Shabby memorial gets face lift

August 20, 1991|By Jay Merwin | Jay Merwin,Evening Sun Staff

Underneath the pavement and the car repair shops at Third Avenue and Eighth Street in Brooklyn, N.Y., lie the remains of 256 Marylanders who died protecting the Continental Army's retreat from almost certain annihilation during the Battle of Long Island in 1776.

Nothing has marked the site for years. But a mile away, a monument to the unit, known as the "Maryland 400," was until recently gathering graffiti, stains and an ever-shabbier look.

But the Maryland Military Monuments Commission is spending $35,000 this year in state and private money to restore it.

On Aug. 27, the 215th anniversary of the battle, Gov. William Donald Schaefer is to lead a 250-member contingent of Marylanders, including Secretary of State Winfield M. Kelly Jr. and several Maryland National Guard officials, to Brooklyn to rededicate the monument.

The man who drew Maryland's money and governor to tend to the memory of its fallen sons is a Brooklynite living a few blocks from the burial site. When he was growing up in the Park Slope neighborhood in the 1930s, William Ellwood had once seen a marker at the burial site, and a group of Marylanders visiting it once to hold a ceremony there.

"Don't ask me why it stuck in my mind," Ellwood says. But after retiring in 1986, he felt compelled to look for the marker he remembered. Finding none, he thought, "My God, this is TC disgrace. This is a historical place, and there's nothing there."

So in 1987, he wrote to city, state and federal agencies, and to Schaefer, the one who eventually sent money.

The Maryland 400 distinguished themselves by holding off a much larger British force intent on snuffing out George Washington's army and ending the American Revolution a little more than a year after it began. Their repeated charges against the attacking force are credited with allowing the safe retreat of Washington's army. Their action, and that of other Maryland troops, led Washington to give Maryland the nickname of "Old Line State."

In response to Ellwood's letter, Col. Ernest Snyder of the Maryland National Guard visited Third Avenue and Eighth Street, but rejected the idea of a marker there because so many others before and after the one that Ellwood remembered had all been covered, swiped or lost. Snyder says a local merchant warned him: "Anything you put up there, in 24 hours it will be painted or gone."

The commission next designed a small monument for the nearby Byrne Park, where the Marylanders had charged British ranks around the Cortelyou House, which still stands, partly restored, partly replicated. But Brooklyn authorities objected to the proposal as too suggestive of a tombstone, Snyder says.

But Snyder was also aware of the existing monument in Prospect Park that had succumbed to the ravages of time and vandalism since it was erected in 1895. The commission decided to restore that.

Along the way, Snyder dealt with small but dedicated groups of Brooklynites who have honored Maryland's finest hour in the War of Independence for years in ceremonies at the burial site, at the monument and at Greenwood Cemetery.

"We try to give them as much recognition as we can," says Virgil Pontone, a member of one of the groups, the Society of Old Brooklynites. "They should not become unknown. Never."

Brooklyn's borough president recently proclaimed the area "Maryland Square." But Martha Willett, a member of the Battle of Long Island Memorial Committee, whose predecessors have honored the Marylanders at Greenwood Cemetery for 50 years, still wants a marker at the burial site.

The city won't do it, she says. "You must have read New York doesn't have any money." Which is why Maryland's monument commission, created by Schaefer in 1989, had to pay for the restoration.

The commission has restored 20 Maryland war monuments to date, including 10 at the site of the Antietam battleground in Sharpsburg. Snyder says the Brooklyn restoration is the second out-of-state project -- the first was a Civil War monument to Marylanders in Star Tannery, Va. This is the first to add state funds to the commission's normal budget of donations from patriotic and veterans groups, businesses and individuals.

The monument was designed by architect Stanford White and built for $3,000 donated by private citizens, mostly Marylanders.

The current restoration, which is still going on behind a security fence, will cost $35,000. Of that, $20,000 was public money, a grant from the Maryland Historical Trust.

"This commission has responsibility for all Maryland monuments, wherever they may be," Snyder says.

Enclosed by a wrought-iron fence, the Maryland 400 monument is a 27-foot column of polished granite with a marble orb on top. Restoring it involved cleaning and fixing broken, stained and defaced pieces of marble and granite, replacing missing brass letters and refurbishing rusted parts of the iron fence.

On one face of the monument's square base is an inscription honoring the Marylanders who "saved the American Army." On the opposite face appears a comment attributed to Washington as he watched the Marylanders hurl themselves at the enemy: "Good God! What brave fellows I must this day lose."

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