For all the good he did, when President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, he inadvertently displaced a commemoration of which most Americans have never heard: Evacuation Day—the remembrance of the withdrawal of British authority from New York City. For decades, this was an important day to remember American sacrifice, so as I pass the turkey and watch football every year with my family, I try to set aside some time to think about this significant—but often forgotten—story of Great Britain’s final eviction from the U.S.
The fall of 1776 saw a number of Continental defeats, among them the retreat of General George Washington from present day New York. The British would hold that territory for the remainder of the war and establish New York City as the nerve center for military and political activity in the colonies. Two fires devastated the city throughout the occupation, and colonists lived in squalor as British forces, officials, and Loyalists commandeered the undamaged buildings for their own use.
As the war progressed, Continental soldiers, sailors, and private citizens captured by the British were held captive in prison ships anchored off the shore of Brooklyn—many detained for refusing an oath of allegiance to the crown. The conditions aboard the ships were deplorable; disease, famine, and dehydration plagued the ships, and the dead were either tossed overboard or buried in shallow mass graves on shore. By the war’s end, over 10,000 Continentals died on the ships—more than the total number killed in all the battles of the war combined. Ebenezer Fox, a prisoner aboard the infamous HMS Jersey, noted the prison ships were the final stop for many of the nation’s first patriots:
This was the last resting place of many a son and a brother,—young and noble-spirited men, who had left their happy homes and kind friends to offer their lives in the service of their country. Poor fellows! They suffered more than their older companions in misery. They could not endure their hopeless and wearisome captivity. – Ebenezer Fox, 1848
In 1783, the final shot of the American Revolution would echo across the waters where so many patriots lost their lives. The British surrendered at Yorktown in 1781, but the Treaty of Paris wasn’t signed for two more years. Ahead of the deal to surrender North American territory, British officials were ordered to evacuate the city in August 1783. On November 25, 1783, the battered remains of British authority set sail for London. A gunner fired a final shot at a crowd on Staten Island, but the shot was fell short. In a final moment of defiance, the Redcoats greased a flagpole that flew a Union Jack in a park. A Veteran of the war, John Van Arsdale, climbed the pole, tore the British colors away and flew the Stars & Stripes over New York City for the first time. George Washington led a victory march down Broadway to mark the occasion. For many, this was the true end of the war.
Aside from a monument in Brooklyn that honors the prison ship dead, Evacuation Day has faded from the national conscious, thanks to our special relationship with England and the shadow of the Thanksgiving holiday. But the day is perhaps one of the most important in our history, as it saw the last remains of British influence leave American shores, so that our great experiment could begin. So now that you’re home with family, and perhaps reflecting on your own service (or the service of your family members), remember those who struggled long ago to preserve our independence. We can carry that spirit only if stories like Evacuation Day survive.