A 1783 Thanksgiving: Evacuation Day

By Pamela Lowry

General Washington Enters New York City as the British Troops End their Seven-Year Occupation

On November 25, 1783, General George Washington received the final word from Sir Guy Carleton that the last of the British troops would be withdrawn from New York City. It had been a long and tedious wait since March 25, when word had come that the preliminary Articles of Peace had been signed in Paris. During the summer, Washington had ridden across part of upper New York State, observing a possible route for the future Erie Canal. He had also visited the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, endeavoring to obtain pay for his ragged soldiers.

A 1783 Thanksgiving: Evacuation Day

Washington enters New York City on Evacuation Day, Nov. 25, 1783

Sir Guy Carleton, now in charge of British occupation forces in New York City, haggled with Washington over the exchange of prisoners taken during the war. The Americans held some twelve thousand British, German and Loyalist prisoners, most of whom survived their captivity. The British held only about five hundred American survivors out of the thousands who had perished aboard the twenty rotting prison ships in New York Harbor. Seven thousand Americans had died in British captivity, against approximately eight thousand who were killed in battle.

Finally, the British indicated they were loading their transports, and Washington moved from his headquarters at Rocky Hill, New Jersey to the garrison at West Point. There, he found that there was no money to move the remaining eight hundred troops, and he was forced to obtain what funds he could from Governor Clinton of New York. Washington and his troops met Governor Clinton and other state officials at Tarrytown, and moved by slow degrees toward Manhattan, having to stop many times while Sir Carleton notified them of one delay after another.

The British evacuation date was finally set for November 25, and Washington sent General Henry Knox and his soldiers ahead to make sure that the British had actually left Manhattan Island. Washington rode into the city with Governor Clinton at his side because he wanted the New Yorkers to know that the city would revert to civilian rule, not an American military presence.

There was still another delay, because when the British took down their flag from the fort at the Battery, the halyards had been cut and the pole greased. The last British sailors to ferry troops to the transports rested on the oars of their longboats and watched while the Americans obtained a ladder and hoisted the flag with thirteen stars, the “New Constellation” as it was called.

As Washington and Clinton moved ahead down the Boston Post Road, they saw that the trees and fences had disappeared, having been used as fuel by the British. The city itself was in sorry shape, having suffered two large fires during British occupation. The occupying army did not bother to rebuild; instead, a tent city was set up on the ruined sections. The interiors of houses that had been occupied by troops were almost completely destroyed. Under military rule, all churches except those of the Anglicans, Methodists and Moravians had been stripped of pews and pulpits and converted into prisons, riding halls, hospitals, barracks and storehouses. The taverns, however, were still standing.

When the American cavalcade reached Broadway, it formed into a modest military/civic parade, followed by a group of happy citizens. A woman who had witnessed the parade as a girl wrote years later that “We had been accustomed for a long time to military display in all the finish and finery of garrison life; the troops just leaving us were as if equipped for show, 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, and as I looked at them and thought upon all they had done and suffered for us, my heart and my eyes were full, and I admired and gloried in them the more, because they were weather beaten and forlorn.”

A 1783 Thanksgiving: Evacuation Day

Thousands of American prisoners died on prison ships like this one in New York harbor, the Jersey.

Following the American troops and a group of mounted New Yorkers were citizens with sprigs of laurel in their hats, walking eight abreast. One observer recalled that the “large concourse of citizens on horseback and on foot, in plain dress,” were “an interesting sight to those of mature age who were capable of comprehending their merit. In their ranks were seen men with patched elbows, odd buttons on their coats, and unmatched buckles on their shoes; they were not indeed Falstaff’s company of scare-crows, but most respectable citizens, who had been in exile and endured privations we know not of, for seven long and tedious years.”

Reverend Ewald Schaukirk, a Hessian chaplain, described in his diary what he had seen that day as he left the city for his ship: “On all corners one saw the flag of thirteen stripes flying, cannon salutes were fired, and all the bells rang. The shores were crowded with people who threw their hats in the air, screaming and boisterous with joy, and wished us a pleasant voyage with white handkerchiefs…. On the ships, which lay at anchor with the troops, a deep stillness prevailed as if everyone were mourning the loss of the thirteen beautiful provinces.”

A British Army officer had to leave his ship and reenter the city because he had forgotten some of his possessions, and since he was wearing his uniform, he asked the city authorities for protection. He was offered a guard, returned to his ship unharmed, and commented, “This is a strange scene indeed! Here, in this city, we have had an army for more than seven years, and yet could not keep the peace of it. Scarcely a day or night passed without tumults. Now we are gone, everything is in quietness and safety. These Americans are a curious, original people; they know how to govern themselves, but nobody else can govern them.”

Published with permission of Colin Lowry.