Evacuation Day is New York City’s most famous celebration you’ve never heard of. While November 25, 1783, marks a significant moment in American history, Evacuation Day never reached national prominence.
And while New York embraced it with great enthusiasm-parades, flotillas, fireworks-for more than seventy years, that’s not surprising since it was New York that was evacuated.
That fall morning two hundred thirty-two years ago, British troops exited the fort at the end of Broadway much as Dutch troops had a century before-in defeat. The Treaty of Paris had finally been signed. America had won the war.
And nearly two years after major hostilities had ceased, British soldiers, sailors, and Loyalists were finally leaving New York City, their headquarters throughout the Revolution and the final piece of America pried from their hands.
New York remained under British control until high noon-keep your Stars and Stripes out of sight until then. Continental troops entered the city at noon to establish American authority and prepare for General George Washington’s triumphant entry one hour later.
The Red Coats took two parting shots that morning. The flagpole flying the Union Jack high over Fort George was greased and the ropes were cut, so their flag could not be taken down. But a quick-thinking sailor, John Van Arsdale, attached wood cleats to the pole as he shimmied up and had the American flag waving cheerio before the last of his majesty’s ships were out of sight.
The second parting shot was fired from a British naval cannon at a jeering crowd on Staten Island. The final shot of the Revolutionary War fell short of its target.
On a graver note, the seven-year occupation had not been kind to New York City: two devastating fires and a winter so harsh the harbor froze over. Tent cities were scattered throughout the burnt ruins between Broadway and the Hudson River.
Worst of all, 10,000-plus solders, sailors, and civilians had been allowed to die of starvation and disease on the prisons floating in the East River.
So while Evacuation Day marked a symbolic moment for the young nation, for New York it was real and it was personal. Thankful that the heavy hand of a ruthless occupying force had been lifted, New Yorkers reclaimed their city and joined America.
Certainly something to celebrate. And New York did, enthusiastically, for the next seventy years-until there was no one left who remembered the hardships.
Following the Civil War, Independence Day began to ease out Evacuation Day as New York’s (and the nation’s) foremost patriotic celebration. Not a bad one to lose out to.
And in 1863, when President Lincoln proclaimed “the last Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving,” November 25 got swallowed up in that larger, national, holiday. That’s okay too-Evacuation Day was all about giving thanks.
The last celebration of note was the 1893 centennial, which included the dedication of the statue of George Washington on the steps of the Federal Hall National Memorial on Wall Street.
Any chance of reviving the celebration ended when the United States and Britain became allies in World War I, and it was thought best to make nice with our old enemy.