Sunday, November 25, 2012

Happy Evacuation Day!

Overshadowed by Thanksgiving these days, Evacuation Day (November 25) used to be a big deal for New Yorkers. This is the day that the British finally departed after a war-long occupation of New York City.

As they departed, the British offered today's version of a a rude gesture by hoisting the Union Jack and then greasing the flagpole so it could not retrieved. On their way out of the harbor, the sore losers saw that some intrepid Yank had managed to make his way up the flagpole (using spikes on his boots) to yank down the hated flag. Incensed at the American flag now waving in the breeze, one captain ordered his men to fire a round but it fell harmlessly into the water. The last shot of the war was truly a dud.

After the ships had left, General Washington and New York Governor Clinton repaired to a popular drinking hole called Fraunces Tavern and offered a series of thirteen toasts to the departed British including:

"May America be an Asylum to the Persecuted of 
       the Earth."

"May a close Union of the States guard the Temple
       they have erected to Liberty."

 "May the Remembrance of THIS DAY, be a Lesson to Princes."

(capitalization from the original  document.)

Evacuation Day was a major holiday every year in New York City until World War I when Americans needed to be nice to the Brits again (they were, after all, our allies against the Germans). It was such a big deal that Confederate spies planned to burn the city's major hotels and capture the treasury building on November 25, 1864, hoping the drunken revelry would cover the fires until they were full-blown blazes. (Somehow, they missed the big party and actually set the fires days later when they were easily discovered and the plot foiled.)

After World War I, Evacuation Day lost much of its rowdiness. Today, it's just a small commemoration in Battery Park. But, hey, we historians can celebrate it.

For more, see New York Archives magazine, Fall 2010 (pictured above) and a marvelous 2004 story at The New York Times.

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