Quincy. In honor of the 250th anniversary of the birth of John Quincy Adams, the theme will be “The Adams Family and the American Revolution.” The gathering will also honor Lyman H. Butterfield, founding editor of the Adams Papers.

Here’s the call for papers:
John Adams famously wrote that “I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.” The comment seems to describe the story of the family in the generations from John to Henry Adams.

Yet the Adamses, whatever else they did, were political men and women. In 1821, an aging John Adams wrote his grandson George Washington Adams, an aspiring poet, that he must study politics, for “without some knowledge of it you will be always in confusion, blown about by every wind.” Politics were central to the story of the Adams family from the start, and at the foundation of the family’s politics was the American Revolution, a revolution that would create an American republic.

With that in mind, this conference proposes to explore the Adams family’s understanding of the nature, meaning, and significance of the American Revolution over the generations from John and Abigail to Henry and Brooks Adams. It will focus on the way their understanding of the American Revolution shaped their writings and their works from the Writs of Assistance Case in 1761 to Henry Adams’s death in the early 20th Century.

In support of their Congressional mandate to encourage historical research, the Sons of the American Revolution invites paper proposals from graduate students and advanced scholars in history and political science on any topic relating to the Adams family and the American Revolution.
Proposals should include a 250-word abstract of the paper and a short curriculum vitae for the author. They should be submitted to Richard Samuelson, Associate Professor of History, California State University, San Bernardino, by 15 Dec 2016.

The conference is scheduled to take place on 9-11 June 2017. The organizers will cover presenters’ travel and lodging expenses, and offer a $500 stipend. They anticipate collecting the papers in a subsequent printed volume.

TOMORROW: Back to our extended discussion of John Adams and birthday celebrations.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Susanna Rowson’s Birthday Song for Washington

February 1798 was the U.S. of A.’s first February for eight years without George Washington as head of state. As described in recent postings, his birthday the previous year, coming near the end of his second term as President, served as a national send-off.

But in 1798 John Adams was President, and he didn’t think such birthday celebrations were appropriate for a republic. So that February passed quietly, right?

Nope. Americans went on celebrating Washington’s birthday in many ways, as if he were the most important and respected person in the country or something.

Among those celebrants was Susanna Rowson, born in Portsmouth, England, and raised in Hull. After publishing the blockbuster novel Charlotte Temple, she had gone on the stage as an actress and playwright. She made the Federal Street Theatre in Boston her base in 1796, but that business failed the next year. After a brief tour to Rhode Island, Rowson decided to change professions again and start a school for girls.

Thus, it was as a respectable Boston schoolmistress that Susanna Rowson published her “Song. Written for the Celebration of the Birth Day of George Washington, Esq., and Sung on That Occasion, in Boston, February 11th, 1798.” That was the date on the calendar when Washington was born. He’d taken to celebrating the equivalent on the Gregorian calendar, 22 February, but not everyone followed suit.

The song went:
WHEN rising from ocean Columbia appear’d,
MINERVA to JOVE, humbly kneeling, requested
That she, as its patroness, might be rever’d,
And the pow’r to protect it, in her be invested.
Jove nodded assent, pleasure glow’d in her breast,
As rising, the goddess: her will thus exprest
“The sons of Columbia forever shall be
From oppression secure, and from anarchy free.”

Rapture flash’d through the spheres as the mandate went forth,
When MARS and APOLLO, together uniting,
Cried, Sister, thy sons shall be fam’d for their worth,
Their wisdom in peace, and their valour in fighting;
Besides, from among them a chief shall arise,
As a soldier, or statesman, undaunted and wise;
Who would shed his best blood, that Columbia might be,
From oppression secure, and from anarchy free.

Jove, pleas’d with the prospect, majestic arose,
And said, “By ourself, they shall not be neglected;
But ever secure, tho’ surrounded by foes,
By WASHINGTON bravely upheld and protected.
And while Peace and Plenty preside o’er their plains,
While mem’ry exists, or while gratitude reigns,
His name ever lov’d, and remember’d shall be,
While Columbians remain INDEPENDENT and FREE.”
Rowson had written those words to the well-known air “Anacreon in Heaven”—which we’re more familiar with as “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

COMING UP: Meanwhile, in Philadelphia…

Sunday, October 23, 2016

President Adams’s Birthday Celebrated—in Lisbon

Though there was no public observation of President John Adams’s birthday in Philadelphia in 1797, one branch of the small U.S. government definitely celebrated it.

William Loughton Smith was a fervent Federalist from Charleston, South Carolina. I was going to say he was one of the few men named William Smith in early America not related to Abigail Adams, but then I found that they were distant cousins; Abigail’s first patrilineal ancestor in America was William Loughton Smith’s great-great-grandfather.

During the election of 1796, Smith wrote (or perhaps collaborated with Oliver Wolcott, Jr., in writing) an attack on Thomas Jefferson signed “Phocion.” (Lately that has been ascribed to Alexander Hamilton, but contemporaries seem largely agreed that Smith was responsible; Jefferson and his circle even referred to him as “Phocion Smith.”)

As a reward for Smith, President Adams made him the U.S. minister to Portugal. On 21 Oct 1797 Smith wrote back from his new posting to James McHenry, the Secretary of War:
I wrote you since my return to Lisbon, & have therefore nothing to communicate but the account of the Dinner I gave on the 19th. to the Americans here to celebrate the President’s birth-day: I was not perfectly prepared for such an occasion having been only a fortnight in my house; thinking however that it was best to do the thing even imperfectly than to let the Day pass unnoticed, I exerted myself, & made out tolerably well. I enclose you an account of the Celebration which Fenno will publish I am sure with pleasure; the Toasts are on a Separate paper for your information; you will think them not worth publishing.

Among my Guests was a Captain Israel who informed me that he was the Son of the famous Israel Israel:—we were the best friends in the world; I have been told that there were two or three Jacobins [Democratic-Republicans?] present, but they all behaved extremely well; they joined in the Toasts with great zeal & we sang & were very merry; at first they were bashful, but when I set them the example of singing, they threw aside reserve & were very convivial.
The item that Smith wanted McHenry to give to John Fenno, the Boston-born editor of the Federalist Gazette of the United States, reported:
Thursday the 19th. October being the Anniversary of the President’s Birth, was celebrated at Lisbon by Mr. Smith, the Minister of the United States at that Court, who gave on the Occasion an Entertainment at his Hotel at Buenos-Ayres to a numerous and respectable Company of American Captains & Citizens. After sixteen patriotic Toasts intermixed with convivial songs, the Company, having spent the day with great good humor and festivity, broke up at nine o’clock, much pleased with the occasion, which had collected together so many Americans at such a distance from home. All the American vessels in the Harbour were gayly decorated during the day & at twelve o’clock a federal salute of sixteen guns was fired by some of them in honor of the day, and at five in the afternoon was repeated. This Anniversary occurring on a day, highly distinguished in the Annals of the American Revolution by the Surrender of York-town, the recollection of so auspicious an event could not fail to increase the happiness of the Company.
Of course, Smith was celebrating the 19th of October while Adams had long before adopted 30 October as his Gregorian-calendar birthday.

(Smith’s letter was undated when published in the Sewanee Review, but he must have written it in 1797 because that’s the only year in Adams’s administration when “the 19th. October” was a Thursday.)

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Celebrating the President’s Birthday One Last Time

On 22 Feb 1797, Philadelphia celebrated George Washington’s last birthday as President. He had declined to serve another term in the office. After the U.S. of A.’s first partisan election, Vice President John Adams had been elected in his place.

Washington furnished the Dancing Assembly of Philadelphia with this toast:
May the members thereof and the Fair who honor it with their presence long continue in the enjoyment of an amusement so innocent and agreeable.
(Well, the Fitzpatrick edition of Washington’s writings assigned that toast to that year. It may have been earlier.)

On 24 February, John wrote home to his wife Abigail, “The Birthday was affecting and the Night Splendid but tedious to those who were too old to dance.” Which no doubt included himself—though Washington, who enjoyed dancing, was older.

On 4 March, Adams became President. Almost immediately he began to tell people he didn’t want people to make such a big fuss about him. For example, six days later he wrote to Thomas Welsh:
The noisy Clamorous praises are not my object. If they come they will come unsolicited and unwished for, nay deprecated, Birth Night Balls and City dinners would be to me the most humiliating thing in the world, the Votes of Lancaster and York in Pennsylvania have to me a divine Charm than all the treats and Shows that Ever Existed, If any of them are bestowed on me it will be much against the inclination of your friend


You must keep these things in perfect Confidence.
And the day after that he wrote to Abigail about the inaugural ceremony and similar celebrations:
The Feast that Succeeded was one of those Things which are not to my Taste. I am glad you went—I went too. —But those Things give offence to the plain People of our Country, upon whose Friendship I have always depended. They are practised by the Elegant and the rich for their own Ends, which are not always the best. If I could have my Wish there should never be a Show or a feast made for the P. while I hold the office.—My Birth day happens when Congress will never Sit: so that I hope it will never be talked of. These are hints entre nous
Though Adams felt strongly about this issue, he wanted his disapproval to remain private. He might have feared that the people who had organized past ceremonies and Washington himself would feel slighted if they knew.

But the message must have gotten through because when 30 Oct 1797 came around there was no ball to celebrate President Adams’s birthday in Philadelphia.

TOMORROW: Traditions are hard to kill.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Abigail Adams at a Birthday Ball in Boston

In February 1797, the U.S. of A. made plans to celebrate George Washington’s last birthday as President. Some parts of the country were also eager to celebrate the new President who would take office in March, John Adams.

On 17 February, Abigail Adams received an invitation to a banquet and ball in Boston, along with one for her niece Louisa Catherine Smith. The next day, Abigail asked her daughter Nabby to pick out a new dress cap, “a good one proper for me, not a Girlish one.”

“I presume yu will have a Splnded Birth Day,” Abigail wrote to John in Philadelphia; “there are preparations making in Boston to celebrate it. . . . the Note from the Managers requested me to honour them with my attendance, which they should esteem a particular favour, as it is the last publick honour they can Shew the President. thus circumstanced I have determined to attend.”

The ball took place at the Federal Street Theatre, converted into “a magnificent saloon; sumptuously decorated with tapestry hangings; elegantly illuminated with variegated lamps; and fancifully embellished with festoons of artificial flowers.”

Gov. Samuel Adams didn’t attend, and I doubt anyone expected him to; he’d already expressed his disapproval of Boston’s flowering post-independence social scene. Lt. Gov. Moses Gill was deputed to escort in Mrs. Adams at noon. She reported, “His Honours politeness led him to stay untill he had conducted & Seated me at the Supper table. he however escaped as soon after as he could.”

All in all, however, Abigail was pleased with the event:
I do the Managers but Justice when I say, I never saw an assembly conducted with so much order regularity & propriety, I had every reason to be pleased with the marked respect and attention Shewn me. col [Samuel] Bradford, who is really the Beau Nash of ceremonies even marshalld his company [of Cadets], and like the Garter King at Arms calld them over as they proceeded into the Grand Saloon, hung with the prostrate Pride, of the Nobility of France.

[James] Swan had furnishd them with a compleat set of Gobelin Tapresty, as the Ladies only could be Seated at Table with about 20 or 30 of the principle Gentlemen the rest were requested to retire to the Boxes untill the Ladies had Supped, when they left the Table & took their Seats in the Boxes whilst the Gentlemen Sup’d all was order and Decency about half after one, the company returnd to the Ball Room, and I retired with those who accompanied me to the Ball. most of the rest of company remaind untill 4 oclock. . . .

the Seat assignd to the Lady of the President Elect was Hung with Gobeline Tapestry, and in the center of the Room, conspicuous only for the hanging, on my Right the manager placed the Lady of Judge [John] Lowel. and on my Left the Lady of Judge [Increase] Sumner. Judge [Francis] Dana, but not his Lady was present, when I was conducted into the Ball Room the Band were orderd to play the President March.

the Toast were only 6 in Number. . . . every toast save one made the Saloon resound with an universal Clap and a united huza. that was the vice President Elect, I was sorry it was so cold and faint,
Despite the Adamses’ political differences with Thomas Jefferson, Abigail still considered him a personal friend. She didn’t make her break with him until 1804 when she read James Thomson Callender’s revelations of how Jefferson had orchestrated press attacks on her husband while assuring the couple he did no such thing.

One lady, Abigail said, didn’t have a good time at the ball, feeling “mortified & placed in the back ground. . . . how could she expect any thing else?” That was “Mrs [Dorothy] Scott,” the remarried widow of the late governor John Hancock, no longer wife of the state’s most acclaimed politician.

TOMORROW: What President Adams thought of the Philadelphia ceremonies.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

“The Birth Day has been celebrated very sufficiently”

Boston 1775 has already explored the early American celebrations of George Washington’s birthday: when the first public ceremonies were reported, what date people chose to celebrate given the shift from Julian to Gregorian calendar since Washington’s birth, and what such celebrations meant for masculinity in Virginia.

When Washington became President, that birthday celebration turned into something very close to a national holiday. On 23 Feb 1796, John Adams reported to Abigail about the previous day’s observation in Philadelphia:
Yesterday was Birth Day and a Parade there was. At Night a magnificent Ball which you will read in the News Papers. A thousand People in a vast Room a Circle of 80 feet Diameter.
On 3 March he added an observation about the celebrations in Massachusetts; he had read about the preparations for them in a newspaper.
I see that at Boston and Cambridge &c. the Birth Day was celebrated with great Splendor as it was here. The old song is verified as I always said it would be. “The more he is envied the higher he[’]ll rise.” Increase of abuse will produce an increase of Salutation.
The editors of the Adams Papers identified the source of that quotation as a song published in London in 1788, the last year John and Abigail lived in Britain. It was “an old song” as John wrote, however. It appeared in The Weekly Amusement for 15 Feb 1735 (N.S.), and thus was older than he was. That version concluded: “Let’s merrily pass life’s remainder away; / Upheld by our friends, we our foes may despise; / For the more we are envy’d, the higher we rise.”

On 28 February, meanwhile, Abigail reported from Massachusetts:
you will see by the Centinel that the Presidents Birth Day Was celebrated, with more than usual Festivity in Boston, and many other places. in the Toasts drank, they have for once done justice to the V P. it is a Toast that looks, I conceive to a future contemplated event.
On 5 March she sent John her report from Quincy:
The Honours done to the President on his Birth Day have been very magnificent. At Boston and Cambridge very striking. Here it was all Dance and Glare. I suppose the Remembrance of the V. P. on those occasions considering that for the most part they forget him is with a View to the Reelection approaching.
Abigail expected Washington to be reelected later that year, and John to remain the party’s choice as Vice President, his talents neglected.

But on 9 March, John had some more observations to share:
The Birth Day has been celebrated very sufficiently. I have much doubt of the Propriety of these Celebrations. In Countries where Birth is respected and where Authority goes with it, there is congruity enough in such Feast: But in Elective Governments the Question is more doubtful. Probably the Practice will not be continued after another Year.
As John hinted, monarchies celebrated the birthdays of their heads of state. The President’s birthday was an echo of the king’s and queen’s birthdays during British rule, and he wasn’t entirely comfortable with that. The last sentence quoted hints at a bigger change: what John called on 1 March ”the Inclination of the Chief to retire,” though he added that Washington might yet be talked out of that plan.

In late February, Washington had spoken with Alexander Hamilton about drafting what became his Farewell Address. To be sure, they were starting with the draft of a similar statement the President had asked James Madison to draft four years before; Washington had then talked about retiring after one term and changed his mind. But this time, he really meant it. President Washington’s next birthday, in February 1797, would be his last in public office.

TOMORROW: The first transition, and what that meant for birthdays.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

John Adams Contemplates His Birthday

John Adams was born in Braintree on 19 Oct 1735, Old Style, which was 30 October, New Style. That shift was the result of the British Empire’s belated adoption of the Gregorian calendar.

Adams adopted the new date, but he remembered the old one, as shown by his diary entry for 19 Oct 1772:
The Day of the Month reminds me of my Birth day, which will be on the 30th. I was born Octr. 19. 1735. Thirty Seven Years, more than half the Life of Man, are run out.—What an Atom, an Animalcule I am!—The Remainder of my Days I shall rather decline, in Sense, Spirit, and Activity. My Season for acquiring Knowledge is past. And Yet I have my own and my Childrens Fortunes to make. My boyish Habits, and Airs are not yet worn off.
At thirty-seven Adams thought he’d lived half his life, and had a little crisis about it. In the preceding year he’d actually suffered a breakdown of his health or spirits. Following a very busy 1770 in Boston, he’d decided to retire from politics and move the family back to Braintree. He even felt bad enough to take some time off work for a trip all the way to the medicinal springs at Stafford, Connecticut.

But within a month after that birthday in 1772, Adams was resolving:
I shall remove my Family to Boston, after residing in Braintree about 19 Months. I have recovered a Degree of Health by this Excursion into the Country, tho I am an infirm Man yet. I hope I have profited by Retirement and Reflection!—and learned in what manner to live in Boston! How long I shall be able to stay in the City, I know not; if my Health should again decline, I must return to Braintree and renounce the Town entirely. I hope however to be able to stay there many Years!
He had more than half a century ahead of him.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Looking at Brooklyn Then and Now

While speaking in Morristown last week, I had the pleasure of meeting Jason R. Wickersty, a National Park Service ranger.

He just wrote an article about the Battle of Brooklyn for the latest issue of Hallowed Ground, the magazine of the Civil War Trust: “Lost Battlefield: The Disastrous Battle for New York.”

Wickersty provides a straightforward account of what led up to that major battle and how it turned out. Here’s a taste:
The opening gambit came on August 22, 1776. Covered by the guns of five men-of-war, 15,000 British and Hessian soldiers made an amphibious landing at Gravesend Bay on the southwestern shore of Long Island. The plan, conceived by General Henry Clinton, was to split the army into three divisions. Two divisions would make feints directly against the Americans entrenched on the wooded hills of the Heights of Guana (in the area of Greenwood Cemetery and Prospect Park today). The largest division, 10,000 men personally under the command of General Clinton, would take an unguarded pass on the left of the American line and turn the flank by surprise.

When battle was joined on August 27, the plan worked perfectly. The British smashed through American positions, sending the mostly raw troops fleeing for their lives. Washington watched helplessly from Brooklyn Heights as a regiment of Marylanders sacrificed themselves in repeated charges to buy time for the routed army to escape, lamenting, “What brave fellows must I lose this day!”
Wickersty also took the photograph above of one place where the Maryland regiment fought, now public basketball courts. That change illustrates the theme of this magazine—that some important American battlefields have already been “lost,” in the sense of not being commemorated as parkland or visible memorials.

Of course, the process of putting those lands back into productive use started early. Most of the earthworks that surrounded besieged Boston were plowed under within a generation or two; the Dana family of Cambridge was unusual in preserving a few in what is now a city park. A few decades after the war, there was new public interest in putting up memorials, such as the big obelisk for Bunker Hill and the smaller obelisk at Concord’s North Bridge. Meanwhile, America’s population, and especially its urban population, was growing tremendously.

The idea of preserving great swaths of landscape more or less as they looked during the time of a battle—our modern idea of “hallowed ground”—is made possible by our move away from an agricultural economy. And it’s worked best in rural or semi-rural areas. A place like Charlestown or Brooklyn has been changed for good. Fort Stanwix is an exceedingly rare example of recreating an eighteenth-century landscape within a city, and that city had to hit hard times first.

Brooklyn, in contrast, has been bustling for decades, and never more vibrant than today. Indeed, Brooklyn has fed far more into American culture than that disastrous battle of 1776, and our image of it probably has a lot to do with public basketball courts.