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Where in Bay Ridge Did Robert E. Lee Really Live?

Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson both spent time in Bay Ridge in the mid nineteenth century, as soldiers stationed at Fort Hamilton. After they left, a few locals fondly recalled their times here, especially after the Southerners became celebrities in the Civil War, albeit on the wrong side of history. The locals who had known and remembered Lee and Jackson best, or said they did, were Democrats, if not Confederates themselves then not exactly Lincoln voters, either; one had to be hidden during the Civil War by his friends, who feared he’d be imprisoned for his anti-Lincoln rhetoric. They passed down anecdotes about the Confederates—to neighbors, newspaper reporters and local historians, establishing the men's stays here as brushes with historical import that became local legends.

The local Episcopal church, St. John’s, which Lee and Jackson had attended, was struggling financially in the early 20th century, and its pastor appealed to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, according to records recently unearthed by the podcast Radio Free Bay Ridge, playing up the church's connections to the old defenders of slavery, passing off lore as established fact. The Daughters, sensing an opportunity for a foothold in a sympathetic Northern community, began putting up commemorative plaques, first around a tree Lee had supposedly planted, then inside the church, then outside Lee’s supposed house on the army base. The Army followed suit, renaming streets on the base after the Confederates who’d once been stationed there—who, in the process, became focal points of our local history.

There was just one problem (well, besides the moral bankruptcy and treason): most of it wasn't true. The story of the tree planting is more legend than fact; Lee and Jackson never set foot in the present St. John's (which replaced the original chapel in 1896); and Lee didn't live at that house.

 

On the army base, "the Lee house" is a handsome, white (of course) frame landmark at the corner of “General” Lee and Schum avenues. The house was moved several hundred feet from its previous location, inside the base, across from the intersection of 101st Street and Fort Hamilton Parkway; this was likely in the 1960s, when construction of the Verrazano Bridge approach would otherwise have destroyed it. That’s why, if you enter the base today at the main gate on 101st Street (the original, pre-Verrazano gate was on 99th Street), you see a boulder with a plaque commemorating Lee’s having lived there, placed by the Daughters of the Confederacy in the 1950s, right around the dawn of the modern Civil Rights movement. That’s where the house used to be.

A boulder marking the original location of Lee's supposed house
The marker at the entrance of the base. Photo by the Bay Ridge Museum

This "Lee House" would once have been one of a number of similarly handsome frame houses that comprised “Officers Row,” a higher class of base housing that looked out through a fence onto Fort Hamilton Parkway and the sights of Bay Ridge beyond, including Cannonball Park.

Lee had been sent to the fort in 1841, when it was less than twenty years old, to modernize its infrastructure. But he never lived in “the Lee house,” says the army itself! “Tradition at Fort Hamilton had Lee and his family residing in a frame house…on the path between the fort and the redoubt,” according to a 2000 report on the fort’s history by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Research, however, “asserted that the structure was built circa 1858, which would preclude an association with Robert E. Lee, who left the fort prior to 1848.”

A fawning feature in the Home Reporter in 1961 reports that “records” indicated that, in 1856, the house was remodeled, and an extra story added—that it’s the same house, just drastically altered. “The chimney, which Lee’s family used, has been removed, and the house is more comfortably heated by a modern furnace,” it explains. “The house has seen many changes…but the simple staircase, the narrow doorways and the large stones of the foundation are the same.”

This is a plausible explanation, perhaps, though it’s just as likely that the person with such records confused this “Lee house” with another one—the actual Lee house that was in Bay Ridge.

 

Lee was stationed at Fort Hamilton, on and off, from 1841 to 1846, sometimes with his family and sometimes alone. “Much of Lee’s work was drudgery,” Radio Free Bay Ridge reports. “He spent his time visiting nearby quarries for suitable stone. He shifted gun emplacements at forts that would never see actual combat. Lee had so much free time, his bosses tacked on extra work.”

His boredom was extreme. The tedious office-work assignments took their toll. Lee begged for an assignment in the Mexican War, which his superiors finally granted… at the end of the war. He shipped off to Mexico from Governors Island and never looked back. His daughter Mary Anna Randolph Custis Lee would later write, upon Robert E. Lee’s assignment to Mexico: “The pleasant little cottage at the Narrows was dismantled promptly & all returned to Arlington…”

Lee biographer Douglas Southall Freeman titled the chapter about Lee’s time at Fort Hamilton, “Five Drab Years End in Opportunity.” The captain’s notebook of calculations from that time, which has been scanned by the New York Public Library, is also rather dull.


When his family was back in Virginia, Lee's companions were a cat and dogs. He'd rescued a dog from the Narrows one day, while crossing from Fort Hamilton to Staten Island, and that dog later gave birth to a beloved puppy named Spec, who famously once jumped from a second-story window when forbidden from joining the family at church, as he always had. "I catch him sometimes sitting up and looking at me so intently that I am for a moment startled," Lee once wrote to his wife.

When he first arrived in 1841, Captain Lee was placed in a government-owned house, according to Harwell’s abridged Lee—one of three that had come with the original 1820 grant for the land. The army's footprint then was much narrower than the present one, not extending farther east than roughly what’s now Battery Avenue/Grimes Road. These three houses were scattered haphazardly near or along the east side of what’s now Fort Hamilton Parkway, close to the fort itself; they would have likely been eighteenth-century structures, probably once belonging to the Cortelyou family (the area’s first settlers), and there’s no indication that they remained standing into modern times, though I found no record of what happened to them. Perhaps they were replaced in the 1850s with a more modern row of officers housing.

In the newspaper record, it wasn't until the 1920s that anyone reported that Robert E. Lee’s house had survived on the base, when Home Talk wrote derisively that “the house occupied at Fort Hamilton by Robert E. Lee…was still being used for living quarters at the post,” to shame the Army for the age of its housing stock. A similar report was printed a year earlier in the Daily News. (“Some of the officers’ quarters look very well from outside, but are giving way to dry rot within. And no wonder. The houses are ancient. ‘Robert E. Lee lived here when he was a [captain],’ they tell the passer-by.”)

These comments might have been jokes, loosely rooted in truth, that became bits of local lore, spread by word of mouth. Mentions of the house in the ‘30s and ‘40s are usually off-hand, in relation to couples moving into it.

 

Lee lived only a short time in the government house before, reportedly, the Army needed it back. His “work had progressed so well…that troops were ordered to Fort Hamilton and Fort Lafayette [on an island in the Narrows],” the Home Reporter explained in 1961. “With the increase in troops…Lee had to give up his quarters.”

Harnett T. Kane paints the scene in his dutiful 1954 historical novel, The Lady of Arlington, for which the former newspaperman “did four years of careful research and pored over 4,000 documents,” the Eagle reported. “The passages on [the Lees’] family life in Brooklyn were inspired by his long study of Lee family letters, many of which have never appeared in print.” (N.B. the Lees did not technically live in Brooklyn, as Fort Hamilton at that time was still part of the town of New Utrecht, on Long Island.)

“When they were settled at Fort Hamilton…she faced the inadequacy of the living arrangements. The house itself was little better than a hut; she had seen better shacks along the muddy stretches of the St. Louis waterfront.
“When it’s painted it’ll be nicer,” Robert’s half-guilty reply to her look of despair made Mary force a smile. It was hardly his fault. It was her problem to solve and she realized she now faced a new test of her self-command. But no sooner had she arranged the tiny rooms to her satisfaction—no small task with five children underfoot—than a bulletin arrived. The Army needed the quarters, and the Lees would have to find other housing outside the fort.
She took Robert’s arm in stammering fury. “Why, why—after the way we’ve struggled over this hovel! Doesn’t that count for anything?”
Robert reddened. “In this case, my dear, I’m afraid it counts for nothing whatsoever.”
As Mary glared around her, each improvement she had made stood out like a reproach. Yet by now she should have accustomed herself to Army ways . . . She checked her anger. “Well, we’ll simply have to find another place.” It took several days before they located one—a buff-yellow wooden building with yard and barn; while not large, it had more space than the other house.

“There were no hotel accommodations,” so the Lees first moved briefly across the street, into the home of Colonel James C. Church, his son told the Eagle in the 1890s. One of the most prominent residents of the community around Fort Hamilton, Church had practically transformed the area into a village singlehandedly, building the first store, establishing a stagecoach line and spearheading road construction; he was also the postmaster. His son Charles was also then active in the development of the community, becoming justice of the peace and later county superintendent.

(Charles was a boyhood friend of Lee’s son William Henry Fitzhugh Lee, who lost the tips of several fingers on some farm machinery while living at Fort Hamilton. During the Civil War, William was a prisoner at Fort Lafayette, just off the coast from Fort Hamilton, in the Narrows. “Judge Church learned his identity through hearing of the missing finger tips and sent him delicacies in prison,” Home Talk reported in 1928.)

The Church house was a local landmark, built in 1838 on the west side of what’s now Fort Hamilton Parkway, between 100th and 101st streets. It was “a quaint and attractive structure,” writes Peter Ross in his 1902 History of Long Island, “with wide piazzas, supported by Ionic columns extending the full length of the house. It … attracts attention by reason of its architecture and well-kept grounds.” When it was torn down, ca. 1939, it occupied a 200 x 325 foot plot. (The standard plot for a house is 25 x 100.) “The grounds surrounding the building…are overgrown,” the Eagle reported in 1938, “but massive oak, elm and willow trees are sturdily alive, as is a rare Oriental catalpa tree.”

The Lees were only here briefly before getting their own place—a house past all those massive trees, which they rented from Colonel Church, reportedly for $300 a year. It was a “frame house on Fourth avenue, adjoining the Church garden,” the Eagle explained in 1912, and may also have been an ancient Cortelyou property.


One wonders if the tale of Lee planting a tree outside nearby St. John’s church, where he was a vestryman, was a confusion of the fact that Lee liked to garden around the Church property, not the church property. The legend of the tree does not emerge in the public record until 1912, when it was damaged in a storm, and the church informed the Daughters of the Confederacy about it.

This house on Fourth Avenue, rented from the Churches, also became a local landmark for its association with Lee. “This house is still standing,” the Eagle reported in 1892, “and is pointed out by residents who are fond of recalling the time when General Lee was their neighbor.” Like the house on the army base, this is also hearsay and lore from decades after the fact, but it feels more credible because it’s closer to the event itself—and in Judge Charles Church, we have an eyewitness, even if he were just a boy at the time. (“Young Charles Church was always addressed by Captain Lee as ‘Master Charles,’” Charlotte Bangs writes in her Reminiscences of Old New Utrecht and Gowanus. He had clear memories of the man.)

It took a lot of digging to figure out what building this was—there are no maps with an arrow pointing to “the Lee house,” no directory with a modern street address. Even Kane, the well-researched novelist, was dumbfounded. “Despite his thorough study of all available documents, the street on which the house stood has never come to light,” the Eagle reported in 1953. “Chances are that some modern office building or home now stands in its place.”

Not quite. From books and newspapers, I found two drawings of the house, made decades apart, as well as several written descriptions, which together point beyond a reasonable doubt to a beer hall that survived into the 1930s. That is, Lee lived most of his time at Fort Hamilton in a house at what became 10007–11 Fourth Avenue, originally a modest two-story frame house just south of what became the SE corner of Fourth Avenue and 100th Street.

 

In 1871, Ellen O’Connor, her sister and brother-in-law pooled their money to open a hotel in “the mansion and out-houses which were the headquarters of General Lee previous to the war,” the Buffalo Times reported. They rented the building from the father-in-law of Levi P. Morton, a muckety-muck in the New York Republican party, who in 1889 would become Benjamin Harrison’s vice president.


The year before, however, a complex scandal involving Morton and O’Connor played out in all the New York papers, even the New York Times, though the Buffalo paper went into the most detail. (Morton had taken over the property following the death of his father-in-law.)

The old lady went to Mr. Morton in the fall of 1886 and…she explained to him that after living sixty-five years, and working hard all the time, she needed rest. She wished to get what money was coming to her from the property and settle down in a quiet little home where she could end her days…The business at the hotel was good, but the old lady was unable to conduct it longer.

Morton and his associates instead tricked the old woman into forfeiting her right to the property, which Morton then flipped for a healthy profit to a man named Carl Nilsson, who had taken over management of the hotel, calling it the Brooklyn House. The deal left the old lady without her property or income, and she had to sell her furniture to eat.

The provisions of the sale gave to Mrs. O’Connor for her life three two-story houses at the rear of the property. These shanties are dilapidated and unfit to live in. They are built on low ground, and water rises over the floors in wet weather. Pigs and chickens occupied them previous.
The old lady had to go into one of these hovels. She rented the other two, one for $3 a month and the other for $4. She was then very sick, and had nothing but...$8 a month to live on.

To her defense came James Church, grandson of the Lees’ landlord Colonel Church. James brought the matter to court, and the case stretched into 1889, at which point Morton was the vice president of the United States. The sale to Nilsson was voided and a resale ordered. “Notwithstanding this issue of the suit Mr. Morton still claims his right to collect the rent of the hotel, which Nilsson has since refused to pay to either of the disputing landlords,” the Eagle reported in October 1889.

Less than a year later, on July 25, 1890, Nilsson jumped off a wharf at the foot of 66th Street, next to a ferry terminal that connected to trains going to Coney Island and Manhattan Beach, and died. “For some time past he had been in a very despondent state of mine from embarrassment in his business relations,” the Brooklyn Citizen reported.

Nilsson laid out a considerable amount of money in making improvements to [the Brooklyn House hotel], but still it was not a success, and business did not improve. He had an interest in a liquor store on Third avenue…but was sold out. He gave a mortgage on his furniture and fixtures to the Jacob Hess Brewing Company, but could not pay his bills, so that the company refused to supply him with beer, and by a rule of the Brewers’ Union he could not get any from other brewers.

His wife was also reportedly sick—like, on her deathbed. The couple had no children. He was 48. “There are no marks on the body and no injury in any way, the features looking quite natural,” the paper added, its reporter having visited the body at the morgue.

It is believed by neighbors near the hotel and by those who knew Nilsson well that he has left his wife without means and almost destitute. In [the community around] Fort Hamilton, where he was well known and respected, there is a general feeling of sympathy and regret for this untimely death.”
 

Between Lee’s residence and the Morton affair, the building had had an extra story added to it, to make three in total—perhaps in the 1850s, when we know records indicated the "Lee house" had been made larger? In 1890, the house was altered again, with a covered garden area, for use in summer. By 1895, a Pennsylvania paper reported that Morton had sold the house to “the present proprietor, who has turned it into a beer garden and restaurant,” which it would remain in various guises over the next several decades.

In the 1890s, it was called Atlantic Garden and then, likely, Pigfoot Martin’s, “where the young blades of the [18]90s danced and sipped their lager,” according to a reminiscence in the Eagle in 1931. Pigfoot’s was one of a handful of fondly remembered inns and watering holes in the area at that time, places such as Hartman’s Hotel, 101 Lounge and the Golden Horn brewery and casino.

In the 1910s, it had become Lorenzen’s and, in the 1930s, Otto’s Shore Inn, owned by Otto Muller. (Prohibition had passed in 1920, and agents raided Otto’s at least twice—in 1930 and 1932, the year before the interdiction was repealed.)

During this time the building grew in perplexing ways. The covered garden space in front became a boxed-up addition to the first floor. Another long, low building was built behind the original house. It became a haphazardly assembled complex, the original Lee house forming just a part.

A photo of Otto’s exists from 1932; another photo, from 1940, shows the Lee house gone, along with other pieces of the complex, except for the long, low building at the back, which was reopened, ca. 1935, as the Shore Road Casino. (Since the 1910s, previous iterations in the space had incorporated that into their name; Lorenzen’s, for example, was often referred to as “Lorenzen’s Shore Road Casino.”) These weren’t gambling dens but supper clubs and dance halls. The Shore Road Casino was a popular local spot into the 1950s.

The Shore Road Casino, ca. 1950. From the Museum's collection

The Lee house was probably torn down in 1932, or at least shortly thereafter. There were an unusual amount of certificates of occupancy, alteration permits and new building permits issued for the property by the department of buildings in 1931–32.

In 1931, work had begun to widen this section of Fourth Avenue. “A large number of old wooden dwellings, many of them very ancient, are scheduled to go with the start of work on the project,” the Eagle reported, as if the work were intended to eliminate offensive structures as much as accommodate traffic. It seems very possible that Otto’s, including Lee’s old house, was a victim of this work, and that the future Casino building survived by being behind it and thus far enough back from the new street; it was also newer and thus less “objectionable.”

The building was eventually taken over by the Hamilton House restaurant (on the next corner) and used as a separate catering hall. On January 19, 1973, a fire broke out in the basement and “quickly spread throughout the building’s two floors,” the Daily News reported, “affording a spectacular view to motorists on the Belt Parkway and the Verrazano Bridge as flames leaped 100 feet into the air.”

It left “the Fort Hamilton-area landmark in ashes.”

A similar structure was rebuilt on the site in 1975. In the 1980s, it was the unfortunately named wine-and-cheese spot Between the Toes; today, it’s a restaurant and lounge called Encore.

 

“The old Lee homestead has no tablet to tell its history,” the Richmond Dispatch in Virginia reported in 1902. “Trolley cars rush past the house where once dwelt the famed family, but not one passenger out of a hundred realizes the history attached to the shabby frame house.”


Just a decade earlier, though, the Brooklyn Citizen had reported, “General Lee was often seen taking walks along the Fort Hamilton roads and but few people living in Fort Hamilton at the present time are aware of the fact that General Lee once lived there,” which is a confusing way of saying that everyone knew.

Either the Virginia paper was being melodramatic, or the area was changing, its old-time residents dying off, soon to be replaced by subway commuters coming from all over the city. But of those who knew, no one remembered Lee more fondly than Francis Hopkins, who said he had been the man’s next-door neighbor.


Some reports say Hopkins was a lifetime resident of the area, but he wasn’t—he was born in Manhattan, near Bowling Green, on a site later developed as the New York Produce Exchange; the 1830 census, when he was nine years old, suggests he was still living on Whitehall Street, with his parents and many siblings.

More plausible accounts report that he moved to the Fort Hamilton area when he married Rebecca Sears, the daughter of a prominent local landowner, in 1853—after both Lee and Stonewall Jackson had departed.

The Sears family had been the Lees' neighbors. It’s possible Hopkins had a long courtship with Rebecca, which put him at the Sears house years before their marriage and in contact with Lee near the end of his post; it’s also possible Hopkins borrowed stories from his in-laws and, later in life, passed them off as his own.

Whenever he got here, Hopkins became a prominent local citizen. An importer of glass windows by profession, he was also the town of supervisor of New Utrecht, in the early 1870s. After that, he was shore inspector. “He was [also] a member of the pond-drainage commission,” the Eagle reported, formed in the 1870s to empty out “malarial breeding pools”—ponds in the Fort Hamilton area where disease-spreading mosquitoes bred. He was part of the committee that established the Fort Hamilton section’s first free library, and he was a warden at St. John’s Episcopal Church, where Lee had been a vestryman and Jackson had been baptized. He owned the original 1652 patent for the land that became the town of New Utrecht.

Hopkins’s sympathies were also fiercely Confederate. “He was a personal friend of Jefferson Davis,” the Eagle reported in 1891, though it’s unclear how they would have known each other, and he hosted Stonewall Jackson’s widow in 1868. During the Civil War, “he was coaxed away to Jersey for a few days, lest he be put in Fort Lafayette”—a prison for Confederates off the Narrows—“for his words against President Lincoln,” Bangs writes in her Reminiscences.

“Francis was a red-hot Tory,” [a friend] said of him. “Friends just had to smuggle him away for a short time until the excitement, then uppermost, had cooled somewhat. Francis Hopkins never cared what he said. We [his friends] were for the North, of course, but we could not see Francis put in Lafayette, so we coaxed him away. Our telling him to be quiet had no effect. He was only kept out of prison by going to Jersey. Then his friends breathed easy.”

He seems to have lived in a few different places around the neighborhood, including the old Sears house (which became “the Hopkins mansion”), next-door to the old Lee house, on Fourth Avenue, toward 101st Street. When he died, in December 1904, of a hemorrhage, he was living on 97th and Marine. There were also an “H. & F. Hopkins” (a brother, perhaps?) with property on the north side of Third Avenue, at Shore Road.

This property would have been almost next-door to that of General Henry Stanton, who owned the land roughly between 97th and 99th streets, Shore Road to Third Avenue. (A road traveled straight from about 93rd and Third to 97th and Shore, called Stanton Street, which was eliminated by the street grid. The original street grid called modern 96th Street, between Marine and Shore, “Stanton Street,” similar to nearby Oliver Street, also named for an old military family, but somehow the honor got lost in the subsequent development.)

Stanton's mansion on 99th and Shore was said to have housed Lee—with oddly specific detail, relayed to the Eagle in 1915 by its then-owner, Walter E. Shuttleworth. “Captain Robert E. Lee…lived in the Stanton home while [the work at Fort Hamilton] was progressing, and slept in the southeast room on the second floor.” The owners called it “the Lee bedroom,” though it had been converted to a library. It’s possible Lee slept here once, for whatever reason, but he did not live in the house.

Besides possibly owning Stanton-adjacent property, Francis Hopkins also, in 1875, lived on 99th Street, in a house I suspect is still there—an overlooked landmark that may be one of the oldest houses in the area, suggested on maps from the 1850s, with architecture details (the columns around the doors!) that could put it in the 1840s. It’s 423 99th Street, with its unusually colored hexagonal shingles.

423 99th Street, 2018. Photo by the Museum

99th Street, between Fourth Avenue and Fort Hamilton Parkway, was the neighborhood’s Confederate Main Street. (It led to the original gate of the Fort Hamilton grounds, and was called “Clark Street,” likely for George Rogers Clark, as most of the named streets around here had a connection to the Revolution.) Not only is St. John’s on the corner, but Stonewall Jackson also reportedly lived on the block.

In 1848, Jackson came to Fort Hamilton after the Mexican War, and he stayed until 1850. It was perhaps even less consequential than Lee's term here; the most recent significant Jackson biography, S.C. Gwynne's Rebel Yell, doesn't mention "Fort Hamilton" or "New York." The most significant personal thing he did here was become baptized, at the age of 25, at St. John's, which still retains the font used. “The baptism of an adult usually presages membership in a church,” Byron Farwell writes in the 1993 biography Stonewall, “but Jackson held aloof. For the time being it seemed to be enough that he was officially a Christian and a Protestant.”


Judge Charles Church had a few stories to tell about Lee, but he could go on about Jackson. It seems that his peculiar habits, regarding his meals and bedtimes, tickled the Church family. “Jackson was extremely eccentric,” Church told the Eagle in 1892.

He was so particular about his health that he would observe a certain set of rules which he had made for himself with the most punctilious exactness. He had a certain hour for going to bed at night, and when that hour arrived he would retire, no matter what social pleasures might be engaging his attention. I have known him to be engaged in a social game of cards and have heard him say, ‘Now, ladies, I will not be able to play this game out, because, before it is finished, my hour for retiring will have arrived and it will not be possible for me to remain a moment after that.’ The same was true regarding the dance. When the hour arrived for him to go to bed he went, no matter if a set was broken up or how much he might be pleased with the company. He was also very particular about his food. He ate a great deal of graham bread and he was so particular about having it at every meal that, when he was called to Governor’s island on military business, he would carry his lunch with him in a little bundle. Another of his peculiarities was that he was fond of sawing wood for exercise.

This goes on for several more paragraphs, including how scrupulously he remembered the sabbath, refusing even to discuss secular matters on Sundays or allow his letters to be posted. The card game, however, was a favorite story; apparently, Church’s daughter and her friends conspired once to begin a game late so “that it was to extend far beyond the military man’s bedtime, thinking that under no circumstances would Jackson withdraw in the midst of a social game of cards,” the Eagle later explained, because of the codes of Southern gentility. But at nine o’clock he rose and excused himself, to everyone's dismay.


One 1900 account says Jackson "had a room in the old casemates, which are now within the new walls of the fort." But, starting in the late 1920s, a handful of newspaper articles claimed that he'd lived in what was later called the Dillon House, after its owners in the 1870s. It had been built in 1825, at Fourth Avenue and 94th Street, then moved in 1850 to 99th Street, just off the corner, where 405–407 99th Street is today. (It was officially No. 409.)

The Dillon house still stands—sort of. In a photograph from 1958, we see the old house still in tact; five years later, half of it has been renovated into the present-day 405 99th Street. (It looked like one house but was either built or renovated to be two, semidetached and split down the middle.) The other half was likely redone shortly thereafter.

The Dillon house doesn’t appear to have been knocked down—it just had its porch lopped off, its walls wrapped in vinyl, rendered beyond recognition. Its Confederate history wasn't celebrated in plaques but hidden behind a physical disfigurement that induced a community forgetting.

What remains of the Dillon house, 2018. Photo by the Museum
 

In 2015, after the killings in Charleston, enterprising reporters at Business Insider noticed what Bay Ridge residents had long known—there were two streets on the Brooklyn base named for Confederates. Many were surprised and outraged. Al Sharpton even came to protest, but the Army refused to budge.


After the violence at Charlottesville in 2017, St. John’s was no longer interested in the Confederate ties that had meant so much to it a century ago. The church, unused since 2014 and on the market, was visited by Episcopal officials, who very publicly had the plaque removed from around the tree. They were joined by then-council candidate Rev. Khader El-Yateem. "General Lee needs to be in the history books, not our streets," he told DNAinfo. "These are people who fought to preserve slavery and should not be celebrated. This is not about erasing history—it’s about making sure we remember it in the appropriate way."


"For now, the plaques will be stored in our archives," a spokesperson for the Long Island diocese told me at the time. "They will not be destroyed but they will not be displayed."

Since more racist violence last year, and mass protests in response, the American military became more open to wiping Confederate names from its bases, and bipartisan legislation to that effect passed in January; "General" Lee Avenue and Stonewall Jackson Drive should be renamed within three years. "The legislation mandates the removal of Confederate names, symbols, monuments and other honors from Defense Department property," Politico explains—"including bases, buildings, streets, ships, aircraft, weapons and equipment." Presumably, this would include the plaque and boulder at the entrance, as well, which could be moved to the Harbor Defense Museum.

With the church closed and the tree demarkered, these will be the last steps in erasing the monuments to the Confederacy in Bay Ridge—which have been a long, long time coming.


Read more about the history of the neighborhood in our book How Bay Ridge Became Bay Ridge.


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