New York in History and Anecdote
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The Glorious November 25th

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

The Battle of Brooklyn

At first light, Daniel McCurtin awoke. He checked the weather and then glanced down the Upper Bay toward the open sea. He paused. There had been a change during the night. It was June 19, 1776, and the British had come. McCurtin, a private in the Continental army, later wrote that the “whole Bay was full of shipping as it ever could be” and the masts of the ships moored by Staten Island “resembled a forest of pine trees with their branches trimmed.” General Sir William Howe, commanding His Majesty’s forces in North America, had passed the Narrows with forty-eight men-of-war and transports. Neither McCurtin nor the hundreds of New Yorkers who soon lined the Battery and the waterfront piers had seen anything like it.

They had seen nothing yet. During the next day, Sir William’s seafaring brother, Admiral Richard, Lord Howe—dark, like most of that family, and popular with his command as his brother was with his (Lord Howe’s sailors called him “Black Dick”)—joined him with 82 more ships. By July 12, more than 150 ships stood off Staten Island; by mid-August, more than 400. King George III and his ministers had assembled the greatest seagoing invasion since the Spanish Armada nearly two centuries before.

On July 12, 1776, the British did three things. First, they landed on Staten Island. The county militia, mustered for home defense, surrendered as one man. Then two frigates, H.M.S. Phoenix and H.M.S. Rose, testing the harbor defenses, swept up the Bay under full sail. The Rose’s commander opened a particularly fine claret as the American artillery fired on him from Red Hook, Governor’s Island, Paulus Hook in New Jersey, and Forts Washington and Lee. They missed. They all missed. They never came close. The two men-of-war cruised some thirty miles north to Tappan Bay and returned a few days later, utterly undamaged.

Finally, the Howe brothers tried to open negotiations. Sir William Howe (“Sir Billy” behind his back) was a civilized man, preferring peace to war. Perhaps it was his sensuality. Howe’s paunch spoke of his weakness for the pleasures of the bottle and the table, even as the presence in his suite of Mrs. Joshua Loring, a charming Bostonian, evidenced a fondness for those of the bed (Sir William had appointed the complaisant Mr. Loring to the lucrative post of His Majesty’s Commissary of Prisoners).

But love of pleasure was not professional incapacity. William Howe, tall, pleasant and taciturn, was in his late 40s. He had held the King’s commission for more than thirty years. A careful, intelligent commander who generally eschewed wasteful frontal assaults against entrenched positions, Howe’s massive popularity with his troops stemmed from their confidence that he would not waste their lives in the pursuit of glory.

Yet Howe could be magnificently, even wildly brave. In September 1759, Howe had scaled the Cliffs of Abraham, leading 4000 troops in the surprise attack on the French at Quebec, still considered among the most audacious feats in military history. On June 17, 1775, at Bunker Hill, he personally led his grenadiers’ second assault against “an incessant stream of fire…more than flesh could endure” from Israel Putnam’s militiamen, and when his men broke and ran, William Howe momentarily remained, defiant and nearly alone on the hillside in his cocked hat and bright scarlet coat, before turning and walking away.

The Howe brothers, knowing war from experience, preferred peace. But how to address the letter to the rebel commander? “General” might seem to recognize the legitimacy of Congress, which had commissioned him. “Colonel,” his highest rank as a militia officer in the King’s service, might be insulting. Ah! the best address for a Virginian gentleman: George Washington, Esq.

In They Fought for New York, John Brick describes the arrival of Lieutenant Brown, R.N. of H.M.S. Eagle, with the letter under flag of truce. He saluted a blue coated colonel at the Battery stairs.

“Sir,” Brown said, “I have a letter from Lord Howe to Mr. Washington.”

“Sir,” replied Colonel Joseph Reed, Philadelphia lawyer turned adjutant general of the United States Army, “we have no person here in our army with that address.”

Opening negotiations is difficult when your foes won’t even accept your mail on a lawyer’s advice.

Sir William then addressed another letter to “George Washington, Esq., etc., etc.” This, too, was refused. The bearer, Lieutenant Colonel James Patterson, Howe’s adjutant general, then asked whether General Washington would care to meet with him.

Washington received Patterson at his headquarters at 1 Broadway. Patterson explained the “etc., etc.” as terms used in diplomacy when a man’s precise rank was in doubt. Washington replied there was no doubt about his precise rank and that “etc., etc.” could mean “anything-or nothing.” Patterson then suggested negotiations between Lord Howe and Washington. The Commander-in-Chief refused. He was merely a soldier, powerless to negotiate political issues: That was Congress’s domain.

By August 19, 1776, Sir William had 32,000 professional soldiers on Staten Island, including two regiments of Guards, the Black Watch, and 8000 mercenaries, rented for the occasion from the Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel. Three days later, he invaded Brooklyn at Gravesend Bay. By noon, he had 15,000 men ashore with scarcely a shot fired.

Although Washington had fortified Brooklyn Heights, building Fort Greene, Fort Putnam and Fort Box, the American forces largely stood forward on the Heights of Guan (now Crown Heights, Stuyvesant Heights, Ocean Hill and Ridgewood). Apparently none of the American commanders knew of the Jamaica Pass, “a deep winding cut” at what is now Broadway Junction, near East New York. This led to the Jamaica Road, roughly parallel to what are now Fulton Street and Atlantic Avenue, which curved between the Americans on the Heights of Guan and their fortifications near Brooklyn Heights. During the early morning of August 27, Howe sent 4000 light infantrymen unopposed through the Pass. By dawn, they held the Jamaica Rd.

The Battle of Long Island opened with desultory skirmishing. Several hours after sunrise, two cannons boomed in the American rear. As the British and Hessians in their front suddenly stopped fooling around and began formal attacks, the Americans found Howe’s light infantrymen charging from behind.

The rebel left and center collapsed. Many soldiers simply surrendered. Others fled into the woods. Through the ranks of British grenadiers sprinted Hessian jagers, vanishing into the trees after the rebels. They were green-coated professional huntsmen and gamekeepers, superbly fit, disciplined to an edge of ruthlessness, and armed with short-barreled rifles. They were trained to fight in forests, for at home they tracked poachers and thieves, and tended to take no prisoners. Decades later, the skulls of men run down and bayoneted by the jagers were still turning up on building sites, roadsides and tilled fields.

The American right comprised 1500 troops under General William Alexander, a stocky, jovial Scots eccentric, who, though fighting for a republican cause, claimed the title of Lord Stirling. He had been more than holding his own: Two of his regiments had driven British regulars from a flanking crest and seized the high ground. Stirling had not held the hill for fifteen minutes when thousands of British and German troops unexpectedly smashed into his front. His scouts then told him his left flank was in the air, the American left and center were gone and British regulars were cutting him off.

Stirling, unlike the other American commanders, had apparently studied his ground and even considered possible routes of retreat. He had one left: through marshes to Gowanus Creek, 80 yards wide at the mouth. Even then, his men would be slaughtered in the mud unless the British advance was stopped, if only for an hour.

Stirling, “with grim-faced Scottish fortitude,” detached 250 Marylanders. They were militiamen. This was their first battle. He ordered his officers to move the rest of his command across the Gowanus. Then he rode to the Marylanders and put himself at their head.

They faced 10,000 British and German regulars, advancing in broad ranks two or three lines deep, now confident of victory, the field music’s drummers beating a quick step, the King’s and the regimental colors unfurled. The company-grade officers marched beside their men, swords at the carry, and the field-grade officers rode behind the lines, not out of cowardice but to maintain communications and control. As the enemy’s shooting became effective, the ranks would close up, again and again, while marching forward. At 100 yards or so, they would halt. The soldiers would fire a volley and then charge at a full run, bayonets fixed, probably yelling at the top of their lungs. The effect was intentional: to seem terrifying, invincible and nearly inhuman.

Anyone watching the Guards’ trooping the color on the Queen’s birthday is observing 18th-century tactics. American propaganda trains us to ridicule this kind of magnificent formal spectacle. But the British and Germans fought thus because it usually worked. It certainly did on August 26, 1776. British soldiers generally were, as the Duke of Wellington later called them, “the scum of the earth”: semi-literate at best, thuggish, crude and boisterous. They were controlled through harsh discipline, with floggings ordered on the slightest pretext. Their lives were a constant round of drill and maintenance (blacking boots, polishing buckles, pipe-claying breeches to keep them white and sponge-cleaning the red coats, dry-cleaning being unknown), occasionally interrupted by whoring and drinking. The constant drill strengthened the habit of obedience, enabling officers and non-coms to control and maneuver their men with great flexibility amidst the horror of battle.

But Stirling had seen it before. He told his men that he knew James Grant, the British general commanding the troops on his front, and had been in the House of Commons when Grant had boasted he could march from one end of America to the other with 5000 men. He urged them to prove Grant wrong.

Then his sword flashed from its scabbard, and with a broad sweep, Stirling pointed at the advancing enemy, roared, “Charge!” and spurred his horse forward. The 250 went with him. They charged, broke, withdrew, regrouped and charged again-five times. Because they “fought like wolves,” they bought the time their comrades needed to cross the marshes. Of the 250, 10 men and one officer stumbled by nightfall into the American entrenchments at Brooklyn Heights. Stirling was not among them.

It was only noon. Howe had lost 65 killed and 255 wounded while inflicting more than 2000 casualties on the rebels. One imagines the response of Patton to a demoralized enemy hopelessly off balance with his back to a river. Howe could have ended the war that afternoon, and there would have been no United States. Imagine Elizabeth II’s elegant profile on the shillings in our pockets.

And Sir William Howe said no. His men prepared for a careful assault on the American fortifications. In the harbor, Lord Howe’s captains expected orders to place their ships in the East River between Brooklyn and New York to bottle up Washington in Brooklyn. The orders never came. Lord Howe did not even send out cutters-small boats, manned by expert oarsmen, carrying light cannon in swiveling mounts-to patrol.

More than 220 years later, this remains inexplicable. Probably, the Howe brothers, being half a world away from London, were making policy despite their orders. Thomas Fleming, in Liberty, wrote: “To achieve the kind of [negotiated] peace Admiral Howe envisioned, Washington’s army had to survive. If it was battered into mass surrender in Brooklyn or slaughtered on the East River, hard-liners…would insist on a peace of unconditional surrender, [making] America another Ireland.”

Washington had a genius for retreat. Few things are as difficult as the organized, controlled withdrawal of a defeated army. His mind turned to the 14th Continentals, a regiment of American regulars, mostly sailors in civilian life, largely raised from Marblehead, Massachusetts (characterized by one of his officers as “a dirty erregular stincking place”). Between nightfall on August 26 and August 29, Washington and his staff assembled every boat “that could be kept afloat and had either sails or oars.” The 14th Continentals manned them. The army was gradually withdrawn from the lines and ferried to Manhattan under cover of darkness. At dawn on August 30, the last boats left. One carried George Washington. He had not slept in forty-eighthours.

Washington’s withdrawal from Brooklyn, his army intact, was the first step in his retreat to victory.

New York Press, July 28, 1999

January 29, 2015   No Comments