Looking for the Maryland 400's mass grave | WYPR

Looking for the Maryland 400's mass grave

Jul 4, 2017

Crews working at what may--or may not--be the site of a mass grave of Maryland soldiers who died in the Revolutionary War
Credit Tom Moore

This is a story about Marylanders fighting and dying in Brooklyn (New York, that is) during the Revolutionary War and the mystery of where their bodies are buried.

Archeologists are looking for evidence of the Maryland 400’s possible mass grave in a part of Brooklyn called Park Slope.

The scene of the dig is a noisy mix of construction equipment and a crew sifting through piles of dirt. The staff works behind chain link fences covered in green tarps.

Robert Furman, president of the Brooklyn Preservation Council is a historian and author and he says because a New York City pre-kindergarten is supposed to be built on this possibly historic spot, the soil has to be checked first for any trace of the remains of those soldiers.

"Can you imagine if remains of the Maryland heroes were found here," Furman asked.

He said federal authorities would step in right away if officials find something to make sure they are honored and treated properly. Otherwise, Furman added, the whole veteran’s community would be up in arms.

The story goes back 241 years, a little more than a month after the Declaration of Independence was signed. The British were closing in on the Colonial soldiers and the Maryland 400 took a stand in the Battle of Brooklyn, allowing the rest of George Washington’s army to escape across the East River to fight another day.

Now, experts are looking for any trace of where those soldiers who died in battle were buried.

Only a few feet from the site of the dig – there’s an American Legion Hall – The Rawley Post. It's led by life-long Brooklynite John Lonergan – a Coast Guard veteran and electrician who quotes a certain commanding general who was on the scene.

"'What brave men I must lose on this day,'" Lonergan said. "I can’t say anything more elegant than what George Washington said."

He said he only hopes a memorial can be built on the site to pay tribute to those who fought and died here.

But historian and author Barnet Schecter says he’s not sure a mass grave exists.

"Some were captured, more likely, and that might explain why we have not found a mass grave with 200 bodies," he said in an earlier interview. "Some were captured, some escaped and some were killed."

Not far from the site of the dig is the Old Stone House, the spot where the Maryland 400 made their stand. It’s a replica of a 1699 Dutch farmhouse that changed hands back and forth between the Americans and the British during the battle and was the scene of intense fighting.

Kim Maier is the executive director of the Stone House, which was rebuilt in the 1930’s and now sits in the middle of a Brooklyn playground. She says there are so many questions about the battle and the Maryland 400, starting with what actually happened at the Stone House itself – just a five-minute walk from the dig.

"We have this great diorama that we think is the gospel truth," she says.  "But we don’t know if the house was destroyed, or if the British used it after the battle.  We don’t know where the Maryland 400 fell or where they were buried," says Maier.

The problem, she says, is there’s a lack of primary sources on the mass grave.

"It’s one of the great abiding mysteries of the Battle of Brooklyn."

And there’s another mystery. The company doing the dig would not comment on the project. The New York City School Construction Authority would only say that the team working at the site of a planned pre-k school had just finished the actual excavation. An official wouldn’t give any further information. The school spokesperson says he’s not able to estimate when we’ll find out the results of the dig.

Tom Moore is a journalism professor at York College in Jamaica, Queens, New York,a part of the City University of New York. He also works part-time at the CBS Radio News Network, is a native Baltimorean and still loves the Orioles, despite having lived around rabid Yankees fans for 30 years. He lives in Brooklyn with his family and a dog named Ted.