Historians are fond of saying that the Revolutionary War in the city of New York began and ended in the same place. On July 9, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was read to George Washington’s troops at City Hall. Within minutes, a mob of fired-up patriots stormed nearby Bowling Green where they pulled down its statue of King George III and sawed off the royal crown finials on the uprights of the surrounding fence. (The original fence still stands, you can see the saw marks.)
On November 25, 1783, the day the British evacuated the city, an American soldier shimmied up the Bowling Green flagpole (no small feat since the Redcoats had greased it), tore down the British flag and replaced it with the Stars and Stripes. At the same time, General George Washington paraded the Continental Army down through Manhattan to Bowling Green to view the last of the British occupiers sail away.
In between those dates, the city suffered terribly. Following its invasion by General William Howe, 5th Viscount Howe, during the summer of 1776, New York was the only American city to remain under British occupation for the duration of the war. It sustained tremendous physical damage, as well as the crushing burden of dictatorship.
First came The Great Fire. It began on a wharf near Whitehall Slip and, fanned northward by a fierce wind, consumed block after block of homes and shops. Then it changed direction. The flames licked across Broadway, destroying Trinity Church and other landmarks in “a lofty pyramid of fire.”
By the time it petered out, one quarter of the city was in ashes. Another huge fire erupted some two years later. And not long after that, 260 pounds of gunpowder on an ordnance ship in the East River exploded, ripping through nearby structures as if they were made of matchsticks. Much of the devastated city could not be reconstructed during the war.
The irony of the situation is that the American rebels were gleeful at the city’s destruction, although blame for the disasters was never conclusively determined. Washington, who had thought of scorching the city as his troops retreated toward Harlem, but did not, exclaimed of the Great Fire:
“Providence, or some good honest fellow, has done more for us than we were disposed to do for ourselves.” Why such an attitude? Because of the shift in population that ultimately added to the city’s woes.
New York had always had a substantial number of Tories – that is, those sympathetic to the Crown – among its merchant class. In 1775, when news of the Battle of Lexington and Concord reached New York with its implicit threat of war, vast numbers of British loyalists fled. Later, when the Redcoats invaded, fortunes and demographics were reversed. American patriots fled, while British sympathizers from throughout the colonies streamed into town to join the occupation.
So, the city of New York, referred to as “Torytown,” was a British stronghold in more than just the military sense. And it was constantly under assault. Patriot refugees in the surrounding areas of Westchester, New Jersey and Connecticut engaged in vicious guerilla actions against the enemy citizenry they staged armed raids; they rustled cattle, burglarized and thieved, kidnapped, and systematically burned needed crops.
New York, in the words of one returning loyalist, was “a most dirty, desolate, and wretched place.” And yet, most of the misery that afflicted New York can be directly attributed to the British. Residents, Tory or not, waited in vain for civilian government to be restored. Instead, General Howe vested all power in a commandant who established a brutal and oppressive regime of martial law.
Even loyalist merchants bristled under the many business restrictions and permits imposed upon them. Their anger grew as their wharves and storehouses were commandeered for military use and press gangs periodically swept up employees and laborers to serve as Royal Navy crew.
His Majesty’s troops were another source of friction. Poorly rationed and barely disciplined, they routinely went on drunken sprees of plunder and destruction, even rape and murder, according to some reports.
As the civilian courts had been largely disabled, complaints garnered little satisfaction. Courts martial tended to find in favor of the offending soldiers, especially officers, despite the enormity of their crimes.
And then there was the festering problem of housing, for which no true remedy was undertaken. Shelter was already in short supply because of the fires that had wiped out a quarter to a third of available lodging. The regime exacerbated the situation by systematically confiscating patriot-owned homes to house refugees and troops. The many non-establishment (ie, non-Anglican) houses of worship were also repurposed as barracks (as well as stables, prisons and warehouses).
Violent fights broke out among citizens and soldiers attempting to grab for themselves even the meanest of shelters. The hundreds, if not thousands, of homeless had no choice but to settle in “canvas Town,” a sprawl of tents perched on the charred ruins of the Great Fire.
Food posed a similar challenge. The military was entitled by law to demand provisions and equipment, for fair compensation, from the population it “protected.” But the Redcoats seldom paid the established rate for the crops and animals and other essentials they seized, forcing farmers to divert their goods onto the black market in order to survive. The result was rampant inflation.
Rents jumped a frightening 400 percent during the first year of the occupation, the cost of food rose 800 percent, and kept on rising. In many quarters, diets were reduced to subsistence levels, if not to the threshold of starvation.
Whereas the very beginning of the war saw patriot flight and a downturn in commercial activity, the city’s Tory population soared as the conflict continued (from 12,000 civilians in 1777 to 33,000 by 1779) and galvanized local trade as a result. Simply supplying the enormous British military was a source of wealth in and of itself, and a fleet of privateers authorized by Parliament to seize
rebel ships added untold numbers of jobs, goods and money to the mix.
There were even riches to be made selling provisions illegally to the surrounding rebel -held regions. And if lucrative trade was not an option, outright embezzlement, arrogation of common property, inflated fees and even protection rackets were rampant in every branch of the military and municipal bureaucracy-to the tune of some five million stolen pounds by the end of the war.
So, not surprisingly, senior military officers and their wives and affluent, well-connected Tory families were having the time of their lives; dances, theater, concerts, fox-hunting, horse racing, golf, cricket, billiards, skating, as well as lavish formal suppers filled their social calendars. Not to mention patronage of certain establishments catering to debauchery and attractions of the flesh.
Needless to say, the contrast between blatant extravagance and corruption and most citizens’ dire privation was the ultimate insult. And, together with the military administration’s heavy hand, it had its effects. According to one official, “Britain’s armies made more rebels than they found.”
Many previously loyalist New Yorkers were quietly claiming that indulgence and villainy had needlessly protracted the war and possibly even lost it. Some among them, men and women, went so far as to switch loyalties – spying to obtain the codes of His Majesty’s fleet, reporting on troop disposition within the city, aiding more than 200 prisoners of war to escape.
In October 1781, Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis, surrendered to the Continental Army at Yorktown and by August 1782, the British had accepted the idea of American independence. A ceasefire was proclaimed in early 1783, followed by a peace treaty later in the year. No doubt many of the city’s Tories would have fled in any case from what had now become “enemy territory.”
The New York State Legislature saw fit to pass two laws – one banning Tory creditors from suing patriots, and another enabling patriots to sue loyalists for damage to their former property – that made it problematic for Tories to remain in the city. Those who did remain were often the victims of organized attacks. Once more the population stream reversed itself; American refugees returned
and British sympathizers left in droves.
The defining moment was “Evacuation Day.” That day, November 25, 1783, marked the final withdrawal of British troops and was celebrated for over a century as a patriotic holiday. As a bystander observed, the departing British “with their scarlet uniforms and burnished arms, made a brilliant display,” while “our troops,” as they paraded down Broadway to Bowling Green, “were ill-clad and weather-beaten, and made a forlorn appearance.” A suitably plain and populist end to the occupation.
Illustrations, from above: Patriots topple the Bowling Green statue of King George Ill and subsequently saw off the crown finials on the fence; a contemporaneous artist’s interpretation of the Great Fire of 1776 in New York City (published in 1776); a map of Manhattan in 1776 (see a larger version here); William Howe 1777 color mezzotint by Richard Purcell aka Charles Corbutt (ca 1736-ca 1766); and “‘Evacuation day’ and Washington’s triumphal entry in New York City, Nov. 25th, 1783” (1879 lithograph by Edmund P. Restein).
A version of this essay was first published in Blackwell’s Almanac, a quarterly publication of the Roosevelt Historical Society. It was written by Bobbie Slonevsky and Melanie C. Colter and published by Judith Berdy.