How Red Hook’s Fort Defiance Changed the Revolutionary War

By Suzanne Spellen (aka Montrose Morris)

Long before Red Hook got its name, when the Lenape people would fish near the entrance to what is now the East River, it was a marshy swamp. This area of what would some day become South Brooklyn looked more like the Mississippi Delta than the defined waterfront we see today. Old maps show all sorts of tidal ponds, streams, and acres of marshland where the Gowanus Creek opened out into the bay.

There was one large landmass near the shore called Cypress Tree Island. On that island was a hill about 50 feet high from which one could see for miles.

This is the story of how a hill in a swamp gave Red Hook its name, and how a fort on that hill — Fort Defiance — kept the British from capturing George Washington and winning the Revolutionary War.


1766-red-hook-map-brooklyn

Detail of map of Brooklyn in 1766 | Wikimedia Commons

The early days of Roode Hoek

The Dutch settled Gowanus and Red Hook in the 1630s. They named the promontory and surrounding land “Roode Hoek.” The Dutch “hoek” means “point,” referring to the sharp point at the edge of Cypress Tree Island.

The marshy land was quite familiar to these Lowland Europeans. The Dutch knew how to tame the swamps, fill in the lakes and channel waterways and streams. Gowanus became Brooklyn’s fruit basket, with orchards of fruit trees.

Filling in the lakes and creating farmland is hard work, and for the next hundred years, the Dutch, followed by the English and other Brooklynites, went about their lives quietly farming and fishing in the area. Around them, Brooklyn grew from a few houses into a town, all centered around the harbors below the Heights, up to Wallabout Bay.

Fortifying New York Harbor

By 1765, the quiet lives of those in the colonies were interrupted by talk of independence from Britain. The Boston Tea Party took place in 1773, which caused the British to exact harsh punishment in the form of more restrictive laws and higher taxes. The people of the various colonies saw themselves divided into Patriots and Loyalists.

When the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord, in 1775, war was all but inevitable. As the leaders of the revolution and representatives from the colonies began drawing up plans for a new kind of government, military leaders began taking inventory, and planning the defense of the new country.

Red Hook Brooklyn Fort Defiance Battle of Brooklyn History

William Alexander, Lord Stirling via Wikipedia Commons

The new Continental Army, under General George Washington, took back Boston from the British, forcing them out. In April of 1776, Washington sent Brigadier General William Alexander, or “Lord Stirling”, to Brooklyn to oversee fortifications.

Manhattan was a valuable target, and had to be protected. Washington had his headquarters here, as well. Military planners wanted to build forts a mile and a half apart, along the heights of Brooklyn, looking out over the East River.

Fort Greene was at the furthest point to the east. Other forts were planned on down through the Heights, with walls and fortifications built in several places in the Heights and in Cobble Hill. The westernmost fort would be in Red Hook. It was called Fort Defiance.

This last fort faced Governor’s Island, where fortifications were also being built. Ships passing through Buttermilk Channel could be fired on from both locations.

Fort Defiance was built on the highest point of the promontory, on the ruins of an older 17th century fort. Working day and night, the fort was completed in days, and was armed with one “three pounder” cannon and four 18-pound cannons which fired over the breastworks.

This was not the wooden fort of Western movies or even a building, it was simply earth and rocks built up high and strong enough to provide a platform for firing the cannon at the enemy. The fort consisted of three redoubts connected by trenches. They took up most of the small island.

Red Hook Brooklyn Fort Defiance Battle of Brooklyn History

Across the Channel, much stronger fortifications were constructed on Governor’s Island, these also replacing already existing structures. A thousand men worked night and day to complete both forts. The men were soldiers, townspeople and slaves. They worked under the guidance of a Major Shaw.

Shots fired

While all of this was going on, British General William Howe was amassing his military might on sparsely populated Staten Island. Over the coming months, his army and navy grew to over 32,000 troops, with over 130 ships anchored around the island. He was joined by his brother, the Vice-Admiral of the British Navy, Richard Howe.

Washington was aware of the proximity of the British, and split his army between Manhattan and Brooklyn. The Declaration of Independence was signed and presented to the new nation of the United States of America on July 4, 1776.

A few days later, the British ships, the Phoenix and the Rose sailed from Staten Island, heading up to the Hudson River. The cannon at Fort Defiance opened fire, as did the cannon from Governor’s Island and Fort George.

They damaged the ships, which still made their way to Tarrytown, at the Hudson’s widest point, where they attempted to blockade supplies to the city. The ships returned to Staten Island a month later in preparation of what could have been the only large battle of the war.

Red Hook Brooklyn Fort Defiance Battle of Brooklyn History

HMS Phoenix and Rose at Red Hook. Wikimedia Commons

The invasion of Brooklyn

In late August of 1776, the British launched a three-prong attack on Brooklyn, intending to wipe out George Washington and his ragtag Colonial Army once and for all. They almost did it, too.

Washington’s army was split, and he was vulnerable. He knew Manhattan was the prize, but also figured that the British would attack from Brooklyn, by both land and sea. He needed to cover all of his bases, but he did not have enough manpower.

General Howe landed his men in Gravesend, and marched north. Without soldiers protecting the Jamaica Road, they were able to easily cross Brooklyn and advance on Washington’s troops holding the territory near Gowanus and Battle Pass.

While some of Washington’s men, the Maryland 400, held their ground in Gowanus, fighting fiercely, the bulk of the army retreated towards the Heights.

Red Hook Brooklyn Fort Defiance Battle of Brooklyn History

HMS Roebuck, via Wikimedia Commons

Admiral Howe saw this as the perfect opportunity to put a quick end to the war. He would sail up the East River, trapping Washington between his navy and his brother’s army.  His superior guns could have wiped the Continental Army off the face of the earth. He sent his man-of-war HMS Roebuck to make the first run from Staten Island up the river.

The tide turns

The square-rigger headed out. But as it approached Fort Defiance, incredibly strong head winds whipped down on the ship. The Roebuck was stopped in its tracks, unable to advance. The ship was so close to the fort, both sides could hear the men shouting out orders.

Fort Defiance opened fire on the Roebuck, firing its cannons into the stalled ship. They returned fire. Both were so close, great damage was done both to the ship and the fort. But the men of the fort kept firing.

The wind proved to be too strong, and the cannon fire too damaging for the Roebuck to stay. It retreated back to Staten Island. Admiral Howe gave up on his East River trap. The Battle of Brooklyn could have been the first and last large battle of the Revolutionary War.

As we know, Washington was able to cross his men to New Jersey, quietly escaping to live to fight many more battles. The British captured New York and Long Island, and occupied them for the length of the war. After a very long and difficult war, America eventually won at the Siege of Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781. A peace treaty was signed in 1783.

After the war, Fort Defiance was abandoned. The earthworks were allowed to settle, and land dredged to form the Atlantic Basin helped even out and fill in the ponds and streams. By the mid-19th century, Red Hook was beginning its journey to become the largest and most important port in New York.

Fort Defiance became a memory, remembered only by a few historians. In 1952, a plaque commemorating the fort was placed at the Todd Shipyards by Brooklyn historian James Kelly. This was later determined to be the wrong site.

Today, a new plaque stands in Valentino Park, closer to the real site of Fort Defiance. It was erected in 2012. Fort Defiance may be familiar because of a popular neighborhood watering hole by the same name. But had it not been for the brave men manning the fort in 1776, patrons could be at the bar today singing “God Save Our Gracious Queen.”

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