By Charles Hack and Matt Zeidel
After a Red Hook man unearthed a cannonball in his backyard this summer, a local historian says the discovery could provide a rare glimpse at Red Hook’s crucial role in the Revolutionary War. Last August, Matt LaDuca, 35, was burying his pet iguana in the backyard of his home at Coffey and Ferris streets. He hit a metal post, and dug down to remove it. At around four feet he pulled out what he thought was a rock, and tossed the object in a pile with other debris. A couple of weeks later he was clearing up the pile and found he had discovered a rusty, flaky iron ball, about the size of a tangerine. LaDuca remembered a conversation he had earlier with John J. Burkard — a local historian who lives on Coffey Street and writes under the name ‘Area Historic Research’ — who said that Red Hook had played an important role in the Revolutionary War. He showed the relic to Burkard, who thought that the artifact may be a cannonball. But wanting an expert opinion, Burkard showed the ball to Paul Morando, director of the Harbor Defense Museum at Ft. Hamilton. Burkard said that Morando identified the relic as likely to be a three-pound cannon shot, which may have been used in the Revolutionary War. Because of where it was discovered, Morando also said the ancient projectile could have come from Ft. Defiance, which once stood in Red Hook and helped defend Brooklyn from the British during Battle of Brooklyn. But after centuries of development in Red Hook. very little — if any — physical evidence has been found of the hill fort that was once surrounded by water. “It’s [the ball] the only concrete attachment we have with Ft. Defiance, the only connection between Ft. Defiance in 1776 and today in 2006,” Burkard said. “It’s 230 years old, and a great find.” Morando compared it with cannonballs in the museum and measured it against a cannon that would have fired a three-pound shot, before declaring it most likely to be Revolutionary-era ammunition. Calls to Morando were not returned in time for publication. Authenticating the age of the artifact is nearly impossible without scientific tests, which would involve sending samples of the ball away. Burkard is hopeful that tests like these can be performed soon, even though LaDuca isn’t sure what he wants to do with his discovery. Such a find is a real boost for Burkard, who researches and promotes the historic importance of the neighborhood, and in his effort to establish a heritage trail through Red Hook. The trail would take visitors and residents on a tour of the historically significant areas of Red Hook, starting at Nelson and Columbia streets and ending at Valentino Park at the end of Coffey Street. Burkard remembers, as a child, seeing a bronze plaque, which he says dated back to the Civil War, mounted on the old Todd’s Shipyards, marking the end of Red Hook Lane. The plaque disappeared more than 50 years ago, but he wants to see it replaced. He says the city’s Parks Department is committed to doing so. “I hope I get to see the sign before I leave this world,” he said. Burkard also would like to establish a Red Hook historical society, but says that so far not enough artifacts have been discovered to put together a museum that would come with such a organization. But he says that Red Hook should be given more recognition for its role in the Battle of Brooklyn. “One of the things that used to bother me: Every year they’d have these Battle of Brooklyn commemorations, and there’s never any mention of Red Hook,” said Burkard, whose family has lived in Brooklyn for three generations. “History happened here. I’d like to have something like that down here; maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I’d love to see it happen.” The Aug. 27, 1776 Battle of Brooklyn saved General George Washington’s Continental Army from defeat, which allowed the founding father to go on and defeat the British. At the time Red Hook was a series of swampy islands. The area where Ft. Defiance once stood was a tear-drop shaped island, once known as Cyprus Tree Island, six square blocks at its widest point and rising 40 to 50 feet high. The Dutch later drained the marshland to make the area more inhabitable. On April 8, 1776 a regiment of George Washington’s army cleared trees and dug a trench west to east across the Cyprus Tree Island, creating Ft. Defiance. Within months the fort came under attack from Admiral Lord William Howe from the British Navy. Having arrived with 30 battleships with 1,200 cannon, 30,000 soldiers, 10,000 sailors, and 300 supply ships, Howe attempted to surround Washington’s army on Long Island. He sent one of his ships, HMS Roebuck, on a reconnaissance mission. Ft. Defiance fired on the ship, which was struggling against a northerly wind. Despite the ship’s superior firepower, the revolutionaries (and the wind) forced Howe to order its return to the fleet. And even the revolutionary army was surrounded on three sides by better-fed and better-armed British-led troops, Washington was able to retreat to Manhattan under cover of darkness from the westerly shore of Brooklyn, according Burkard. Burkard refutes conventional wisdom – supported by plaques and history books – that all of Washington’s men evacuated to Manhattan from the Brooklyn Ferry landing, arguing that with all the equipment, soldiers and supplies it would have been impossible. He says that much of Washington’s army must have left from Ft. Defiance and other points along the Brooklyn Shore. The Americans were able to then regroup and after years of fighting, eventually win the war against the British — and independence for the Untied States. “Had the British succeeded in getting in, they would have had [the Americans] completely surrounded, and there’d be no United States of America here today,” Burkard said. “George Washington would never have been able to get his troops out two days later.” LaDuca says that he has considered further excavating his overgrown back garden, to see what other historical treasures might lie buried there. “I thought about it because it was near the back of the garden where we have vegetables,” said LaDuca. “It wouldn’t be that much of a loss to keep digging.” He also is mildly interested in finding out what value the ball may have, although he isn’t holding his breath. “I can’t imagine it would be worth too much,” LaDuca said. But the relic is certainly worth more than the $20 a friend offered him for it. While LaDuca believes that finding Civil-War era shot is not uncommon, finding artifacts dating from the Revolutionary War is more unusual. But LaDuca says that he thinks its best home would be where students and historians could study it and buffs could enjoy it. He said he was considering giving it to a local school, but didn’t know any teachers to contact. “I’d rather give it to a museum or something like that,” he said. “Certainly it’s neat to have, but what’s it going to do for me?” For more information about the proposed heritage trail, contact John Burkard at email@example.com.