Originally known as Fort Putnam, after patriot officer Israel Putnam, the hillside that currently comprises the 30-acre Fort Greene Park in New York City’s borough of Brooklyn once protected General George Washington and his troops during the Battle of Long Island. The works on this land, started during March 1776, consisted of a series of entrenchments essential to prevent the port of New York from falling to the British.
One of Washington’s most capable officers, General Nathaniel Greene, took command of the defenses during May. The fort was situated to the eastern end of the defense line. The landscape became a significant portion of the battleground during August.
British Prison Ships
The British leveled the defenses and took control of the port. Related action occurred in today’s Green-Wood Cemetery and Prospect Park, plus the land, now developed, that connects all three locations.
Upon seizing control of the area, the British placed patriot prisoners from this fight and other battles in warships anchored in Wallabout Bay, which separated Brooklyn from New York City. Any prisoner refusing to pledge loyalty to King George was left to rot on the disease plagued ships. For six years, more than 11,500 patriots died from disease or starvation.
The bodies of these patriots were unceremoniously buried in shallow graves along the then-swampy Brooklyn shoreline. As the remains became exposed due to the changing tides, citizens collected the bones and placed them in a vault on Hudson Street in Brooklyn.
Walt Whitman Wants Park
During 1812, Fort Putnam was rebuilt and renamed Fort Greene. Population growth on the farmland that surrounded the fortified hill led to the building of additional private homes, apartment buildings and commercial operations.
By 1846, Walt Whitman, the poet, editor of The Brooklyn Eagle and soon to be a Civil War nurse, wrote daily about the need for a park to serve as the “lung” that would provide the dense population with free circulation of air. He said the people needed to “spend a few grateful hours in the enjoyment of wholesome rest.” One year later, Washington Park was established on the site of Fort Greene.
Near the end of the Civil War and after the successful creation of Manhattan’s Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux were hired by Brooklyn to professionally design a series of parks. Their first assignment was Washington Park, later renamed Fort Greene Park. The designers incorporated a concept for a crypt within the park for the prison ship martyrs.
That monument became a reality during 1905 with the support of The Society of Old Brooklynites, The Daughters of the American Revolution and many other organizations. The prominent architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White, which soon after designed New York City’s Pennsylvania Station, was commissioned to design the Prison Ship Martyrs Memorial. The plan included a 100-foot wide granite stairway leading to a freestanding Doric column about 150 feet tall. The column was crowned by an eight-ton bronze urn. The remains of the lost patriots were placed in the crypt below.
Today, Fort Greene Park and the Prison Ship Martyrs Memorial are surrounded by the neighborhoods known as Fort Greene, Clinton Hill and Wallabout. Unfortunately, few residents know about the history of the hallowed ground, its role in the fight for liberty, the importance of the memorial, or the sacrifice of those whose remains are within the tomb.