August 27, 1776, British troops under General William Howe attacked American forces commanded by George Washington in the Battle of Brooklyn. Assailed from three sides, Washington and the main body of the Americans escaped across the East River to Manhattan and then fled north, ultimately crossing the Hudson River, then known as the North River, to New Jersey.
If Washington and his troops had been captured either in Brooklyn or Manhattan, the American Revolution would likely have ended soon after it began.
After the battle, Washington wrote John Hancock, President of the Second Continental Congress, sounding him out on the idea of burning the city on the southern tip of Manhattan Island to deny the British winter quarters. From Philadelphia, Hancock responded that the Continental Congress, meetings as a Committee of the whole house, decided, “that no Damage should be done to the City of New York.” The letter exchange between Washington and Hancock are included below.
One month later, on September 20, 1778, a fire broke out in the city of New York that destroyed as much as 25% of the buildings including Trinity Church, the largest building in the city. The British accused the colonists of starting the fire, the Americans blamed the British, while historians are largely undecided. However Benjamin Carp, author of The Great New York Fire of 1776 (Yale University press, 2023), believes it was George Washington who ordered the city burned to the ground as his troops retreated despite the Continental Congress denying him authorization.
As evidence of arson, Carp identifies more than 15 distinct ignition points that were reported by witnesses. In fact, the British captured and executed a number of alleged incendiaries, throwing some into the blaze.
A letter sent from New York to London newspapers accused the rebels of “having placed a large Quantity of Combustibles in the Cellars of several Houses in that Part of the Town called Whitehall” and claimed “William Smith, an Officer in a New England Regiment… was taken with a Match in his Hand, and sacrificed on the Spot to the Fury of the Soldiers.” Another letter identified ” the first Incendiary who fell into the Hands of the Troops” as a woman whose “Sex availed her little, for without Ceremony, she was tossed into the Flames.” Carp suspects that Nathan Hale, who was executed the day after the fire as an American spy, may have been involved in the plot to burn the city, denying the British a base for the upcoming winter.
American colonists possibly burning the city of New York under orders from George Washington offers a very different picture of both Washington and the rebellion. In addition, the letter highlights the dire situation faced by the American forces with entire regiments abandoning the army with the goal of returning home.
Even if Washington did not specifically order the arson in defiance of the Second Continental Congress, his request to burn the city, lack of confidence in his troops, and despair at the situation should change the way we teach about Washington and colonial defiance of the British. (Note that Washington, and probably also his aide at the time, were not great spellers and had a limited command of English grammar.)
Letter from George Washington to John Hancock, dated September 2, 1776:
As my Intelligence of late has been rather unfavorable and would be received with anxiety & concern, peculiarly happy should I esteem myself, were It in my power at this time, to transmit such information to Congress, as would be more pleasing and agreable to their Wishes — But unfortunately for me — Unfortunately for them, It is not.
Our situation is truly distressing — The check our Detachment sustained on the 27th Ulto, has dispirited too great a proportion of our Troops and filled their minds with apprehension and despair — The Militia instead of calling forth their utmost efforts to a brave & manly opposition in order to repair our Losses, are dismayed, Intractable, and Impatient to return. Great numbers of them have gone off; in some Instances, almost by whole Regiments — by half Ones & by Companies at a time — This circumstance of Itself, Independent of others, when fronted by a well appointed Enemy, superior in number to our whole collected force, would be sufficiently disagreable, but when their example has Infected another part of the Army — When their want of discipline & refusal of almost every kind of restraint & Government, have produced a like conduct, but too common to the whole, and an entire disregard of that order and subordination necessary to the well doing of an Army, and which had been Inculcated before, as well as the nature of our Military establishment would admit of, our condition is still more alarming, and with the deepest concern I am obliged to confess my want of confidence in the Generality of the Troops.
All these circumstances fully confirm the opinion I ever entertained, and which I more than once in my Letters took the liberty of mentioning to Congress, that no dependence could be put in a Militia or other Troops than those enlisted and embodied for a longer period than our regulations heretofore have prescribed. I am persuaded and as fully convinced, as I am of any One fact that has happened, that our Liberties must of necessity be greatly hazarded, If not entirely lost If their defence is left to any but a permanent, standing Army I mean One to exist during the War — Nor would the expence Incident to the support of such a body of Troops as would be competent almost to every exigency, far exceed that which is daily Incurred by calling in succour and New Inlistments and which when effected are not attended with any good consequences. Men who have been free and subject to no controul cannot be reduced to order in an Instant, and the privileges & exemptions they claim and will have Influence the conduct of others and the aid derived from them is nearly counterbalanced by the disorder, Irregularity and confusion they occasion — I cannot find that the Bounty of Ten Dollars is likely to produce the desired effect — When men can get double that sum to engage for a month or two in the Militia & that Militia frequently called out, It is hardly to be expected — The addition of Land might have a considerable influence on a permanent Inlistment.
Our number of men at present fit for duty are under 20,000 — they were so by the last returns and best accounts I could get after the Engagement on Long Island — since which Numbers have deserted — I have ordered Genl Mercer to send the Men Intended for the Flying Camp to this place, about a 1000 in number, and to try with the Militia, if practicable, to make a diversion upon Staten Island.
Till of late I had no doubt in my own mind of defending this place nor should I have yet If the Men would do their duty, but this I despair of — It is painfull and extremely grating to me to give such unfavourable accounts, but It would be criminal to conceal the truth at so critical a juncture — Every power I possess shall be exerted to serve the Cause, & my first wish is, that whatever may be the event, the Congress will do me the Justice to think so.
If we should be obliged to abandon this Town, ought It to stand as Winter Quarters for the Enemy? They would derive great conveniences from It on the one hand — and much property would be destroyed on the other — It is an important question, but will admit of but little time for deliberation — At present I dare say the Enemy mean to preserve It if they can — If Congress therefore should resolve upon the destruction of It, the Resolution should be a profound secret as the knowledge of It will make a Capital change in their plans. I have the Honor to be with great esteem
Sir Your Most Obedt Servt
Letter from John Hancock to George Washington, dated September 3, 1776:
I do myself the Honour to enclose you sundry Resolves, by which you will perceive that Congress having taken your Letter of the 2d Inst. into Consideration, came to a Resolution, in a Committee of the whole House, that no Damage should be done to the City of New York.
I have sent Expresses to order the Battalions up to Head Quarters agreeably to the Resolves herewith transmitted; & likewise to the several States to the Northward of Virginia to send all the Aid in their Power to the Army.1 I have the Honour to be, with perfect Esteem & Regard, Sir your most obed. & very hble Servant
Illustrations, from above: The Great New York Fire of 1776 book cover; Artist’s depiction of the Great Fire of New York on September 19, 1776; and etching of the Great Fire of New York by Louis Michel Halbou.
J F Sefcik says
This is an excellent work by a fine historian. His research is prodigious.What on the surface might seem Ho-hum turns into an in-depth analysis and an historical Who Dunnit!