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.

The Bowling Green Fence that once surrounded the statue of King George III that revolutionaries dismantled after hearing of the Declaration of Independence

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.

British fleet entering New York Harbor

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 Gowanus Canal, once known as Gowanus Creek, and today horribly polluted.

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.

Revolutionary War monument atop Battle Hill, 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.

Site of Washington’s secret escape across the East River to Manhattan (from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade)

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.

The Palisades – lining the Hudson on the New Jersey side. Washington retreated from New York along these cliffs – across from the Fort and neighborhood that now bear his name.

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.

The Great New York Fire of 1776 in which a quarter of the city was destroyed

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.

Wallabout Bay (Brooklyn Navy Yard). – where tens of thousands of American POW’s perished on rotting British prison ships

Today, there is a Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument in Ft. Greene Park, which overlooks the Bay.

The Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument, Ft Greene Park

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.

Along the route of General Washington’s triumphant parade into liberated NYC

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.

Fraunces Tavern – near Battery Park – Where Washington gave his farewell address to his army after the last British forces evacuated the US from Manhattan

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 –

Federal Hall – site of the 1765 Stamp Act protests, and of George Washington’s 1789 presidential inauguration.

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:

British Headquarters Map 1782


About ventilateblog MUSIC Classically trained cellist. Attended Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University - degree in Music Composition, and three years of recording arts and audio electrical engineering. Multiple works for chamber groups and orchestra have been produced and performed. Singer-songwriter with rock and folk roots.. Electronica. Today, it's about mashing together all these things into improbable hybrids. Also, a longtime educator of music. PHOTOGRAPHY Unpredictable and in the moment is what I love. Streets, architecture, and people. Ruined places. History. Frozen moments. Great love for imagines wrought by beautiful mystery of film and vintage cheapy cameras. WRITING The vague, ephemeral. The historical - the ghosts behind the veil of time. Delving deeply into the intricacies of our physical and cultural world. Relaying memory and longing. And sometimes the absurd. Life runs deep. Life

Posted on July 3, 2012, in NYC past, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. The Ephemeral New York blog has an interesting article about the wall of a revolutionary era prison that is still embedded in a building in Lower Manhattan

  2. Posted today by the NY Historical Society:

    – July 9, 1776 – A mob tears down the statue of George III at Bowling Green; incidentally about hundred feet from where the iconic Wall Street bull statue stands today, carefully guarded against OWS.

  3. This is the coolest, Matt. May have to use it as a reference for some of my little stories.

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