New York's Revolutionary War Sites: Just Squint, and It's 1776
New York's Revolutionary War Sites: Just Squint, and It's 1776By DAVID CARR - New York Times - 12/23/2005AT the crest of a hill in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn one day in early December, a gust of wind makes the just-below-freezing temperatures seem just above tolerable. A voice - three parts honey, two parts gravitas with a grain or two of gravel thrown in - rises to be heard above the wind. It is the voice of God, only friendlier.
"It was like the parting of the seas," said David McCullough, the historian and familiar narrator of television epics, as we looked out on Brooklyn below and Manhattan in the distance.
He was recalling the retreat of Washington's army across the East River on Aug. 29, 1776, a daring escape from advancing British forces. The harbor was filled with a huge force of British ships, but a strong wind kept them anchored, unable to sail upstream to engage the Americans. The Americans gathered small boats for the river crossing, and a fog allowed this makeshift armada to leave Long Island safely. "It was a miracle," Mr. McCullough said. "If the wind had been blowing in a different direction that day, we'd all be sipping tea and singing 'God Save the Queen.' "
The characteristic twist at the end, rendered with an unforced twinkle, is part of what makes Mr. McCullough, 72, the people's historian - an irresistible combination of rigorous researcher, patriot and storyteller. His current bestseller, "1776," a history of what he calls "the most important year in the most important war in American history," takes as one of its chief preoccupations the City of New York and the critical battles - mostly lost, but all part of the path to ultimate victory - in places where New Yorkers now hail cabs and place Lotto bets.
New York is a relatively ancient place in the context of the New World, as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority found out recently when it ran smack dab into a wall dating from 1760 or earlier while digging a subway tunnel under Battery Park. But as a culture, New York is far more concerned with making history than preserving it. Most of its legacy as a nexus of critical events has been paved over. But Mr. McCullough, the abettor of American history, with two Pulitzers and two National Book Awards, has no trouble seeing it on this hill in Brooklyn, woodlands in 1776 and a cemetery since 1838. "It is all still happening for me," he said, gesturing out toward the Manhattan skyline. "A lot of what is here vanishes in my eye and I can put myself in that place and that time."
Many readers have seen great swaths of American history through those eyes, eyes that have been drawn to New York time and again. The Brooklyn Bridge, which lay below us, was the subject of the book that brought David McCullough into the public consciousness to stay. He has rendered John Adams and Theodore Roosevelt, men with large footprints in New York, into well-received biographies. Now as he annotated the city landscape for my benefit, storytelling his way through New York's critical role in the American Revolution, I was in his, and its, thrall. I started to see it, too.
When he is not pushing history through his Underwood typewriter in the office behind his house on Martha's Vineyard, Mr. McCullough has often given voice to the past as a narrator of Ken Burns's documentaries and host of "The American Experience" on PBS. He has a well-earned reputation as a nice man, and there is no bottom to his enthusiasm and curiosity.
At the cemetery, he led me to the statue of Minerva commemorating the Battle of Brooklyn, a horrific and demoralizing loss for the Americans, who had followed the British down to New York after brilliantly maneuvering them out of Boston. "Here and along the slopes of Greenwoods hills," the inscription below Minerva reads, "our patriots for the first time faced their foe in open field; and we stood the test."
Mr. McCullough is driven from book to book, he explained, closing his collar against the chill, by basic questions: "Who the hell are we? Where did we come from and how did we get to where we are today?"
He took my arm and walked me along a path at the top of the hill. Washington may have ridden his horse along this ridge, he said in hushed tones, taking in the woeful conditions of the makeshift American army and surveying the might of the 400 British ships in the harbor. "It must have been breathtaking."Written after the 9/11 attacks, "1776" seems intended as a reminder of Americans' ability to face down and triumph over unspeakable challenges. It leans hard on the journals of the farmers, fishermen and tinkers who fought the war - there were few contemporary published accounts of the struggle America seemed so unlikely to win. One of the more compelling journals was kept by John Greenwood, a 16-year-old who walked from Maine to Boston to join the fight as a fifer, playing at taverns along the way. "They used to ask me where I came from and where I was going to, and when I told them I was going to fight for my country, there were astonished such a little boy, and alone, should have such courage," said the journal as quoted in "1776."
The Revolution in New York City (December 23, 2005) Jeffrey I. Richman, the historian of Green-Wood Cemetery, who was along on our walk, mentioned that John Greenwood (whose name bears no relation to the cemetery's) was buried just down the hill, and Mr. McCullough had trouble containing himself. "This is so exciting!" he said, and was off with a gallop to the car to drive down for a look. (As it turned out, Greenwood became a dentist and eventually made false teeth for George Washington.) It is this kind of serendipity, Mr. McCullough said, a kind of magical realism full of small-world moments, that keeps him wading into the past.
Earlier that day at Fort Greene Park in downtown Brooklyn - 30 acres on the site of the fortifications that shielded the Americans' retreat - Mr. McCullough had trumpeted "our unsung public servants" who oversee the parks that memorialize America's past. Martin Maher, the chief of staff of Brooklyn parks and our host at Fort Greene, is a McCullough favorite.
The park had a not so unsung champion in Walt Whitman, who was partly responsible for its designation 150 years ago. It fell into neglect, becoming a forlorn ecosystem of drug dealing and crime, and began bouncing back as Brooklyn gentrified.
A 148-foot tall Doric column, the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument, stands atop a crypt that holds 20 slate coffins containing fragments of bones from the 11,500 American prisoners of war who died in British prison ships in New York Harbor, many of them captured in the battles fought in what is now the city.
Mr. McCullough pulled out a crumpled sheet of paper and quoted Whitman describing the site as "the stepping stone to thee today, and here and now, America." Mr. Maher is seeking $3.5 million to restore the park and the monument, which was dedicated in 1908 by President-elect William Howard Taft.
"It is a shame that so few New Yorkers know about this," Mr. McCullough said. "How many know? One in 500,000? Part of what people miss is the scale of what happened here because it has all been built over. If the sites in Brooklyn were a national park like Gettysburg, it would spread over six miles."
"I can't tell you the number of New Yorkers," he added, "who have read '1776' and told me they had no idea that so much happened here."
In some ways, David McCullough is an odd celebrity author. He admits to actually enjoying book tours, appears on television programs but declines to watch much television, and seems more excited to talk about his career as a Sunday painter of landscapes than his next book project. "I'm taking a bit of breather right now," he said. After nearly 40 years and eight books, none of which have ever gone out of print, he has laurels worth resting on.
As we crossed the Brooklyn Bridge to head to Upper Manhattan, where Washington and his army camped after the escape from Brooklyn, Mr. McCullough had a moment of regret: "Oh, I wish we were walking right now. It's the only bridge with a pedestrian promenade in the middle that is raised above the traffic.
In Harlem, we pulled up to the Morris-Jumel Mansion, built in 1765 and the oldest house in Manhattan. This is a place where the past exists as it was, not memorialized in a plaque or a statue. From the balcony of this house, commandeered from a British loyalist, Washington could look down on the spot where his troops won a small but important victory in the Battle of Harlem Heights. He returned there as president on July 10, 1790, and dined with his cabinet, including John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams and Alexander Hamilton.
We headed upstairs to the room where Washington is said to have retreated to think and plan. Late afternoon light fell on a desk filled with maps, and Mr. McCullough stared out the window, looking down at the place where American forces surprised the British. We had a quiet moment - the guy who wrote the great American narrative and the indifferent student who got a B minus in American history - before he spoke.
"The fact that this place survived in the face of all the disregard of history makes me very happy," he said. "This is not just New York's history; it is our country's history."
The light began to fail, and we crunched our way through light snow out to the car and piled in. The reverie, however, continued.
"I was speaking in Vienna and then brought out one of the earliest drawings ever made of New York," Mr. McCullough said. "It was some houses and a dock for boats. And I looked at the drawing of that little place and thought not just of the history that would take place there, but of all the music that will be played there, the books that will be written there, the poetry, drama and the architecture that will come from there. There will be no city like it on earth."