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The Battery, New York


The Fort and Battery, 1750

When Hendrick Hudson came sailing into the mouth of the river that thenceforward was to be known by his name, on that September day in the year 1609, almost the whole of what now is called "the Battery" was under water at high tide. And it is a fact, notwithstanding the thundering of guns which has gone on thereabouts, and the blustering name that the locality has worn for more than two centuries, that not a single one of New York's enemies ever would have been a whit the worse had the tides continued until this very moment to cover the Battery twice a day! Actually, the entire record of this theoretically offensive institution, whereof the essential and menacing purpose, of course, was that somebody or something should be battered by it, has been an aggregation of gentle civilities which would have done credit to a rather exceptionally mild-mannered lamb.

Most appropriately, this affable offspring of Bellona came into existence as the friendly prop to a still more weak-kneed fort. For reasons best known to themselves, the Dutch clapped down what they intended should be the main defense of this island upon a spot where a fort, save as a place of refuge against the assaults of savages, was no more than a bit of military bric-a-brac. Against the savages it did, on at least one occasion, serve its purpose; yet had even these attacked it resolutely they must surely have carried it: since each of the Dutch governors has left upon record bitter complaining of the way in which it was invaded constantly by cows and goats who triumphantly marched up its earthen ramparts in nibbling enjoyment of its growth of grass. When the stress of real war came, with the landing of the English forces in the year 1664, the taking of this absurd fort was a mere bit of bellicose etiquette: a polite changing of garrisons, of fealty, and of flags.

Later, when Governor Stuyvesant very properly was hauled over the coals for the light-handed way in which he had relinquished a valuable possession, his explanation did not put the matter in much better shape. "The Fort," he wrote, "is situated in an untenable place, where it was located on the first discovery of New Netherland, for the of resisting an attack of the barbarians rather than an assault of European arms; having, within pistol-shot on the north and southeast sides, higher ground than that on which it stands, so that, notwithstanding the walls and works are raised highest on that side, people standing and walking on that high ground can see the soles of the feet of those on the esplanades and bastions of the Fort."

Having themselves so easily captured it, the English perceived the need of doing something to the Fort that would enable them to hold it against the Dutch in the probable event of these last trying to win it back again. The radical course of abandoning it to the cows and goats and building a new fort upon higher ground, on, for instance, the high bluff above the river-side where Trinity Church now stands, would have been the wisest action that could have been taken in the premises; but the very human tendency to try to improve an existing bad thing, rather than to create a new good thing, restrained them from following out this one possible line of effectual reform. Raising the walls of the Fort was talked about for a while; until Colonel Cartwright, the engineer, put a stopper upon this suggestion by declaring, in effect, that taking the walls up to the height of those of Jericho would not make the place tenable. And then, after more talk, the decision was reached that to build a battery under the walls of the Fort would be to create defenses "of greater advantage and more considerable than the Fort itself": whereupon this work was taken in hand by General Leverett and carried briskly to completion and from that time onward the Battery has been part and parcel of New York.

The amount of land which then constituted the Battery was trifling: as is shown by the statement in Governor Dongan's report to the Board of Trade (1687), "the ground that the Fort stands upon and that belongs to it contains in quantity about two acres or thereabouts." The high-water mark of that period would be indicated roughly by a line drawn with a slight curve to the westward from the foot of the present Greenwich Street to the intersection of the present Whitehall and Water streets. All outside of this line is made land which has been won from the river, the greater part of it within the past forty years, by filling in over the rocks which fringed this southwestern shore.

This primitive Battery was but a small affair, loosely constructed and lightly armed. As to its armament, the report of the survey ordered in the year 1688 contains the item : "Out the Fort, under the flag-mount, near the water-side, 5 demi culverins;" and its inherent structural weakness is shown by the fact that only five years after its erection-that is to say, in 1689, when Leisler's righteous revolt made the need for strong defenses urgent, its condition was so ruinous as to be beyond repair; wherefore it was replaced by "a half-moon mounting seven great guns."

As the event proved, this half-moonful of guns would have satisfied for almost another century all that might have been (but was not) required of artillery in this neighborhood. But the times were troublous across seas; and the Leisler matter had proved that questions of European abstract faith and concrete loyalty might exercise a very tumultuous and dismal influence upon American lives. And so the prudent New Yorkers, about the year 1693, decided to bring their waterside defenses to a condition of high efficiency by building "a great battery of fifty guns on the outmost point of rocks under the Fort, so situated as to command both rivers," and, incidentally, to defy the world.

Extension of the Battery Since 1783

In the mere planning of this nobly defiant undertaking there seems to have been gained so comforting a sense of security that its realization was not arrived at for nearly half a century, as appears from Governor Clarke's statement (1738): "There is a battery which commands the mouth of the harbor, whereon may be mounted 50 cannon. This is new, having been built but three years, but it wants finishing." In the course of the ensuing thirty years, possibly even sooner, the finishing touches seem to have been supplied; at least, the Battery is shown as completed on Ratzen's map of 1767; and it is certain that these defenses were in effective condition while New York was held by the English during the Revolutionary War. Indeed, during the Revolutionary period the Battery really was a battery of some importance: as may be seen by the accompanying plan, showing a line of works extending from the foot of Greenwich Street along all the water-front to Whitehall Slip. But what made the Battery harmless at that, potentially, most belligerent period of its history was precisely what has made it harmless throughout the whole of its kindly career: the absolute absence of an enemy at whom to discharge its guns.

When the Revolutionary War was ended the nonsensical Fort at last was demolished, which was good riddance to amusingly bad rubbish and with it the Battery went too. Why this last was razed is not at all clear. Unlike the Fort, it was not in anybody's way, and it was not a military laughing-stock. On the contrary, it occupied an otherwise unused corner of the island, and so well commanded the entrance to the East and North rivers that it was saved from being deadly dangerous only by the persistent absence of a foe. Indeed, in theory, at least, it was so reasonable a bit of fortification that when we went to fighting England again, in the year 1812, it immediately was built up anew. During that period of warfare, of course, nothing more murderous than blank cartridge was fired from its eager guns; but there it was, waiting with its usual energy for the chance to hurt somebody which (also as usual) never came.

Meanwhile there had been set up in this region another military engine of destruction which, adapting itself to the gentler traditions of its environment, never came to blows with anybody, but led always a life of peaceful usefulness that is not yet at an end. This was the Southwest Battery: that later was to be known honorably as Castle Clinton; that still later was to become notable, and then notorious, as Castle Garden; and that at the present time is about to take a fresh start in respectability as the Aquarium.

It is not easy to realize, nowadays, as we see this chunky little fort standing on dry ground, with a long sweep of tree-grown park in its rear, that when it was built, between the years 1807 and 1811, it was a good hundred yards out from the shore. Its site, ceded by the city to the Federal Government, was a part of the outlying reef known as "the Capske" and when the fort was finished the approach to it was by way of a long bridge in which there was a draw. The armament of this stronghold was twenty-eight 32-pounders: and when these went banging off their blank-cartridges in salutes, and clouds of powder-smoke went rolling down to leeward, there was not a more pugnacious-looking little fume of a fort to be found in all Christendom.

The Battery Park, or Battery Walk, as it indifferently was called, of that period was a crescent shaped piece of ground of about ten acres, being less than half the size of the Battery Park of the present day, which ended at the water-side in a little bluff, capped by a wooden fence, with a shingly beach beyond. Along the edge of the bluff the earthworks of the year 1812 were erected, and were neither more nor less useful than the wooden fence which they replaced. However, what with the grim array of guns lowering over the earthen parapet, and the defiant look of the obese little fort, the New York of that epoch have worn to persons approaching it from the seaward, being for the most part oystermen and the crews of Jersey market-boats, a most alarmingly swaggering and dare-devil sort of an air.

The Battery, 1822

Yet was there a cheerful silver lining to these dismally black clouds of war. In his admirable monograph upon " New York City during the War of 1812-15," Mr. Guernsey writes: "In the summer of 1812 there was occasionally music after supper, at about 6:30 P.M., at the Battery flagstaff," which " stood at the southeast end of the Battery parade, and was surrounded by an octagon enclosure of boards, with seats inside and a roof to shelter from the weather. Refreshments and drinks were served from this building, and a large flag was displayed from the pole at appropriate times." Never, surely, was there a more charming exhibition of combined gentleness and strength than then was made: when the brave men of New York, night after night, gallantly invited the beautiful women their fellow-citizens to partake of "refreshments and drinks" close beside the stern rows of deadly cannon, and beneath the flag to defend which, as the women themselves, they were sworn! In all history there is no parallel to it: unless, perhaps, it might be likened to the ball and the battle of Waterloo, with the battle left out.

Even the New-Yorkers of that period, whose infusion of Dutch blood still was too strong to permit them easily to assimilate ideas, could not but perceive that as a place of recreation, where refreshments and drinks could be had to a musical accompaniment, the real use of their pseudo-Battery at last had been found. Out of this rational view of the situation came the project, formulated soon after Castle Clinton was receded to the city, in the year 1822, upon the translation of the Federal military headquarters to Governor's Island, to make over the fort into a place of amusement; which project was realized, and Castle Garden came into existence, in the year 1824. From that time onward, through all the phases of its variegated career, as concert-hall, place of civic assembly, theatre, immigrant depot, armory, the building at least has been able to account for itself on grounds whereof the mere statement would not, as in the days when it was pretending to be a fort, instantly excite a grin.

With the departure from Castle Clinton of the last of its 32-pounders went also the last vestige of an excuse on the part of the Battery for retaining its Sir Lucius O'Trigger of a name. But in that region, fortunately, old names live on. There are the Beaver's Path and the Maiden's Lane, the first of which has ceased to be the exclusive property of beavers, and the second of maidens, for more than two and a half centuries; there is the Wall Street, whence the wall departed about A.D. 1700; and there is the Bowling Green, where bowls have not been played for well on toward two hundred years. With these admirable precedents to stay and to strengthen it in use, there is no fear that the name of the Battery soon will pass away. And even should the brave name be lost in the course of ages, still, surely, must be preserved always the gracious legend of those peaceful guns which never thundered at a foe.

 AHGP New York

Source: Stories from Early New York History, by Sherman Williams, New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1906


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