Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Battle of Brooklyn

The truth is in ya face when ya hear the British cannons go
Any hope of success is fleeting
How can I keep leading when the people I’m
Leading keep retreating?
We put a stop to the bleeding as the British take Brooklyn
Knight takes rook, but look
We are outgunned
We gotta make an all out stand
Ayo, I’m gonna need a right-hand man

   -- "Right Hand Man", Hamilton, the Musical

In the summer of 1776, 32,000 British troops arrived in New York Harbor, making land fall on both banks of The Narrows, the narrow base of the Hudson River where Brooklyn and Staten Island are geographically closest to each other.  New York City, at the time, the second most populous city in the Colonial 13, only had about 25,000 residents.  The Red Coat presence would soon saturate the city.

The British and their soldier-for-hire Hessians generally broke into two groups, the first headed north, directly towards lower Manhattan (think: any modern-day express bus route into the city).   The second group swung out east then back west (think: like Kings Highway to Flatbush to Atlantic Avenue, or probably the worst possible route into the city, every day of the week) though it proved to be a highly effective flanking strategy on behalf of the Red Coats.  The Continentals suffered mass casualties in the present-day neighborhoods of Cobble Hill, Brooklyn Heights, and in Green-Wood Cemetery, among other locales.  Retreating and running out of Brooklyn terra firma, General Washington and company found themselves pinned against the East River and fled to lower Manhattan by boat under the timely cover of late summer fog. 

The Battle of Brooklyn, or more commonly known as the Battle of Long Island, by less Brooklyn-centric folks, was a major loss for the fledgling Republic, but it was also a major military boo-boo by the Crown.  Ever the gentlemen officers, the Red Coats made the erroneous assumption that GW would be formally surrendering in the near-term.  Meanwhile, One-Dollar George, Virginia plantation owner, and his rag-tag armada got across the river in a New York Minute, and lived to fight another day. 


“I was born in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, in a hospital that overlooked the spot in 1776 where the British crossed from Staten Island before facing Washington in the Battle of Brooklyn.  On the other side of the hospital was Fort Hamilton…  My family lived on Brooklyn’s Marine Avenue until I was 3.  Then we moved in 1952 to Kew Gardens Hills in Queens…”
Except for the part about moving to Queens in 1952, Ron Chernow’s early life (as told to Marc Myers in the weekly “House Call” column of the Wall Street Journal) reads just like my own.  Mr. Chernow continues that he “…had a Washington and Hamilton connection from birth.”  He’s the author of six historical biographies, including “Alexander Hamilton,” adapted for the Broadway musical Hamilton.

I’d like to tell you that I’m a fan of Hamilton, but the truth is, I’m kind of obsessed, with the musical, not Alexander, per se.  Don’t get me wrong, growing up next to Fort Hamilton, an active U.S. Army Base and garrison on the Narrows was named after our “ten-dollar founding father without a father”, you get used to most things in the neighborhood bearing the Hamilton name.  In and around Bay Ridge, the Hamilton name has been attached to diners, dry cleaners, apartment buildings, restaurants, medical groups, physical therapy practices, the library, Fort Hamilton Parkway (roughly seventh avenue), Fort Hamilton High School (which debuted in this blog two years ago as the now Fed Chair, Janet Yellen’s, alma mater) and probably another dozen local establishments.  But the Fort that bears his name wasn’t actually named after A.Ham until the early 20th Century, as it went through another round of structural reinforcements between World Wars.

So you grow up with this general, albeit distant, affiliation or familiarity with this historical figure and these historical events, maybe you even have your newly-minted husband (who works at the bank A.Ham founded in 1784) and his groomsmen pose for some wedding photos by one of these old garrison cannons,

And then a musical about all this stuff comes to the fore, and how do you not get obsessed?  Not to mention the music and lyrics are smart, fresh, clever, poetic and impactful.  I’m not going to venture to be a theater critic here, I haven’t even seen the play.  I think tickets at non-astronomical prices are sold out until like 2020.  But I broke with my own tradition of not buying musical soundtracks until I have seen the musical in person, kind of giving in that I won’t be seeing this one for a long time.  Given Hamilton’s great renown and ability to pick up Tony Awards like Michael Phelps cleans up at the Olympics, and my own geographical affiliation to all things Hamiltonian, I had to give it a try, sight unseen.  And I was hooked.

I was playing the music on my phone all the time.  The Hamilton soundtrack would become my personal theme music as I get through this rough July workload and my new yuuuuuge reporting deliverables at work.  But what makes this song book so relevant is this:  the story, the setting and the characters of the forging of the American Experiment is our national legend, American mythology part 1.  We all know the story, or at least versions of it, and for all of its growing pains, we like this story because it reminds us that we kind of got this nation started on the right foot.  And nothing could be more reassuring in an election year where we seem so far off course.

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