Tracing the American Revolution in New York City
Boston and Philadelphia are undoubtably, and rightfully, the two cities people most associate with the American Revolution. It was there that revolutionary fervor coalesced into the formation of a new republic. New York, however, hardly played a small role in the struggle for independence.
In 1765, near Wall Street, a protest against Britain’s oppressive Stamp Act took place at what would become Federal Hall, and not long after, New York saw the establishment of the first Sons of Liberty group.
During the summer of 1776, with the ink barely dry on the Declaration of Independence, New York became target number one of the British forces. Previously unable to keep control of Boston, Britain sent its forces southward.
In Bowling Green, the town commons at the tip of Lower Manhattan, there stood a statue of King George III. Upon learning of the Declaration of Independence on July 9, jubilant patriots tore down the statue and melted it into gun shot. The fence which surrounded the statue still stands at the same spot today.
During the same week, however, one of the largest fleets the mighty Royal Navy had ever assembled entered the Bay through the Narrows dividing Staten Island and Brooklyn (spanned by bridge only in 1964). Hundreds of masts covered the water from shore to shore, and many panicked New Yorkers, having never witnessed such an intimidating spectacle, packed up and fled the town in droves.
At the time, the city’s population was 25,000, cramped at the bottom of Manhattan, and barely extended above Chambers Street. North of the town were scattered a number of farms and estates- such as Peter Stuyvesant’s Bouwerie in today’s East Village, and the Morris-Jumel Mansion and Dyckman House far uptown (both of which still stand). Rural Brooklyn was scattered with villages like Bushwick, Gravesend, and Flatbush.
To control New York was to control the greatest port and wealthiest commercial hub in America – but just as importantly, control of New York meant easy access to the Hudson River, which could be used to cut off the New England colonies from Philadelphia and Virginia.
On August 27, 1776, the British landed troops near the mouth of the Gowanus Creek (now the horrifically polluted Gowanus Canal).
The ensuing battle took place along rugged and forested ridges in the area of what is now Park Slope, the hills of Prospect Park, Sunset Park, Cobble, and Greenwood Heights. A monument to the engagement stands atop Battle Hill, the highest point in Brooklyn, in today’s Greenwood Cemetery.
The Continental Army, under George Washington, did not fare well and were pushed back to Brooklyn Heights overlooking Manhattan island. On the night of August 29, in complete silence and under the cover of a thick providential fog, Washington demonstrated for the first time his knack for narrow escapes across rivers (The more famous being the immortal Christmas crossing of the Delaware later in 1776) The British force awoke to find that nearly 10,000 men had slipped across to Manhattan. Over the next few weeks, however, Washington was forced uptown to Harlem and Fort Washington, a fortification that gives the modern neighborhood its name. The nearby outpost of Fort Tryon, atop a schist ridge where the Cloisters are located today saw Margaret Corbin become the first American woman ever to fight and suffer wounds for the future United States.
In the end Washington had to quit the city and withdraw over the Palisades, the steep cliffs lining the Hudson River near the upper end of Manhattan. It had been the largest military engagement in North America up until that point, and, despite the loss, proved that the Continental army had the ability and leadership to hold their own on the open battlefield.
New York became an occupied city for the rest of the War. As such, it drew a great deal of refugees still loyal to the Crown. The port city already had a reputation of frivolous wealth and sin; and now filled with soldiers, the undesirable elements, especially prostitution, were drawn out more than ever. Trinity Church, then as now a large landowner, held the area north of the church in what is now Tribeca. The church proved to be a terrible slumlord and the neighborhood went to seed, earning the sarcastic nickname “The Holy Ground”.
There were darker forces at work in revolutionary NY, however, including the Great Fire which ravaged the city not long after Washington’s departure, leveling 1/4 of the buildings in the worst destruction New York has ever seen. Paranoia must have gripped the city as both sides accused the other of sabotage, some even being executed for suspected involvement. Nathan Hale, who uttered “I regret that I have but one life to give to my country”, was one of those caught up in the reactionary anger.
Meanwhile, one of the most repulsive episodes of the war was taking shape in the East River, at Wallabout Bay, where the Brooklyn Navy Yard now stands. Here the British anchored hulls of decommisioned ships in order to hold prisoners of war. The conditions were appallingly cramped – with disease and starvation running rampant. More American soldiers died on these ships than in all of the war’s battles combined, and for years, human remains would wash up on the Brooklyn shore, where relatives would look for signs of their discarded loved ones.
Today, there is a Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument in Ft. Greene Park, which overlooks the Bay.
When the war ended, the last British troops in the fledgling United States departed from Manhattan. As the last ships disappeared from view, an American flag was hoisted in Battery Park, and General Washington processed triumphantly down Broadway, along the route that today’s skyscraper-canyon tickertape parades now take place.
At Fraunces Tavern (still standing), Washington held a farewell banquet for his officers, raising 13 toasts to the army’s valor and to the allies of the Revolution. (NY Morning-Post coverage) The day was November 25, 1783, commemorated yearly until World War I as Evacuation Day. For a while, it was one of the most important public holidays in New York. As they left, British troops greased the flagpole at the Battery in order to make it difficult to replace the Union Jack with the Stars and Stripes. As part of future Evacuation Day festivities, boys would make a game of racing up a greased flag pole in order to be the first to tear down a mock British flag.
As the United States’ first capital from 1788 to 1790, Washington took the presidential oath of office not far from Fraunces, at the same spot where the Stamp Act was protested twenty years previous –
As always, physical history is hard to come by in New York- it’s difficult to walk among skyscrapers and fathom that two centuries ago, at the same spot you are standing, muskets were being fired in the woods. But the past in always there, just underfoot, and in the imagination, and in stories.
Incidentally, the British occupation of New York produced the finest topographical map of the early city. The amazingly accurate chart shows just how rugged Manhattan was before urban expansion:
Posted on July 3, 2012, in NYC past, Uncategorized and tagged american revolution, battle of brooklyn, battle of long island, colonial, evacuation day, fraunces tavern, george washington, great fire of 1776, new york, new york city, revolution, then and now, war of independence. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.