Sergeant John Van Arsdale was the hero of New York’s Evacuation Day, when New Yorkers mark the end of the Revolutionary War. A twenty-seven-year-old former sailor, married just six months before, he had served in the Continental Army since he was nineteen, invaded Canada, spent months as a prisoner of war after being captured at Fort Montgomery, and fought in several campaigns against the Indians. On November 25, 1783, on a “cold, but radiant” fall day, Van Arsdale finally tore the British flag from the flagpole in Fort George, at the southern tip of Manhattan. The redcoats hadn’t made it easy. They had removed the halyard and the cleats, greased the flagpole, and nailed the Union Jack in place. For a while the patriots were afraid that General George Washington and his victorious procession would be unable to celebrate the hoisting of the American flag. But Van Arsdale secured the necessary tools and made the arduous climb to the flagpole’s summit. Cheering soldiers and civilians passed the hat to collect a reward for him. After seven years as a British garrison, New York City was flying an American standard.
“The [British] troops just leaving us were as if equipped for show,” one woman remembered, “and with their scarlet uniforms and burnished arms, made a brilliant display. The troops that marched in, on the contrary, were ill-clad and weather-beaten, and made a forlorn appearance. But then they were our troops,” all the more admirable for their evident sacrifices. Bells rang. Cannons fired salutes. People screamed with joy and threw their hats aloft into the crisp fall air. Aboard the Royal Navy’s ships, on the other hand, “a deep stillness prevailed as if everyone were mourning the loss of the thirteen beautiful provinces.”
By 1 p.m., a cannon shot announced the final departure of the British troops. The American procession had been waiting for this cue to enter the city. General Henry Knox led the army with a select corps, followed by other officers and civilian grandees. General Washington and New York’s governor, George Clinton, rode on horseback, followed by some eight hundred soldiers, as throngs of civilians looked on. The drummers kept time. The mounted civilians wore black and white cockades in honor of Louis XVI of France, and their hats sported sprigs of laurel (the ancient symbol of honor and victory). Washington stepped down from his horse in front of Cape’s Tavern on Broadway to toast the occasion.
It was a day of mixed feelings; a day of triumph after years of trial and trauma and tragedy. Thousands of American soldiers and sailors had died aboard the prison ships in New York harbor where Van Arsdale had been confined. Civilians had suffered losses, too. Over the previous year, patriot refugees from the city had begun trickling back to inspect their property. These exiled patriots had eagerly awaited their return to the city, and then, “The day arrived, and they returned – to what? – to heaps of rubbish, and half-ruined houses – to poverty, and to the dread of future wretchedness.” Washington’s procession had had to skirt much of Broadway to avoid the sight of blocks that had been leveled by the fire of September 21, 1776. The war was over, but Americans had endured death, disease, privation, and poverty.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of civilians loyal to Great Britain had had to depart the former colonies, never to return. An observer described New York City in 1783 as follows: “Some look smiling, others melancholy, a third Class mad.” Thousands of black Loyalists, some of whom had fled plantations hundreds of miles away, had initially feared for their liberty. When they had heard that the preliminary peace treaty forbade the British from “carrying away any Negroes, or other Property,” many former slaves experienced such “inexpressible anguish and terror,” wrote the black Loyalist Boston King, that they could not sleep or eat. Washington had met with the British commander-in-chief, General Guy Carleton, and demanded that the runaways be returned to their American enslavers, but Carleton informed him that they had already departed for Nova Scotia. Bound by “National Honor,” Carleton felt he “had no right to deprive them of…liberty.” Washington could do nothing in response but sputter and content himself with the thought that most American slaves still remained securely bound.
Over the coming days and weeks, Washington had breakfast with Hercules Mulligan, the faithful American spy, bid a tearful farewell to his troops, and resigned his commission before the Congress in Annapolis. There were feasts and fireworks and prayers of thanksgiving.
But while the celebrations of Evacuation Day offered an endpoint to the war, lingering difficulties remained between the United States and its wartime enemies. Conflicts between whites and Indians continued to inflame the North American interior, as Anglo-Americans sought to consolidate their hold over the trans-Appalachian West and Indians resisted their encroachments. British soldiers kept an eye on these disputes and remained stationed in several fortresses around the Great Lakes in defiance of the peace treaty. Meanwhile, a sizeable faction of Americans – particularly in New York City – spent months harassing the Loyalists who remained. Loyalists experienced robberies, beatings, boycotts, unpaid rents and loans, and punitive legislation (such as fines, property confiscation, and disenfranchisement), until cooler heads, like Alexander Hamilton, eventually prevailed. North America was an unsettled place: other European powers had designs on the continent, and they had little interest in making favorable commercial arrangements with an upstart republic. The United States – debt-ridden, disorganized, and decentralized – had little power to remedy its problems.
Over the years, though, as the nation solved its difficulties and grew in strength, patriotic New Yorkers cherished the anniversaries of the evacuation with feasts and parades on November 25. Celebrations took on particular poignancy during the War of 1812 and the Civil War; in other years, New York’s Irish immigrants found their own reasons for celebrating a British defeat. Eventually the holiday faded in comparison to other November rituals: football games, Macy’s balloons, and gravy-laden feasts. During the World Wars of the twentieth century, the British-American alliance against Germany superseded the memory of the redcoats’ departure, and the holiday was largely forgotten. By now, the observance of Evacuation Day has been stripped of any lingering anti-British animus, and the Lower Manhattan Historical Society has recently endeavored to restore the holiday to public memory.
This is not a bad idea. Wars almost never end neatly, but an Evacuation Day observance might allow us to pretend that they can. Americans always celebrate July 4, commemorating an event in the midst of the Revolutionary War. But we struggle when it comes to recognizing the war’s end. The history of 1783 shows how much work remained on November 25, even after the peace settlement: scattered Loyalists, struggling debtors, unsung POWs, smoldering ruins, wary Indians, hostile world powers, and a mixed legacy of freedom and slavery. We know how to honor the image of soldiers charging forward, but we often forget to cheer the backs of troops as they peaceably depart. Days like that are rarely endings, but they can offer hope for new beginnings.