For more than 100 years, New Yorkers lavishly celebrated November 25 in commemoration of the end of British occupation and George Washington’s triumphal return in 1783. Today, however, those events and the celebrations they spawned have faded from memory.
For New Yorkers, November 25 is a date of special significance that long rivaled the Fourth of July in engendering patriotic celebrations. New York City has the distinction of being the American city held by a foreign country for the longest time. From the summer of 1776 to the fall of 1783 the British occupied the city. After the British forces were finally defeated on the battlefield by the upstart nation, New York City would become their last enclave on American soil.
New York was a growing urban center of about 20,000 crowded onto the southern tip of Manhattan Island when the rebellious Colonies declared their independence from England in 1776. The city was promptly occupied in the wake of a series of American defeats and retreats in the summer and fall of 1776. The landing of British troops and Hessian mercenaries in Brooklyn on August 22, 1776, and the American loss at the Battle of Long Island, led to the retreat of General George Washington’s Continental Army across the East River to Manhattan. Subsequent battles in mid-September at Kips Bay and Harlem Heights pushed the Patriot forces into the northern third of the island. British reinforcements made the American position untenable, and in November came the surrender of Fort Washington, the highest natural point on the island. The complete evacuation of American troops from Manhattan soon followed as Washington retreated farther north to Westchester County, N.Y., and later across the Hudson River into New Jersey, with much of his army intact to fight another day.
By the time the British had control of the city, it bore scant resemblance to the bustling port of prior decades. What had been the second largest city in America, between Philadelphia and Boston in size, 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. On September 21, 1776, a devastating fire of unknown origin had destroyed more than a quarter of the city, including Trinity Church and other public buildings. Ironically, Washington had requested permission from the Continental Congress to torch the city as he retreated to prevent the British from successfully occupying it, but Congress had forbidden it. “In speaking of New York,” Washington later wrote to his cousin, Lund Washington, “I had forgot to mention that Providence—or some good, honest Fellow, has done more for us than we were disposed to do for ourselves, as near One fourth of the City is supposed consumed…however enough of it remains to answer their purposes.”
New York would remain the seat of British administration in the Colonies for the remaining seven years of the war. A succession of British commanders—Sir William Howe, Sir Henry Clinton and Sir Guy Carleton—ruled the city and nearby Long Island as virtual military dictators, with the collaboration of leading native Tories such as James Rivington, William Smith and Oliver DeLancey. Thousands of American prisoners of war were confined in New York in a prison on the Common and in the city’s makeshift jails as well as on pestilential prison ships that were moored across the East River in Wallabout Bay.
In his 1948 Father Knickerbocker Rebels, historian Thomas J. Wertenbaker recounted the hard life in occupied New York:
By the end of the first half-year of British occupation, life in New York City had assumed the pattern it was to follow for the remainder of the war. The dearness of food, the inadequate supply of fuel, the eager desire to have news from the front, the return of the sick and wounded, the uneasiness over the international situation, the absence of civil government, the growing importance of privateering, the squalor of the group of shanties and tents known as canvas town amid the blackened ruins left by the fire, the well-todo families now forced to live on charity—all these things were to mark Tory New York.
American and British commanders alike had considered New York the strategic key to the continent, particularly if British forces in the city were to march north up the Hudson Valley to meet a British army moving south from Canada, as was planned. Such a convergence would divide New England from Pennsylvania and the Southern states and vastly complicate Patriot communication, troop deployments and the war for independence itself. However, such a strategic pincer movement failed to materialize. While Sir John Burgoyne and Colonel Barry St. Leger advanced from Canada into northern New York, Sir Henry Clinton failed to move quickly enough north from the city. The advance from Canada was halted in the summer and fall of 1777—St. Leger and his Iroquois allies were defeated at Oriskany in the Mohawk Valley, and Burgoyne surrendered his remaining army of 5,700 at Saratoga. The British defeat at Saratoga was a historic turning point that convinced France to join the Americans as an ally, and later led Spain and the Netherlands to declare war on Britain, further stretching British resources.
French intervention brought needed supplies and funds to the American cause but, most important, it brought a significant naval force into the conflict in North America. While fleets of French warships menaced New York Harbor at least twice during the British occupation, Washington elected to avoid the danger of a direct assault on the city, leaving it in British hands.
French intervention ultimately proved decisive in defeating British forces in battle. Washington combined his army with one commanded by French General comte de Rochambeau and transferred them south by land and sea to join an army led by the Marquis de Lafayette that had succeeded in bottling up Lord Charles Cornwallis’ forces near Yorktown, Va. Two French fleets maintained naval superiority in Chesapeake Bay, landed siege artillery for Lafayette and prevented the British army from evacuating by sea. The final battle at Yorktown in October 1781 found the British outnumbered by the combined American and French troops. Cornwallis surrendered his army on October 19, as an American band played “The World Turned Upside Down.”
While armed hostilities in North America essentially ended in 1781, it took more than two years for British troops to relinquish New York City. Many British leaders initially viewed Yorktown as just a setback, and made plans for additional offensive military operations. Indeed, six weeks after Yorktown, King George III had defiantly declared to Parliament, “[B]y the valour of my fleets and armies, and by the vigourous, animated and united exertion of the faculties and resources of my people, I shall be able to restore the blessings of a safe and honourable peace to all my Dominions.”
Clinton and Cornwallis returned to Britain, and command of British forces passed to Carleton, who had looked askance at the policies that had driven the Colonies to war. In March 1782, the House of Commons voted to discontinue the war, and a few days later the pro-war government of Prime Minister Frederick North fell, to be replaced by one determined to negotiate a peace with independence for the Colonies.
Loyalists in New York were devastated by the turn of events. In a letter to Clinton, Beverly Robinson, one of New York’s leading Loyalists, wrote, “And, oh my dear Sir, what dreadful and distressing tidings does [a British ship] bring us—the independence of America given up by the King without any conditions whatever, the Loyalists of America to depend upon the mercy of their enemies for the restoration of their possessions, which we are assured they will never grant, the greatest part of the estates that have been confiscated by them are already sold.”
Benjamin Franklin’s Loyalist son, William, the last royal governor of New Jersey, sailed for London to make the case for protecting the American Tories to the new government and to King George. Though sympathetic, the king and prime minister were now most interested in concluding negotiations and liquidating the American war.
Washington’s army had fortified positions north and west of Manhattan to be prepared to forcibly evict the British from the city. Carleton’s troops withdrew closer to the city and adopted a static defensive posture to minimize conflicts with the Americans. British forces evacuated their garrisons from the two other remaining large cities they controlled—Savannah in July 1782 and Charleston in January 1783. New York was then the last major British outpost in the American Colonies.
Peace negotiations in Paris between American and British representatives resulted in preliminary articles concluding peace on November 30, 1782. A draft treaty of peace between Britain, the United States, France and Spain was signed in January 1783. The following month, King George proclaimed a “Cessation of Arms,” news of which reached New York in late March. The royal proclamation was read to the residents in front of City Hall on April 8, 1783, and caused much consternation among the Loyalist residents. “When the reading was concluded, no one huzza’d or showed any mark of joy or approbation,” the London Chronicle later reported. “[N]othing but groans and hisses prevailed, attended by bitter reproaches and curses upon the king for having deserted them in the midst of their calamities.”
At the same time, all the prisoners of war held by the British in the city and environs, and aboard ships in the East River were released. (It is estimated that more than 10,000 American prisoners had died in confinement on the prison ships.) The return of former residents who had left their homes and property in 1776 led to altercations with Loyalists. In spite of provisions in the preliminary peace articles to protect Tory residents and their property, previous laws passed by New York state’s new Patriot legislature provided for confiscation of Loyalist property and, in certain cases, execution for Americans who had defected to the British during the war. Much Patriot ire was reserved for Tories who had formed the Associated Loyalists, paramilitary organizations in support of the British.
Most of the Loyalists accepted British offers to relocate them to other parts of the empire. Ships sailed from New York, carrying Tory families and their goods to such outposts as the Bahamas, islands in the Caribbean and, especially, to Canada. The vast majority of Loyalist refugees settled in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Among these were more than 1,000 former black slaves who had gained their freedom by fighting on the British side. Ultimately, nearly 30,000 Loyalists departed out of New York before the British evacuation in November 1783. Some Tories remained, determined to make a go of it in the new republic. One was the printer James Rivington, who opportunistically dropped the word Royal from the title of his newspaper, now named Rivington’s New-York Gazette.
The status of newly freed slaves, including those who chose to remain in New York, had come up in a conference between Carleton and Washington. The two opposing commanders met, along with New York Governor George Clinton (no relation to the British commander Henry Clinton) and British Admiral Robert Digby, at Tappan, N.Y., in May 1783 to prepare for repatriation of New York to the Americans. In response to Washington’s request to return stolen property—including slaves—to the Americans, Carleton asserted an obligation of honor to protect the freed slaves. A proposal that the British would pay American slave owners was ultimately accepted. (Although many freed blacks gravitated to the city during the ensuing decades and the number of slaves had dwindled by then, slavery was not abolished in New York until 1827.)
A final peace agreement, the Treaty of Paris, was signed on September 3, 1783. As word of the treaty reached New York, more American citizens began to return to the city, and thousands of Loyalists continued to leave on British transports. Carleton had refrained from fixing a precise date for completing evacuation of British forces because of the large number of Loyalist residents still waiting to leave the city. But finally, on November 19, the British commander proposed to Washington to evacuate outlying areas on November 21, with evacuation of Brooklyn and the city itself to begin at noon on November 25.
As British troops left garrisons on Long Island and northern Manhattan, American forces moved in to replace them. Among the most important was at McGowan’s Pass, located in the northwest corner of present-day Central Park. General Washington and Governor Clinton rode into Harlem on November 21 and established a headquarters in a tavern, located at present-day West 126th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, to await the final British withdrawal. Meanwhile, groups of Americans who had returned to the city formed committees to receive Washington and Clinton, preparing uniform cockades and garlands as badges of distinction for the happy day.
November 25, 1783, was cold and clear. Eager patriots crowded the city streets to await Washington’s triumphal return. Many city residents festooned their homes and businesses with American flags, some of which were torn down by unrepentant Tories still in the city. British soldiers, set to leave Fort George at the foot of Broadway at State Street at 1 p.m., sabotaged and greased the flagpole to make it more difficult for the Americans to raise Old Glory. Undeterred, inventive soldiers and sailors jury-rigged a new halyard to raise the American flag at the fort for the first time since September 15, 1776.
Meanwhile, General Washington continued on his eight-mile-long procession from Harlem. As he and his party rode down its length, they could not fail to note the decrepit condition of this strategic island—virtually denuded of trees that had been used for fires, abandoned farms and destroyed houses, and few if any cattle or other farm animals. In addition, many wells reportedly had dried up during the occupation. From a prosperous port city of 21,683 residents before the Revolutionary War, New York had declined to a barely functioning settlement of about 12,000 people.
After entering the city proper along The Bowery at Chatham Square, General Washington and his party continued on and passed the burned-out skeleton of Trinity Church. But the deprived condition of the city and its environs could not dim the joy the Patriot residents felt at their deliverance. Major Benjamin Tallmadge, in the advance party, described Washington’s return to the city along with 800 troops accompanying him:
General Knox, at the head of a select corps of American troops, entered the city as the rear of the British troops embarked; soon after which the Commander-in-chief, accompanied by Governor Clinton and their respective suites, made their public entry into the city on horseback, followed by the Lieut.-governor and members of the Council. The officers of the army, eight abreast, and citizens on horseback, eight abreast, accompanied by the Speaker of the Assembly, and citizens on foot, eight abreast, followed after the Commander-in-chief and Gov. Clinton. So perfect was the order of march, that entire tranquility prevailed, and nothing occurred to mar the general joy. Every countenance seemed to express the triumph of republican principles over the military despotism which had so long pervaded the now happy city.
Another 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.” As the flag-bedecked city celebrated, several remaining British ships weighed anchor on the high tide and set out for the Atlantic. That night General Washington was the guest of honor at a banquet given by Governor Clinton at Fraunces Tavern, which still stands at the corner of present-day Broad and Pearl streets. Future Mayor Stephen Allen wrote, “This was a happy day for the real friends of America and it was celebrated accordingly by young and old, particularly by those who had left the city at the commencement of the troubles and had now returned for the first time from an exile of eight long years.”
Washington remained in the city for about 10 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, where they exchanged toasts and bid each other an emotional farewell. General Washington waited to leave the city until British commander Carleton and his last forces departed Staten Island by ship that afternoon. Washington appointed General Henry Knox as commander of southern New York, and then walked to the Whitehall Slip and boarded a barge for the voyage across the harbor to New Jersey to begin his long farewell procession to his home at Mount Vernon in Virginia. On the way, he stopped at Annapolis, Md., where the U.S. Congress was meeting, to formally resign his commission as commander in chief. Washington would finally arrive at Mount Vernon on Christmas Eve 1783.
New York, of course, revived and prospered following Evacuation Day. Civil government returned to the city, led by ardent Patriots such as Isaac Sears, Marinus Willett and Richard Varick; a fractious Common Council met alongside the state government in the Old City Hall, now the site of Federal Hall at Broad and Wall streets. Reprisals against the remaining Tories in the city flared up, along with a campaign to limit the influence of such Tory institutions as the Anglican Trinity Parish. Despite the hard feelings engendered by the war, many New Yorkers pushed for reconciliation and rebuilding. New leaders, such as Alexander Hamilton, became vital to the city’s resurgence, helping to found banks and other institutions and to clear the way for resumed trade.
By the spring of 1784, the first American merchant ship had set sail from New York’s harbor to Asia, and resurging trade began to be the engine for the city’s revival. A rising artisan class in New York opposed Governor Clinton’s protectionist trade policies and became the nucleus of Hamilton’s Federalist Party. Contested elections for the state assembly and other offices spread political power among several factions, the beginning of vibrant self-government. The city’s population rebounded and grew from 12,000 in 1783 to more than 60,000 by century’s end.
Historian Barnet Schecter, in his 2002 The Battle for New York, summed up the changes wrought by war: “The social and political consensus that evolved in postwar New York left the city’s major institutions in the hands of a moderate and conservative ruling class, as Hamilton believed they should be…. Nevertheless, during the course of the Revolution and its immediate aftermath, the manor lords and the merchant princes had lost many of their traditional privileges and had seen a broader electorate organize itself and use its influence.”
Vestiges of British rule were quickly discarded. Streets with names that hearkened back to the city’s colonial status were replaced with more appropriate republican names—Crown Street became Liberty Street, Queen Street became Pearl Street, and King Street was renamed Pine Street, though Hanover Street and Square escaped renaming and still-existent King’s College was rechartered as Columbia College (later Columbia University). Fort George was dismantled and the stones from its walls and fortifications reused as landfill to create the Battery just to the south.
New York prospered in the following decades for many of the same reasons that the original Dutch and English colony had thrived—a magnificent port unmatched for world trade, easy water access to the agricultural hinterland, a concentration of artisans and early venture capitalists that facilitated manufacturing, a skilled and educated workforce, and tremendous cultural diversity. New York was the seat of government under the Articles of Confederation from 1784 to 1789, and was instrumental in the process of ratifying the U.S. Constitution in 1788. The city served as the first seat of the new national government in 1789-90. George Washington took the oath as the nation’s first president under the Constitution at Federal Hall in New York on April 30, 1789.
Though it later ceded its position as political capital to Philadelphia and then to the new city of Washington, D.C., New York City soon became the nation’s financial capital. The successors to financial institutions established in the 1780s and 1790s still do business today, including Chase Manhattan, founded by Aaron Burr, and the Bank of New York, founded by Alexander Hamilton. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 increased the importance of the port, and during the 19th century, millions of immigrants would flood into New York through its harbor. In short order, New York became the most populous city in the new nation. The Empire City became the clothier to America, the largest center of manufacturing in the country, the center of newspapers and publishing, and the home of hundreds of large corporations.
For generations after the Evacuation Day of 1783, New Yorkers annually celebrated the British decampment and General Washington’s procession into the city. Parades, fireworks, pageants and other festivities marked succeeding anniversaries of the British evacuation. But as the city grew and time passed, Evacuation Day began to lose some of its luster. British writer Thomas Hamilton attended the festivities on Evacuation Day 1830 and found them a tad dispirited:
In truth, I had calculated on a site [sic] altogether different. I expected to see a vast multitude animated by one pervading feeling of generous enthusiasm; to hear the air rent by the triumphant shouts of tens of thousands of freemen hailing the bloodless dawn of liberty in a mighty member of the brotherhood of nations. As it was, I witnessed nothing so sublime. Throughout the day there was not the smallest demonstration of enthusiasm on the part of the vast concourse of spectators. There was no cheering, no excitement, no general expression of feeling of any sort…the moral of the display, if I may so speak, was utterly overlooked.
During the same period, the British actress Fanny Kemble was struck by the lack of spit and polish as she observed an Evacuation Day parade from her hotel window: “The militia are not dressed to match, hats are askew, and weapons are carried every which way…as these worthies on horse-back came down the street, some trotting, some galloping, some ambling.”
Though its spirit may have been panned by British visitors, the celebration in 1830 was still a big deal for New Yorkers. Events that day also celebrated the 1830 popular revolt in France that had brought the “citizen-king” Louis-Phillippe to power, echoing America’s republican traditions. Evacuation Day that year was centered on the new and urbane Washington Square, which had been developed as a militia parade ground in 1827. More than 50,000 participants took part in events that were presided over by a former president, James Monroe, and a former mayor, Philip Hone.
As the Revolutionary War veterans died off, Evacuation Day continued to lose some of its zeal. Diarist George Templeton Strong wrote in 1842 that its “glories have departed and nobody thinks of it now.” In the course of the next few decades, the growing popularity of Thanksgiving, which was revived during the Civil War and occurred at roughly the same time of the year, came to overshadow Evacuation Day remembrances.
The centennial celebration of Evacuation Day in 1883 offered an opportunity for renewed meaning and resonance. The iconic bronze statue of George Washington overlooking the steps of the Subtreasury Building, now Federal Hall, was unveiled during the festivities on that day. Governor Grover Cleveland presided over the events, which had been organized by the New York chapter of the Sons of the Revolution, and included a parade of 20,000 celebrants viewed by 500,000 spectators. A naval procession of 300 ships steamed up the Hudson and East rivers; one superb vantage point was from the just-dedicated Brooklyn Bridge.
Historian Clifton Hood, a professor of history at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, dates the decline of widespread celebration of Evacuation Day from this period. In his view, the holiday was captured by the Sons of the Revolution and other patriotic groups, completing “the tradition’s journey into the unusable past by privatizing the holiday.” Evacuation Day largely passed into memory during World War I, as 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.
In New York City, the 200th anniversary of Evacuation Day in 1983 was marked by nothing more than an exhibit at Fraunces Tavern Museum of prints, letters, photographs and artifacts from previous celebrations, failing to engender a renewal of annual celebrations. Today the only memorial to the evacuation is an equestrian statue of George Washington at the southern end of New York City’s Union Square Park.
While Massachusetts also celebrates an Evacuation Day to mark the withdrawal of British forces from Boston in March 1776, that holiday is now celebrated on St. Patrick’s Day, and few celebrants are aware of its non-Hibernian significance. Moreover, Boston’s celebration marks a British withdrawal that occurred less than a year into the Revolutionary War.
No other city in the United States had been occupied by a foreign army for so long and under such deprivations as had New York. Evacuation Day may have receded in the consciousness of a city and nation so much changed in the course of more than two centuries—where the former occupiers have for a century been America’s closest friend and ally. However, its significance as a true ending point for the American Revolution and beginning of a new era remains.
Originally published in the August 2006 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.