by Kathy Fischer-Brown
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John Van Arsdale raising the flag
Having recently celebrated Thanksgiving here in the States, it was interesting to discover an even older, and now mostly forgotten, holiday commemorated by our ancestors in New York. Evacuation Day was an observance begun at the end of the American Revolution and a major holiday into the early part of the twentieth century. Since 1901, the 125th anniversary of the Continental Army’s first victory over the British, it has been an official holiday in the Boston area. Through the first years of our republic, Evacuation Day in New York City rivaled the Fourth of July in its celebratory nature.
At noon on November 25, 1783, after seven years as an occupying force in the city, the last of His Majesty George III’s red-coated troops sailed from the southern tip of Manhattan into New York Harbor. (In Boston, the occupation army left the city and its environs on March 17, 1776, a date that coincides with St. Patrick’s Day). In New York, the event was marked with a parade of sorts. After the city was secured by American troops under the command of General Henry Knox, George Washington and New York’s governor, George Clinton (yup, lots of Georges in those days), led a procession of rag-tag soldiers into lower Manhattan to Cape’s Tavern, one of the most famous inns of its time. The troops then marched farther on down Broadway to Fort George (now Battery Park).
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Evacuation Day Centennial
There they attempted to lower the British flag and raise the stars and stripes, but for a bit of British trickery. The pole at the fort, it seems, was “thoroughly soaped,” its halyards cut, and the Union Jack nailed to the staff. This while the artillery had taken up position and guns were held in readiness for a grand salute, and the British in their ships and boats watched from the harbor in amused silence.
After many futile attempts to climb the flag pole, one John Van Arsdale, a young sailor with quickly improvised wooden cleats on his shoes and a pocket full of nails, worked his way up the pole, attached new ropes, and with the aid of a ladder brought from a nearby shop, accomplished the task.
The sight of the American flag waving on the breeze inspired a thirteen gun salute and was the cause for much revelry lasting for days, as rockets blazed through the night, buildings were illuminated, and bonfires burned on every street corner. A public feast was held at Fraunces Tavern, where over 120 guests honored Washington with thirteen toasts…and the celebration continued until the general left the city on December 4, when he resigned his commission. (British flags continued to fly over Staten Island, Governor’s Island, and Long Island until this date.)
The first anniversary of Evacuation Day was observed with a flag raising at the fort…on the selfsame pole…amid the pealing of church bells. Entertainments were held at the City Tavern. And the tradition continued well into the next century, evolving into an official holiday, complete with school closings, fireworks, displays of patriotism, feasting and pageantry. But as the veterans of the conflict became fewer and fewer, eventually dying off altogether, their accomplishments no longer seemed important enough to warrant such a full-blown expression holiday pomp. Neither did the ever-growing expense of such extravagance. Eventually Evacuation Day was supplanted by a new national holiday, Thanksgiving.
On the centennial of the original celebration, in November 1883, New York gave the old holiday what would be its grand send-off. Imagine the bi-centennial of the nation’s 200th birthday in 1976…with tall and small ships jamming the harbor and both the East and Hudson Rivers. Fireworks lit up the night sky, observed by upwards of 500,000 people. Madison Square Garden and Delmonico’s Restaurant hosted banquets.
Even as its observance continued into the 20th century with decreasing fanfare and interest, there were many reasons why Evacuation Day slipped out of favor, not the least of which was the American alliance with Great Britain during World War I. The last official observance was held in 1916.
Sources: “Evacuation Day: New York’s Former November Holiday,” Megan Margino, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building; The Memorial History of the City of New-York, James Grant Wilson; Evacuation Day, Many Stirring Events, James Riker
Kathy Fischer Brown is a BWL author of historical novels, Winter Fire, Lord Esterleigh's Daughter; American Revolution-set novels, Courting the Devil, The Partisan's Wife, and The Return of Tachlanad, her latest release, an epic fantasy adventure for young adult and adult readers. Check out her Books We Love Author page or visit her website. All of Kathy’s books are available in e-book and in paperback from Amazon.