Gaze at the dripping flags and talk of the parade you have witnessed

Some Notes Made on Evacuation Day 2011

by Jen Paton


One hundred years from this moment, crowds in this same city would stand on the streets, in the rain, under “stars and stripes from every Flag-pole,” to commemorate this day, and to commemorate it for the last time on such a scale: “every tower, every steeple, every rooftop which commanded” river views would be “peopled with human beings,” and thousands would brave torrential rain to catch a glimpse of the festivities. Two hundred and twenty five years later, this would be the subject of a snarky Gawker Post. Two hundred and twenty eight years later, a humorous conversation in The Daily Show. But for now, in 1783, it’s just eight hundred guys waiting at Bowery, waiting for the signal.

Once this road was a footpath for the people who lived here first, a bit later it was a road that led to the Dutch Governor General's farm. At one o'clock, in the distance, they heard the cannon fire, fired from the departing enemy ship, and this meant it was safe to enter New York City. They marched in, a newspaper would say a few weeks later, with “an inviolable regard to order and discipline, as Tyranny could never be enforced.” (qtd in Hood, 2004). Quite.

The occupying British commander, Sir Guy Carleton, now on a ship living the island, had received the orders to evacuate months before. It was a delicate operation: the Americans wanted military control of the city as soon as possible, the better to quell any lingering dissent there, but they also hoped to keep the British army and their own from exchanging fire in the process. Carleton had to pull out not only his troops, but the thousands of refugees loyal to him, who had been streaming into this city since rebel victory became assured, as well as the slaves liberated from the enemy who had sought refuge within its walls. He would leave with thousands of refugees, including 3000 freedmen, whom the British promised to “pay” the Americans for at Washington’s insistence and, apparently, never did. Some would settle in Nova Scotia, of which some would end up in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

There was also the bay, the infamous bay. For years rebel prisoners were kept on ships in Wallabout Bay, from Walloon bay, where “perhaps 11,000” died, their bodies hastily buried or dumped into water to wash up on the surrounding shores of Brooklyn. British treatment of the prisoners, alive or dead, was much chronicled, most notably through Philip Freneau’s “The British Prison Ship”, published in 1780.

THE various horrors of these hulks to tell,

These Prison Ships where pain and penance dwell,

Where death in tenfold vengeance holds his reign,

And injur'd ghosts, yet unaveng'd, complain;

This be my task —ungenerous Britons, you

Conspire to murder whom you can't subdue. —

It is inarguable that this is what the British spent a good few centuries doing. Of course, it’s never simple, is it. Freneau’s claim to actually have been imprisoned on those boats has fallen into disrepute. And as for the British treatment of American bodies, however terrible it was, Robert Cray has discussed how little real attention Americans in Charge paid to these dead after victory. Most of them were poor and unidentifiable, or not seen to be worth identifying. Bleached bones sat on Brooklyn beaches for years. In 1788, a group of laborers stormed a medical college believing, probably falsely, that they were stealing body parts from the unburied dead.


But history marches on and deifies itself, and Evacuation Day, commemorating this British departure, Became a Thing. Fancy dinners. Parades. Speeches. Fancier artillery exercises. In a 2003 paper , Clifton Hood tracks Evacuation Day as a way of examining how a tradition morphs, and sometimes eventually lapses into a curious aside.

Just after the war, New Yorkers were still finding their feet as a community in recovery, and didn’t really have time for such things as parading about. But by 1787, as debate about whether to ratify the Constitution intensified, Federalists publicized Evacuation Day celebrations – at that moment, mainly private, indoor affairs – to remind newspaper readers that a strong federal government was part and parcel with the esprit de something Americans demonstrated that fateful day. The professionalized military reviews that arose over subsequent decades, notes Hood, “advertised a European style professional army as one of the chief blessings of national government” , even though the ranks of the “national army” were filled out for parade day with private militias – an irony not lost on Republican newspapers of the day.

Mere parading grew into Quite A Show. Cannons and artillery blared in feu de joie – firings of joy- where companies fired their musket in elaborate coordinated crescendos as tests of skill became a part of the public celebrations. By the 1820s and 30s, New York newspapers ran advertisements for Evacuation Day revues in all the big theaters. Probably related to this razzmatazz, in this period, as the last actual survivors of the Revolutionary War died off, there was much grumbling from old timers that people just didn’t get it anymore: “their interest seems lost, however important the object commemorated.” (New York Herald, 1848, qtd. by Hood, as above).

During the Civil War, popular attendance at Evacuation Day events soared, though, rather than commemorating loss or preening military prowess, concerns were different – maintaining the continuity of a riven country, but on Union terms.

In 1865, the mood was quite somber, with 50,000 at Gettysburg just months before, when the The New York Times wrote:

“It is to be hoped that the occasion will be observed with some of that joyousness and bonhommie customary in days gone by, when a gigantic war had not swept away so many landmarks and traditions of the past.”

The Times lamented that New Yorkers used to celebrate Evacuation Day proudly:

The honest citizens of these ancient days were wont to dress themselves in their best doublet and hose, and make an imposing parade as they marched through the streets. Cannon ushered in the rising sun, saluting the god of day as he rose from his slumbers, and the green and classic Battery was hidden from view beneath the sulphurous smoke of the artillery.

However, the outbreak of Civil War had distracted the public with its “intense excitements, its battles and sieges, its marches and retreats, its sad reverses and glorious victories, [which] caused the public mind to lose that veneration for Evacuation Day which was previously entertained for it. “

This year, though, would be different, the Times told us. This was the year to remember what happened that day. The military would be parading, and – as the Times wrote in excruciating detail their orders to march “in full white glove”. The Eighth Regiment would march to the home of one MRS CHARLES A. SECOR, returning a flag she had donated to them four years before, “the banner having been carried by the command with honor to itself and credit to the city.” Never forget.

Attendance at public celebrations of Evacuation Day like this one also became a way for new Americans, particularly Irish-Americans, to solidify their American/Union identity as well as hate on the English – a “bonhommie” that would stick for a decade or so after the Civil War. The Irish World’s notice from 1873 makes explicit why Evacuation Day held such appeal:

The forces of King George leave New York, bag and baggage, a free city in a free land, 1783. [Let us hope we will not have to wait till 1883 for the forces of Victoria to leave in the same way, a place we know of, where they have no right to be.] (Irish World, quoted by Hood, 2003).

Evacuation Day’s centennial celebration in 1883 was its largest. “Gloomy skies overhung the city yesterday morning” the Times intoned (in what is a rather incredibly written, Wikileak-from-Dagestan style narrative). The next morning, the day of the thing, the weather cleared, for a while at least, and business stopped completely, and it was “doubtful if ever before in the history of the City so many persons came to together as flocked the streets that day.” The city was “full of strangers” who had come to see, many unable to secure accommodation and struggling through muddied streets “with satchels and valises in their hands.” The Times tells us these folks didn’t mind there were no rooms left to rent in the city that day, as “when night fell upon the gloomy, muddy streets, they were still crowded with people, who waded through the puddles, gazed at the dripping flags on the buildings, and talked of the parade they had witnessed and the many features of the celebration.”

This spectacular marked the last gasp of Evacuation Day as a public affair. In following years, celebrations receded behind closed doors, celebrated by the Sons and Daughters of the Revolution – up until really a few years ago, when there have been some coordinated light shows and other neo-Evacuation Day commemorations, though none on a grand scale, involving all of New York and America.

Even that centenary evening, though, it was clear it would never be the same. The Chamber of Commerce hosted an elegant dinner for soldier-participants and for themselves – the committees comprised of “presidents of merchants exchanges, bankers, railroad executives, corporate lawyers” (Hood, as above) who had organized the whole grand affair.

This hint of elitism masquerading as populism, and the general spectacular, led the Irish American to accuse “these degenerate Americans” of “aping..everything English…[and] slight[ing] their own country, show[ing] they regret the abolition of class distinctions, and the equalization of all men before the law, that their Revolution brought about.” (1883, qtd. by Hood, as above).

Evacuation Day evening in 1883, one hundred years after 800 men waited at the Bowery, while parade organizers and participants dined, the valise carrying people were to have enjoyed a fireworks show, but these were “postponed on account of the rain.” Not to worry: they would “be given [the next night] if the weather is fair, and, if not, on the next pleasant evening.”