It was a replica of the flag which was raised at the same spot on November 25, 1783 (Evacuation Day) when George Washington’s Continental army had marched into New York City officially ending the American Revolutionary War.
The flag raising was preceded by a short ceremony at which I, as the President of the recently formed Lower Manhattan Historical Society, spoke briefly about Evacuation Day and its origins and meaning, and announced that our fledgling organization would henceforth seek every year to raise this flag on this spot. I asked that all those present pledge to assist us in that endeavor, and to encourage their children and their children’s children to do the same.
Except for those present, most New Yorkers and visitors to the City were undoubtedly oblivious to the Evacuation Day ceremony that was unfolding at Bowling Green. There were almost three times as many people looking at Arturo di Modica’s famous statue, “Charging Bull” less than 50 feet north of the flagpole.
Nevertheless, I believe this ceremony was one of some historic significance, and depending on what happens in the future may be seen as one of some importance in the City’s history and how that history may be taught.
The Original Evacuation Day
November 25, 1783 was certainly more important and more widely recognized by New Yorkers at the time. The combined American and French armies had won the battle of Yorktown on October 19, 1781. While there were no major military engagements after October 1781, the British remained in control of New York City for more than two years during peace discussions and wranglings over the terms of their withdrawal.
Finally, by early November 1783, most of the outstanding issues had been resolved, and British Governor Guy Carleton indicated they were ready to leave. Large barges were prepared in the harbor to take pro-British families (some of whom had been in New York for generations) to other destinations, primarily Canada. By prearrangement, on the morning of November 25, 1783, Washington’s army began marching down Broadway to take control of the City. Washington signaled that he would not enter Bowling Green, site of the original Dutch fort in Lower Manhattan, unless the American flag was flying from the flagpole there.
A British Union Jack was flying from that flagpole and the American advance guard was having difficulty taking it down because the British had greased the flagpole. Finally John Van Ardale, a young Continental soldier, bought cleats from a local hardware store, climbed the flagpole and removed the British flag. An American flag with 13 stars and stripes flown in its place. Washington then continued his triumphant march to the oldest part of the City he had never been able to retake in battle.
A 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.”
Others were less sanguine about the City’s prospects, however, noting the devastation that had taken place in this City (the population at the time was probably not more than 12,000). One observer described the returning merchants as follows:
“Rich when they left this city they have returned poor, having little other property than the paper evidence of their patriotism. [They returned] to heaps of rubbish, and half ruined houses;–to poverty, and to the dread of future wretchedness…”
Nevertheless many in the City had high hopes for the future.
That night Washington and his officers, along with New York Governor George Clinton, held a dinner at Fraunces Tavern at Pearl and Broad streets, one of the City’s leading dining establishments. (The tavern’s proprietor Samuel Fraunces had apparently been secretly providing information to Washington about the British during the Revolution). For the long-suffering patriot army this must have been a period of euphoria, as the entry into New York marked their final victory.
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, who acquired the tavern in 1904. Upstairs from a restaurant on the first floor, the Sons of the Revolution runs the Fraunces Tavern Museum, which has become one of the leading cultural institutions dedicated to the history of the American Revolution in the City.
The thirteen toasts themselves are interesting because they provide a window into the thinking of the men who had just won the arduous fight against the British at their moment of greatest triumph. Most of the toasts were to the Continental Army and their French and Dutch allies. My favorite toasts, however, are somewhat more prophetic. One was: “May America be an Asylum for the persecuted of the Earth.” And the final toast was “May the remembrance of this day be a lesson to Princes.”
Today, much of the world is ruled by democracies, and hereditary monarchies are considered an anachronism. The men who gathered at Fraunces Tavern that night to celebrate their hard won victory over the British king however, were living in a world mostly still ruled by hereditary monarchs. Democracies were few and far between and those the men at Fraunces Tavern were familiar with, in ancient Greece or Rome, had been either relatively short-lived, or had become dictatorships.
Nevertheless, in this toast, these men laid down the gauntlet to monarchies around the world and asserted that a new world order was coming, in which the United States and its democratic aspirations would be become a major force. In their view the triumph of Evacuation Day was a beginning, not an end. They surely hoped that their triumph would be celebrated long into the future.
Evacuation Day in the 18th and 19th Centuries
In the years immediately following 1783 there were spontaneous demonstrations and parades on Evacuation Day, largely led initially by Revolutionary War veterans. It was on Evacuation Day in 1790 that the New York Artillery Volunteers were 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 British flag at Bowling Green. Evacuation Day thus became a major New York City secular holiday second only to July 4th. It was invariably marked by a ceremony at Bowling Green in which a descendant of John Van Arsdale had the honor of raising the American flag (and in some accounts reenacting the original climb).
As early as 1850 however, there were complaints in the New York Times and elsewhere that the interest in celebrating Evacuation Day was waning as the last Revolutionary War veterans were lost. 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 war and the principles for which it was fought. They took the lead in reviving Evacuation Day for its hundredth anniversary in 1883. On that day, it was said, business in the City shut down. A large statue of George Washington (by sculptor John Quincy Adams Ward) was placed on the steps of Federal Hall on Wall Street.
Perhaps the most significant and important Evacuation Day celebration took place ten years after the Centennial in 1893 when more than 10,000 people gathered at New York’s City Hall for the unveiling of a statue of patriot spy Nathan Hale (sculpted by Frederic MacMonnies and commissioned by the Sons of the Revolution). Hale, who was summarily hanged by the British in 1776, was not well known at the time (even George Washington, who allegedly sent him on his fatal mission, apparently never made mention of him). This statue of Hale, which still stands in City Hall Park was an important part of making the 21-year-old patriot who gave his life for the cause a national hero.
Thereafter, Evacuation Day celebrations continued each November 25th, but were beginning to be eclipsed by Thanksgiving (and events such as the Harvard-Yale football game). With the advent of World War I, Britain had become a close ally. In 1916, New York Mayor John Puroy Mitchel insisted the City stop celebrating Evacuation Day, considering it a celebration of the defeat of the British at a time when they were actively engaged in war with Germany. Thereafter, Evacuation Day became was all but forgotten.
Efforts to Revive Evacuation Day
Although it is sometimes said that Evacuation Day hasn’t been celebrated since 1916, there have been periodic efforts to revive it. The Sons of the Revolution has for many years held their Evacuation Day Dinner at Fraunces Tavern, annually renewing the thirteen original toasts. In 1983, the Fraunces Tavern Museum (then under the direction of Chris Miles) sponsored a major exhibit on Evacuation Day for its 200th anniversary. Also, the Sons of the Revolution have held a parade every 25 years in honor of Evacuation Day – the most recent, in 2008, included more than a thousand marchers.
In the early 1980’s New York City Council President Paul O’Dwyer, an ardent supporter of Irish-American history, along with his publicity director Joseph Fitzpatrick, held an annual Evacuation Day reception at City Hall. Arthur Piccolo of the Bowling Green Association would from time to time with the backing of John Herzog, a founder of the American Museum of Finance, hold a flag-raising at Bowling Green. One of the more imaginative of these efforts involved renaming Evacuation Day British American Friendship Day and inviting the British Consul General in New York to participate in a ceremonial raising of a British flag along with the American flag.
A further and completely independent effort to celebrate Evacuation Day took place in the late 1980s and early 1990’s in the New York City Law Department. An informal Evacuation Day committee was formed consisting of lawyers in the Law Department and other professionals from the Office of Management and Budget. These events included a lunch-time tour of City Hall on November 25th with the City Council Sergeant at Arm’s office.
As it grew in popularity, and for reasons of tightened security, the City Hall tour moved outside and covered City Hall, the Surrogate’s Court, and the Municipal Building, as well as part of Foley Square. The premise was that Evacuation Day was a day of triumph that celebrated not only the triumph of the American army in the Revolution in 1783, but also greater triumph that the American government still stood, and, as predicted in the final toast at Fraunces Tavern in 1783, democracy had spread throughout the world. During these tours, the great triumphs of New York government such as the building of the Erie Canal, the integration of immigrants into the City, and New Deal social welfare policies would be recounted and celebrated. Unfortunately, the tradition did not survive the departure of the leading guide and organizer from government service in 1997.
The recent effort of the Lower Manhattan Historical Society (LMHS) to revive Evacuation Day as a viable holiday in New York City draws on all these efforts. The LMHS is in essence a successor to the ad hoc July 4th festival committee, which began as an attempt to create a broader based July 4th celebration in 2014 that would be focused in Lower Manhattan, the City’s oldest and most historic area, rather than at a Nathan’s Hot dog eating contest in Coney Island.
Lower Manhattan in the last 20 years has become the fastest growing residential area in the City with more than 65,000 people now living south of Canal Street. Many of these new residents may not be aware of the area’s rich history – a history that has formed the backdrop for its strength and resilience.
Apparently, resilience is now a major theme in the teaching of New York State history. It would seem that those who are charged with promoting the history of the American Revolution in this state would do well to see that New Yorkers more widely celebrate Evacuation Day. New Yorkers should remember how at Fraunces Tavern George Washington and his men, having just entered a City ravaged by war and the seven year British occupation, raised their glasses and proclaimed that:
“May the memories of this day be a warning to Princes”.
Illustrations, from above: Participants in Evacuation Day 2014; Raising the Stars and Stripes (from an 1883 print); “Washington’s Entry into New York” by Currier & Ives (1857); and Fraunces Tavern on Broad Street.