special project

The Battle Pass Project

“Do you hear the clank of the muskets?
…In the midst of you stands an encampment very old…”
— Walt Whitman, “The Centenarian’s Story”

Battle Pass, a Proteus Gowanus initiative, explores ideas of conflict, history, and memory by marking sites of the Battle of Brooklyn. The largest confrontation of the Revolutionary War, it was fought on August 27, 1776, just weeks after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The battle, which Walt Whitman described as a “resolute defeat,” unfolded across a large swath of Brooklyn stretching from Brooklyn Heights to Sunset Park; from the East River to East New York. Yet the battle is sometimes forgotten in the very neighborhoods where it occurred; the fields and marshes of 1776 are now a post-industrial urban landscape that includes a Federal Superfund site.

Beginning in March 2012, a series of multimedia, interdisciplinary installations, performances and workshops were initiated at selected battle sites throughout Brooklyn, created by a collaborative of artists, performers, historians, and urban planners. The project stimulates Brooklyn’s “memory,” suggesting parallels between past and present as it explores the complexity, moral dilemma and devastation of war. Each consecutive Battle Pass project is referred to as a “revolution,” drawing attention to the circular meaning of the word, and suggesting that history, and war in particular, often repeats itself.

 Battle Pass – Revolution I

Collaborative Installation
March 2 – April 12, 2012
GRIDSPACE 112 Rogers Ave/Sterling Place

Battle Pass – Revolution I was a collaborative mixed media installation in the storefront window of the Crown Heights art space GRIDSPACE, visible from the street twenty four hours a day.  The installation included “battle ship” assemblages made of found objects; a ceramic tricorn hat; a series of black ribbon cockades; and wood panels that included drawn, painted and burned imagery and text from the Walt Whitman poem “The Centenarian’s Story.”

Artists Sasha Chavchavadze, Robyn Love, and Eva Melas contributed to the installation; educator Angela Kramer Murphy wrote a short history of Bedford Pass, an important Battle of Brooklyn site that was just a few hundred feet from GRIDSPACE.

At the opening on March 11, Paul Benney, dressed in colonial garb, performed a piece inspired by the Battle of Brooklyn. Artist Robyn Love led a cockade-making workshop at the opening.  Guests were asked to pick causes worth fighting for, and then create their own ribbon cockades to wear.

History: Crown Heights, Bedford Pass, and the Battle of Brooklyn

The neighborhood that is now Crown Heights played a decisive role in the Battle of Brooklyn. Fought on August 27, 1776, it was the first confrontation between British forces and the Continental Army after the Declaration of Independence was signed, and more soldiers fought here, in Brooklyn, than in any other battle of the American Revolution.

During the war, Crown Heights—or Crow Hill—was a rocky, unsettled outcropping rising above surrounding farmlands. Bedford Pass, located less than a few hundred feet from the corner of Rogers Avenue and Sterling Place, cut through this wilderness.

In the summer of 1776, Major General John Sullivan positioned about 800 troops from Connecticut and Rhode Island along Bedford Pass to defend the city from British and Hessian forces camped south of here in Flatbush. Sullivan placed only five cavalry officers at Jamaica Pass, to the east.

On the eve of battle, a contingent of British soldiers marched under cover of darkness to Jamaica Pass, where they easily overwhelmed Sullivan’s meager defenses and continued on to the village of Bedford, just north of here. When fighting began the next morning, Sullivan’s troops at Bedford Pass found themselves surrounded and outnumbered by enemy forces, and retreated to the west, toward the American forts in Cobble Hill and Brooklyn Heights.

Benjamin Tallmadge, a Connecticut schoolteacher who fought here at Bedford Pass, later recalled that “Before such an overwhelming force of disciplined troops, our small band could not maintain their ground.”

The fledgling Continental Army eventually lost the Battle of Brooklyn—a stinging defeat George Washington later attributed to Sullivan’s failure to defend Bedford and Jamaica Passes. Cornered in Brooklyn Heights, Washington and his troops just barely managed to escape across the East River to Manhattan.

Battle Pass – Revolution II

Public Art Installation
Mid-March – October, 20012
The corner Smith and Bergen Streets.

This public art installation by Sasha Chavchavadze recalls the Liberty Pole, a 46-foot pine ship mast that colonists planted in the ground in Lower Manhattan.  Inspired by the British folk tradition of maypoles, the Liberty Pole became a powerful symbol of resistance to British rule and taxation in the years leading up to the American Revolution.  Colonists protested taxes like the one imposed on the white pine poles used for ship masts—a protest that  caused the “Pine Tree Riot” in New Hampshire in 1772. The pole also suggests the masts of the more than 400 British ships that entered the harbor before the battle carrying 40,000 British troops, described at the time as being “as thick as a forest of trees.”

The sixteen-foot mahogany pole at the corner of Smith and Bergen Streets has a metal weathervane affixed to the top; beneath the weathervane are three wooden directional signs pointing in three different directions: towards the Gowanus Canal; towards Manhattan; and towards the corner of Court and Atlantic. Text from Walt Whitman’s poem, “The Centenarian’s Story,” is burned onto the wooden signs.

Revolution II is a collaborative initiative with the NYC Department of Transportation, www.nyc.gov/urbanart,  and the Boerum Hill Association. Educator Angela Kramer Murphy provided a history of the fortifications built in Cobble Hill before the Battle of Brooklyn.  On designated days during the project there will be on-site readings, performances and workshops about the Battle of Brooklyn for adults and children.  Paul Benney and other artists will perform at the corner of Smith and Bergen on August 27, the anniversary of the battle.

History: Cobble Hill Battle

In the spring of 1776, Brooklyn prepared for war; farmers abandoned their homes and fields.  Soldiers from other colonies arrived, and built a string of forts from Brooklyn Heights to Red Hook to defend Manhattan from British attack. Cobble Hill Fort stood almost due north of this spot, on a hill that once rose near the intersection of Atlantic Avenue and Court Street.

From this vantage point in Cobble Hill, George Washington watched the Battle of Brooklyn unfold on the morning of August 27, 1776.  He saw a small band of soldiers from Maryland fight, and die, at the Old Stone House to the southeast—in what is now Park Slope.  And he saw his fledgling army, outmaneuvered and overwhelmed by British and Hessian forces, make a hasty, desperate retreat across Gowanus Creek.

When the battle ended, Washington’s army was cornered, trapped between enemy troops and the East River in the very forts they had constructed to defend the city. The American Revolution could easily have ended here, in Brooklyn, if Washington had not made a daring escape to Manhattan by boat.  Approximately nine thousand soldiers were ferried from Fulton Landing—to the north and west of this spot—and across the East River to safety.

Eighty years later, Walt Whitman published “The Centenarian’s Story,” recalling the Battle of Brooklyn in the voice of an elderly veteran—remembering what happened here before these streets and brownstones were built:

The years recede, pavements and stately houses disappear.
Rude forts appear again, the old hoop’d guns are mounted,  
I see the lines of rais’d earth stretching from river to bay,
I mark the vista of waters, I mark the uplands and slopes;
Here we lay encamp’d, it was this time in summer also.

Battle Pass – Revolution III

Collaborative Installation
September 8th – November 15th, 2012

Space 2C, 543 Union Street

enter through blue doors on Union Street, Buzzer 2C

Saturday and Sunday, 1 – 6 pm

Battle Pass – Revolution III is a collaborative mixed-media installation in the Gowanus art space, Space 2C, marking the Gowanus site of the Revolutionary Battle of Brooklyn. The installation will include “battle ship” assemblages made of found objects; references to the 17th century tidal mill culture; a ceramic tricorn hat and Revolutionary pistol; artist-made battle maps and ribbon cockades; and wood panels that include drawn, painted and burned imagery and text from the Walt Whitman poem “The Centenarian’s Story.”

Battle Pass Artists: Paul Benney, Sasha Chavchavadze, Robyn Love, Eva Melas and educator, Angela Kramer Murphy

History: Crossing the Gowanus

A tide mill once stood not far from where Proteus Gowanus stands today, near the Union Street Bridge.  The mill, built by Adam Brouwer before 1661 and later known as Freeke’s Mill, used the power of rising and falling tides to grind wheat into flour. In 1776, the mill’s bridge was the only way to cross Gowanus Creek and during the Battle of Brooklyn, it became the site of a desperate retreat.

American soldiers found themselves outnumbered by British and Hessian forces along the ridge that runs from Greenwood Cemetery to Crown Heights. Panicked troops, rushing to reach the safety of forts in Cobble Hill and Brooklyn Heights, struggled to cross the Gowanus against rising tides. At some point during the retreat, the Americans burned the tide mill and its bridge, forcing soldiers into the marshy creek; many soldiers died trying to cross the Gowanus.

A young private named Michael Graham survived that day, and later wrote, “It is impossible for me to describe the confusion and horror….[I] entered a swamp or marsh through which a great many of our men were retreating.  Some of them were mired and crying to their fellows for God’s sake to help them out.  But every man was intent on his own safety….”

Battle Pass – Revolution IV

Collaborative Installation
Opening Reception:
Thursday, April 25, 2013
6:00 to 8:00 p.m.
Old Stone House
3rd Street and 5th Avenue, Brooklyn

The next Battle Pass installation, “Revolution IV,” will be a mixed-media installation at the Old Stone House. Created by the Battle Pass collaborative of artists, performers and educators, the installation will suggest the pathos, drama and devastation of the Battle.
Battle Pass artists, performers and educators include:
Paul Benney,  Diane Bertolo, Sasha Chavchavadze, Robyn Love, Eva Melas, Angela Kramer, Duke Riley, Lance Rutledge

The Old Stone House, part of the Historic House Trust of New York City, was the culminating site of the Battle of Brooklyn on August 27th, 1776. Open to the public year-round, OSH has an interpretive center focused on the battle and extensive educational and cultural events and programs.

Battle Pass at the Museum of Modern Art

A Workshop and Performance
Saturday, December 7th, 2013
3 to 6 p.m.
Museum of Modern Art

Use the code word “proteus” in the “discount box” to receive a $40 discount when you Register now

Investigate the ambiguity and complexity of the subject of war through the Battle Pass project. Drawing parallels between past and present, you’ll work with the Battle Pass Collective of artists, educators and performers as you participate in the process that led to the creation of Battle Pass, based on the 1776 Revolutionary War battle at Gowanus Creek in Brooklyn. This workshop includes a discussion of historic tide mills that once existed throughout the New York area; a Battle Pass performance; hands-on activities, including boat-making; and the creation of cockades, the hallmark of an American Revolutionary.

Battle Pass Workshop and Performance Series

Battle on Bergen

Monday, April 27, 7pm
Location: the corner of Smith and Bergen Streets

This site-specific street performance conceived and directed by Paul Benney incorporates elements of dance, street theater, puppetry, and live music to depict certain events from the Battle of Brooklyn, drawing parallels between the American Revolutionary War and political events today.

Co-directed by Selene Colburn and features David Freeman, James Hannaham, Aaron Stanley, Willis Bigelow, Alan Balicki, Katie Merz, John Bauman, Tyler Sussman, and J.J. Hill-Wood.

The performance will be followed by a reading of Walt Whitman’s poem about the Battle of Brooklyn, The Centenarian’s Story, arranged by The Walt Whitman Project.

Battle on Bergen will engage with the public as it explores the drama of the Battle of Brooklyn, which took place on August 27th, 1776 weeks after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Sometimes forgotten in the very neighborhoods where it took place, it was the largest battle of the American Revolutionary War.

The performance will take place at the site of “Battle Pass – Revolution II,” the “Liberty Pole” installation by Sasha Chavchavadze.



FREE Family Workshop Series

This series of family workshops will take place at three different Brooklyn locations; all are free and open to children ages five and up and their families. 

Cockade Making Workshop
Taught by artist Robyn Love
Saturday, October 13, 2012, 1:00 – 4:00
Old Stone House

During the battle, a small band of soldiers from Maryland fended off British and Hessian forces at the Old Stone House; their bravery allowed other Americans to escape across the Gowanus. In this workshop, participants will discuss which causes they’d be willing to fight for, or at least declare an allegiance to in public. Then we’ll use ribbons, buttons, feathers and other objects to design a cockade for our cause, which we’ll use to decorate tricorn hats.

Shipbuilding Workshop
The Waterfront Museum
290 Conover Street, Pier 44, Red Hook
Taught by artist Eva Melas
Saturday, April 6, 2013
1:00 to 4:00 

We will be exploring the important role ships played in the Battle of Brooklyn at the Waterfront Museum, located on a barge in Red Hook.  In the summer of 1776, local residents would have seen the imposing British fleet from Red Hook; Washington later rounded up more humble vessels in order to retreat to Manhattan from Brooklyn Heights. Participants in this family workshop will make their own improvised armada from objects found in Brooklyn today, such as coffee cups and cardboard packaging.  Weather permitting, we will test launch our boats from the deck of the barge.

Tide Mill Workshop

Proteus Gowanus
543 Union Street, down the alley off Nevins Street, Gowanus
Taught by educator Angela Kramer Murphy
Saturday, May 4, 2013
1:00 to 4:00

One of the first tide mills in America once stood not far from where Proteus Gowanus stands today. Brouwer’s Mill, built in the mid-17th century, used the power of the Gowanus Creek’s rising and falling tides to turn wheat into flour.  During the Battle of Brooklyn, the mill and its bridge burned, forcing soldiers to cross the rising waters of Gowanus Creek. This workshop will uncover the little known history of tide mills in Brooklyn, as families work together to build their own miniature mills.

Diorama Workshop
The Brooklyn Historical Society 
128 Pierrepont Street at Clinton Street, Brooklyn Heights
Taught by educator Angela Kramer Murphy
Saturday, June 1, 2013
1:00 to 4:00

In this family workshop, participants will reflect on the relationship between Brooklyn past and present by making their own three-dimensional accordion books, or dioramas, using copies of old and modern maps, photographs, and other images. We will be working in the grand library of the Brooklyn Historical Society, which holds the original versions of many of the documents we will be using in our artworks.


This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.

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Special thanks to the following people and organizations:

Howard Kolins, The Boerum Hill Association
Deborah Schwartz, Brooklyn Historical Society
Charles Dorr, Dig Garden Shop
Charles Goldman, Gridspace
The New York City Department of Transportation Urban Art Program
Kim Maier, The Old Stone House
Greg Trupiano, The Walt Whitman Project
David Sharps, Waterfront Museum