The History of New York State
Book II, Chapter III
Part VII

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam

 

There were men of large means in the city, among them also the level of education was high. It was, however, in the main from the middle class, the tradesmen, the farmers and the merchants, that the minute-men of the Revolution were derived. They had led a life without pretension before the opening of the war. Afterwards, inspired by the sentiment that men were free and equal, and gaining an added self-respect from the fact that men claiming special privilege had been ousted from the country, they began to give expression to their new sense of dignity by wearing better clothes. "The wives and daughters of these people spend more than their income upon finery." wrote the Hessian visitor just quoted. "the man must fish up the last penny he has in his pocket." The funniest part is that the women do not seem to steal it from them; neither do they obtain it by cajolery, fighting or falling into a faint. How they obtain it, as obtain it they do, heaven only knows; but that the men are heavily taxed for their extravagance is certain." The old custom of wearing the dress of one's trade or profession went out with the new sentiment of pride which grew out of increased liberty. The apprentice's leather apron disappeared and away from work the workman began to dress but little differently from his employer. That state of mind that is the real America took a further step in development, and the sartorial aspect of the population began to take on that uniformity which was the outward expression of the inward sense of equality. Nevertheless, during this period, a spirit of unrest pervaded the town and every social relation. Commerce languished, little attention was paid ever to holidays, few beyond the women went to church, the ale-houses and the coffee-houses had always their crowds. Merchants gathered at the Exchange on Broad Street and discussed the situation; excited Liberty Boys rallied at Hampton Hall and raised bitter voices over the fragments of news that came from London or from Massachusetts. Brows darkened as the Redcoats appeared in the public paces and it was found that keeping them to their barracks was the only way of preventing public disturbances. Editors, like Rivington of the "Gazetteer,' were denounced when paragraphs appeared in their journals that were regarded as injurious to the patriot cause. A sense of apprehension hung over every mind. It was felt that the cleavage between America and Great Britain had become too deep for bridging and was becoming deeper. The gathering shadows of an unavoidable conflict with a power so much stronger that victory would only be a little better than defeat oppressed the sense of the population. It was something of a relief when covert gave way to open hostility and the fury of open war drove away the corroding suspense. Men and women at once became so immersed in the work of defense and the preparations to meet the enemy that no time was left for introspective repining. It was the affair at Lexington that first brought home to men's minds that the country was at war.

Beginning of the War--While already in the middle of the year 1775 a state of war existed, the people had hardly as yet had time to become war-minded. As a result their attitude towards the British soldiers in their midst had not greatly changed. Thus congress had given instructions that the landing of troops would not be opposed, and new York's Committee of One Hundred had announced that while the British regiment in the city would be permitted to leave, they might not carry more arms with them than those upon their persons. When the Liberty Boys, therefore, saw the British troops come forth from the fort with several vehicles loaded with stacks of arms to go to the reinforcement of the British Army before Boston, they considered it time to act. It was on this occasion that Marinus Willett distinguished himself. Meeting the carts in Broad Street he boldly seized the leading horse by the reins, turned it back up Beaver Street and ordered the driver to proceed back. after some altercation the British acquiesced and the arms were taken charge of later to equip the first companies of New York soldiers. Marinus Willett became a colonel in the patriot army, was appointed mayor of New York in 1807, and died in 1830 at the age of ninety years.

An incident late in August carried the population across the Rubicon in the direction of war. On the twenty-third of that month a number of Liberty boys, carrying out the request of the Provincial congress, set to work to remove the guns from the Battery farther up the river, the newly-formed artillery company standing guard, and when a barge from the British ship "Asia" was sent to reconnoitre, the Americans sent a volley of musketry into the boat, killing one of the occupants. This was answered by a broadside from the ship, damaging several homes, among them Fraunces' tavern, and wounding three citizens. Great excitement prevailed in New York as a result, and a number of families gathered their things together and took to the woods. Mobs began to chase Tories through the streets, among then Dr. Cooper, head of Columbia College. Had it not been for the fervid interposition of young Alexander Hamilton, who wore the uniform of the new artillery company, it would have gone hard with the doctor and with other Tories.

In March, 1776, Boston was evacuated by the British and it was generally understood that the move was part of the enemy's game of making a concentrated attack on New York. The air was still further cleared by the promulgation of the Declaration of Independence, and in July preparation were made for celebrating the occasion in New York. The troops were ordered to gather on the Commons, and Washington rode into the centre of it with his staff. The Declaration was then read in the hearing of all. The effect was stirring, and the hope for which Washington had given expression was fulfilled: "The general hopes this important event will serve as a fresh incentive to every officer and soldier to act with fidelity and courage, as knowing that now the peace and safety of his country depend (under God) solely on the success of our arms, and that he is now in the service of a State possessed of sufficient power to reward his merit and advance him to the highest honors of a free country." Great cheering greeted the reading of the Declaration of Independence and the people burned for something to do. As the crowds swung from side to side there was a sudden concerted movement in the direction of the city hall, where strong hands tore down the portrait of George III and cut it into fragments. In the evening the soldiers showed their zeal by pulling down the leaden statue of the English King on the Bowling Green. Later the King's coat-of-arms was removed from the court room and publicly burned. On July 9, while the troops were listening to the reading of the Declaration of Independence in New York, the Provincial congress assumed the name of the Convention of Representatives of the State of New York. In April, 1777, the convention, sitting at Kingston, since New York had become the seat of war, adopted the Constitution, and under its provisions before the end of the same year, Gen. George Clinton was elected Governor. John Jay was appointed Chief Justice of the State, and Robert R. Livingston was appointed Chancellor.

British in New York--Early in July a fleet of over 130 British vessels made their appearance in the Lower Bay, and General Howe landed his troops on Staten Island. On July 12 two of the biggest British ships opened fire on the city from the Hudson, damaging houses along the river and killing a number of American soldiers. In the meantime Howe determined to approach New York by way of Long Island. On August 22, 15,000 troops were conveyed across the Lower Bay and landed on the beach at the head of Gravesend Bay./ They marched on the intrenched American camp in Brooklyn in three columns, affecting a surprise and descending upon an unguarded point in the read of the American Army. The result was the battle of Long Island on August 27, 1776, a decided defeat for the American Army. Washington managed to save the army from capture by Howe, but the encounter left a demoralized condition. The remnants of the army were gather together in Manhattan north of the city and camped in Harlem Heights, where they were again to meet the British. On September 16 two battalions of light infantry and a few companies of the Forty-second Highlanders made a sally beyond their liens. They crossed the deep depression through which Manhattan Avenue now runs and drove in the pickets and some posts of the Americans above the Point of Rocks, pursuing the retiring Americans about as far as One Hundred and Fifty-third Street. Washington made up his mind to retaliate immediately. Sending out some troops to engage their attention in the valley he sent a detachment of Rangers to get into their rear. There was a sharp encounter and the British troops were driven back to their lines and many killed. This was the battle of Harlem Heights, the first decisive victory forth the American forces in the open field. A week later the Americans took advantage of a dark night to strike a blow in another quarter. Two hundred and fifty men descended on Montressor, or Randall's Island, where the British had stored much ammunition. The venture would have gone better had not a gun on the American side been discharged too soon. As it was the Americans made a strong attack on the 500 of the enemy who manned the breastworks, and succeeded in retiring with little loss.

Howe's endeavor to get into the rear of Washington carried both armies to white Plains where, on October 28, 1776, there was a drawn battle that was a moral victory for the Americans. On November 15 an American force, retained at Fort Washington against Washington's advice, was invested on four sides by the British and compelled to surrender. As a result of al this the whole of Manhattan island was left in possession of the enemy. Governor Tryon was able, accordingly, to leave his hip and resume the government in the city itself. British soldiers in September began to pour into the town. The houses of the patriots were taken over by the Tories and the libraries in the city hall and Columbia College were destroyed. The British had been only a few days in possession of the city when an alarming fire swept the lower part. Four hundred and ninety-three houses were consumed, and the British soldiers in their fury blew out the brains of patriotic citizens whom they accused of starting the fire and drove others of them to a cruel death in the midst of the flames. It was while the fire was raging in Broad Street and Broadway that farther up the city at the eastern end of fifty-third Street Nathan Hale was tried and hanged by the British as a spy. His last words: "I only regret that I have but one life to lost for my country," pierced the hearts of his countrymen when they heard them. The phrase has since stood among the noblest outgivings that patriotism has produced and comes home to us as a striking token of the depth of the prevailing sense of separate nationality in that infant period of the country's history.

Behavior of the British--the British held New York in their grip and news of the fortunes of the war outside came to citizens fragmentarily and by subterranean channels, or distorted by the bias of the enemy.

"Their chief evidence of what was going on lay in the details of prisoners brought in occasionally after some defeat of the patriots," writes Van Pelt. "Sugar houses, churches, prison-ships, the jail on the Commons, all swarmed with prisoners, and their treatment was so horrible that it seems beat to draw a veil over it. Only once did the war drift into sight and sound of Manhattan Island after the patriots had abandoned it to the enemy. This was on the occasion of the bold attack made by Major Henry Lee, "Light-horse Harry," on the fort built by the British on the promontory called Paulus Hook, now a part of Jersey City. It was a strong position. a long low neck of land reached out into the Hudson; a narrow creek not fordable at high tide separated the promontory from the mainland, but a deep ditch has been dug besides to complete the insulation, and a drawbridge alone gave access to the fort beyond, as if it were a medieval castle. Light-horse Harry made a sudden dash at this bridge at the head of his troopers. Supposing them to be a foraging party returning the bridge was lowered. Lee secured 159 prisoners with the loss of only two of his own men; and he hurried away from the spot with alarm guns from ships in the harbor and from the batteries in the city ringing in his ears. The date of this romantic exploit was august 18, 1779. This was war; there were also occasional "rumors of war." The winter of 1779-80 was a very severe one, so that we find in several authorities the almost incredible statement that ice formed eighteen inches thick on bay and river. If Washington's army had been in a condition to move upon New York, all the advantages of the enemy, because of the deep waters of the surrounding rivers and their naval forced, would have served as nothing against attack. Strenuous efforts to oppose a possible attack were made, therefore, by the authorities in the city, the ice affording a perfectly safe passage for trains of artillery and regiments of armed men. But at no time was the commander-in-chief of the Brutish Army more disturbed than when Washington was preparing for his master-stroke against Cornwallis in Virginia. Every appearance was industriously given to the supposition that New York was the intended object of attack the by combined forces of France and America. On August 19, 1781, the march was begun by crossing the Hudson. So carefully did Washington keep the secret that even the general officers imagined that they were making a detour through New Jersey in order to effect a landing on Staten Island from Perth Amboy. While the army was marching toward Philadelphia, Washington and the French officers made an ostentatious display of inspecting New York, riding all along the length of Manhattan island upon the Palisades, and hills on the Jersey shore, and freely allowing such country people as were willing to carry the news to cross the river. Clinton was completely deceived and remained inactive until it was to late. Then came the news of the surrender at Yorktown on October 19, 1981." #11

End of the War--This was to all intents and purposes the end of the war, but hardly the end of the occupation of the country by enemy forces. The disastrous defeat of the British at Yorktown was blamed partly on the indolence and lack of foresight of Sir Henry Clinton superseded Howe as commander-in-chief, and whom Washington's superior sagacity had kept confined in anxious suspense at New York. His place as commander-in-chief was given a result to Sir guy Carlton, who took up his residence in the city. The interval between Yorktown and the signing of peace was uneventful in New York. The British Continued their occupation, but a good deal of their truculence was gone. They had been taught respect, and the send of defeat was upon them. The prisoners continued to pine in the jails and there was no improvement in their treatment. The Tories had been thrown into a panic and were busy considering to what safe harbor they could fly. On September 3, 1783, peace was signed in Paris, John Jay being one of the American commissioners. On October 18 news of the peace was given out by Congress, and on November 2 it was formally communicated to the army. On November 19, Carleton, the British commander-in-chief, sent work to Washington that at noon of November 25 he would evacuate New York and that the outposts in the vicinity would be vacated on November 21. As the English commander made preparations for withdrawal, Washington marshalled his forces for the entry of the city.

On November 19, Washington, with Generals Knox and Clinton, the latter the Governor of the State, arrived with their suites at Day's Tavern, at the corner of One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Street and eighth Avenue. A special guard had already been directed to take its stand at McGowan's Pass in Central Park, and to them a British officer came galloping on the twenty-fifth to report that the last of the British rear-guard had passed out of the city boundaries. The order to march forward was, therefore, given and the war-worn veterans of the American Army at last descended into the streets of the great city. Riding with Clinton between the lines of troops, Washington, followed by his main guard, rode down Broadway to Fort George, and took formal possession of the city in the name of the new nation. It is easy to imagine the exultation of the crowd as the victorious army appeared, the tears of joy, the sense of gratitude, the hope of the future free from exterior menace. The days that followed were filled with military and civic receptions, and finally on December 4, Washington bade farewell to his officers in Fraunces' Tavern. the sterling nobility of Washington's character had won the strong affection as well as the deep respect of the other officers, as his laborious achievements in the field had won the heartfelt gratitude of the Nation. It is not remarkable, therefore, that the scene of farewell was marked by a deep emotion. "We had been assembled but a few moments when his Excellency entered the room," writes Colonel Talmadge. "His emotion, too strong to be concealed, seemed to recipcocated by every officer present. After partaking of a slight refreshment in almost breathless silence, the general filled his glass with wine, and turning to the officers, said: 'With a heart full of love and gratitude I now take leave of you. I most devoutly with that you latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.' After the officers had taken a glass of wine the general added: 'I cannot come to each of you, but will feel obliged if each of you will come and take me by the hand.' General Knox being the nearest to him, turned to the commander-in-chief, who, suffused in tears, was incapable of utterance, but grasped his hand, when they embraced each other in silence. In the same affectionate manner every officer in the room marched up to, kissed and parted with his commander-in-chief. Such a scene of sorrow and weeping I had never before witnessed, and hope I may never be called upon to witness it again. Not a word was uttered to break the solemn that prevailed, or to interrupt the tenderness of the interesting scene. The simple thought that we were about to part from a man who had conducted us through a long and bloody war and under whose conduct the glory and independence of our country, had been achieved, and that we should see his face no more in this world, seemed to me utterly insupportable.'

Washington left New York immediately after this gathering had dispersed, entering a barge at the Whitehall Slip, and crossing bay to Elizabeth, waving his farewell to the crowds that thronged the shores. As the well-known figure diminished in the distance the eager eyes that watched it vanish could not but feel that a great era had closed and a new one full of hope had opened for the continent and the Nation.

The History of New York State, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1927

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

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