HAPPY EVACUATION DAY
Though most New Yorkers have Thanksgiving on the brain, Friday marks another important historical day: Evacuation Day in the City of New York. During the Revolutionary War, New York City was occupied by British forces (from September 15, 1776 to November 25, 1783). For generations afterward, New Yorkers celebrated its repatriation from the British as Evacuation Day.
New York—then a growing urban center of about 20,000 people crowded onto the southern tip of Manhattan Island—was occupied in the wake of a series of American defeats in the summer and fall of 1776. This little city bore scant resemblance to the bustling port of preceding decades. What had been the second largest city in America (after Philadelphia) was now a shell of its former self. Several thousand pro-American residents had departed with the Continental Army, their homes and farms now occupied by British and Hessian troops or confiscated by their Loyalist neighbors. A devastating fire on September 21, 1776 destroyed more than a quarter of the city, including Trinity Church and other public buildings.
New York remained the seat of the British administration in the colonies for the remainder of the war. More than 1,000 American prisoners of war were held in New York: in a prison on the Common (present-day City Hall Park), in makeshift jails across the City, and on prison ships that were moored across the East River in Wallabout Bay (the present site of the Brooklyn Navy Yard).
While armed hostilities in North America essentially ended in October 1781 with the Battle of Yorktown, it took more than two years for British troops to leave New York City. Peace negotiations were held for more than 18 months before the Treaty of Paris recognizing American independence was signed on September 3, 1783. In the meantime, the British commander, Sir Guy Carleton, and General George Washington discussed the details of the future British evacuation. Setting a date for the return of American control of New York depended on how quickly the British could effect the removal of Loyalist residents—including more than 3,000 former black slaves who had joined the British cause to gain their freedom, to new homes in Canada and the West Indies. (Carleton refused as a matter of honor to agree to Washington’s demand that the British return all confiscated property, including slaves, to the Americans; the British agreed to compensate American slave owners for their losses.) Finally, the date of November 25, 1783 was agreed upon, and the British accelerated their plans to leave the city.
November 25 was cold and clear, and eager patriots crowded the streets to await Washington’s triumphal return. The general’s party of about 800 cavalry and infantry moved south from Harlem across devastated farmland and villages toward the city. After entering the city proper along The Bowery at Chatham Square, Washington continued on and passed the burned-out skeleton of Trinity Church. But the condition of the city and its environs could not dim the joy the occupants felt at their deliverance.
One observer wrote: "On all corners one saw the flag of thirteen stripes flying, cannon salutes were fired, and all the bells rang. The shores were crowded with people who threw their hats in the air, screaming and boisterous with joy."
Washington remained in the city for about ten days, attending celebratory banquets nearly every night and tending to army business during the day. On December 4, he met with his officers at Fraunces Tavern (the restored tavern stands at the corner of present-day Broad and Pearl Streets), where the combatants exchanged toasts and bid each other an emotional farewell. General Washington waited to leave the city for his home at Mt. Vernon until British commander Sir Guy Carleton and his last forces departed Staten Island by ship that afternoon. Washington appointed General Henry Knox as commander of southern New York, then walked to the Whitehall Slip and boarded a barge for the voyage across the harbor to New Jersey and his long farewell procession to Virginia. On the way, he stopped at Annapolis, Maryland, where the U. S. Congress was in session, to formally resign as commander-in-chief. Washington finally arrived at Mt. Vernon on Christmas Eve, 1783.
For generations after the Evacuation Day of 1783, New Yorkers continued to mark the British decampment and General Washington’s procession; but as the revolutionary generation aged, Evacuation Day lost some of its meaning. The tradition passed largely into memory during the First World War, when the United States was allied with Great Britain against the Central Powers and it was considered unseemly to revisit the depredations of the British occupation.
Some remnants of this tradition remain, though. This Friday, November 25, the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum in Manhattan will celebrate Evacuation Day with a Revolutionary History hike. Co-hosted by the Urban Park Rangers, the hike is also an opportunity to burn off those extra Thanksgiving calories. Meet at the museum (Broadway at 204th Street) at 1:00 p.m.
-written by Erik Peter Axelson
QUOTATION FOR THE DAY
"Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we didn’t get sick, at least we didn’t die, so let us all be thankful."