The Story of “Evacuation Day”

A century after the end of the War for Independence, New Yorkers continued to celebrate a holiday known as “Evacuation Day,” commemorating the leaving of the last British troops from New York City on November 25, 1783. It marked the end of a seven-year occupation by the British army who used the city as the headquarters for its North American operations during the war. But it also marked the beginning of a holiday that would be enthusiastically celebrated by New Yorkers for a century to come. On this anniversary, I offer the following narrative account of a day that played a large role in the city’s historical memory of the Revolution for more than a century, but was eventually displaced when it became incompatible with contemporary circumstances.

During the summer of 1783, having defused the potential mutiny at Newburgh, Washington stayed in a small village outside Princeton called Rocky Hill. The Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3 with the news arriving at Princeton on November 1.[1]

The following day Washington issued his “Farewell Orders to the Armies of the United States.” In them, he praised the “unparalelled perseverance of the armies of the United States, through almost every possible suffering and discouragement, for the space of eight long years,” calling their steadfastness “little short of a standing miracle.” That perseverance was key to “events which have seldom if ever before, taken place on the stage of human action.” He praised the men “who came from different parts of the continent, strongly disposed . . . to despise and quarrel with each other” yet nevertheless became “but one patriotic band of brothers.” But this was no mere panegyric; they included genuine orders for the victorious soldiers. He expected them to “carry with them into civil society” their “strong attachments to union” and to always conduct themselves virtuously. Finally, in a statement aimed as much at the conscience of the Congress and the states as the ego of the soldiers, Washington claimed that it was “[im]possible to conceive” that the former would not make good on the back pay owed to the soldiers. Within a few weeks, the orders would be published in almost every newspaper in the country. Washington then set out for the Army headquarters at West Point, to begin making his final preparations for his triumphant return to the scene of his worst defeat of the entire war.[2]

For Washington and the other civil authorities, much of the fall of 1783 was spent waiting for Gen. Carleton to finish evacuating the city and fretting over the transfer of power. In eighteenth-century terms, the logistics of evacuation were staggering. There were twenty-thousand British soldiers in the city along with an institutional infrastructure seven years in the making that needed to be dissembled. In addition to the army, there were an estimated thirty five-thousand loyalists within the city, almost all of whom would seek to take up the Crown’s offer of relocation either to England itself (mostly for the elites) or to other imperial outposts, particularly Nova Scotia or the Caribbean.[3] Following the announcement of the cessation of arms back in April, loyalists in the city had been growing increasingly disconcerted. The desperate circumstances led to challenges for the authorities.[4] Houses were being plundered and robberies of persons and shops greatly increased as loyalists were now faced with the prospect that many had convinced themselves could not come to pass, i.e., Britain’s abandonment of the war and, subsequently, their own forced exile from the place of their birth.[5] Both Washington and New York’s governor, George Clinton, corresponded with Carleton throughout this time so as to effect a seamless transfer of power and prevent any further escalation of lawlessness.[6] The correspondence concluded with Carleton assuring Clinton and Washington that the evacuation would be completed on November 22.[7]

On Wednesday, November 20, Washington rode down from West Point to Tarrytown where he, Gov. Clinton, and Lt. Gov. Van Cortlandt met and lodged at Edward Covenhaven’s tavern.[8] Also that evening, former officers and soldiers were meeting at Cape’s Tavern in the city to plan for the procession of the governor, Washington, and the last 800 troops remaining in his service. They resolved to all wear a black-and-white Union Cockade as a Badge of Distinction representing Louis XVI, more for its ability to annoy the British soldiers than any abiding affection for their ally, the Catholic monarch of France.[9] But come the twenty-second, Carleton had not yet completed his evacuation. Washington’s triumphant return to the city whose loss haunted him throughout the war would have to wait a few more days.

On November 20, 1783, Washington, Clinton, and the army’s remaining soldiers marched from Tarrytown to Day’s Tavern in Harlem, one of the scenes of Washington’s retreat following the Battle of Long Island.[10] Carleton’s months-long evacuation would finally be completed on November 25, 1783. Immediately, citizens began preparing an entire day of festivities. Throughout the early hours of the morning, people streamed into the city. The final British troops were supposed to leave the island at noon, at which point Washington, Clinton, and their contingent would march into the city. Much attention was paid to timing to make sure that American forces arrived immediately upon the last evacuation so as not to leave any intermittent period in which there was no authority.

Before noon, Major General Henry Knox led a column of soldiers–dragoons, artillery, and infantrymen–down from McGowan’s Pass in Harlem. As he reached the outer limits of the city, he paused to await final word from a British messenger. When word came, Knox and company marched into the city to Cape’s Tavern on Broadway. Once there, Knox led a group of mounted citizens–wearing their black-and-white Union cockades–back to Bull’s Head Tavern just outside the city on the Bowery to meet with Washington, Clinton, and the rest of the procession. Citizens had gathered there hoping to get a glimpse of men whose names and deeds they knew of largely from newspaper reports. The plan was that once the last British troops had left and the British flag had been brought down over Fort George, a blast of thirteen cannon shots would signal to Washington and Clinton that the procession into the city could begin, which would end with the raising of the American flag. There was, however, a hitch in the plan.[11]

Evacuation Day, 1783Earlier that morning, some British soldiers had taken down the halyard of the British Union Jack flying over the fort, making it impossible to pull down. To add comedy to insult, they also greased the flagpole and removed the cleats, making it near impossible to climb.[12] As American soldiers began trying to take the flag down, a few cannons were blasted before they realized something was wrong. No doubt, the British soldiers sitting on their boats in the harbor a mile or so out were having a good laugh at the Americans’ expense. A mild panic ensued. It would be greatly embarrassing if Washington were to arrive with the Union Jack still flying above the fort. Having heard the few cannon shots, and unaware of the comic drama going on at the fort, the procession began moving into the city.

At its head were Washington and Gov. Clinton followed by Lt. Gov. Pierre Van Cortlandt and some city council members. Behind them was Knox along with fellow officers, eight abreast. They were followed by a number of the citizens on horseback, also eight abreast. Pulling up the rear was the Speaker of the Assembly. It was a long and wide procession, the likes of which the city had never seen before. They left Bull’s Head Tavern on the Bowery turning right onto the cobblestone-laid Chatham Street. As they passed the Tea-Water Pump, a group of citizens on foot, eight abreast as well, joined the procession. There, they turned left onto Queen Street (which is now Pearl Street).[13] This circuitous route––lined with crowds––was chosen rather than simply marching right down Chatham to Broadway in order to avoid having the General march by all the ruins on Broadway, the leftovers of the fire of 1776 and seven years of occupation. Upon reaching Wall Street, they turned right and headed toward Broadway.

After arriving at Cape’s Tavern on Broadway next to the burned-out Trinity Church, ceremonies were held and addresses were read out loud. A citizens’ address was read to Washington which said, “In this place, and at this moment of exultation and triumph, while the ensigns of slavery still linger in our sight, we look up to you, our deliverer, with unusual transports of gratitude and joy . . . The citizens of New-York are eminently indebted to your virtues.” Washington responded by assuring them that “nothing could be more agreeable to me than your polite congratulations.” Following the ceremonies, the procession and the crowds moved down Broadway toward the fort for the raising of the American flag, passing Bowling Green where the statue of George III had been torn down seven years earlier following the reading of the Declaration of Independence.

As they arrived, the Union Jack was still stuck on the pole. Some were shouting to cut the pole down, but it would take far too much time to erect a new one. Out of the crowd came a young Sergeant from a New York company, John Van Arsdale. After a few failed attempts to climb the pole, a run was made on a local hardware store a few blocks away on Hanover-Square to get supplies to help him climb. He quickly began nailing in cleats as he went. Before long, a ladder was brought to help him get closer to the British flag. In plain view of Washington, he reached out and grasped it just enough to tear it down to the tumultuous cheers of the thousands crowded below followed by the thirteen cannon blasts. A hat was passed around for contributions to be given to Van Arsdale for his service, to which even Washington contributed.[14]

As the festivities out-of-doors continued throughout the day and night, Washington, Clinton, the army officers, and distinguished citizens attended dinner at Fraunces’ Tavern on Pearl Street. There, thirteen toasts were made to United States, the Netherlands, the King of Sweden, the American Army, the French Army and Navy, and the memory of the army’s fallen “heroes.”[15] The evening was filled with fireworks and bonfires as the celebrations continued well into the night. Indeed, the celebrations continued for almost a week.[16] On December 4, Washington held an emotional and tearful farewell dinner for his officers at Fraunces’ Tavern before setting off on the next day for Annapolis where he would resign his commission as Commander-in-Chief of the Army to the Continental Congress.[17]

Throughout the nineteenth century, Evacuation Day was celebrated every November 25th.[18] Parades, fireworks, military displays, and other events marked the festivities.[19] Indeed, before Thanksgiving became a national holiday, Evacuation Day was the November holiday. But it was strictly a city holiday and was not observed throughout the rest of the country. As the nineteenth century wore on and the generation who lived through the occupation died away, the holiday began to decline in popularity (and practicality considering the newly fixed national holiday of Thanksgiving in the second half of the century). The holiday had one last great hurrah when the city marked its centennial in 1883. But the death knell for Evacuation Day had already been sounded and the final nail in the coffin came with the United States’ alliance with Great Britain during World War I, at which point, celebrating holidays dedicated to your ally’s defeat came to be seen as unseemly.

________________

[1] “A declaration of a cessation of arms, as well by sea as land, agreed upon between His Majesty the King of Great-Britain and the United States of America,” broadside, Boston, April 7, 1783, Evans no. 17851; Journals of the Continental Congress, 24:291-312; George Washington to the President of Congress, April 18, 1783, in The Writings of George Washington, 14 vols., ed. Worthington C. Ford (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1889-93), 10:225-6.

[2] Independent Journal, November 17, 1783.

[3] Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), 86.

[4] Pennsylvania Packet, September 18, 1783.

[5] Pennsylvania Packet, October 4, 14, 1783; James Riker, Evacuation Day, 1783 . . . (New York, 1883), 8.

[6] Public Papers of George Clinton, 10 vols., ed. Hugh Hastings (Albany, 1914), 8:257; George Washington to Sir Guy Carleton, April 9, 21, May 6, November 22, 1783, in Writings of GW, 10:221-3, 231-4, 241-7, 335-6.

[7] New-York Packet, November 20. 1783; Public Papers of GC, 10:282.

[8] “Washington’s Entrance into New York,” Magazine of American History 5 (1880): 134, qtd. in The Iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498-1909, 6 vols., ed. I. N. Phelps Stokes (1915), 5:1172.

[9] Independent New-York Gazette, November 22, 1783.

[10] Pennsylvania Journal, November 29, 1783.

[11] Riker, Evacuation Day, 1783, 9-10.

[12] Pennsylvania Packet, December 2, 1783.

[13] Stuart Murray, Washington’s Farewell: To His Officers after Victory in the Revolution (Bennington, Vt.: Images from the Past, 1999), 18-9.

[14] Riker, Evacuation Day, 1783, 14-5.

[15] Rivington’s New-York Gazette, November 26, 1783.

[16] “Order of exhibition of the fire-works, on Monday Evening the first of December, 1783,” broadside, New York, December 1, 1783, Evans no. 44434; Independent New-York Gazette, December 6, 1783.

[17] Rivington’s New-York Gazette, December 6, 1783; Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life (New York: Penguin Press, 2010), 451-2.

[18] For an excellent piece on Evacuation Day as a holiday, see Megan Margino, “Evacuation Day: New York’s Former November Holiday,” NYPL.org, November 24, 2014.

[19] For just one of many examples, see National Advocate, November 25, 1824.

5 comments on “The Story of “Evacuation Day”

  1. sandvick says:

    Reblogged this on DailyHistory.org and commented:
    Michael Hattem remembers the long ignored November 25th holiday – Evacuation Day. New York City was occupied by the British during the American Revolution. On November 25, 1783, British troops finally left the city and for the next hundred years New Yorkers enthusiastically celebrated the end of the British occupation. As Hattem points, before Thanksgiving became a major holiday Evacuation Day was “the November Holiday.”

  2. John McCarthy says:

    “Evacuation Day” is also celebrated in Suffolk County, Massachusetts (which includes the cities of Boston, Chelsea, Revere, and Winthrop). The holiday there commemorates the evacuation of British forces from the city of Boston following the Siege of Boston in 1776. That the holiday’s date is March 17th, Saint Patrick’s Day, is a happy coincidence that played a role in the establishment of the holiday and it’s continued popularity.

  3. Long Island Historian says:

    I recall reading, years ago, that the very last departure by ship was made from Manhasset, Long Island, but now cannot find the citation. Is this an urban legend, or can anyone offer assistance or guidance on researching this?

  4. […] were finally defeated, and left, on November 25, 1783, the city rose up en mass to celebrate “Evacuation Day.“ All of that had been just a few years prior to the Washington’s move to Manhattan. […]

  5. Nick lukich says:

    hi this is cool

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