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Long IslandHistory

Historians dig into Revolutionary War past on Long Island

Local historian David Griffin, left; Rita Elliott, center

Local historian David Griffin, left; Rita Elliott, center rear, education coordinator and research associate at the Lamar Institute, and her husband, Daniel Elliott, president at the institute, work in April at the site of the Battle of Fort Franklin in Lloyd Neck. Credit: Barry Sloan

Clad in work boots, kneepads and a broad-brim hat, archaeologist Daniel Elliott paced deliberately through the wet spring grass, his metal detector sweeping back and forth before him with metronome-like precision.

He looked like a beachcomber prospecting for jewelry or coins beneath the sands of Jones Beach, a resemblance not lost on a man who came ambling up from the private road nearby, past the van with the Georgia license plates parked in the driveway.

"Treasure hunter?" he asked Elliott, who put down his $800 detector, removed his headset and smiled cordially.

"No," he responded. "We're digging on a Revolutionary War battlefield."

The man's eyebrows rose. "So when I can mow the lawn?"

Told that Elliott's team would be done the next day, the landscaper thanked him and left. Elliott chuckled. "A lot of people seem interested in what we're doing," he said. "I'm not sure they believe me when I tell them."

Who can blame them? This is modern Long Island, specifically Lloyd Neck, the exclusive enclave at the northern tip of Huntington Town where Rolls-Royces have replaced erstwhile Redcoats.

But on this very ground 238 years ago — July 12, 1781 — a battle was fought between about 400 to 500 Americans and their French allies who attacked a fort, garrisoned by a similar-sized contingent of Loyalist soldiers and British officers, that had been built at this strategic point overlooking Long Island Sound.

That day, musket balls flew. Cannons roared. Smoke drifted over the fields. And although casualty figures are imprecise, in all likelihood men lost their lives or limbs.

Who can envision such bygone chaos on a quiet spring morning in 2019?

David Griffin can: The Canadian-born Rocky Point resident and author of the 2017 book “Lost British Forts of Long Island,” is trying to raise awareness about the Revolutionary War fighting that occurred on Long Island between 1777 and 1781.

While the AMC series "Turn" generated new awareness about Long Island's role in the Revolution, particularly in the secret war of spies, the battles fought here have mostly languished in obscurity. Griffin would like to change that. Funded by a $60,000 National Park Service grant, he and the Lamar Institute in Savannah, Georgia — headed by Elliott and his wife, Rita Folse Elliott, another archaeologist — conducted a four-week archaeological investigation in late April and early May at three area battle sites: Setauket, Fort Salonga and Lloyd Neck.

"We tend to specialize in marginalized battlefields," Daniel Elliott said wryly.

The Lloyd Neck battlefield certainly qualifies: The engagement, the largest of the war on L.I., was fought a few hundred yards from the remnants of Fort Franklin, the British fortification (named in honor of Benjamin Franklin's Loyalist son William) around which a 19th century mansion was built. The outlines of the fort’s earthen walls are still visible. The Franco-American force, which crossed the Sound in small boats, landed on the beach just north of the fort and circled around through a large, open field 400 yards east. It is in that field — now a sprawling stretch of manicured lawn adjacent to a modern home — where most of the fighting occurred.

While Griffin and Elliott were granted permission to dig on private property, no self-respecting Long Island homeowner, even one who supports historic preservation, is going to allow his or her lawn to become an excavation pit. "Minimally invasive," is the term Dan Elliott used to describe their approach. The team — which over the course of the monthlong investigations included volunteers and students from Bronx Community College — used metal detectors, ground-penetrating radar and laser mapping to search for artifacts buried under the lawn. When objects were found, they used hand tools to probe the soil.

What did they find? Sometimes trash — chipped and broken cutlery or discarded utensils — left by people who came along decades after the Revolution. But sometimes they struck archaeological gold, as was the case here.

The attack on Fort Franklin ended in retreat by the Americans and French. The reason may have been discovered during the dig in Lloyd Neck: a large iron ball, known as grapeshot, found six inches under the grass. This confirmed historical sources that said well-aimed artillery fire from the fort compelled the Franco-American force to withdraw.

Another discovery in the woods adjacent to the field — a dozen musket balls of various calibers clustered in proximity — suggests what happened next. "This proves there was a close-quarter firefight, probably as the Loyalists chased the Americans and French," Griffin said.

His investigation also gives us a better understanding of that time, nearly 250 years ago, when Long Island was a war zone. About 150 artifacts related to the three battles fought in what are now Nassau and Suffolk counties — mostly musket balls, gun parts, buttons and other uniform accouterments — were unearthed over the course of four weeks. They will be taken to the Lamar lab in Savannah to be cleaned and studied.

While the National Park Service, which funded the investigation, is technically the owner of the artifacts, the grant stipulates that they should be curated at a local institution — a museum or historical society that can properly display them. Which is what Griffin would like, as well.

"If we can keep these artifacts on Long Island, that would be the plan," he says. "It's really important to do public outreach about the battles that were fought here. Most Long Islanders today don't even know it ever happened."

To read more about Long Island's Revolutionary War-era forts, read "Discovering the forgotten British forts of Revolutionary Long Island."

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