Evacuation Day (New York)
Evacuation Day and Washington's Triumphal Entry
|Observed by||New York City|
|Significance||Date when the last British troops left New York|
|First time||November 25, 1783|
Evacuation Day on November 25 marks the day in 1783 when the British Army departed from New York City on Manhattan Island, after the end of the American Revolutionary War. In their wake, General George Washington triumphantly led the Continental Army from his headquarters north of the city across the Harlem River, and south through Manhattan to The Battery at its southern tip.
It is claimed a British gunner fired the last shot of the Revolution this day, loosing a cannon at jeering crowds gathered on the shore of Staten Island as his ship passed through the Narrows at the mouth of New York Harbor; the shot fell well short of the shore.
Following the devastating losses at the Battle of Long Island on August 27, 1776, General George Washington and the Continental Army retreated across the East River by benefit of both a retreat and holding action by well-trained Maryland Line troops at Gowanus Creek and Canal and a night fog which obscured the barges and boats evacuating troops to Manhattan Island. On September 15, 1776, the British flag replaced the American atop Fort George, where it was to remain until Evacuation Day.
Washington's Continentals subsequently withdrew north and west out of the town and following the Battle of Harlem Heights and later action at the river forts of Fort Washington and Fort Lee on the northwest corner of the island along the Hudson River on November 16, 1776, evacuated Manhattan Island, they headed north for Westchester County, fought a delaying action at White Plains, and retreated across New Jersey in the New York and New Jersey campaign.
For the remainder of the American Revolutionary War, much of what is now Greater New York was under British control. New York City (occupying then only the southern tip of Manhattan, up to what is today Chambers Street), became, under Admiral of the Fleet Richard Howe, Lord Howe and his brother Sir William Howe, General of the British Army, the British political and military center of operations in British North America. David Mathews was Mayor of New York during the British occupation. Many of the civilians who continued to reside in town were Loyalists.
On September 21, 1776, the city suffered a devastating fire of uncertain origin after the evacuation of Washington's Continental Army at the beginning of the British Army occupation. With hundreds of houses destroyed, many residents had to live in makeshift housing built from old ships. In addition, over 10,000 Patriot soldiers and sailors died through deliberate neglect on prison ships in New York waters (Wallabout Bay) during the British occupation—more Patriots died on these ships than died in every single battle of the war, combined. These men are memorialized, and many of their remains are interred, at the Prison Ship Martyrs' Monument in Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn.
In mid-August 1783, Sir Guy Carleton, then the last British Army and Royal Navy commander in the former British North America, received orders from his superiors in London for the evacuation of New York, he informed the President of the Confederation Congress that he was proceeding with the subsequent withdrawal of refugees, liberated slaves, and military personnel as fast as possible, but that it was not possible to give an exact date because the number of refugees entering the city recently had increased dramatically (more than 29,000 Loyalist refugees eventually were evacuated from the city). The British also evacuated over 3,000 Black Loyalists, former slaves they had liberated from the Americans, to Nova Scotia, East Florida, the Caribbean, and London, and refused to return them to their American slaveholders and overseers as the provisions of the Treaty of Paris had required them to do; the Black Brigade were among the very last to depart.
Carleton gave a final evacuation date of 12:00 noon on November 25, 1783. An anecdote by New York physician Alexander Anderson told of a scuffle between a British officer and the proprietress of a boarding house, as she defiantly raised her own American flag before noon. Following the departure of the British, the city was secured by American troops under the command of General Henry Knox.
Entry into the city under General George Washington was delayed until a still flying British Union Flag could be removed: It had been nailed to a flagpole at Fort George on the Battery at the southern tip of Manhattan as a final act of defiance, and the pole was greased. After a number of men attempted to tear down the British colors, wooden cleats were cut and nailed to the pole and, with the help of a ladder, an army veteran, John Van Arsdale, was able to ascend the pole, remove the flag, and replace it with the Stars and Stripes before the British fleet had completely sailed out of sight.
Finally, seven years after the retreat from Manhattan on November 16, 1776, General George Washington and Governor of New York George Clinton reclaimed Fort Washington on the northwest corner of Manhattan Island and then led the Continental Army in a triumphal precision march down the road through the center of the island onto Broadway in the Town to the Battery. During his stay, Washington had a meeting with Hercules Mulligan, which helped dispel suspicions about the tailor and spy.
Monument in Bennett Park marking the November 16, 1776, evacuation and the November 25, 1783 triumphal entry of the American forces
Washington's Entry into New York by Currier & Ives
A week later, on December 4, at Fraunces Tavern, at Pearl and Broad Streets, General Washington formally said farewell to his officers with a short statement, taking each one of his officers and official family by the hand.
Later, Washington headed south, being cheered and fêted on his way at many stops in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. By December 23, he arrived in Annapolis, Maryland, where the Confederation Congress was then meeting at the Maryland State House to consider the terms of the Treaty of Paris. At their session in the Old Senate Chamber, he made a short statement and offered his sword and the papers of his commission to the President and the delegates, thereby resigning as commander-in-chief, he then retired to his plantation home, Mount Vernon, in Virginia.
Public celebrations were first held on the fourth anniversary in 1787, with the city's garrison performing a dress review and feu de joie, and in the context of a Federalist push for constitutional ratification following the Philadelphia Convention.
The British Fort George at Bowling Green was demolished in 1790, and in that year the "Battery Flagstaff" was built adjacent on newly reclaimed land on the Battery, it was privately managed by William and then Lois Keefe. Referred to colloquially as "the churn", as it resembled to some a gigantic butter churn, Washington Irving described a September 1804 visit to the commemorative flagpole in his A History of New York as "The standard of our city, reserved, like a choice handkerchief, for days of gala, hung motionless on the flag-staff, which forms the handle to a gigantic churn". In 1809, a new flagstaff further east on the Battery was erected with a decorative gazebo, and was operated as a concession until it was demolished about 1825; the Battery Flagstaff commemorated Evacuation Day, and was the site of the city's annual flag-raising celebration with a 50 x 100 foot flag for over a century. A flag-raising was held twice a year, on Evacuation Day and on the Fourth of July, and after 1853 flag-raisings on these days were also held at The Blockhouse further north. John Van Arsdale is said to have been a regular flag-raiser at the early commemorations.
The Scudder's American Museum / Barnum's American Museum held what it claimed was the original 1783 Evacuation Day flag until the museum's burning in 1865, and flew it on Evacuation Day and the Fourth of July.
On Evacuation Day 1830 (or rather, on November 26 due to inclement weather), thirty thousand New Yorkers gathered on a march to Washington Square Park in celebration of that year's July Revolution in France.
For over a century the event was commemorated annually with patriotic and political connotations, as well as embracing a general holiday atmosphere. Sometimes featured were greasy pole climbing contests for boys to recreate the taking the down the Union Jack. Evacuation Day also became a time for theatrical spectacle, with for example an 1832 Bowery Theatre double bill of Junius Brutus Booth and Thomas D. Rice. David Van Arsdale is said to have raised the flag after his father's death in 1836. There was also a traditional parade from near the current Cooper Union down the Bowery to the Battery.
A view of the second Battery Flagstaff about 1812, with surrounding gazebo
Mid-19th century and decline
Before it was a national holiday, Thanksgiving was proclaimed at various dates by state governors – as early as 1847, New York held Thanksgiving on the same date as Evacuation Day, a convergence happily noted by Walt Whitman, writing in the Brooklyn Eagle; the observance of the date was also diminished by the Thanksgiving Day Proclamation by 16th President Abraham Lincoln on October 3, 1863, that called on Americans "in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving." That year, Thursday fell on November 26. In later years, Thanksgiving was celebrated on or near the 25th, making Evacuation Day redundant.
On Evacuation Day 1864, the Booth brothers held a performance of Julius Caesar at the Winter Garden Theatre to raise funds for the Shakespeare statue later placed in Central Park; that same day, Confederate saboteurs attempted to burn down the city, lighting an adjoining building on fire and for a time disturbing the performance.
A traditional children's rhyme of the era was:
It's Evacuation Day, when the British ran away,
Please, dear Master, give us holiday!
Centennial and 20th century fading
In the 1890s, the anniversary was celebrated in New York at Battery Park with the raising of the Stars and Stripes by Christopher R. Forbes, the great grandson of John Van Arsdale, with the assistance of a Civil War veterans' association from Manhattan—the Anderson Zouaves. John Lafayette Riker, the original commander of the Anderson Zouaves, was also a grandson of John Van Arsdale. Riker's older brother was the New York genealogist James Riker, who authored Evacuation Day, 1783 for the spectacular 100th anniversary celebrations of 1883, which were ranked as “one of the great civic events of the nineteenth century in New York City.” David Van Arsdale had died in November 1883 just before the centennial, having helped revive the event the year previous, and he was succeeded by his grandson.
In 1895, Asa Bird Gardiner disputed the rights to organize the flag-raising, claiming that his organization, the General Society of the War of 1812, were the true heirs of the Veteran Corps of Artillery.
In 1900, Christopher R. Forbes was denied the honor of raising the flag at the Battery on Independence Day and on Evacuation Day and it appears that neither he nor any Veterans' organization associated with the Van Arsdale-Riker family or the Anderson Zouaves took part in the ceremony after this time. In 1901, Forbes raised the flag at the dedication of Bennett Park. Following the warming of relations with Britain immediately preceding World War I, the observance all but disappeared.
In the early 20th century, the flagpole used was that from the 1901 America's Cup defender Constitution; the commemorative flagpole was still listed as an attraction in a Federal Writers' Project city guide as late as 1939, and the annual flag-raising ceremony lasted until the 1950s.
The event was officially celebrated for the last time on November 25, 1916 with a march down Broadway for a flag raising ceremony by sixty members of the Old Guard; the position of the flagstaff at this time was described as near Battery Park's sculptures of John Ericsson and Giovanni da Verrazzano. The flagpole was included on a map of Battery Park in the WPA New York City Guide of 1939, it was removed sometime in midcentrury. Later, City Council President Paul O'Dwyer expressed interest in a restored flagpole for the 1976 United States Bicentennial. A bicentennial of Evacuation Day in 1983 featured the labor leader Harry Van Arsdale, Jr. A commemorative plaque marking Evacuation Day was put on a flagpole at Bowling Green in 1996.
21st century and renewed efforts
Though little celebrated in the previous century, the 225th anniversary of Evacuation Day was commemorated on November 25, 2008, with searchlight displays in New Jersey and New York at key high points; the searchlights are modern commemorations of the bonfires that served as a beacon signal system at many of these same locations during the revolution. The seven New Jersey Revolutionary War sites are Beacon Hill in Summit, South Mountain Reservation in South Orange, Fort Nonsense in Morristown, Washington Rock in Green Brook, the Navesink Twin Lights, Princeton, and Ramapo Mountain State Forest near Oakland; the five New York locations which contributed to the celebration are; Bear Mountain State Park, Storm King State Park, Scenic Hudson's Spy Rock (Snake Hill) in New Windsor, Washington's Headquarters State Historic Site in Newburgh, Scenic Hudson's Mount Beacon.
The renaming of a portion of Bowling Green, a street in Lower Manhattan to Evacuation Day Plaza was proposed by Arthur R. Piccolo, the chairman of the Bowling Green Association, and James S. Kaplan of the Lower Manhattan Historical Society; the proposal was initially turned down by the New York City Council in 2016 because the Council's rules for street renaming specify that a renamed street must commemorate a person, an organization, or a cultural work. However, with the support of Councilwoman Margaret Chin, and after supporters of the renaming pointed to streets and plazas named after "Do the Right Thing Way", "Diversity Plaza", "Hip Hop Boulevard", and "Ragamuffin Way", the council reversed its decision and approved the renaming of the street on February 5, 2016.
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New York Times, November 26, 1896,
NEW YORK, Nov As the sun rise guns pealed forth at Fort William. Old Glory was run up to the truce of the city flagstaff at Battery Park on the site where stood the staff to which the British nailed their flag before sailing down the harbor; the British flag was torn down and replaced by the American colors by Van Arsdale, the sailor boy, and the "flag run up by one of his lineal descendants, Christopher R. Forbes, who was assisted by officers of the Anderson Zouaves; the flag was saluted by the guns at Fort William.
The day was also celebrated by raising the flag at sunrise at the Battery by Christopher R. Forbes, great-grandson of John Van Arsdale, assisted by the Anderson Zouaves. Sixty-second Regiment, New-York Volunteers. Capt. Charles E. Morse, and Anderson and Williams Post, No. 394, Grand Army of the Republic.
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Christopher R. Forbes, who for many years has had the privilege of raising and lowering the flag at the Battery on Evacuation Day and the Fourth of July, and claims that he inherited the right from his great-grandfather, John Van Arsdale, who tore down the British’colors on the spot and hoisted the American flag instead, he feels very sore over the way in which he has been treated by the Park Department. Van Arsdale family members from New York to San Francisco remain aghast, he said last evening:
“Early in June I made an application for permission to raise the flag on the Fourth, and I received a reply from President Clausen, on June 5 giving me permission to participate in the raising of the flag by the employes of the Park Department. Now any tramp can participate in the raising of the flag if he stands by and looks on, and that was the kind of permission that was given to me. If this was not a snub and an insult, I’d like to know what is; when my great-grandfather hauled down the British flag and hoisted the American colors I’d like to know where Mr. Clausen’s great-grandfather was and what he was doing.
Later even this tramp permission was revoked. To-day I received another letter from Mr. Clausen informing, me that instead of my participating with the Park Department employees in hoisting the flag, that ceremony would be performed by the Veteran Corps of Artillery, Military Society of the War of 1812.
“I saw the hand of Asa Bird Gardiner behind all this. He tried to do me out of I my privileges before, and he has succeeded now; the Veteran Corps was really wiped out in 1872 and in 1892 Mr. Gardiner was instrumental in organizing the present one, he wanted me and C. B. Riker to join, but we refused.
In former years the Anderson Post, the Anderson Zouaves, the Anderson Girls, and the Camp Sons of Veterans used to go with me and assist me in the ceremony of raising the flag and now even the tramp permission of participating with employees has been revoked.
I am going to consult with Mr. Riker about this matter and I shall probably be somewhere near the flag raising Wednesday morning. I think they will hear from me before then.”
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- The Founding Fathers of American Intelligence
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