On a frigid February afternoon in 1885, the Third Brigade of Brooklyn's Second Division of the National Guard marched onto the frozen, snow covered fields of Prospect Park. Dressed in full winter uniforms, carrying muskets and bayonettes and waving their American flags, they were prepared for an elaborate exercise in mock warfare - a sham battle.
In the 19th century, sham battles were used for either commemorative or practical reasons. Although the National Guard had scheduled the event on a holiday, Washington's birthday, the sham battle was first and foremost a training exercise. The commanding officers had carefully orchestrated battle plans: "skirmishing, advancing and retreating in line, relieving lines of battle, attack and defense posts" and more. The soldiers were to arrive prepared for a full day's work, but if a few civilians wanted to come by and watch the event, that was fine by them.
No one expected that 30,000 viewers would show up:
Brooklynites and New Yorkers came to the park in droves to see the excitement and enjoy the freshly fallen snow. The Times described the scene: "...a rushing, turbulent current of human beings out for a holiday...the people who flocked in droves on the battlefiled had mixed themselves up with the soliders were a positive nuisance...Small boys roosted high in the trees like crows. Visitors came on foot, in carriages, on bicycles, and in omnibuses. Handsome girls nodded to their friends from fancy dog carts." What was supposed to be an organized exercise in military disipline quickly became a struggle to overcome chaos. Crowds of people surrounded the brigades and took over useful battleground. Frustrated soldiers tried to continue their work, but the enthusiastic crowd treated the day like a parade, checking to see if the "dead and wounded" were actually dead and wounded and talking to officers who were in the middle of an order. The Eagle reported that "When the firing commenced none of the regiments could see any of the others, for a crowd of ten thousand people being between them and a crowd of ten thousand more immediately behind."
The few police officers on hand did their best to move the masses out of the soliders' way. The Times described the scene well: "The efforts of a dozen policemen on horseback to keep the vast crowd within the flag-staked limits were thoroughly amusing, and about as ineffectual as a motionless scarecrow in a seven-acre cornfield." As people were herded in various directions, some injuries occurred. Mr. B.Y. Conklin, principal of P.S. 3 broke his leg; a young boy fell from a tree, suffering a sprained ankle; and a young woman was lightly injured after a carriage rolled over her back. The Eagle later reported that Mr. Conklin was still confined to his home two months later.
In the aftermath, the event stirred up various opinions on the matter. The Times saw humor in the crowd's attendance and seriously critiqued the militia's overall battle performance. The Eagle defended its local Brooklyn brigade, blaming the crowds for the militia's "failure in their immediate intent and purpose." The newspaper even went as far as to suggest that a sham battle should be planned between the New York and the Brooklyn militias, as an opportunity to prove their superiority while making up for the last event.
But the most blunt perspective came from a soldier who was interviewed by the Eagle immediately following the affair: "The general public behaved like an ass."