The Original Brexit: It’s Evacuation Day, when the British left New York (and America) for good

Today, November 25th, is the 135th anniversary of the day when the British officially fled New York City after occupying the city for several years during the Revolutionary War.

In reality, most Loyalists had already fled town, their properties confiscated by the government. Many — like James De Lancey — left for Nova Scotia, never to be seen again. (Although he would leave a very valuable gift — his name upon the street which ran through his former property.) Many others came to New York from the countryside, living in veritable tent cities while waiting for sea passage.

The Continental army marching down the Old Bowery, engraving by H.W. after Howard Pyle, 1881-82. Library of Congress

Absolutely nobody was sorry to see them go. According to author James Riker (in his 1883 book on Evacuation Day): “The bitterness felt towards this class [of Loyalists] was to be deplored, but, in truth, the active part taken by many of them during the war against their country, and above all the untold outrages committed upon defenseless inhabitants by Tories (the zealous and active Loyalists) … had kindled a resentment towards all Loyalists alive that stifled every philanthropic feeling.”

The official handoff would be November 25 at precisely 12 noon. George Washington and an entourage of more than 800 men gathered north of the city at the Bull’s Head Tavern, awaiting one particular sign — the lowering of the Union Jack from Fort George in the Battery.

But those wily Brits would have a final laugh. The departing Loyalist had nailed a Union Jack to the top, then greased the pole, making it difficult to climb. After several attempts, as legend goes, the soldier John Van Arsdale finally reached the top and tore the Union Jack from the pole.

For years after, New Yorkers celebrating this day by shimmying up a greased flagpole in Battery Park. (I have always said that the city of New York should bring back this fantastic tradition.)

For years, Evacuation Day served as a de facto Veterans Day, honoring those who had served the American cause in battle. (Even after the War of 1812, when the British would make a most unwelcome return.) On Evacuation Day in 1857, the remains of revered general William Jenkins Worth were placed in a unique tomb next to Madison Square Park. Today the mysterious obelisk marking his resting place makes a curious sign across from the Flatiron Building.

Public enthusiasm for this unique holiday had somewhat waned by 1864, when Confederate saboteurs attempted to burn down the city on Evacuation Day.  But local societies and historic groups kept the tradition going well into the 20th century.

Below: A ticket for a centennial commemoration of Evacuation Day, featuring military bands and marching firemen. 

Museum of the City of New York

But ardent lovers of history haven’t forgotten! Last year, Bowling Green was officially co-named Evacuation Day Plaza in honor of this moment of American freedom.

 

For more information on Evacuation Day and the entire story of British occupation, check out our podcast from this past summer on New York City during the Revolutionary War:

“Evacuation Day” and Washington’s Triumphal Entry in New York City, Nov. 25th, 1783 Related Names: Restein, Edmund P., 1837-1891 , lithographer; Restein, Ludwig, b. ca. 1838 , lithographer Date Created/Published: Phil., PA Pub. [E.P.] & L. Restein,[1879] Medium: 1 print : chromolithograph.