You can be forgiven, if in all the hullabaloo surrounding Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and polka-dot Saturday if you completely forgot to celebrate Evacuation Day this year. Indeed, we almost completely let the matter slip our minds, belatedly remembering to commemorate November 25 with a frigid walk in Manhattan’s Battery Park with an attractive female companion of Forgotten Stories.
In short, November 25, 1783 at the close of the Revolutionary War, was the day marked by the British and the Americans for the British evacuation of New York, which had been held by the Redcoats since they’d wrested it from General Washington in 1776. As the British Army slunk out of town one of their last acts was to free the prisoners of war, one of whom, John Pintard, asked his jailor for a prediction, “Sergeant, what do you think will become of us?”
“You may all go to the devil together,” Sergeant Keefe replied.
“Thank you Sergeant,” came Pintard’s cutting reply, “but we have had too much of your company in this world, to wish to follow you into the next.” Keefe and the jailors departed with the Americans’ laughter ringing in their ears.
Provost Marshall William Cunningham, in charge of the prison, had his own adventures that morning. On Murray Street, a tavern keeper hung out the Stars and Stripes, anticipating by a few hours Washington’s triumphant return. Sighting the offensive flag on his way out of town, Cunningham ordered the tavern keeper to “Take in that flag, the City is ours till noon.” His order refused, Cunningham with an oath attempted to carry out the deed himself, but the tavern keeper’s wife, attacking him with a broom handle, raised clouds of powder from his wig, and forced him to beat a retreat. The British soldiers stationed at Wall and Broad Street, where Federal Hall now stands, were the last to leave their posts and march to the ships in New York Harbor, waiting to take them home. At Fort George, at the later sight of the New York Customs House (which is now the Museum of the American Indian), the British formally turned over the City to General Washington, and departed.
American artillery, under General Knox, was unlimbered in Battery Park, and prepared to fire a salute to new American flag as it was raised over Fort George. Here, a final ignominy was revealed. The British soldiers had nailed their flag to the pole, and to prevent its removal, had greased the flagpole. Attempts to climb up and remove the offensive banner proved unavailing; and bystanders debated whether to simply cut down the pole and erect a new one in its place, a time consuming effort that threatened to derail the day’s itinerary.
Into the breach stepped Jacob van Arsdale, formerly a sailor, who’d enlisted in the Continental Army at age 19. Van Arsdale served in the disastrous U.S. campaign in Canada, had been captured, exchanged, fought Indians on the Western frontier, and then returned to his native New York at the end of the Revolution. Demonstrating more brains than his contemporaries, Van Arsdale requested a saw, hatchet, gimlet and nails from Peter Goelet’s hardware store in Hanover Square, and with the assistance of a few comrades, began to nail them to the pole. A ladder got him a little further up, and by fits and stars Van Arsdale reached the top, and ripped down the British flag. With Van Arsdale’s assistance, Lieutenant Anthony Glean ran up the Star Spangled Banner, and Knox’s artillery boomed forth with 13 guns, one for each state in the new nation. As he descended, spectators passed the hat for Van Arsdale, with Washington himself contributing to the considerable sum that was collected.
For a century or more, Evacuation Day was a holiday in New York City, with military parades, flag raising and sumptuous dinners. Boys typically requested of their masters, “It’s Evacuation Day, when the British ran way, Please, dear Master, give us a holiday.”
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In the meantime, some of our all time favorite forgotten stories are:
The Vast New York Shoe Conspiracy: http://tinyurl.com/bpjwnpm
The Human Rat Eater of Philadelphia: http://tinyurl.com/bwoddgg
A Forgotten Stories Buffet: http://tinyurl.com/cftssve