Dig in N.Y. could re­veal lost grave of famed Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War sol­diers

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - MARY­LAND BY TIM PRUDENTE

Two cen­turies af­ter the blood­i­est battle of the Amer­i­can Revo­lu­tion, ar­chae­ol­o­gists are dig­ging up a con­crete lot in Brook­lyn to set­tle a mystery over the mass grave of famed Mary­land sol­diers.

Known as the “Mary­land 400,” the sol­diers’ stand on the bat­tle­field in 1776 earned Mary­land the dis­tinc­tion of the “Old Line State.” The young men from Bal­ti­more, An­napo­lis and be­yond died while stop­ping the Bri­tish from quash­ing Amer­ica’s re­bel­lion just as it be­gan.

The city of New York bought the va­cant lot at Ninth Street and Third Av­enue long pre­sumed to con­ceal the Mary­lan­ders’ bones. The city plans to build a pre kinder­gar­den school there. Preser­va­tion­ists re­quested an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal in­ves­ti­ga­tion be­fore any con­struc­tion be­gins.

“They played a ma­jor role in sav­ing the Amer­i­can Revo­lu­tion,” said Bob Fur­man, an author and pres­i­dent of the Brook­lyn Preser­va­tion Coun­cil. “They de­serve bet­ter than what they have got­ten.”

What they have got­ten, Fur­man says, is an undig­ni­fied rest­ing place. He spent years gath­er­ing his­tor­i­cal records — deeds, maps, news­pa­per ar­ti­cles and let­ters — that sug­gest the Mary­lan­ders’ re­mains may rest be­neath the con­crete, lo­cated next to an Amer­i­can Le­gion post in north­west Brook­lyn.

En­closed by a chain-link fence and tagged with graf­fiti, the va­cant lot it­self of­fers no sign of the bones pre­sumed buried be­low. For years, the only hint of hal­lowed ground was a plac­ard hang­ing next door: “Here lie buried 256 Mary­land sol­diers who fell in the Battle of Brook­lyn.”

New York State of­fi­cials ac­knowl­edged the site when they hung the plac­ard in 1952. Half a cen­tury later, they in­stalled a se­cond sign that des­ig­nates the lot “pre­sumed” burial grounds.

Over the years, at­tempts to ex­hume the lot have been mostly blocked by its pri­vate own­ers. His­to­ri­ans have ques­tioned whether a mass grave of the Mary­lan­ders ac­tu­ally ex­ists. The the­ory re­mained largely untested un­til now.

New York’s State His­toric Preser­va­tion Of­fice re­quested the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sur­vey, and crews be­gan dig­ging last month.

An ar­chae­o­log­i­cal re­port is due af­ter the dig. A New York schools spokesman couldn’t say when the re­port will come, but his­to­ri­ans from Mary­land to New York await the find­ings.

“There are some peo­ple who are very cer­tain that there is a mass grave to find. I don’t know that there is . . . sim­ply be­cause they would have been killed in dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions,” said Owen Lourie, a his­to­rian with the Mary­land State Archives. He runs the archives’ Mary­land 400 re­search project.

Four hun­dred may not rep­re­sent their ac­tual num­bers, Lourie said. Re­searchers be­lieve that about 250 of the Mary­lan­ders were killed or cap­tured. Soon af­ter their heroic stand, the reg­i­ment’s leg­end spread.

Brook­lyn was a swamp in 1776, and the Mary­lan­ders ac­tu­ally fell in battle about six blocks north­east of the va­cant lot, said Kim­berly Maier, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Old Stone House & Wash­ing­ton Park his­toric site ded­i­cated to rev­o­lu­tion­ary Brook­lyn.

“I hate to dis­ap­point you — there is no mass grave,” she said. “The Bri­tish and Dutch would have tra­di­tion­ally buried traitors where they fell.”

But it’s pre­cisely the swampi­ness of the bat­tle­field that causes some to spec­u­late about the va­cant lot. It was once a wooded is­land in the swamp and could have been the only dry ground suit­able for burial.

An 1835 farm deed refers to a grave­yard there, wrote Wil­liam Parry, an an­thro­pol­ogy pro­fes­sor at Hunter Col­lege in New York, in a 2013 study of the grounds.

Fear­some Ger­man mer­ce­nar­ies known as Hes­sians fought along­side the Bri­tish. Ac­cord­ing to Parry, one Bri­tish of­fi­cer wrote, “Some of the Hes­sians told me they had buried be­tween 400 and 500 in one pit.”

The lot has also re­mained mostly un­touched in the rede­vel­op­ment of Brook­lyn.

“A thor­ough search needs to be made,” said Fur­man, of the Brook­lyn Preser­va­tion Coun­cil.

In the sum­mer of 1776, Bri­tish war­ships sailed for New York in the largest fleet since the Span­ish Ar­mada. About 22,000 troops marched from the shores of Brook­lyn.

Gen. George Wash­ing­ton amassed his Con­ti­nen­tal Army to de­fend the strate­gic New York har­bor. Out­num­bered 2 to 1, the Amer­i­cans formed a semi­cir­cle with a reg­i­ment of about 950 Mary­lan­ders an­chor­ing the right end. They were in their early 20s, these farm­ers, trades­men and sons from wealthy An­napo­lis fam­i­lies. Oth­ers mus­tered from Western Mary­land to the Eastern Shore. “Men with ab­so­lutely no com­bat ex­pe­ri­ence,” Lourie said.

The fight­ing erupted be­fore sun­rise Aug. 27, 1776. Bri­tish forces over­whelmed the left end of the Amer­i­can line, and the for­ma­tion col­lapsed into panic and con­fu­sion. Amer­i­can com­man­ders ordered a re­treat. Amid the chaos and mus­ket smoke, half the Mary­land reg­i­ment re­mained, about 400 men.

The Mary­lan­ders drew to­gether un­der their Bal­ti­more-born com­man­der, Maj. Morde­cai Gist. Against sui­ci­dal odds, they charged again and again.

Their stand held the Bri­tish at bay while Wash­ing­ton’s army es­caped to fight again. Since that time, Mary­land’s proud ti­tle of the “Old Line State” has been stamped on coins and painted on road signs.

“To be able to iden­tify the fi­nal rest­ing place of the Mary­land he­roes would be a tremen­dous find,” said re­tired Maj. Gen. James Ad­kins, for­mer com­man­der of the Mary­land Na­tional Guard and first vice pres­i­dent of the Mary­land So­ci­ety Sons of the Amer­i­can Revo­lu­tion.

For­mer gov­er­nor Martin O’Mal­ley vis­ited the Brook­lyn bat­tle­field about four years ago and met with mem­bers of the Amer­i­can Le­gion next to the lot. To­day, the mem­bers are watch­ing the dig next door closely.

“Ev­ery­body’s all hopped up and ex­cited and hop­ing they find the re­mains,” said Peter DeAn­ge­lis, an 85-year-old Korean War vet­eran.

The veter­ans have qui­etly served as ste­wards over the pre­sumed burial ground for decades. . Each year, they as­sem­ble with their ri­fles to read the names of the Mary­lan­ders, and some­one rings a bell softly be­tween each name.

Even if the dig re­veals noth­ing, the veter­ans say they will con­tinue their small salute each year to the men of the Mary­land 400, wher­ever they may rest.

The Mary­land 400 “played a ma­jor role in sav­ing the Amer­i­can Revo­lu­tion. They de­serve bet­ter than what they have got­ten.” Bob Fur­man, pres­i­dent of the Brook­lyn Preser­va­tion Coun­cil

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