Farewell to the British! Evacuation Day.
Before President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday, the most celebrated day of the year in New York City was Evacuation Day, November 25, 1783.
The Long Occupation
September 21, 1776 – British forces commanded by General William Howe took possession of New York City. Washington’s defeated army retreated North of the city. In the chaos of that night a fire started and burned roughly one quarter of the city.
For the next seven years and two months the British occupied New York City. Under martial law, no one was allowed to enter or leave the city without military inspection or escort. The area destroyed by the fire became a “canvas town” where the city’s poor lived in the ruins, covered with canvas roofs. The residents of the city were mostly military with some loyalist families who had remained to be under protection of the Crown. As the years went by the occupants found themselves surrounded by enemy forces and navy. Food and heating materials became scarce and life grew miserable. Historian and Chief Justice William Smith in his “History of New York” recounts the difficulties of life those years and that even he struggled to stay warm during the Winter months.
Patriots in the surrounding areas of Long Island, New Jersey and the Hudson Valley secretly sold and donated supplies and food to the residents. Although they were on opposite sides of the war many were old friends and even family. The horrible conditions their former friends and neighbors suffered were too much for them to bear.
The War is Over
British General Charles Cornwallis surrendered to American General George Washington on October 19, 1781 in Yorktown, Virginia. The war was over! Still, it was two more years, not until the Treaty of Paris was signed, that the British occupation of New York City ended. November 23, 1783 the British began their evacuation of the city from Fort George, at the Southern tip of Manhattan island. They boarded ships and sailed away through the harbor. Waiting about a mile to the North, where City Hall Park is today, stood General Washington and his army. As the last of the British left the city they greased the flagpole at the battery in an effort to prevent any flag other than the King’s from flying over the city. When the last of the soldiers was gone, General Washington lead his army down the Broad Way.
The Victorious General Returns
In a memoir from the time a local woman recounts the victory parade. She tells us that everyone came out to the Broad Way to see the great General and his army arrive. The British soldiers, as they boarded their ships to leave, had been orderly, well dressed and well fed. But upon seeing the Americans, barefoot, shivering in the cold, poorly clothed and thin, she said her eyes welled up with tears and she openly wept along with her neighbors. These were the men who had defeated the great King for their liberty!
When the parade reached Fort George (near Battery Park today) they found the greased flagpole waiting for them. One of the soldiers found a local blacksmith, who nailed spikes to his boots, and up the flagpole he went. At last, the American flag flew over the City of New York. A huge flag, that the ladies had been sowing for weeks. One, they said, they wanted to be visible as every last British ship made its way through the Narrows and out to sea. For the next 80 years November 25 was the most celebrated holiday in New York City.
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