The fighting ended when Cornwallis surrendered his army to George Washington at Yorktown on October 19, 1781. But the Royal Army held New York for another two years. They had taken the city in the fall of 1776. By 1782, New York City’s population was less than 10,000. Most resided below Wall Street. Accident, disaster, and the war had disrupted civic life. The Great Fire of September 21, 1776, had burned everything between Whitehall and Broad Streets, as far up Broadway as Rector Street and as far up Broad as Beaver St. Rents rose 400 percent within the first year of occupation; the price of food and other goods and services 800 percent.
The provincial assembly, city council and courts were dormant, although nothing indicates the politicians had stopped drawing their salaries. The city was governed by the Royal Army, and in the absence of a free press its government had become corrupt.
Some New Yorkers made fortunes. Mr. Joshua Loring, who had pimped his blonde wife to General Sir William Howe for appointment as commissary of prisoners, became wealthy by selling provisions meant for prisoners of war on the black market.
Others found the red coat a mask for savagery. Captain William Cunningham, the provost marshal, commanded the jails and prison ships holding American prisoners of war. The Sons of Liberty had roughed him up before the war; he would repay the debt with interest.
He enjoyed torturing people. According to Burrows and Wallace’s Gotham, he admitted “…to murdering as many as two thousand American prisoners by starvation, hanging, or poisoning their flour rations with arsenic.” To Cunningham his prisoners were probably no more than props for realizing his fantasies of power and cruelty. At night, he swaggered through his domains, wearing the red coat with silver lace and epaulettes, the cocked hat, the powdered wig and the tall, glossy boots and spurs, “with a whip in his hand, sending his prisoners to bed, [shouting] ‘Kennel, ye sons of bitches! Kennel, God damn ye!'”
But most persons in New York City during the Revolution were loyalist refugees from revolutionary terrorism. On November 30, 1782, the American and British delegates signed preliminary articles of peace. The first article reads, “His Britannic Majesty acknowledges the said United States…to be free Sovereign and independent states…” They were proclaimed in the King’s name from the steps of the City Hall on Wall St. The loyalists were horrified. William Smith, a longtime resident, merchant and fervent loyalist, wrote that the news “shocks me as much as the Loss of all I had in the World and my Family with it.” Thousands sold everything-furniture, houses, land, goods-at fire-sale prices and prepared to leave. A few committed suicide.
A few were confident of their ability to survive any change of regime. James Riker recorded that a New Yorker said to his tailor, “How does business go?” “Not very well,” the tailor replied. “My customers have all learned to turn their own coats.”
Sir Guy Carleton, commander-in-chief of His Majesty’s Forces in North America, began organizing his command’s withdrawal from the city in April 1783. He was legitimately concerned about personal reprisals against the loyalists and held on to New York until every Tory who wanted to get out had left. In the meantime, his staff arranged transportation, settled accounts, paid bills, and auctioned off huge quantities of army surplus.
The first 5,000 Loyalists left New York for Nova Scotia and New Brunswick on April 27, 1783. Thousands more followed. With them went numerous African-Americans, former slaves freed by the British military government for services to the King’s armies.
On September 3, 1783, the Americans, British, French, and Spanish signed the Treaty of Paris. The news reached New York in early November. It was time.
On November 21, 1783, Carleton ordered all British forces to withdraw from Long Island and upper Manhattan. That morning, General George Washington, the American commander-in-chief, met George Clinton, the governor of New York, at Tarrytown. They rode south through Yonkers to Harlem, where they stopped at a tavern near what is now Frederick Douglass Boulevard and 126th Street.
The day chosen for the evacuation was Tuesday, November 25, 1783. It dawned cold, with a bitter northwest wind. During the morning, a Mrs. Day ran up the Stars and Stripes over her tavern and boarding house on Murray Street, its first appearance in the city since September 1776. Captain Cunningham, resplendent in red coat and white wig, pounded on the door. “Take in that flag,” he roared, “the city is ours till noon.” He then tried to pull it down. She belted him full in the face with her broomstick, bloodying his nose, and then “dealt the Captain such lusty blows as made the powder fly in clouds from his wig, and forced him to beat a retreat.”
Washington had chosen General Henry Knox to command the American troops marching from McGown’s Pass, in what is now northeastern Central Park, into the city. Knox had been a bookseller: a dumpy, bespectacled little man who read every book in his stock. The war transformed his theoretical passion for artillery (after all, he’d read all the books about it) into practical experience. Behind the glasses and the big belly was the soul of a lion: in 1775, he inspired Continentals and militiamen to drag the cannon seized by Ethan Allen at Ticonderoga (“In the name of the Great Jehovah and the Continental Congress!”) down to Albany and across the Berkshires in the dead of winter to General Washington’s army at Boston, and he had marched with them.
Knox set out early, heading a column of some 800 foot, dragoons, and artillery. He paused at the Bowery and 3rd Avenue near today’s Cooper Union, until 1 p.m., chatting with the British officers commanding the redcoats standing a block or so before him. The last detachments now received orders to move. They moved down the Bowery and Chatham Street, picking up their outposts as they passed, and, wheeling into Pearl Street, marched to the East River wharves, whence they were rowed to the fleet.
Knox followed the British down Chatham Street and then turned onto Broadway. He marched south to Cape’s Tavern, a little below Trinity Church, and took possession of the city in the name of the United States. On receiving a message from Knox that he had taken possession of the city, Washington swung into the saddle and rode downtown, Clinton at his side.
At the New Jail, at the northeast corner of today’s City Hall Park, Captain Cunningham paraded the Provost Guard for the last time. Accompanied by the hangman in his yellow jacket, Cunningham’s command passed between a platoon of British troops, which fell in behind them as they marched down Broadway. They and the City Hall’s Main Guard would be the last enemy forces in history to occupy this city.
Washington rode down Pearl Street to Wall Street, and then west on Wall to Broadway. At Cape’s Tavern, a group of citizens welcomed the Commander-in-Chief: “In this place, and at this moment of exultation and triumph, while the Ensigns of Slavery still linger in our sight, we look up to you, our deliverer, with unusual transports of Gratitude and Joy.”
Burrows and Wallace quote an eyewitness:
The troops just leaving us were as if equipped for show, and with their scarlet uniforms and burnished arms, made a brilliant display. The troops that marched in, on the contrary, were ill clad and weather-beaten, and made a forlorn appearance. But then they were our troops, and as I looked at them, and thought upon all they had done for us, my heart and eyes were full, and I admired and gloried in them the more because they were weather-beaten and forlorn.
The British had left the Union Flag flying over Fort George, on the Battery. The halyards—the lines for raising and lowering the flag—were gone. The banner had been nailed to the staff. And the pole was greased, heel to truck, “…to prevent or hinder the removal of the emblem of royalty, and the raising of the Stars and Stripes.” The grease “rebuffed all efforts to climb the staff.”
In the crowd was Captain John Van Arsdale, a New Yorker, Revolutionary soldier, and peacetime sailor. Recalling Peter Goelet’s hardware store about ten minutes away in Hanover Square, he sprinted across town and liberated a saw, hatchet, cleats, rope, and nails. He began nailing the cleats into the greasy pole. He climbed a little, drove in more cleats, and climbed farther. Bit by bit, he ascended the pole. He reached the top. He ripped down the British flag and flung it to the cheering crowd. Then he attached new halyards and scrambled down the pole as the Stars and Stripes ran up it. General Knox’s field guns began a thirteen-gun salute. The crowd burst into hysterics. The band began to play.
When the colors went up and the salute was fired, the British weighed anchor and made for the open sea. The Commander-in-Chief and his officers went with Gov. Clinton to Fraunces Tavern at Broad and Pearl Streets for “a feast of reason and a flow of soul.” They offered thirteen toasts to allies, friends, comrades living and dead, their hopes for their new country and certain immutable principles.
The next nine days were marked by what one observer called “good humor, hilarity, and mirth.” Thus, at Governor Clinton’s dinner for the French ambassador on Tuesday, December 2, 1783, his 120 guests consumed 135 bottles of Madeira (“it may not look like much, but it can fell an elephant”), thirty-six bottles of port, sixty bottles of beer and thirty bowls of punch while breaking 60 wineglasses and eight cut-glass decanters.
On Thursday, December 4, Washington breakfasted with his officers in the Long Room on the second floor of Fraunces Tavern. Then the Commander-in-Chief rose to his feet and there was silence. Most intelligent warriors who have written of their experiences, from Xenophon to William Manchester, admit they fought not for king, flag, or country, but for the men they were with. The Revolutionaries were no exception.
Washington paused. To those who knew him and his lifelong, conscious effort to master his emotions, his struggle to maintain composure, to behave as became a man to whom others looked for leadership, was apparent. He said: “With a heart full of love and gratitude, I now take leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your later days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.” Then he could say no more. Gen. Knox stepped forward. Perhaps he meant to shake the Commander-in-Chief’s hand. Suddenly, he embraced Washington and wept.
At last the Commander-in-Chief went down the stairs, popped on his cocked hat, and strode into Pearl Street. The infantrymen snapped to present arms. He acknowledged the salute. Then he walked west. Orders were barked. The column moved out behind him. Near the Battery, at the foot of Whitehall Street, a barge waited to take him to Paulus Hook on the New Jersey shore. From there he traveled to Philadelphia, where he resigned his commission to Congress and returned to private life.
Evacuation Day was celebrated in New York for more than a century. James Riker records an old distich:
It’s Evacuation Day, when the British ran away
Please, dear Master, give us holiday.
But competition from Thanksgiving, a rival end-of-November holiday aggressively publicized by R.H. Macy & Co., progressively weakened its observance. Around the beginning of the First World War, it faded away.
New York Press, November 30,1999
February 4, 2015 No Comments