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Md. soldiers' sacrifice remembered Brooklyn: The 256 Marylanders who lost their lives in a 1776 New York battle rest in one of the most forlorn military gravesites in the nation. Members of an American Legion post fight to keep their memory alive.

August 27, 1996|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Stirling was captured. But the bulk of the American right escaped across the creek to Washington's inner defenses before noon, when the Marylanders were silenced.

Washington watched the fighting from a hilltop to the west. "My God, what brave men I must this day lose!" he told an aide.

Of the Maryland 400, 256 were dead. More than 100 were wounded or captured. Only 10 made it safely back to the American lines, according to historian John J. Gallagher's new book, "The Battle of Brooklyn 1776."

Later, Washington would call the time purchased by the Marylanders' lives "that hour more precious to American Liberty than any other."

Exhausted, the British delayed their assault on the Americans' main fortifications in Brooklyn. Two nights later, under the cover of a storm, Washington and his surviving troops slipped away across the river to Manhattan. The British would later capture the city, but Washington's retreat preserved his army to fight again.

A century later, the trenches where the British buried the Maryland dead were overgrown but still visible. In the 1890s, however, the site was covered by 12 feet of fill. It became a coal yard, then a paint factory. Historic markers were repeatedly vandalized or lost.

Today, Franco Cicero and Julio Najarro, and sometimes Charlie Lopez, balance tires and do wheel alignments over the gravesite. They work for C 'n' C Auto Specialists, which now occupies part of the property. Cicero is patient with those who come by and ask questions, but he reminds them that it's not just the repair shop that sits on the graves. "It's all around here," he said, waving his arm from beneath a truck.

The late James A. Kelly, once a deputy Kings County clerk, fought for 40 years to have Congress declare the site a national shrine so more people would know about it.

In 1951 he called the site "more sacred than the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier [at Arlington National Cemetery] because Maryland's soldiers died to establish what that [unknown] soldier lived under." He wanted the buildings, dilapidated even then, replaced by a memorial park. But it never happened.

The old Cortelyou House, sometimes called the Old Stone House of Gowanus, fared better. Demolished by a Gatling gun demonstration and buried in the 1890s, its stones were rediscovered by ditch diggers in 1933. In 1934, they were used to reconstruct the house at J. J. Byrne Park, a few blocks from its original site.

New York City planner Robert Moses had toilets installed and a locker room. More recently, it has undergone a $217,000 face lift, with new toilets, offices and recreation rooms for the neighborhood park.

Several organizations in Brooklyn now work to preserve the memory of the conflict. The First Battle Revival Alliance will open an information center at Cortel-you House in November and offers programs in Brooklyn schools to connect students to the history that surrounds them.

The Society of Old Brooklynites held a memorial service Saturday for those who fell and for those who were captured and later died aboard disease-ridden British prison ships.

On Sunday, Herb Yellin of the revival alliance led Brooklynites on a tour of battle sites and monuments in Prospect Park. The Maryland memorial was one of the stops.

The Battle of Long Island Committee also held ceremonies Sunday for the Maryland 400 on Victory Mount -- an old battle site in today's Green Wood Cemetery.

"Had it not been for those soldiers," said John "Johnny O" Oszustowicz, a member of the Rawley Legion post, "we would have lost maybe the whole war. It's a tribute to them that we feel we have to keep the history of the neighborhood."

The soldiers themselves sleep on beneath the city, just off Third Avenue, under a Maryland flag.

Pub Date: 8/27/96

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