On November 25, 1783 George Washington’s Continental army marched into New York City officially ending the Revolutionary War. Like much else about the war, the ceremonies that day were marked by controversy, but also triumph.
More than two and a half years after the joint French/American victory at Yorktown in 1781, after much wrangling over issues such as the status of New York’s numerous Tories and runaway slaves fighting for the British, Washington and British Governor Guy Carleton had agreed on arrangements for the British to turn over New York City, their last enclave in North America to the Continental army. By prearrangement, on the morning of November 25, 1783, Washington was to march down Broadway and take control of the City, just after the British and their supporters completed their withdrawal.
Around 11 am Washington began his triumphal march down Broadway toward Bowling Green. He signaled that he would not enter into Bowling Green, the most historic area of Lower Manhattan, and the site of Fort George, the original Dutch fort at New Amsterdam unless the American flag was flying from the flagpole there.
Then a complication arose. A British Union Jack was flying from that flagpole and the American advance guard was having difficulty taking it down. The British, in one final act of ill grace, had greased the flagpole so that it was impossible to pull down the British flag and raise the American flag, thus potentially marring the drama of Washington’s triumphal return to New York City.
Finally John Van Ardale, a young Continental soldier, bought cleats from a local hardware store, climbed up the flagpole and took down the British flag and the American flag with 13 stripes and stars was put up. Washington thus continued his triumphant march to the oldest part of the City he had never been able to retake in battle. A crowd cheered and a hat was passed to contribute to Van Arsdale for his daring effort to save the ceremony (to which Washington himself reportedly contributed).
For patriotic New Yorker’s whose beleaguered City had been devastated by seven years of British occupation it must have been a day of significant euphoria. A New York woman watching the American troops march down Broadway stated:
“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 my eyes were full.”
That night Washington and his officers and New York Governor George Clinton held a dinner at Fraunces Tavern on Pearl and Broad Street, one of the leading City’s leading dining establishments, whose proprietor Samuel Fraunces, had apparently been secretly providing information to Washington about the British during the Revolution. For the long suffering patriot army the entry into New York on Evacuation Day marked their final victory over the more aristocratic British and the beginning of the new United States.
At that dinner thirteen toasts were proposed, which are today annually recited at an Evacuation Day dinner held by the Sons of the Revolution of the State of New York, which acquired the building that housed Fraunces Tavern in 1904. Today most of the building is leased as a restaurant to the Porterhouse Company, an international food and beverage corporation headquartered in Ireland, that runs Irish pubs throughout the world. Upstairs from the restaurant, the Sons of the Revolution runs the Fraunces Tavern Museum, which has become one of the City’s leading cultural institutions dedicated to the history of the American Revolution in the City.
Most of the 13 Evacuation Day toasts are to the Continental Army and our French and Dutch allies. However two of the toasts are somewhat more prophetic. One states:
“May America be an Asylum for the persecuted of the Earth.”
The final toast states:
“May the remembrance of this day be a lesson to Princes.”
In the years immediately following 1783 there were apparently spontaneous demonstrations and parades around Bowling Green on Evacuation Day, which were largely led initially by Revolutionary War veterans. It was on Evacuation Day in 1790 that the New York Veteran Corps of Artillery (VCA) was formed as a company of soldiers designed to defend the City. The members of this group, which to this day exists and fires a 50 gun salute on the fourth of July in Lower Manhattan, included John Van Arsdale, who had pulled down the original British Flag at Bowling Green on that day seven years earlier. This is the oldest continuously functioning military unit in New York State. This year in honor of its 225th anniversary the VCA will be leading a revitalized Evacuation Day ceremony on November 25 in Lower Manhattan.
Evacuation Day thus became a major New York City secular holiday second only to July 4. Whereas July 4 marked the beginning of the American Revolution, so Evacuation Day marked the final ending in victory and thus was a day of triumph. It was invariably marked by a ceremony at Bowling Green around 1 pm in which a descendant of John Van Arsdale was given the honor of raising the American flag and in some accounts reenacting his ancestor’s climbing up a flag pole to pull down the British flag.
As early as 1850, however, there were complaints in the New York Times and elsewhere that that the interest in celebrating this very important New York holiday was beginning to wane, particularly since there were no surviving Revolutionary War veterans. However, patriotic societies such as the Sons of the Revolution, the Sons of the American Revolution and the Daughters of the American Revolution formed in the late 19th century with the purpose of keeping alive the memories of the Revolutionary War and the principles for which it was fought would soon take the lead in reviving a celebration of Evacuation Day for its hundredth anniversary in 1883. On that day virtually all businesses in the City shut down. As part of this celebration the large statue of George Washington by the sculptor John Quincy Adams Ward was placed on the steps of Federal Hall on Wall Street. While there were again complaints after the centennial that interest was declining, probably the most significant and important Evacuation Day celebration took place ten years after the Centennial in 1893 when more than 10,000 people gathered in New York’s City Hall park (approximately one mile north of Bowling Green) for the unveiling of a statue by the young sculptor Frederic MacMonnies commissioned by the Sons of the Revolution of the 21-year-old patriot spy Nathan Hale, which ceremony would be important in making him a national hero.
Thereafter, Evacuation Day celebrations continued each November 25, but were beginning to be eclipsed by Thanksgiving and such events as the Harvard/Yale football game. Furthermore in the early 1900s there was some conflict between the leadership of the VCA (then closely aligned with Tammany Hall) and Mr. Van Arsdale’s great grandson as to who should control the Evacuation Day ceremony. With the advent of World War I, Britain had become a close ally. Mayor John Puroy Mitchel, in 1916 insisted that the City stop celebrating Evacuation Day, as he viewed it as celebrating a defeat of the British army at a time when that army was actively engaged in War with Germany. Evacuation Day thus became a forgotten holiday.
Although it is sometimes said that Evacuation Day has never been celebrated in New York City since 1916, there have been periodic efforts by certain disparate groups to revive it. As indicated above, the Sons of the Revolution has for many years annually held their Evacuation Day dinner at Fraunces Tavern. In 1983, the Fraunces Tavern museum and its then director Chris Miles sponsored a major exhibit on Evacuation Day for its 200th anniversary. Furthermore, the Sons of the Revolution holds a parade in its honor which is held every 25 years, the most recent of which was held in 2008 and had more than a thousand marchers.
In addition in the early 1980s New York City Council President Paul O’Dwyer, an ardent supporter of Irish history, and his publicity director Joseph Fitzpatrick for some years held annually an Evacuation Day reception at City Hall. Furthermore, Arthur Piccolo of the Bowling Green Association would from time to time with the backing of John Herzog hold a flag raising at Bowling Green. In addition in the early 1990s lawyers in the New York City Law Department celebrated Evacuation Day with an annual walking tour of City Hall and the civic center buildings in the City Hall area on the day before Thanksgiving.
Last year the Lower Manhattan Historical Society (LMHS) and the Bowling Green Association commissioned the manufacture of a 13-star flag of the type that would have been flown in 1783 on the original Evacuation Day.
This flag was unfurled and presented at the 2014 Evacuation Day dinner at Fraunces Tavern. The next day at 12 pm on November 25, the Lower Manhattan Historical Society held a ceremony attended by approximately 25 people at the Bowling Green flagpoles. This newly commissioned Evacuation Day flag was then raised at the very spot where the flag was raised in 1783. It was stated that the ancient holiday of Evacuation Day was now formally being revived and that all those present were urged to pledge to see that it was continued for all time into the future.
In April the LMHS Evacuation Day flag was sent to France to be carried across the Atlantic on the replica of Lafayette’s ship the Hermione, which visited New York City the week of July 4, 2015. At the welcoming ceremony for the Hermione’s visit to New York the flag was again presented to the President of the Lower Manhattan Historical Society, and was carried through Lower Manhattan at the head of the Society’s Independence Day parade, where it was again raised at the Bowling Green flagpole.
This year much more elaborate Evacuation Day festivities are being planned. The VCA with the co-sponsorship of the LMHS is planning a parade of military and to down Broadway on November 25 from St Paul’s Chapel to Bowling Green. The ceremonies will begin at St. Paul’s Chapel on Vesey Street & Broadway at 11 am with a number of speakers expert in military history. A uniformed color guard will then lead the group down Broadway to the flagpoles at Bowling Green where there will be an official reenactment of the raising of the Evacuation day flag, and the VCA flag celebrating the 225th anniversary. In addition the ceremony (which is anticipated to include City Council woman Margaret Chin who represents Lower Manhattan) will announce that the area around the Bowling Green flagpoles is soon to be ceremonially renamed Evacuation Day Plaza. This designation has resulted from the efforts of the VCA and the LMHS to obtain approval of Manhattan Community Planning Board No. 1.
These greatly expanded Evacuation Day celebrations along with the naming of the area around the Bowling Green flagpoles as Evacuation Day Plaza should greatly increase public knowledge of this important holiday so that it is no longer described as “forgotten”. We urge you to attend the ceremony on November 25, and generally to join us in the effort to revitalize Evacuation Day.