24 June 2009

Places You've Never Heard Of: Vinegar Hill

By Eliza Tucker

New York played an important role in the Revolutionary War, and dozens of sites around the city bear testament to this. St. Paul's Church. Fraunces Tavern. The Dutch Cottage. Federal Hall. But across the East River and into Brooklyn, an important memorial was made in the early 1800s.

Vinegar Hill is about eight blocks square, a tiny enclave near the Brooklyn side of the Manhattan Bridge, next to the closed-off Brooklyn Navy Yard. In 1800, well before bridges and the city's consolidation, Vinegar Hill was so named because its developer specifically planned to attract Irish immigrants, as it had been the "site of a fierce battle in the Irish rebellion of 1798." - Forgotten-NY.com

But fewer than 25 years before, a similar American war blazed nearby. Even before voting for independence, Congress called up 28,500 men, but by the time General Washington arrived in New York, only 19,000 American soldiers had gathered there--this, against the British and Hessian troops that totaled 32,000 only a month later. The British invasion began on August 22, after a month of attempting to come to a truce satisfactory to both sides. The battle didn't last long: the British easily overtook the untrained Continental Army, and with only 64 reported fatalities.

By the end of the Revolutionary War, more than 8,000 Continental soldiers (some reports say up to 11,000) died aboard British prison ships--damaged or decommissioned ships in Wallabout Bay that served as prisons once the British jails were at maximum occupancy. Over the course of the century, bones washed up on the shores of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Many of these remains were gathered in 1808 for the underground crypt portion of the Tomb of the Martyrs, erected in Vinegar Hill by the Tammany Society of New York.

Vinegar Hill became the first real resting place for so many patriots. In the 1870s, the Tomb was in heavy disrepair and the crypt was moved to a special monument Ft. Greene Park.

Pictured: early 1900s postcard of Ft. Green Park's Prison Ship Martyr Memorial