“Why the New Yorkers celebrate this evacuation day annually, I don’t know. Isn’t it as well to forget that an enemy once had possession of your city?”
—the Portland [Maine] Advertiser, 1834
Across America November’s primary celebration is Thanksgiving; it gradually gained popularity since 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln fixed the date for a national day of giving thanks on the third Thursday of November. Although for generations of New Yorkers a different occasion was observed at this time of year.
Evacuation Day was an annual local holiday in New York City. It was given equal, or even greater importance than the Fourth of July. Celebrating the departure, or evacuation of British troops from New York following the Revolutionary War, November 25th was observed from the late 18th century to the early 20th century. Evacuation Day was one of the most important holidays in the city.
The British and their supporters had agreed to leave the City by 12 Noon of November 25th. The American flag was to be hoisted on the flagpole at the north end of Bowling Green Park, officially ending the American War for Independence. When American soldiers tried to lower the British Union Jack, and hoist the 13-star American flag, they found the British had played a mean, little trick on their former colonists. They had greased the pole and cut its halyards.
General George Washington, marching down Broadway to take back the last stronghold that British had in the United States, stopped his progress. He would not enter the City limits until the British flag was down and the American flag was flying. John Van Arsdale, a resourceful young sailor, used cleats bought from a local hardware store to shimmy himself up the flagpole cut down the Union Jack, and to attach the 13-star American flag. General Washington triumphantly marched to Lower Manhattan. This powerful symbol sparked the first Evacuation Day celebrations, which would carry on until General Washington left the City on December 4th.
On its first anniversary, Evacuation Day was remembered with church bells ringing, raising a flag on that once-greased flagpole, and entertainments. Encouraged by Revolutionary War veterans and members of a patriotic fraternal group, the Columbian Order, Evacuation Day evolved into one of the city’s most important holidays, even observed as an official school holiday at the height of its popularity through the early 1800s. With fireworks, public banquets, military drills, parades, and patriotic plays this holiday celebrated military heroism and the ideals of the Revolution that rivaled importance and the celebrations of the Fourth of July.
By the mid-1800s past efforts by Revolutionary War veterans were not carried on by successive generations; and the Civil War also put a damper on enthusiasm for and festivities connected with Evacuation Day. Though once an immensely popular, citywide celebration, interest for the holiday waned for several reasons.
Increasingly the celebration of Thanksgiving during the end of November gained prominence as a national holiday; there were fewer witnesses of the original Evacuation Day still living; and the City’s population was dominated by immigrants who did not have any connection to the Revolution or the events of November 25th 1783. This New York-specific holiday became a curiosity in the City and the country, and was last celebrated in a significant way in 1916.
Since February 2016 the north end of Bowling Green, which is best known for Arturo DiModica’s bronze sculpture Christmas gift to New York, Charging Bull, has been renamed Evacuation Day Plaza. When you are part of our Downtown Manhattan Walking Tour you will discover this bit of local history. Take the Tour; Know More!
ALL PHOTOS AND TEXT, EXCEPT CREDITED QUOTES, © THE AUTHOR 2017