Sunday, August 25, 2013

Places: The Red Lion Inn

Most Americans know little of the American Revolution in New York and even less about the war on Long Island - which in 1776 meant the area on Long Island today known as Brooklyn. Sadly, those who actually live in the "How Sweet it Is" borough (aka Kings County), possibly know the least.  History is ultimately about people and place, yet most Americans know little of their local history. I confess to sometimes falling into that  category.  I blame the localities - not the schools for failing to properly celebrate themselves.  Okay - rant over. Time to discuss a place, specifically a building, that was center stage for a few hours during the largest battle in the American War for Independence.

There is no existing image of the Red Lion Inn.
The building itself is Howard's Tavern located at the Jamaica Pass
Both were half-way houses.

The Tavern

The Red Lion in was named after the tavern that English King Henry V rested in after defeating the French at the Battle of Agincourt.  So it is somewhat appropriate that the first action in the first real British victory of the American Revolution took place near the inn. The Red Lion Inn was at the junction of three country roads: Martense Lane, which followed what is now the southern edge of today's Green-Wood Cemetery; the Narrows Road, which came up the shore of New York Bay from Denyse’s Ferry; and the Gowanus Road, which led back up to Brooklyn Heights. This is roughly 39th Street and 3rd Ave. in Brooklyn, although other accounts have it on 4th and 40th. I follow Mark M. Boatner's, "Landmarks of the American Revolution," as my guide. Boatner asserts than many of the battle markers in Brooklyn are imprecise. I agree. You can read an earlier blog of mine about my personal visit to that part of Brooklyn a few years past.

The  passes and the British flank march around the the Americans.
The Red Lion lay along the Flatbush (western-most)
pass on the left

The Action 

James Grant
On August 27, 1776, the Battle of Brooklyn began when a British column under General James Grant attacked American pickets defending near the Red Lion Inn. Some accounts say the British were foraging for melons when they spooked a rebel picket. It was in this, the western-most pass that American Major General William Alexander (a Jersey boy) aka "Lord Stirling" stood with the largest detachment defending the Heights of Guan. The British commander was General James Grant, a Scot, who was also quiet stout of heart and physique. Grant hated rebels and urged his men forward with a ferocity rarely seen from the British. His column of some five-thousand professionals rolled into the pass like thirsting for action. But Lord Stirling was able to organize some of the Americans into line of battle on a piece of high ground just off the Gowanus Road. He was joined by a two-gun artillery battery that ranged the road. Grant's troops formed calmly into battle formation (lines to provide maximum volley fire to the front) and advanced up the road. Thus perhaps the first open field battle of the war ensued. Stirling held a good position and the initial British thrust was repulsed by American musket balls and cannon shot. Grant brought up some of his own guns and then pounded the American position. His job was to pin the unsuspecting Americans while the larger wing of the army completed its envelopment. Some time later Grant sent a force to the left of the road but Stirling countered with a detachment that stopped the British.

Lord Stirling leading rebel forces

The  Finale

From 7 to  11 a.m. the Americans put up a stubborn resistance, but eventually Grant’s forces pushed them back up the Gowanus Road toward the old Stone House. From there, thanks to a heroic counterattack by Lord Stirling, the remaining Americans were able to reach safety in Brooklyn Heights, the British objective, which was vital to the defense of The City of New York. Stirling led 400 men from the Maryland and Delaware Continental Line in several frontal assaults on the British troops who had gotten around the defenders and now  blocked the way. All but nine were killed, wounded or captured in the action. From those Heights George Washington watched one third of his force get annihilated. This is the seminal event in my novel, The Patriot Spy.

Delaware Regiment on Long Island

A Factor?

The Red Lion Inn was not a factor in the battle, say in the way the Old Stone House was.  However, it was a crucial landmark.  During a time when maps were few and inaccurate, this is no small thing. Orders often referred to such landmarks: bridges, mills, taverns or farms. And so accounts on both sides referred to "the Red Lion" or "the Red Lyon," as a way of explaining their location during a certain time of the battle. One would think a placard hung out front depicting a red lion, as many taverns used visuals during a period when most men could not read.

Marker at Greenwood Cemetery commemorating
action near the Red Lion Inn (note Howard's tavern is the visual)

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