The British Army held New York for two years after Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown on October 19, 1781. The city’s population had sunk below 10,000. Most of the residents were loyalist refugees from revolutionary terrorism. Accident, disaster, and the war had disrupted civic life. The Great Fire of September 21, 1776, had burned everything between Whitehall and Broad Sts., as far up Broadway as Rector St. and as far up Broad St. as Beaver St. Rents had risen 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 British Army, and its government, in the absence of a free press, had become corrupt.
Some New Yorkers made fortunes. Mr. Joshua Loring, who had pimped his blonde wife to General Sir William Howe to gain appointment as commissary of prisoners, became wealthy by selling provisions meant for prisoners of war on the black market. Others cloaked their sadism in the red coat. 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 repaid 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.” 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!’”
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...” The articles 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. Concerned about personal reprisals against the loyalists, he held out 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 5000 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. On November 21, 1783, Carleton ordered all British forces to withdraw from Long Island and upper Manhattan. That morning, George Washington 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 St.
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 St., 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 had 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, in the dead of winter, 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!”) to Albany and across the Berkshires to Washington’s army at Boston, and he had marched with them.
As a boy, I noticed a monument near my family’s house in Latham, New York. It read:
Through this place passed
Gen. Henry Knox
in the Winter of 1775 - 1776
to deliver to
Gen. George Washington
the train of artillery
from Fort Ticonderoga
used to force the British
Army to evacuate Boston
Knox set out early from McGown’s Pass, heading a column of some 800 foot, dragoons, and artillery. He paused at the Bowery and Third Ave., near today’s Cooper Union, until one p.m., chatting with the British officers commanding the redcoats standing a block or so before him. The last British detachments now received orders to move. They moved down the Bowery and Chatham St., picking up their outposts as they passed, and, wheeling into Pearl St., marched to the East River wharves, whence they were rowed to the fleet.
Knox followed the British down Chatham St. and then turned onto Broadway. He marched south to Cape’s Tavern, a little below Trinity Church, and formally took possession of New York City in the name of the United States. On receiving a message from Knox that he had done so, Washington swung into the saddle and rode downtown, Governor 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 thus became the last enemy forces in history to occupy New York City.
Washington rode down Pearl St. to Wall St., 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 10 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 13-gun salute. As the colors went up and the cannon roared, the British weighed anchor and made for the open sea.
That night, Washington and his officers went with Governor Clinton to Fraunces Tavern at Broad and Pearl Sts. for “a feast of reason and a flow of soul.” They offered 13 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”), 36 bottles of port, 60 bottles of beer, and 30 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 guys they were with. The Revolutionaries were no exception.
Washington 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. General Knox stepped forward, embraced him, and both men wept.
At last, composure regained, the Commander-in-Chief went down the stairs, popped on his cocked hat, and strode into Pearl St. 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 St., 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.
November 25 was celebrated as Evacuation Day 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 Evacuation Day was gradually overwhelmed by R. H. Macy’s aggressive promotion of Thanksgiving, a rival end-of-November holiday. Around the beginning of the First World War, it faded away.
Yet, in 1983, though the support of Manhattan Borough President Andrew Stein, New York City commemorated the bicentennial of the Evacuation. A parade marched down Broadway to the Battery, featuring hundreds of re-enactors in the uniforms of the British and Continental forces.
The British Union flag was flying from the staff of Castle Clinton. Then Harry Van Arsdale, the union leader and direct descendant of Captain Van Arsdale, stepped forward to lower the British colors, which were presented to Her Majesty’s Consul-General, who kissed them. Van Arsdale clipped the Stars and Stripes to the halyards and ran it up the pole. A dozen brass muzzleloader cannon along the Battery began firing a salute and the crowd cheered wildly.
On August 16, 1824, Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, the last living general of the Revolution, the Hero of Two Worlds, landed at the Battery to begin his tour of the United States. Tens of thousands were awaiting him. Among them was a company of veterans of the Revolution. The Marquis insisted on inspecting them and slowly walked down the line, greeting and shaking hands with each man.
Lafayette took a second look at the last man. Then he smiled.
“Van Arsdale,” he said. “I remember you.” Then the Captain who had ascended the flagpole and the Marquis who had been a major general at 19 embraced.