An island once existed in the vicinity of this park, off the coast of the hilly lands of Brooklyn that was known then – as it is today – as Red Hook. This island, at the end of an old Native-American Indian path (later named Red Hook Lane), had a commanding view of the harbor. General George Washington (1732-1799) understood the importance of this strategic position, and so on April 10, 1776, in preparation for the defense of New York, he ordered the construction of a fort there. It was named Fort Defiance. It was the westernmost fortification in a series of forts located along the heights of Brooklyn—including Cobble Hill Fort, Fort Box, Fort Stirling, Fort Greene, and Fort Putnam (where Fort Greene Park now exists).
Fort Defiance was outfitted with four cannon which fired “en barbette,” meaning that they shot over the fort’s walls (instead of through gun holes) at a steep angle. Washington stated, “Fort Defiance was small, but an exceedingly strong defensive position.” By mid-August 1776 the British had assembled a fleet of more than 400 ships in New York Harbor. In preparation for attack, Admiral Lord Richard Howe sent one of the frigates, the HMS Roebuck up the East River to take station behind the American defenses. This effort was in vain, however, for the ship encountered unusual northerly winds and a constant barrage of fire from Fort Defiance. Roebuck was forced to return to anchor with the rest of the British Fleet in Gravesend Bay.
The British attacked on August 27, 1776 in the largest and first battle of the United States in the American Revolution. The three-pronged attack quickly surrounded the severely outnumbered Americans, forcing General Washington to lead the Continental Army in a nighttime retreat across the East River on August 29. Fort Defiance kept the ferry route clear, enabling the Americans to escape and fight again, ultimately defeating the British and securing independence.