By Brian Williams Anchor & “Nightly News” managing editor
NBC News
updated 5/25/2005 6:37:14 PM ET 2005-05-25T22:37:14

Brian Williams took a walking tour of Brooklyn with historian David McCullough, whose new book "1776" portrays the American struggle for independence from Britain.


He may be the only man alive who is able to climb to the top of the Brooklyn Bridge and make 230 years completely disappear.

Brian Williams: Do you really have the ability to look at Brooklyn Heights and not see elevated expressways and apartment buildings?

David McCullough:  I do.

Williams: You can take yourself right back?

McCullough: Yes, because I'm so marinated in what it was like then. You get to a point where you almost could make the jump into that other time.

David McCullough wrote the book on the Brooklyn Bridge along with seven others, including "Truman" and "John Adams" — both Pulitzer Prize winners. His newest is the story of the pivotal year 1776 and the revolution that would have ended in Brooklyn if not for a fog bank that allowed George Washington's troops to retreat across the river in Manhattan.

McCullough:  I think it would have been all over if the British had stopped that retreat. I think that would have ended it.

Our second stop: The highest point in Brooklyn, which is today Greenwood Cemetery, home of one of New York's great geographic secrets — the lady atop this memorial to the soldiers of 1776 is looking right into the eyes of another lady, the Statue of Liberty, all the way across the harbor.

McCullough: This was all thick forest, this was dense woods, and you can see how high up we are. So this was almost wilderness mountain fighting right nearby our great city.

And not far away, the 148-foot high tower, visible from Manhattan, that marks the crypt that contains the remains of 10,000 U.S. POWs who died on board British prison ships in New York Harbor.

McCullough:  They died from disease. They died from starvation. It was one of the worst atrocities imaginable, and they would be buried by prisoner burial parties in the sand along the shore. And for years, the bones and remains were washing up.

Back in 1908, 20,000 people came here for the dedication. The fact that today's visitors to the park are more dedicated to playing basketball worries this lover of U.S. history and landmarks.

McCullough:  I believe that when one is writing history or trying to understand history we ought to go to the places where events took place. We should take our children and our grandchildren there. Don't wait for the school trip to answer that need. We need to embrace the past as part of the present and part of the ground we walk on.

Back on the Brooklyn Bridge, we met school children on an outing, assigned to draw what they saw. They didn't know who the nice man with the head of white hair was. But one sharp-eyed dad with a sharp pencil did.

Dad: We'll take your signature.

McCullough:  There you are.

One lucky child's masterpiece is now signed — by an American master.

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