New York During the Revolution Part II

Plot against the person of Washington.

Though there was so strong and active a party in New-York in favor of the popular cause, yet in no part of the country were the royalists more numerous or more influential than in that city and its vicinity. For that reason, as well as because of its fitness as a central point for military operation, it was expected that the enemy when driven out of Boston would direct their main efforts to that city. Accordingly, in the spring of 1776, Washington assumed the command of that city in person, and immediately issued a proclamation forbidding all intercourse with the enemy's shipping. But to enforce such a regulation was no easy matter. Even the mayor of the city was detected in a correspondence with the governor, and was accordingly thrown into prison. A plot was also detected for seizing the person of the commander-in- chief, and conveying him on board one of the British ships—a scheme that had advanced somewhat through the perfidy of some of Washington's soldiers, one of whom was shot for his participation in this affair. Washington's whole disposable force at this time numbered only about eight thousand men, very imperfectly equipped and poorly provided. An additional force of thirteen thousand militia had also been ordered to rendezvous in the city.

Declaration of Independence.

About this time the Continental Congress, assembled at Philadelphia, declared the united colonies free, and independent of the mother country. The news of this proclamation was received with many demonstrations of joy by the populace of New-York. The portrait of King George that had decorated the City Hall was destroyed, and the leaden statue in the Bowling-Green was thrown down and run into bullets. The joy, however, was far from being universal. A large portion of the wealthier citizens looked on with distrust, and the Episcopal clergy showed their dissatisfaction by shutting up their churches. It was now no longer possible for men to avoid a choice between the two parties, and accordingly some who had hitherto favored the popular cause drew back from the extreme measures now adopted by that party; while others who had avoided a decision and remained neutral, when compelled to choose between the parties, became decided and active friends of the new government. The declaration was highly favorable to the friends of liberty in New-York, as their covert enemies were thus forced to show themselves, and their friends being known, became more decided and energetic in their efforts for the rights of the people.

Defenses of New-York City.

While waiting for the arrival of his expected reinforcements, Washington was not inactive. Obstructions were sunk in the North and East Rivers, and fortifications erected to guard the narrowest passages. Fort Washington, at the north end of Manhattan Island, and Fort Lee, on the opposite Jersey shore, were the strongest of these works. The fort at the southern point of the city was strengthened and put in order, and an additional battery placed in Broadway, above the Bowling-Green. M'Dougald's battery was erected on an eminence, just behind Trinity church. There was also a battery at the ship-yards near the foot of Maiden-lane, and another at Corlaer's Hook. Governor's Island had been occupied by a thousand continental troops since April, by whom it was fortified ; a battery was also erected at Red Hook, at the western extremity of Long Island. In Brooklyn, a chain of breast-works and small fortifications extended from the Wallabout (now the Navy-Yard) to Bed Hook; and in the city were defenses at every vulnerable point, and most of the streets were barricaded. But the disposable force in the city was quite inadequate to defend so large an extent of exposed front as New-York presented.

The inhabitants leave the city.

The warlike aspect of affairs drove a large portion of the inhabitants from the city. Women and children became very scarce, and very few of either were seen in the streets. Many dwellings were shut up, their owners having fled from the city; and when the soldiers entered, they broke open the abandoned houses and quartered themselves in them.

Battle of Long Island.

About the last of June a British fleet appeared off Sandy Hook with the army of General Howe, from Boston, which entered the harbor and disembarked the troops, without opposition, on Staten Island. Soon after, another British fleet, commanded by Admiral Lord Howe, brother to the general, arrived from England, with a strong reinforcement. The invading army, thus strengthened, amounted to twenty-five thousand men. The fleet proceeded up before the city without opposition, and was but slightly delayed by the obstructions that had been placed in its way. A plan of attack by way of Brooklyn was at length determined on. On the 27th of August the whole British force was put in motion. Having landed on Long Island, a few miles below the city, after a good deal of irregular skirmishing and some severe fighting, in which the Americans were defeated at every point, the enemy halted for the night in front of the works on the high grounds of Brooklyn. During that night, under cover of a heavy fog, the whole American force was transported across the East River; a part of them was then posted in the city, and the rest, comprising the greater portion, were encamped at Harlem Heights. In anticipation of a still farther retreat, the surplus baggage and military stores were sent beyond the Harlem River, where also Washington's headquarters were established. On the 15th of September the British effected a landing at Kip's Bay, when the city was evacuated by the Americans, and given up to the enemy; and from that time New- York became the center of operations of the British army in America. With the American army a very large portion of the remaining inhabitants left the city; so that during the whole period of British military rule in New-York the local population is thought not to have exceeded ten thousand.

Great fire in New-York.

Immediately after the capture of New-York by the British, on the night of the 21st of September, a fire broke out in the lower part of the city, which burned on almost without resistance during the entire night and part of the next day, and reduced a large portion of the city to a heap of ruins. It commenced late at night in a small wooden house kept as a place of revelry and debauchery on the wharf, near Whitehall- slip. The panic among the inhabitants on account of the capture of the city prevented any adequate efforts to extinguish the fire, or to hinder it from spreading. The wind was blowing from the south-west; so that the flames were carried up the slip, and soon the whole space between Whitehall and Broad-streets, as far up as Beaver-street, was a continuous field of fire. At about two o'clock in the morning the wind changed to south-east, and carried the fire toward Broadway. It burned both sides of Beaver-street to Broadway, and both sides of Broadway as far up as Rector-street, where its farther progress on the east side was checked by a large three-story brick house. On the west side it continued up to Trinity church, burning both that church and the Lutheran church a little farther down. All the houses on Lumber-street, as far up as St. Paul's church, were destroyed, and on both sides of Partition (Fulton, west of Broadway) street, and the whole range of compact buildings from Broadway to the river. It did not finally stop till it reached Mort Kile (Barclay) street, where the college-yard and vacant grounds adjoining put an end to its destructive progress. The isolated condition of Trinity church seemed to promise its safety in the general ruin; but the southerly wind threw large flakes of fire upon its wooden roof, which, on account of its steepness could not be guarded, and consequently it took fire, and so the whole edifice was consumed. St. Paul's church was several times on fire, but the roof being flat, with balustrades at the eaves, a number of persons were stationed upon it to extinguish the burning cinders as they fell. The whole number of houses burned amounted to about five hundred, or more than an eighth part of the entire city, as to numbers; but a much greater proportion as to their value, as they composed the best part of the city.

American prisoners brought to New -York.

The history of New-York while occupied by the British army presents a sad view of the dark side of " glorious war." Though there was no more fighting in or about the city, after the capture, the horrors of war were there experienced in their most dreadful forms. At the battle on Long Island nearly a thousand American prisoners were taken by the British; and in the reduction of Forts Washington and Lee, and in several other battles fought about this time, not less than three thousand more were taken. Many private citizens were likewise arrested for having been engaged in revolutionary movements ; so that at the beginning of the following winter there could not have been less than five thousand prisoners, for whose safe-keeping Sir William Howe was called upon to provide. The sudden influx of so great a body of prisoners at that season of the year, together with the late conflagration of so large a portion of the city, occasioned much distress, which could not have been altogether avoided by the utmost reach of kindness. But, to the lasting infamy of the parties concerned, as well as in illustration of the horrid accompaniments of war, the truth must be confessed, that the necessarily wretched condition of the prisoners was rendered much worse than was necessary by the wanton and malicious cruelty of those who had the care of them.

Provost Marshal Cunningham.

The oversight of the prisoners was committed by the commanding general to the provost marshal, one William Cunningham, the son of a British soldier, who was himself brought up in the army, but had been subsequently engaged in certain discreditable agencies connected with forwarded emigrants to America. Just before the commencement of hostilities he had come to New-York, where he became involved in a personal difficulty with the " Sons of Liberty," to escape from which he fled to Boston, where he was advanced by General Gage to the rank of provost marshal; and now, after the capture of the city, he had come into a position that enabled him to wreak his vengeance to satiety upon the party of his former enemies—an opportunity that he did not fail to improve. The tale of the cruelties of this monster of iniquity almost exceed belief; and the fact that such enormities were practiced in their presence, and were allowed, reflects great dishonor upon the commandants of the British army in New-York. A sentiment indeed prevailed to a great extent among the royal party that the Americans, as rebels, had forfeited all rights, and were justly liable to the worst and severest of treatment—a sentiment noticed by Washington in his correspondence with General Howe, and against which he makes a most earnest protest.

Crowded state of the prisons.

The prisons and public buildings were immediately crowded to their utmost capacity with these unhappy captives. Into the new bridewell, which stood on Broadway, to the west of the site of the present City Hall, over eight hundred were crowded, where, during the entire winter, they were allowed no fire, and the windows were without glass or shutters, and the rations dealt out for three days were less than a man could eat at a single meal. The new jail, or " provost," (now the Hall of Records,) was a prison for American officers, and the more distinguished rebels, whether civil or*military. Here the provost marshal kept his quarters, and exercised his tyranny upon his unhappy victims with more than a Nero's cruelty. The prisoners were crowded together so closely, that at night it was almost impossible for all to lie upon the floor at once. Here, during the seven years of Cunningham's reign of terror, were incarcerated many distinguished American officers, suffering all manner of insult and privation, while they awaited the time of their liberation, which death, often swifter than any human help, not infrequently brought to them. The old City Hall, which stood on the site of the present Custom-house, was converted into a guard-house for the main guard of the city. It had dungeons and prisons below, and a court-room on the second floor, where the refugee clergy preached during the latter part of the war. At first civil offenders were confined here, but subsequently whale-boatmen and robbers.

The Sugar-House, etc.

But these ordinary places of confinement were entirely insufficient to contain all the prisoners; and, accordingly, several of the churches, and other large buildings, were appropriated to that purpose. Among these temporary prisons the Sugar-House obtained a terrible notoriety. This modern Bastille stood on Liberty-street, near the Middle Dutch church, a dark stone building, five stories high, with small, deep, porthole-looking windows, rising tier above tier, exhibiting a dungeon-like aspect. There was a passage quite round the outside of the building, which was enclosed by a close board fence nine feet high, in which, night and day, two British or Hessian soldiers walked their weary rounds. In the suffocating heat of summer might be seen every aperture of those stone walls filled with human heads, face above face, seeking a portion of the external air. While the jail-fever was raging in the summer of 1777, the prisoners were let out in companies of twenty, for half an hour at a time, to breathe the fresh air;. and those within divided themselves into companies, and thus took their turns of ten minutes each at the windows. For some weeks the daily mortality amounted to ten or twelve. The bodies were thrown into the dead-cart and conveyed to a trench kept constantly open, above the Jews' burying-ground, where they were buried in heaps, without care or ceremony.

Churches turned into prisons.

The North Dutch church, at the corner of William and Fulton-streets, was made to hold eight hundred prisoners ; its pews were ripped up, and its mahogany pulpit sent to London, and put in a chapel there; and a floor was laid across from gallery to gallery. The Middle Dutch church was also, at first, used as a prison, but was afterward appropriated to the use of the master-of-horse to be occupied as a riding-school, to train dragoon horses. The floor was taken up and the ground covered with tan-bark, and a pole run across the middle for the horses to leap over. These churches both remained in their ruinous condition till after the restoration of peace. The Brick church in Beekman-street was at first a prison also; but soon after, it and the Presbyterian church in Wall-street, and the Scotch church in Cedar-street, and the Friends' meeting-house, were converted into hospitals. The French church in Pine-street was a store-house for ordnance stores; King's College was also used for a prison a short time after the capture of the city. The only houses of worship that were not defaced and desecrated during the season of the city's captivity were the two Episcopal churches, St. Paul's and St. George's, which, as belonging to the English Establishment, were accounted sacred; and the Methodist church in John-street, which was also preserved out of respect to the known loyalty of Mr. Wesley and the English Methodists ; and the German Lutheran church in the Swamp, which was used by the Hessian mercenaries as a place of worship.

The prison-ships.

But the worst tales of the horrors of the captivity of the unhappy Americans, in New-York, came from the prison-ships. For want of other places for confinement, the prisoners were placed on board of a number of ships then lying in the harbor of New-York. Among these, the Jersey, the Falmouth, the Digby, and the Good Hope, have held the chief notoriety. The Jersey was a large and roomy vessel, having once mounted sixty-four guns, but was now stripped and reduced to a naked hulk. All her ports were close shut, which prevented any current of air between decks, where all the prisoners were shut down from sunset to sunrise. She was anchored in the Wallabout Bay, where, for more than twenty years after the return of peace, her remains might still be seen. At
times there were more than a thousand prisoners at once on board of her, without berths or benches, and almost without clothes. Dysentery, fever, pleurisy, and despair prevailed. Their provisions were scanty and of very bad .quality, the guards were brutally cruel; so that the well often fell sick, and the sick pined without the most necessary comforts, and a terrible mortality prevailed. The number of deaths that occurred during the war in the prisons and prison- ships, can never be ascertained with any credible certainty. That of the prison-ships alone has been set down at eleven thousand five hundred; but this is not only entirely conjectural, but far exceeds any reasonable probability. It is certain, however, that the horrors of those places were such as to utterly defy the power of language, and even the utmost stretch of the imagination. v The whole affair is a black stigma upon the name of Great Britain, and a lively exhibition of the. true character of war.

The evacuation.

As New-York was the first point permanently occupied by the hostile British army, so it was the last that was abandoned by it. As place after place was yielded by the retiring army, the royal forces became concentrated in this city. Here, after the peace was concluded, were found a large number of provincial loyalists, who, having borne arms against the American government, or in other ways manifested a sympathy with the British cause, could not now safely return to their former homes, nor remain in any part of the country. There was also a large body of negroes, who had been drawn to the British standard by the promise of freedom; for both of which classes provision had to be made before the city could be surrendered to the American forces. The Tories and negroes were at length sent to Nova Scotia; the troops embarked on board of British transport ships, and everything made ready for an evacuation. At last, on the 25th of November, 1783, all the arrangements having been fully made, the British commandant surrendered the city to Brigadier General Knox, who took possession of it early in the morning with a small detachment of American soldiers. In the course of the day General Washington and his staff, Governor Clinton and his suite, the lieutenant-governor and senators, the officers of the army, and a great body of citizens on horseback, eight abreast, followed by a long procession of citizens on foot, entered the city by the way of the Boston road, and proceeded through Pearl-street to the Battery. Some difficulty was experienced in hoisting the American flag, the British soldiers having unwoven the halyards and greased the flagstaff. A public dinner was given to Washington and his general officers, and at evening a splendid display of fireworks was made from the Bowling- green.

Thus ended the war of the American Revolution, and thus was New -York delivered from the presence and power of a foreign enemy, by whom it had been trodden down and laid waste for seven years.

Website: The History
Article Name: New York During the Revolution Part II
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY:  New York: A Historical Sketch of the Rise and Progress of the Metropolitan City of America by a New Yorker Published by Carleton & Phillips 1853
Time & Date Stamp: