Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Battle of Fort Washington

The year when Big Guy was five it was the 225th anniversary of the Battle for New York. Our neighborhood happens to be right where the worst defeat of the Continental Army took place in 1776. And because every other major battle site was having a re-enactment, and because my son was utterly passionate about history, I did what is, in retrospect, perhaps the most over-the-top thing I've ever done: I decided we should have a commemorative event here, too.

The Americans advance, but are ultimately defeated
Mind you, I was seven months pregnant with my fourth child when I decided this was a good idea. And I'd never organized any kind of event before. Ever. And by the time the day rolled around we'd gone through 9/11, and I had a newborn. But I'd figured out some craft activities and commandeered some costumes and found myself a re-enactor or two and learned how to get park permits and even got a band to lead us in a neighborhood parade. And my son wore a tricorn hat made of cardstock, and breeches made of cut-off khakis (we cut a slit up the outer seam and then laced up the pant legs using shoelaces) and carried his musket proudly as he marched up the street.

There's a small campsite to explore, to see how soldiers lived
A decade later, the Commemoration of the Battle of Fort Washington has long since been taken over by the Parks Department as an annual event. It now features a blacksmith, a regiment of re-enactors (representing both the British and American sides), a lecture by a historian, activities for kids, and an actress dressed as Margaret Corbin who leads tours and explains how she became the first woman injured in battle in the Revolutionary War.

My only remaining responsibility is to run the hat-making table. Today we went through 40 sheets of 22"x28" posterboard. Some kids wore their hats over bike helmets, yarmulkes, or do-rags. Little Guy ran around in an outfit that included a red Chinese vest, a cape, a rucksack and a tricorn, narrowly avoiding (numerous times) whacking people in the face with his rifle. 

The city buses always slow down to see what's going on
The British won the battle, as they do every year. On the day of the real fight, 235 years ago, nearly 3,000 soldiers were captured, along with the bulk of the American army's artillary and munitions. Because New York City (which only occupied the bottom part of Manhattan) had been burned after the American retreat, there were not enough jails to hold the captives. Most were consigned to the notorious prison ships stationed in the harbor, and only about 800 survived the hideous conditions there. Fortunately, we chose not to re-enact that particular portion of the story.


  1. 800 out of 3,000? Wow.

    Congratulations on starting something so successful.

  2. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.