Many New Yorkers are woefully ignorant about their city’s revolutionary roots.
It’s not all our fault.
NYC does not abound in landmarks that remind us of our role in the battle for independence because “there is no premium put on saving history in New York City,” and real estate interests reliably trump those of history’s champions, said Edwin G. Burrows, distinguished professor of history at Brooklyn College.
Almost all physical historical evidence of NYC as it was in the 1770s, with the notable exception of Saint Paul’s Church downtown (and the Morris-Jumel Mansion uptown), has been obliterated, Burrows said. At the same time, there are aspects of the city’s role in the war that many may prefer not to recall. After George Washington defeated the British in Boston in 1776, he was outflanked and outmanned in the disastrous Battle of Brooklyn (aka the Battle of Long Island) and forced to skulk away in August, leaving the city in British hands.
“We were the British base of command until the end of the war,” seven years later, said Valerie Paley, historian and vice president for scholarly programs at the New-York Historical Society. In typical NYC fashion, though, Washington’s supporters spun his flight as a brilliant tactic: Even with control of the harbor, the British navy failed to anticipate Washington’s stealthy withdrawal, and the general managed to save his ragtag Continental Army to fight another day, which it did that September in the Battle of Harlem Heights.
The political divisions of occupied NYC in the late 1770s rivaled today’s, and the population’s sympathies were often fluid. Life under British occupation could be compared to the Cold War in the former East Germany. “Everybody spied on everybody — especially in the boroughs. No one knew who was on what side,” said Karen Quinones, president and owner of Patriot Tours.
Most of NYC’s population — a whopping 25,000 people — lived around the southern tip of Manhattan, below Chambers Street, Quinones said.
While many New Yorkers fled after Washington withdrew, the population also swelled because the city morphed into a giant jail: 30,000 Americans were kept as prisoners throughout the course of the occupation, many in deplorable conditions, Burrows said.
The prisoners kept on British ships in Wallabout Bay off Brooklyn had it the worst. More than 11,500 of the inmates on the prison ships died, usually of starvation or disease, outraging their loved ones and stirring hatred against the occupying British. “This is a mistake colonial powers always make when dealing with insurgencies: Prisoner abuse is always counterproductive,” Burrows said. (There is, in fact, a Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument in Fort Greene Park that contains some of the men’s remains interred in its base.)
“You could ask: Why wasn’t there a prisoner exchange? It’s because Washington was very pragmatic,” and realized that a captured British soldier — usually a professional militarist with marksmanship and tactical skills — was far more valuable than an untrained American freedom fighter who was far more easily replaced, Paley said. Washington “was determined to win the war against extraordinary odds,” and did not want to weaken his hand by returning such valuable commodities to his enemy, even if it meant sacrificing his own men, she said.
Washington, as we know, fared better elsewhere. The last of the British forces departed the city on Nov. 25, 1783. Its anniversary was celebrated nationally as Evacuation Day well into the 1800s.
But it could be argued that NYC helped the cause of liberty by providing Washington a valuable lesson. It was in Brooklyn, said Burrows, that “Washington learned never to fight the British directly again.”
Lots of places in NYC are named after colorful revolutionary figures. Here are just a few:
Rivington St.: By the end of the occupation, James Rivington, the royal printer who produced propaganda for the Crown, had become a spy for Washington, using couriers to relay the American general important information. “He was a double agent,” and remained in NYC even after “Evacuation Day,” when the other Brits hopped on boats to go home, noted Quinones.
MacDougal St.: Alexander McDougall was a Scot and a founder of the New York Sons of Liberty. Born a peasant, he became a merchant seaman, and later a ship captain, and eventually founded the Bank of New York. After being jailed by the British for publishing an anonymous broadside titled, “To the Betrayed Inhabitants of the City and Colony of New York,” his wife, Hannah, led a march down Broadway to protest his incarceration.
Murray Hill: Robert Murray had a shipping company at the end of Wall Street on “Murray’s Wharf,” and Murray Hill was just another name for what was then the country estate of a crown loyalist. The real operator in the family was Murray’s wife, Mary, a Quaker with an Irish father who invited weary British officers in for a meal in 1776 while they were pursuing American freedom fighters. “She endeared herself that day to both commanders,” assuring she would be in good standing with whomever won the war, Quinones explained: To Washington, for having the genius to delay his pursuers, and to British General William Howe, for having shown him and his troops the warmth of hospitality.
Francis Lewis Boulevard: Named after a merchant who was a signatory to the Declaration of Independence (which was read aloud in NYC in what is now City Hall Park on July 9, 1776) representing New York.
New York City: Named after the Duke of York, who changed the name from New Amsterdam after wresting the territory from the Dutch in 1664. “Twenty years later he became the King of England,” noted Burrows. Curiously, many of the names honoring British origins — Kings County, Queens County, Prince Street -- remained unchanged by the triumphant American forces, despite an antipathy towards the British that lingered here for almost 100 years after the revolution.
Pivotal Points of the Revolution
Before New York City became a bustling metropolis, it served as a major turf during the Revolutionary War. These are some of the key NYC moments during the conflict:
Battle of Long Island, aka Battle of Brooklyn, Aug. 27, 1776: George Washington brought his army to defend New York, stationing troops in Brooklyn as well as Manhattan. He ran into difficulty, thanks to some crafty British planning. The redcoats, after landing in Bay Ridge, surprised the colonial forces in present-day Park Slope, prompting a retreat out of the borough.
Battle of Harlem Heights, Sept. 16, 1776: After winning the Battle of Long Island, the British forces invaded Manhattan. George Washington and his troops fought off the redcoats and forced them to retreat from upper
The Great Fire of New York, Sept. 21, 1776: The British controlled most of Manhattan when a mysterious fire downtown destroyed between 400 and 1,000 buildings. No side claimed responsibility for the blaze.
Nathan Hale’s execution, Sept. 22, 1776: British soldiers arrested Colonial spy Nathan Hale in Queens. Before the redcoats hanged him in Manhattan for his betrayal, Hale, only 21, uttered his famous last words, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”