Evacuation Day

Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes guest historian Christopher of The British-American Historian blog.

Almost two years after debating a joint French-American assailment of Lord Cornwallis’ precarious position in Yorktown, Virginia over Washington’s grand plan to recapture New York long after being swept from the city and its environs as independence was officially declared in 1776, the implacable Washington prepared to reenter New York in triumph.

Eight years after making New York the center of the British war effort in the American Revolution, the massive garrison was greatly reduced and preparing for its final retirement from the new nation. The new commander in chief of North America, Sir Guy Carleton, arrived in New York on May 5, 1782[1] to relieve Sir Henry Clinton. Carleton won accolades for holding Quebec City when the Continental Army struck during a late night blizzard, an accomplishment that was all the more vaunted now that the British were losing territory that did not include Canada. Carleton lost no time in notifying Washington of his arrival in an affable letter sent on May 7th, 1782 in which Carleton wrote “if the like pacific disposition should prevail in this country, both my inclination and duty will lead me to meet it with the most zealous concurrence”[2].

A notable disruption in the growing amity was the unresolved Asgill Affair. Exasperated with wanton assailments of loyalists in New Jersey, a prominent rebel militia commander named Joshua Huddy was plucked from the provost in New York by an American member of the Associated Loyalists[3]. The Associated Loyalists were presided over by William Franklin, the loyalist son of Benjamin who had endured arduous captivity before being exchanged[4]. In response to the wanton execution of Joshua Huddy, Washington ordered a British officer to await reprise. Charles Asgill was selected, but pleas from the French along with Washington’s honorable disposition prevailed and the captain was spared[5].

 The city and Long Island were swarming with thousands of loyal “Refugees” who had fled from every rebellious colony to seek the king’s protection. Ranging from itinerant tenant farmers to some of the largest landlords in America such as Beverly Robinson and Frederick Philipse, Carleton’s task of evacuating the troops could not be fulfilled until such persons were safely resettled in the empire. While many of the men joined provincial regiments that saw combat in the south (playing a pivotal role defending Savannah and being routed at Kings Mountain) and performed prodigious woodcutting on Lloyd Neck for the insatiable demand for firewood[6]flocks of women and children crowded the city. A subset of the refugees were former slaves who had flocked to the British cause for the promise of freedom under Dunmore’s Proclamation and the Philipsburg Proclamation, a promise Washington would vigorously contest in negotiations.

To assuage the plight of the refugees, Carleton summoned them to Bowling Green Park in August, 1782 to assure them of security if peace negotiations favored an evacuation[7]. One can imagine the scene of the loyalists eagerly awaiting Carleton all around the original iron fence, which still surrounds the park near the foot of Broadway. Defeat and evacuation were still a possibility, not a proclamation. It was not until April 6th, 1783 that Carleton wrote Washington to confirm articles of peace had been signed in Paris and a cessation of arms proclaimed[8]. Carleton immediately sought to release all prisoners, most of whom had languished aboard tight quarters in prison ships, non-Anglican churches, sugar houses, and the ‘Bridewell’ provost on the common. Carleton closed his letter by stating “upon this great occasion Sir, I am to offer my strongest assurances, that during the short period of my command here, I shall be ready and earnest to cultivate that spirit of good will, which between the United States of America and the King of Great Britain, and the subjects and citizens of both countries will I trust always remain”[9]. No line quite portends the sentiment Franklin Roosevelt would harbor centuries later. 

As a result of the Treaty of Paris, the British would relinquish the 13 colonies that rebelled along with Florida (which the British held since 1763). If Britain needed some humility at the Paris Peace conference, British success continued to rule the waves elsewhere. A stunning siege of Gibraltar by 40,000 French and Spanish troops failed to pry the garrison of 7,000 after a record siege lasting three years and seven months. The British flag was never lowered from the implacable ‘rock’ of Gibraltar, continuing to proudly wave through loud nights of artillery fire and illuminated floating batteries. Retaining Gibraltar by the British would prove useful during WWII. The British also easily repelled an invasion of Jersey, the prominent channel island. While the Mediterranean island of Menorca was captured by Spain, it was a prodigious affair that took over five months.

The refugees were quickly granted tracts of land in vast British territories, such as Nova Scotia (Latin for New Scotland). Loyalist troops and their families in De Lancey’s regiment began preparing for evacuation to Nova Scotia in April, 1783[10]. Auctions of items such as draft horses were going up for sale in the artillery stables near St. Paul’s Chapel[11]. It was also during this time that General Carleton once again wrote Washington, keenly taking him up on the offer of a conference[12]. Together with his family, Lieutenant Governor of New York Andrew Elliot, and Chief Justice William Smith, Carleton endeavored to sail up the Hudson and wait off Tappan where Washington was lodged. 

The British delegation anchored Perseverance off Tappan on May 6, 1783. Carleton greeted Washington on shore and the parties rode in a coach to a humble Dutch farmhouse. Jonathan Trumbull, who was present, wrote to his father that the meeting was “cordial and polite- General Carleton dining with General Washington the first day” and dining on Carleton’s frigate Perseverance the next. Trumbull sanguinely wrote the “great delay of evacuating the city it seems will arise from the amazing encumbrance which hangs upon him from the Tories & Refugees who he finds himself obliged to protect and secure”[13]. A major disagreement during the conference arose over the issues of black refugees who escaped slavery. Washington pressed for the return of these former slaves, while Carleton vowed to protect the propriety of the proclamations that had set them free. As a measure of goodwill, Carleton was “disposed immediately to abandon Penobscot”[14], a site in Maine where the British maintained a fort through the war. Carleton had already ordered the evacuation of South Carolina, Savannah, and St. Augustine[15]. As Florida remained loyal to Britain throughout the war, St. Augustine attracted its own share of refugees now needing resettlement.

As the gold leaves fell that autumn and cider was gulped next to fireplaces consuming wood faster than it could be cut, Carleton wrote Washington on November 19th to inform him that “His Majesty’s Troops will retire from King’s Bridge and McGowan’s Pass on this Island on the 21st instant…. And I shall resign the possession of Herricks & Hampstead, with all to the eastward on Long Island, the same day”[16]. Carleton went on to explain that while Paulus Hook would be relinquished the day following, it was impracticable to evacuate his garrison from the city until the week following. If Carleton had proper assurances to retain use of the ship-yard and Hallets Wharf on Manhattan and a “bake house” on Long Island hosting sick seamen until they could take their final departure, he was to retire from the city and Brooklyn (then a small village at the ferry) on the 25th at noon, while notably retaining Staten Island and the Denyse/New Utrecht areas on Long Island “for such time as may be found absolutely requisite for the troops that may then remain un provided with transports”[17].

On November 21st, the British retired from the proscribed posts in earnest, retiring from northerly forts like the hill that can still be seen at McGowan’s Pass[18]. By the 25th, the Continentals were just north of the city as the redcoats abandoned their last posts at the Main Guard at City Hall and old Fort George on the battery. The troops were all boarded into small boats and rowed out to the massive frigates ready to embark. The incessant fife and drum marches and drills, cannon salutes, and dual way influx of British ships had evaporated from the city of New York. Carleton proved his fidelity to the refugees and runaway slaves, ensuring all had embarked before he and the troops. Officers with fierce reputations, such as Samuel Birch of the 17th Light Dragoons and Oliver De Lancey, certified the former slaves for embarkation from Fraunces Tavern[19]. Most would resettle in the British colonies in Canada.

Washington triumphantly rode down the Bowery and Broadway to throngs of Americans out to see the implacable commander astride his horse while the Union Jack was lowered from Fort George and an American flag snapped in the brisk wind. Carleton wrote Washington on December 1st aboard Ceres off Staten Island, conveying his desire to embark the remainder of the troops from Long and Staten islands for their final departure on the 4th if wind and weather were disposed[20]. Waiting until the ships were all but out of view, Washington threw a farewell party at Fraunces Tavern for his officers and confidants. It was a fitting place to close the war for independence and Washington was soon on his way to Mount Vernon. En route, he would resign his power in Annapolis[21], voluntarily discharging his duties in opposition to the Caesarian lust for power.

British ships tarried off the coast until practical to put to sea and Assistance still found itself stuck off the coast of the Sandy Hook lighthouse on December 30th. Five sailors rowed ashore to stock up on fresh water before the final departure and all deserted. A barge of redcoats were sent ashore under Lieutenant Hamilton Halyburton, the son of the Earl of Morton. Caught in a snowstorm that swept the night, the party disappeared. When a search party made it ashore on January 2, 1784, it was discovered the party had perished in the blizzard and were interred there[22]. The original monument was obliterated, but a new memorial was built by the CCC during the New Deal and can be visited near the Sandy Hook Lighthouse.

[1] Sir Guy Carleton to George Washington, May 7th, 1782

[2] Sir Guy Carleton to George Washington, May 7th, 1782

[3] Charles Asgill to George Washington, May 30th, 1782

[4]  Epstein Mark, Daniel. The Loyal Son: The War in Ben Franklin’s House. Random House, 2017.265.

[5] George Washington to Charles Asgill, November 13th, 1782

[6]  General Charles Scott to George Washington, October 10th, 1778

[7] William Heath to George Washington, August 10th, 1782

[8] Sir Guy Carleton to George Washington, April 6th, 1783

[9] Sir Guy Carleton to George Washington, April 6th, 1783

[10] JH Cruger to Edward Winslow, April 18th, 1783. Reel 152: University of New Brunswick

[11] James, Riker. “Evacuation Day, 1783”. Crichton & Co, 1883. Internet Archive. 7.

[12] Sir Guy Carleton to Washington, April 24th, 1783

[13] Jonathan Trumbull, Jr to Jonathan Trumbull, Sr, May 14th, 1783

[14] Account of a Conference Between Washington and Sir Guy Carleton, May 6th, 1783. Founders Archive

[15] Chopra, Ruma. Unnatural Rebellion. Loyalists In New York City During the Revolution. University of Virginia Press, 2011. Page 199

[16] Sir Guy Carleton to George Washington, November 19th, 1783

[17] Sir Guy Carleton to Washington, November 19th, 1783

[18] My photo

[19] Royal Gazette, May 22nd, 1783

[20] Sir Guy Carleton to Washington, December 1st, 1783

[21] GW Journey from NY to Mt Vernon

[22]  “A Narrative of the disaster that happened to the barge of His Majesty’s ship the Assistance”. The Scots Magazine. British Newspaper Archive. 1 January 1790. Retrieved 6 September 2014.

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