The Gibraltar of North America

For the thousands of Tories who fled New York between 1774 and 1776, its capture by the British was the signal for a jubilant homecoming. Sporting red badges in their hats as tokens of loyalty, they streamed into town behind Howe’s troops; the general’s personal chaplain, inspired by this devotion to the royal cause, reopened St. Paul’s Chapel with a sermon on Jeremiah 12:15: “And it shall come to pass, after I have plucked them out, I will return again and have compassion on them, each man to his heritage, and every man to his land.” Hundreds of people thronged Qty Hall in October to sign a memorial congratulating General Howe and his brother on their victory. Another crowd turned out in November to sign a “declaration of dependence,” reaffirming their “loyalty to our Sovereign, against the strong tide of oppression and tyranny, which had almost overwhelmed this Land.”

By early 1777 the Tory flood tide had lifted New York’s population to some twelve thousand; two years later, swollen by successive waves of Tory refugees from elsewhere in the colonies, the city had a record thirty-three thousand inhabitants. Conspicuous among the returnees was James Rivington, who won an appointment as “Printer to His Majesty the King” and resumed publication of his New-York Gazetteer (later the Royal Gazette). The Gazetteer’s reappearance, along with Hugh Gaine’s Weekly Mercury and James Robertson’s Royal American Gazette, would make New York the headquarters of Tory opinion for the remainder of the war. Also back in town, having been run out of Virginia by the rebels, was former governor Dunmore; joining him, at one point, were four other colonial governors and swarms of lesser imperial functionaries with similar stories to tell. All told, an estimated fifty thousand Tories had gathered behind British lines in and around New York City by 1782.

Those were the civilians. As the war waxed and waned in distant theaters, tens of thousands of troops also shifted in and out of the city—Waldeckers in their gaudy yellow-trimmed cocked hats, huge mustachioed Hessians, kilted and tartaned Highlanders, black-capped Anspach grenadiers—all trailed by numerous dependents and camp followers. Between November 1777 and July 1778 their numbers leaped from five thousand to nearly twenty thousand. By December 1779 they had fallen to four thousand, only to rise again to ten thousand by August 1781 and seventeen thousand by December 1782.

Organized rebel activity on Long Island and in much of Westchester County came to an abrupt end. Soon after Washington’s retreat from Brooklyn Heights, perhaps as many as five thousand patriots from Kings, Queens, and Suffolk counties fled across the Sound to Connecticut. In their absence one town after another disbanded its committees, repudiated the authority of Congress, and drafted congratulatory addresses to General Howe and Governor Tryon. Tryon toured the island in October 1776, handing out thousands of certificates of loyalty and administering an oath of allegiance to the militia in his capacity as head of the provincial forces. In Kings County, 593 out of the 630 militiamen took the oath; in Queens, roughly twelve hundred of a possible fifteen hundred did likewise, while some thirteen hundred “freeholders and inhabitants” put their names on a declaration denouncing the “infatuated conduct of the Congress” and describing how they had “steadfastly maintained their royal principles.” The army obligingly sent eight hundred stands of arms to Queens, where they were received “with demonstrations of joy.”

Military recruiters had an easy time of it for the next few years. Long Island men flocked to Tory militia regiments under the command of Oliver De Lancey, brother of the late governor. In Westchester County, Oliver’s nephew James De Lancey (not to be confused with James De Lancey Jr., the late governor’s son) raised a troop of some five hundred light horse to hunt for deserters and patrol the regular army’s supply routes through the Neutral Ground—a thirty-mile-wide no-man’s-land that ran north of Morrisania to the mouth of the Croton River, marking the unofficial boundary between British- and American-held territory.

Thousands of other New Yorkers joined a parade of colorfully named Tory units—the King’s American Regiment, the King’s Orange Rangers, the Loyal American Regiment, the British Legion, and the Volunteers of Ireland, among others—some of which would see action as far away as Georgia, Canada, and Jamaica. In all, around sixteen thousand New York men bore arms for the king as against thirty-six thousand for Congress. Over the winter of 1779-80, when Washington was rumored to be preparing an attack on New York, it took only five days to raise two thousand volunteers for the city’s defense.

Female Tories served the British as spies and couriers. Lorenda Holmes had carried messages to Howe’s forces in 1776. Captured by rebel committeemen, she was stripped naked and exposed to a patriot crowd but, she wrote, “received no wounds or bruises from them only shame and horror of the mind.” Holmes carried on, helping to slip loyalists through rebel lines into occupied New York City. When the rebels apprehended her a second time, they held her right foot on hot coals until it was badly burned.

It was men and women such as these, said one British commander, that made New York the principal bulwark of royal power and influence in the colonies. The “Gibraltar of North America” he called it—a proud allusion to the royal fortress that was, even as he spoke, standing fast against the combined forces of France and Spain.


Superficially, at least, the British occupation restored some of the prosperity that New York had enjoyed in the 1750s. The city’s rebounding civilian population opened lucrative new markets for area farmers and, after years of nonimportation, for British manufacturers eager to reduce inventories of clothing, hardware, and other finished goods. Provisioning the huge military machine—five hundred ships jammed the harbor within a month after the city’s fall—generated windfall profits for the Waltons, Bayards, Lows, and other Tory merchants. When Parliament authorized a fleet of 120-odd privateers to be fitted out in New York to prey on rebel shipping, it created work for thousands of seamen and attracted immense quantities of goods and money into the local economy. (In one six-month period, between September 1778 and March 1779, privateers came in with 165 prizes worth over six hundred thousand pounds.) Shopkeepers, cloakmakers, milliners, dressmakers, wigmakers, and coachmakers were busy again trying to meet the demand of His Majesty’s officers and their wives for all the comforts of home. There was money to be made, too, in illicit trade between the city and rebel-held areas of Westchester, New Jersey, and Connecticut, despite efforts of authorities on both sides to stamp it out. Alexander Hamilton calculated in 1782 that upstate patriots were buying thirty thousand pounds’ worth of luxuries from New York merchants every year, plus an additional eighty thousand from sources in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New England. Cartloads of specie were said to arrive in the city every week.

Thanks to this sudden wealth, plus General Howe’s own weakness for extravagant living—“Toujours de la gaiete!” he cried as the occupation got underway—New York’s fashionable classes were soon caught up in a social whirl that would have been unthinkable only a year or two before. Fox-hunting and golf made a fast comeback, dispelling the gloom of republican austerity. Billiards were all the rage at the King’s Head Tavern. Horse racing returned to Hempstead Plains, and its popularity prompted the opening of a new course, Ascot Heath, on the Flatland Plains, five miles east of the Brooklyn ferry. Two rival cricket clubs, the Brooklyn and Greenwich, squared off on Bowling Green or near Cannon’s Tavern on Corlear’s Hook. Ladies and gentlemen of quality entertained themselves with saltwater bathing parties and concerts, and every two weeks at the City Tavern on Broadway there was a “Garrison Assembly” where local girls danced with dashing officers like the young Captain Horatio Nelson—“genuine, smooth-faced, fresh-coloured” Englishmen “of family and consideration” (as the American prisoner of war Alexander Graydon described them). The John Street Theater, renamed the Theatre Royal, reopened in January 1777 with a production of Tom Thumb.Some 150 performances followed over the next half-dozen years, including works by Shakespeare, Garrick, and Sheridan. The actors, mostly officers, were fondly known as “Clinton’s Thespians.” Audiences usually numbered around 750.

Especially lavish festivities accompanied the Queen’s Birthday celebration of 1780, when “a transparent painting of their majesties at full length, in their royal robes” was suspended over the gate of the fort and “illuminated with a beautiful variety of different colored lamps.” The presentation of this tribute was followed by an elegant ball and formal supper. “It is said that the ball cost above 2000 Guineas, and they had over 300 dishes,” the Rev. Schaukirk noted sourly in his diary. When Prince William Henry (later King William IV) visited New York in September 1781, the social whirl became positively frantic. The prince especially liked the informal skating parties on the Fresh Water Pond, during which an attendant pushed him around in a chair mounted with runners.

Eating and drinking societies like the Old Church and King Club again crowded into the private rooms of Hull’s Tavern or the King’s Head, roaring out their loyalty to the crown in song and endless toasts. The St. Andrew’s Society, the St. George Society, and other fraternal organizations resumed their annual rites with gusto and aggressively loyalist overtones. In March 1779 the Volunteers of Ireland, a British regiment organized in Ireland that had arrived in New York the previous June, sought to win Irish recruits to the British cause by staging one of the first St. Patrick’s Day parades in the city’s history. According to the Weekly Mercury, “the Volunteers of Ireland, preceded by their band of music,” marched out to the Bowery, where a dinner was provided for five hundred people.


If anyone had reason to rejoice at the British occupation, it was New York’s suddenly flourishing population of runaway slaves and freedmen. Many rebel slaveowners in the city had manumitted their slaves after 1775—partly in response to increasing immigration (which according to one traveler had already produced a surplus of cheap free labor in the city), partly in recognition that human bondage violated their professed attachment to liberty and natural rights, and partly because, fleeing the British invasion, they didn’t want the continued trouble and expense of extra dependents.

Besides, in December 1775 Lord Dunmore, governor of Virginia, issued a proclamation freeing all of that colony’s indentured servants and slaves who were willing to support the crown. As word of Dunmore’s proclamation spread north in 1776, nervous masters everywhere noted the rising numbers of runaways and fretted about the growing likelihood of a black insurgency. Within months, hundreds of slaves from the New York-New Jersey area ran off to seek refuge within the British lines. Some reportedly joined regular British units in preparation for the August invasion of Long Island. General Nathanael Greene warned Washington that eight hundred blacks were drilling on Staten Island, and the Provincial Congress provided a detachment of militia to “guard against the insurrection of slaves.” Once His Majesty’s forces moved in, moreover, they found area slaves ready and willing to help them plunder the property of their masters. As one patriot recalled many years later, “The negroes of [Long] Island were all Tories, and pointed out to the enemy the places where goods and plate had been concealed.”

During the next half-dozen years, additional thousands of slaves from Long Island, Staten Island, New Jersey, and Westchester County ran off—a revolution-within-a-revolution that dwarfed the events of 1712 and 1741. (Fully two-thirds of the slaves in Westchester, nearly twenty-two hundred people in all, were said to have fled their masters in the course of the war.) At one point, the volume of fugitives from New Jersey became so great that city officials ordered Hudson River ferryboat operators to stop transporting blacks until further notice. New Jersey’s rebel government underscored the magnitude of the problem by advising masters to transport their slaves into the interior of the state, from where it would be more difficult to reach British lines.

The movement of runaways and freedmen into the city quickened after June 1779 when General Clinton, following Dunmore’s lead, issued a proclamation of his own promising “every Negro who shall desert the Rebell Standdard full security to follow within these lines any Occupation which he shall think Proper.” Many chose to take up arms against their former masters and enlisted in one or another of several army units composed of blacks from all over the colonies, among them the Black Pioneers and Guides, the Royal African Regiment, the Ethiopian Regiment, and the Black Brigade. Led by the dashing Captain Tye, an escaped slave from New Jersey, the Black Brigade won notoriety for its lightning raids on patriot farms and villages in nearby Monmouth County. As early as 1777 a unit of Virginia freedmen occupied a redoubt guarding the strategically important Boston Post Road (now Van Cortlandt Avenue East in the Bronx); area residents called it the “Negro Fort.”

Numerous other fugitives served with regular British units as pilots, guides, and couriers or worked as laborers for the Quartermaster General’s Department, the Wagonmaster, or the Forage and Provision departments of His Majesty’s army. Still others found employment as cartmen, carpenters, and the like, trades from which they had hitherto been excluded. More than a few married, established families, and sent their children to the school for blacks opened in 1778 by the Anglican Church. Many found shelter in or around various “Negro Barracks” located on Broadway, Church Street, and elsewhere. When they died, they were interred in the Negro Burial Ground above Chambers Street—as happened to “great numbers” of Virginia runaways, whose camp in an open field on the west side of Broadway was swept by a smallpox epidemic. The burgeoning numbers, autonomy, and self-confidence of New York’s freedmen were unmistakable and got a good deal of attention throughout the colonies. “Ethiopian Balls,” where African Americans and British officers mingled freely, drew particular criticism in the rebel press.


Rich men, officers, and runaway slaves excepted, most inhabitants of occupied New York had little to cheer about. Their hopes for the prompt restoration of civilian government proved embarrassingly naive. General Howe imposed martial law on the city and environs and resisted every appeal to relent, as did his successors, Generals Henry Clinton (1778-82) and Sir Guy Carleton (1782-83). Year after discouraging year, the provincial assembly, city council, and courts remained officially dormant. Governor William Tryon and Mayor David Mathews, though restored to their offices, exercised little or no real power. Nor did William Smith, former stalwart of the Whig Triumvirate, who showed up in New York in 1778 and accepted appointment as chief justice of the colony.

Under martial law, a commandant, appointed by the commander-in-chief, exercised more or less dictatorial power over the day-to-day administration of municipal affairs. Answerable to the commandant was a small coterie of other officials and bureaucrats. A police department enforced military regulations, maintained a night watch, and regulated ferries (by the end of 1780 a two-judge police court had been set up to try cases involving civilians). Andrew Elliot, head of the department for many years, also supervised the collection of customs as superintendent of exports and imports. A Barracks Board arranged housing for soldiers. The Chamber of Commerce, which resumed its meetings in 1779, informally advised the commander-in-chief and commandant on economic matters. Two volunteer companies, the Military Club and the Fire Club, equipped themselves with buckets and pumps to protect the town from the kind of disaster that befell it in 1776.

General Clinton and other officers talked of the need “to gain the hearts & subdue the minds of America,” but the military regime produced exactly the opposite effect. Merchants lost patience with the maddeningly arbitrary system of restrictions, passes, and permits; it didn’t help that the wharves and warehouses of loyal traders were often summarily commandeered for military use, or that the Royal Navy routinely harassed privateers on the grounds that they lured away too many of His Majesty’s sailors. Merchants and seamen alike railed against the press gangs that periodically scoured the city to fill out crews. One “very hot press” in 1781 carried off several hundred able-bodied men, whose affections for the crown must have been sorely tried as a result. White New Yorkers of all classes disapproved of the city’s increasingly conspicuous population of free blacks and runaway slaves. Oliver De Lancey bowed to the prevailing opinion by discharging “all Negroes Mullattoes and other Improper Persons” from his corps in 1777.

Conflicts with poorly paid, poorly provisioned, often poorly disciplined troops sharpened civilian discontent. The first redcoats to enter town in September 1776 went on a rampage, looting private houses and vandalizing City Hall, where they smashed equipment belonging to King’s College, mutilated paintings, and destroyed books. On New Year’s Eve 1777, after performing in a play entitled The Devil to Pay in the West Indies, a party of drunken officers—one dressed up like Old Nick himself, complete with horns and tail—disrupted services at the John Street Methodist Church. Nor was that the worst of it. “I could narrate many and very frightful occurrences of theft, fraud, robbery, and murder by the English soldiers which their love of drink excited,” said one dismayed German officer.

Elliot’s police proved next to useless in dealing with the problem, and the police court was thought unreliable because it functioned without the juries that had always been considered a bulwark of English liberty. Civilian complaints against military personnel rarely got anywhere. Courts-martial tended to sympathize with the men in His Majesty’s services and were notoriously lenient on officers accused of wrongdoing; everyone indeed knew of cases in which officers charged with robbing, assaulting, raping, and even murdering civilians had gone free.

Military officials appeared equally unwilling or unable to remedy the city’s desperate shortage of adequate shelter. One-quarter to one-third of its housing stock had been destroyed by the great fire of September 1776 (which drove three hundred persons to seek admission to the almshouse) and by a second conflagration in August 1778. Agents of the Barracks Board marked rebel-owned buildings with the initials G. R. (for George Rex) and confiscated them for the use of refugees and troops. The Baptist Church, the Brick Presbyterian Church, the First Presbyterian Church, the South Dutch Church, the Middle Dutch Church, the North Dutch Church, the French Church, the Scotch Presbyterian Church, and the Quaker Meeting House—tangible symbols of the dissenting principles to which many loyalists traced the Revolution—were commandeered for barracks, stables, prisons, or storehouses. (Presbyterian churches everywhere on Long Island were also routinely vandalized after 1776.) The two chapels of Trinity Church, St. Paul’s and St. George’s, escaped such ill treatment, although King’s College was used as a military hospital. The Mill Street synagogue, occupied by a loyalist remnant of the Shearith Israel congregation, suffered no appreciable damage either.

Sporadic efforts were made to ease the crisis by regulating the influx of refugees and shifting troops to camps outside the city; at the end of 1777 Commandant General James Robertson also authorized the city vestry to employ rents from Whig-owned property for the relief of the poor and municipal improvements. No steps were taken, however, to rebuild or enlarge the city’s supply of housing. With blocks of scorched and crumbling ruins at their backs, civilians and military personnel waged prolonged, sometimes violent struggles for the possession of anything with four walls and a roof. Rents rose 400 percent in the first year of the occupation alone. Few households got through the war without a redcoat or two quartered in a spare room or seated at the dinner table, many with wives and children in tow.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of destitute refugees had nowhere to go but “Canvas Town,” a pestiferous camp of makeshift tents that sprawled west from the foot of Broad Street through the ruins left by the 1776 fire. The results of so many people jammed together “like herrings in a barrel, most of them very dirty,” as the Englishman Nicholas Cresswell observed, were the foul odors that often left city residents gasping for air. “If any author had an inclination to write a treatise upon stinks,” Cresswell sniffed, “he never could meet with more subject matter than in New York.”

Food and fuel were as hard to come by as fresh air. Within one year of the British takeover, driven by the combination of military and civilian demand, the cost of food in the city jumped 800 percent. Higher prices didn’t, however, generate increased supplies. International law at the time allowed armies a right to the “contribution” of food and other essential material—at a fair rate of compensation—from populations under their protection. For farmers in the hinterland of occupied New York, this meant surrendering crops, animals, and equipment, on demand, to army foragers, who paid them with certificates drawn on the Office of Forage in New York City. Inasmuch as the army never matched the going rate for what it took—and from time to time actually froze prices at absurdly low levels—growers and stockmen quickly learned to divert what they produced into the city’s flourishing black market or else to restrict production to the bare minimum.

Hard-pressed quartermasters took to importing food, at great expense, from elsewhere in the Empire. Between 1776 and 1778 victualing fleets arrived from Ireland and England with twenty-eight hundred tons of beef, ten thousand tons of pork, twenty thousand tons of bread and flour, a thousand tons of butter, and twenty-four hundred tons of oatmeal and rice. There was never enough to go around, however. Prices continued to go up, not down, and poorer New Yorkers found themselves trying to keep body and soul together on a diet of rice or baked beans. When a French fleet briefly blockaded the city in the summer of 1778, food supplies dwindled so quickly that officials talked of evacuating everyone to avert massive famine. It was the same story in 1779, when mountains of Iroquois corn destined for the army were seized by patriot forces. Periodic epidemics of yellow fever, cholera, and smallpox only underscored the appalling circumstances to which many residents of the city had been reduced.


The ultimate insult to the patience and principles of loyal New Yorkers wasn’t red tape, crime, overcrowding, or chronic shortages—all of which might have been bearable, somehow—but the miasma of decadence and corruption that gradually enveloped the city. Pastor Schaukirk never quite comprehended how the city’s most privileged and powerful residents could live so extravagantly at a time of widespread privation. One day he noticed that “the walk by the ruins of Trinity Church and its grave-yard has been railed in and painted green; benches placed there and many lamps fixed in the trees, for gentlemen and ladies to walk and sit there in the evening. A band plays while the commander is present, and a sentry is placed there, that none of the common people may intrude.” As if this weren’t bad enough, Schaukirk continued, “a house opposite is adapted to accommodate the ladies or officer’s women, while many honest people. . . cannot get a house or lodging to live in or get their living.”

Respectable New Yorkers, according to Judge Jones, took particular exception to the vices of sixty-year-old Commandant Robertson. These included openly keeping a mistress, “smelling after every giddy girl” who caught his eye, and “waddling about town with a couple of young tits about twelve years of age under each arm.” Visitors gaped at the numbers and brazenness of the city’s prostitutes. Said one after attending services at St. Paul’s Chapel: “This is a very neat church and some of the handsomest and best-dressed ladies I have ever seen in America. I believe most of them are whores.” Patriots up and down the continent were scandalized by stories about the city’s commissary of prisoners, a Boston Tory named Joshua Loring, who allegedly promoted an affair between his wife and General William Howe in exchange for a free hand with the shady wheeling and dealing that would make him rich before the war was over. “Profaneness and Wickedness prevaileth,” cried Pastor Schaukirk. “Lord have Mercy!”

Not since the days of Governor Fletcher had official cynicism and venality bedded down so amiably together. One royal investigator reported “peculation in every profitable branch of the service.” According to Jones, army quartermasters, barrackmasters, and commissaries—“blood-sucking harpies” to a man—made away with no less than five million pounds by the end of the war. Even the royal chimney sweep saw his opportunities and took them. “He keeps a half-dozen negroes,” said an irate German officer, “each of whom can sweep at least twenty chimneys a day, and often must clean more; and for each chimney his master, who sits quietly at home, is paid two shillings. . . . The negroes get nothing out of it save coarse food and rags.” General Howe pocketed money intended for farmers whose cattle had been taken by the army. Admiral Arbuthnot sold blank warrants allowing merchants to conduct illegal trade. Proving that civilians could feed at the same trough, Mayor Mathews embezzled money, stole provisions intended for the poor, charged excessive fees, and ran protection rackets.


The most chilling stories to come out of occupied New York, however, concerned the thousands of American prisoners of war held in and around the city. Captured officers were permitted to find private accommodations in boardinghouses and taverns, but not common soldiers. As many as eight hundred at a time were jammed into the New Gaol, now called the Provost’s Guard or Prison, on the northeast corner of City Hall Park. Hundreds of others languished in Livingstons’ Liberty Street “sugar house”—a cavernous building formerly used for refining and storing sugar. Sugar houses owned by the Van Cortlandts (near the northwest corner of Trinity churchyard) and by the Rhinelanders (at the corner of Rose and Duane) were also used to hold prisoners, as were the Middle Dutch Church on Nassau Street and the North Dutch Church on William.

Conditions in the sugar houses and the Provost’s Guard dismayed even the most unyielding Tories. Hungry, half-naked prisoners huddled together in appalling squalor, racked by waves of smallpox, yellow fever, and cholera. Many starved or froze to death after scratching out final messages on the walls with their fingernails, and every morning the “dead cart” rumbled up to remove the bodies of those who had succumbed the night before. Abraham Leggett, confined in a room of the Provost’s with a dozen other rebels, remembered being thrown some raw salt beef and spoiled bread. “As soon as the bread fell on the floor it Took legs and Ran in all Directions,” he wrote.

Two men bore special responsibility for these horrors: Commissary Joshua Loring, who made a fortune selling off provisions meant for the prisoners, and the sadistic Provost Marshal William Cunningham, who had once been roughed up by the Sons of Liberty and now took his revenge in merciless brutality. Every evening, Alexander Graydon recalled, “he would traverse his domain with a whip in his hand, sending his prisoners to bed, with the ruffian like Tattoo of Kennel ye sons of bitches! Kennel, G— ddamn ye!”Some years after the war, on his way to the gallows for forgery, Cunningham confessed to murdering as many as two thousand American prisoners by starvation, hanging, or poisoning their flour rations with arsenic. Typically, he said, inmates were hustled out at midnight, bound and gagged, to be hanged from a hastily erected gallows on Barrack (now Chambers) Street. Area residents were under strict orders to shutter their windows and say nothing.

The suffering inflicted on the inmates of the sugar houses and Provost’s Guard paled, even so, by comparison with the agonies of rebel prisoners confined to prison ships anchored across the East River in Wallabout Bay. All told, the British employed at least twenty of these ships in the course of the war, using them first for captives taken during the Battle of Long Island and then exclusively for seamen taken on the high seas. The conditions on board were atrocious—hundreds of men packed together in squalid, reeking holds without adequate food or water and brutalized by their guards. Alexander Coffin remembered that his eleven hundred fellow captives on the Jersey, most infamous of the prison ships, were “mere walking skeletons. . . overrun with lice from head to foot.” Dysentery was rampant, said Christopher Hawkins, and because only two prisoners at a time were allowed to relieve themselves on the upper deck, he and the others below spent many nights smeared with “bloody and loathsome filth.” Every morning


The prison ship Jersey, by James Ryder van Brunt, 1876. (General Research. The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)

the ships awakened to the call “Prisoners, turn out your dead!” Before the war ended 11,500 men had perished, their bodies simply cast overboard or buried in mass graves on the shore. Bones littered the beach for years.


Military oppression and corruption also weighed heavily on the areas immediately adjacent to the city. Hessians and redcoats ran amok after the American retreat from Long Island, assaulting civilians and pillaging at will. The Tory Philip Van Cortlandt heard “many frightful accounts” of “cruel unnatural & inhuman” acts committed by His Majesty’s troops on friend and foe alike. Soldiers murdered several persons “in cold blood, plunging bayonets in their bodys & then trampling them under their horses feet, women without distinction taken into the lascivious embraces of Officers & then turned over to the Soldiery, torn from the arms of husbands & parents by Brutal force.” Colonel Stephen Kemble reported that rampaging redcoats had destroyed “all the fruits of the Earth without regard to Loyalists or Rebels, the property of both being equaly a prey to them.”

Little of this havoc was accidental. From the very beginning of the war it was taken for granted, especially among the subordinate officers responsible for day-to-day discipline, that the Americans were a cowardly, contemptible rabble—either descended (like the third- and fourth-generation Dutch of Long Island) from Europe’s most benighted and boorish classes or (as in the case of New York’s burgeoning Irish population) the genuine article, fresh off the boat. Rebel and Tory alike would benefit from a dose of Britannic wrath, wrote Lord Francis Rawdon, Sir Henry Clinton’s aide-de-camp, in September 1776. Only by giving “free liberty to the soldiers to ravage at will” could “these infatuated wretches” be made to realize “what a calamity war is.” “At heart they are all rebels,” agreed a high-ranking Hessian.

The yearning to bayonet and torch reached new heights in 1780 when William Franklin, Benjamin’s Tory son and former royal governor of New Jersey, organized the Board of Associated Loyalists in New York. Franklin’s plan was to unite supporters of the crown for self-preservation and revenge, and until Generals Clinton and Carleton put them on a short leash, the four hundred armed Associators compiled a record of atrocities unrivaled on either side. They plundered the country around New York, Jones wrote tersely, “without distinction of Whigs or Tories, Loyalists or rebels.”

Besides Associators, residents of Westchester County had to contend with a vicious little civil war between De Lancey’s “Refugees” and irregular “Cowboys,” who pillaged indiscriminately while pursuing rebel “Skinners” through the Neutral Ground. On Staten Island, said Lord Rawdon, “a girl cannot step into the bushes to pluck a rose without running the most imminent risk of being ravished” by soldiers “as riotous as Satyrs.” On Long Island, hundreds, often thousands, of regulars were stationed at Bedford, Flushing, Brooklyn, Newtown, Jamaica, Oyster Bay, Hempstead, and other villages after 1776. Clashes with civilians were common and all the more bitter when the troops belonged to one or another of the crown’s special black regiments. Officers and public officials with the authority to protect the local population did little or nothing. The Nassau Blues, a regiment of provincial troops commanded by Colonel William Axtell of Flatbush, entered local lore as the “Nasty Blues” thanks to their thuggish abuse of the town’s residents. Axtell himself allegedly tortured rebel prisoners in the secret chambers of his country house, Melrose Hall.

Always a sore point with loyal civilians was the obligation to quarter troops and prisoners, and the system of “contribution,” pitting military foragers against local farmers and householders, ensured that His Majesty’s forces would never be really welcome, even among their most patient friends. A more and more frequent source of friction, as time went on, was competition for rapidly dwindling stocks of firewood. After making fast work of city fences and shade trees, scavengers and foraging parties turned their attention to the orchards, woodlots, and forests of upper Manhattan and western Long Island. Not even loyalist estates escaped the ax: a Tory regiment stripped Morrisania of livestock and leveled 450 acres of timberland.

The heaviest cutting occurred during the terrible winter of 1779-80, when snow fell almost every day from early November to March and the East River, Hudson River, Long Island Sound, and the Upper Bay became a solid mass of ice. Military authorities couldn’t, or wouldn’t, distribute firewood to civilians, and it became so expensive that some of the city’s poorest inhabitants quietly froze to death. A year or so later, while studying the enemy’s positions on Manhattan from the New Jersey palisades, Washington was astonished to see that “the island is totally stripped of trees; low bushes . . . appear in places which were covered with wood in the year 1776.”


Only a few years after deliriously celebrating General Howe’s seizure of the city, New York’s Tories were thus a good deal sadder and wiser. Pastor Schaukirk began to hear it said around town that corruption among “great men” had needlessly prolonged the war, perhaps lost it altogether. Recruiters for Tory units found their work increasingly difficult and started to look elsewhere for men. As General Robertson explained to Lord Jeffrey Amherst: “Those who formerly wishd our approach, and would with Joy have seen Us triumph Over the rebels, will now Arm to defend their All from Undistinguished Plunder.” By 1780 or so De Lancey’s battalions depended heavily on Connecticut refugees, while the Queen’s Rangers, initially made up of New York Tories, consisted chiefly of newly arrived Irish and Scots volunteers.

A few New Yorkers even began working covertly for the Americans. James Rivington, printer of the Gazette, became one of Washington’s most valuable spies (among other things, he helped obtain the code signals of the British fleet). The well-organized Culper Ring sent female spies into the occupied city, under the pretext of taking baskets of fruit and food to relatives; they relayed information on the disposition of British patrols by hanging a black petticoat and an agreed-upon number of white handkerchiefs from a clothesline behind Mary Underbill’s boardinghouse on Queen Street. One of the ring’s agents, a woman known only by the code number 355, was captured in 1779 and later perished on board the prison ship Jersey. That same year, Elizabeth Burgin eluded arrest after helping over two hundred American prisoners of war escape from the city. “The British offered a bounty of two hundred pounds for taking me,” she reported to General Washington. Smuggled down to Philadelphia by friends, she later returned to New York under a flag of truce to retrieve her children.

Toward the end of October 1781, New York Tories received the almost unbelievable news of Cornwallis’s capitulation to the combined American and French forces at Yorktown. A few die-hards insisted that the war could still be won. But the winds of opinion in Britain now began to shift decisively toward peace, and a new government formed by the marquess of Rockingham in mid-1782 announced its willingness to begin negotiations with the rebels.

Sir Guy Carleton, who replaced General Clinton as commander-in-chief in May of that year, won praise in the city for a long-overdue anticorruption drive, but his diligence couldn’t dispel the pall of gloom that enveloped New York as the loss of the war became more and more obvious. In August the London government accepted the principle of American independence. William Smith, his hand shaking, wrote that the news “shocks me as much as the Loss of all I had in the World & my Family with it.” “God d———n them,” ranted William Bayard, booking passage on the first ship back to England. “What is to become of me, sir? I am totally ruined, sir. I have not a guinea, sir.” Perhaps as many as eleven hundred other Tories would also leave town before the year was out. Local shops advertised china, glassware, and “Genteel furniture” at fire-sale prices.

Preliminary Articles of Peace were agreed to at the end of November 1782. A royal proclamation in February 1783 officially suspended hostilities; Congress quickly followed suit, clearing the way for the completion of a definitive peace treaty in Paris five months later. New York Tories were dumfounded. When an apprehensive throng gathered in early April to hear the royal proclamation read aloud from the steps of City Hall, they responded with “groans and hisses,” showering “bitter reproaches and curses upon their king, for having deserted them in the midst of their calamities.” Soldiers walked away from their units. Panicky civilians put their houses up for sale, gathered their belongings, and prepared to flee at a moment’s notice; a few, utterly overwhelmed, took their own lives.


The hopelessness and fear that engulfed the Tories in occupied New York arose not only from the trauma of defeat but also from the recognition that, while they were waiting for the victory that never came, their enemies had revolutionized the world around them. In 1777 the fourth Provincial Congress adopted a written constitution for the “State” of New York that signaled a break with the past more radical than most Tories would have believed possible only a year or two earlier. It required annual elections for the state assembly. It guaranteed trial by jury, due process of law, and freedom of religious worship. It disestablished the Anglican Church and drew a firm line between church and state by prohibiting any form of religious establishment. It opened all public qffices to freeholders of the state and halved the old forty-pound colonial property qualification: henceforth residents of the state owning twenty-pound freeholds, paying two pounds (forty shillings) a year in rent, or admitted as freemen of New York City or Albany could vote in elections for the Assembly. It eliminated representatives from corporations, manors, boroughs, and townships and doubled the number of seats in the Assembly—creating thereby a legislature more responsive to popular opinion. Finally, striking a blow against the old system of viva voce voting, the constitution also required the secret ballot in gubernatorial elections and gave the legislature discretion to experiment with ballots in the elections of its members.

Certain features of the new constitution were more conservative, to be sure. It vested executive authority in a governor elected every three years by male residents of the state owning freeholds worth at least a hundred pounds—a sum big enough to ensure that only men of property and standing would occupy the office. At the same time, the power of the Assembly was checked by creation of a Senate, a Council of Revision (empowered to review and veto all legislative action), and a Council of Appointment (which filled appointive offices above the local level). There was no bill of rights as such, and the constitution was declared to be in effect immediately, without popular ratification. What was more, the preamble of the constitution pointedly warned that popular committees had become the source of “many and great inconveniences” and were no substitute for properly founded governments and the rule of law.

Vis-à-vis New York City, the constitution expressly affirmed the municipal charter granted by Governor Montgomerie in 1730, with one technical adjustment: instead of being appointed by the royal governor and council, the city’s principal officials—mayor, recorder, clerk, and sheriff, among others—would henceforth be chosen by the Council of Appointment. New York would thus remain the “free City of itself”—an autonomous private corporation with absolute title to its own personal “estate.” Its day-to-day affairs would continue to rest in the hands of a private body legally protected from the will of the now sovereign people. Only freemen and freeholders—the “commonality” of the corporation—elected aldermen, assistants, collectors, and constables (and these “charter” elections remained viva voce for another two decades, in defiance of the trend toward secret ballots).

Just months after the constitution was ratified, George Clinton of Ulster County edged out General Philip Schuyler, John Jay, and John Morin Scott to win the state’s first gubernatorial election. Born to a Scotch-Irish Presbyterian family of modest circumstances, Clinton was a country lawyer who got into politics in the mid-1760s as an anti-De Lancey Whig. When the war began he wangled an appointment as a brigadier general in the militia. His ardent republicanism and plainspoken manner made him a hero to the small farmers and tenants who were the backbone of the Revolutionary movement in the Hudson Valley outside New York City. But to the great landowning families he remained an outsider, a “new man” thrust into public life by the press of events, and they regarded his elevation to the state’s highest office as a scandal. His “family and connections do not entitle him to so distinguished a predominance,” Schuyler protested. “A humiliation to the ruling classes,” declared Gouverneur Morris. It humiliated them further that over the next half-dozen years Clinton built a devoted following among other “new men” who found their way into the state legislature—radical Whig farmers, shopkeepers, schoolmasters, and exiled workingmen from the city like Daniel Dunscomb (the cooper and former chairman of the Mechanics Committee), Abraham Brasher (silversmith), Abraham P. Lott (a baker active in the Sons of Liberty), and Robert Boyd (blacksmith). Although “unimproved by education and unrefined by honor,” in Robert R. Livingston’s phrase, the Clintonians were ambitious, upwardly mobile men who saw in independence the promise of both republicanism and opportunity. Several, including Clinton himself, would go on to amass significant fortunes.

Their immediate objective, however, was the suppression of Toryism in the state, and in 1778 the Clintonian-dominated legislature established a permanent Commission for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies. Dozens of subsequent laws gave the new commission virtually unlimited authority to ferret out “inimicals” and subjected them to increasingly harsh penalties. The Act to Regulate Elections (1778) deprived disloyal persons of the right to vote or hold office. The Banishing Act (also 1778) provided that even “Persons of equivocal and suspected Character” could be summarily expelled from the state. In 1777, moreover, the legislature created commissioners of sequestration for each of the counties not under British control, empowering them to seize but not sell livestock, tools, furniture, and other personal effects belonging to active Tories. The Forfeitures Act of 1779 confiscated all such property, adding houses, land, and slaves to the list. That same year an Act of Attainder declared fifty-nine leading Tories guilty of treason, seized their property, and ordered their immediate execution upon capture. In 1780 the legislature authorized the sale of confiscated Tory property. All told, the estates of some fifteen hundred Tories, including those belonging to the Philipses, Johnsons, and other great landowning families, were forfeited; hundreds of individuals were convicted of treason and banished. No other state, in the end, did more than New York to suppress and punish enemies of the cause, real or suspected.

After 1781, with American independence and the liberation of New York City now a virtual certainty, the Clintonian legislature adopted a pair of measures designed to make life difficult, if not impossible, for Tories who chose to remain in the city once the war ended. The Citation Act of 1782 protected patriots from suits by Tory creditors, while the Trespass Act of 1783 permitted patriots to sue loyalists for damages to property in occupied areas of the state, even when ordered by British authorities.

Over the winter of 1782-83, encouraged by this legislation, patriots began heading for New York to recover houses, land, and other possessions left behind six or seven years earlier. By mid-April, one report said, upwards of two thousand former residents had already returned to the city. Their insistence on the immediate restoration of abandoned property, often coupled with demands for the payment of damages and back rent, produced frayed tempers and tense confrontations. When the merchant John Broome came down from Connecticut to inspect his house on Hanover Square, he found it occupied by British officers. “I am the owner and I should like to make some arrangements respecting the rent,” he announced. The officers laughed in his face.

A joint Board of Claims, consisting of officers of both the British and American armies, struggled to resolve such disputes peacefully. Brawls and even organized attacks on Tories nonetheless became common during the summer and fall of 1783. Some of these “violent and interested associations,” General Carleton said, were actually planning the outright seizure and redistribution of Tory property once His Majesty’s forces withdrew from the city (one group openly described themselves as “levellers”). Pamphlets and newspaper letters warned of more severe measures to come, and mass meetings around the state clamored for immediate action.

Little wonder, under the circumstances, that many Tories decided to get out of New York as quickly as possible. By the end of June 1783 an estimated ten thousand of them had already accepted the government’s offer of free passage with the fleet and left town. Another eight thousand departed in September, followed by eleven thousand more in December.

Of the forty thousand or so Tories who thus abandoned New York between 1782 and 1783—the bulk of whom originally came from Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and other colonies—few returned to their homes or found refuge elsewhere in the United States. Most, perhaps three out of four, made their way to Canada. Many settled in New Brunswick (St. John was incorporated in 1785 with a constitution modeled after the charter of New York City; Hempstead, in Queens County, was founded by former residents of Long Island). Others joined the eight-thousand-odd Tories who established a settlement called Shelburne on the coast of Nova Scotia below Halifax; the Rev. Charles Inglis, rector of Trinity Church since 1777, won appointment as the bishop of Nova Scotia. Adherents to the crown wound up in Ontario, Cape Breton Island, the Bahamas, and elsewhere. Former mayor David Mathews became president of the Cape Breton council. William Smith accepted Carleton’s offer to become chief justice of Quebec.

And what of the thousands of slaves and free blacks who had gravitated to New York during the British occupation? All summer long, slaveowners from other colonies turned up in the city looking for their property; Boston King of South Carolina remembered how he and other runaways were filled “with inexpressible anguish and terror. . . when we saw our old masters coming from Virginia, North Carolina, and other parts, and seizing upon their slaves in the streets of New-York, or even dragging them from their beds.” Washington (ever the slavemaster, no matter his exertions on behalf of American liberty) told Carleton that he wanted the British to return all runaways to their rightful owners. Carleton honorably refused on the grounds that those with the British on or before the signing of the provisional peace treaty in November 1782 had been liberated by Clinton’s proclamation of 1779. Perhaps four thousand blacks from all over America thus managed to escape the city while it was still in British hands, most of them, too, destined for Canada or Nova Scotia.

The subsequent history of these black refugees wasn’t a happy one. Most settled at Shelburne, Nova Scotia, or St. John, New Brunswick, where trouble with white veterans erupted into race riots in 1784, forcing many to run for their lives yet again. Former members of the Black Pioneers and Guides regiment who founded Birchtown, Nova Scotia (named after the British commander who signed their passports to freedom), stuck it out for a few years longer, but in 1790 over one thousand of them decamped for Sierra Leone. Some individuals made out comparatively well. Bill Richmond, who escaped his Staten Island master in 1776, sailed to England with General Percy and became a celebrated pugilist.


Protesting “the violence in the Americans which broke out soon after the cessation of hostilities,” General Carleton held on to New York until every Tory who wanted to get out had left. On November 21, 1783, satisfied that he had done his duty, Carleton ordered all British forces to begin withdrawing from Long Island and upper Manhattan. Governor Clinton and General Washington met at Tarrytown and rode down through Yonkers to Harlem, where they waited at a tavern (near the present intersection of Frederick Douglass Boulevard and 126th Street) for word of the final British departure.

Three days later, on the morning of November 25—long celebrated in the city as Evacuation Day—the last redcoats in New York paraded glumly down the Bowery to the East River wharves, from where they were rowed out to the fleet in the harbor. When a certain Mrs. Day prematurely ran up the American flag over her boardinghouse on Murray Street, Provost Marshal Cunningham, resplendent in his scarlet coat and wig, ordered her to take it down. She bloodied his nose with her broom, however, and drove him off. Delirious patriots now thronged the streets, many sporting a special “Badge of Distinction” that consisted of “a Union Cockade, of black and white Ribband, worn on the left Breast, and a Laurel in the Hat.” High-spirited seamen pulled down the signs of taverns that had welcomed the trade of Tories and British soldiers.

A contingent of Continental officers, including General Alexander McDougall, Colonel John Lamb, and numerous other old Sons of Liberty meanwhile assembled at the Bull’s Head Tavern on the Bowery to escort Washington and Clinton into town. Joining them there were some eight hundred Continental troops from Massachusetts and New York and a party of mounted townsfolk. Careful to keep a discreet distance behind the British, the Americans marched in formation down the Bowery to Pearl Street, turned west along Wall Street, then stopped opposite Cape’s Tavern on Broadway. “The troops just leaving us were as if equipped for show,” one eyewitness recalled, “and with their scarlet uniforms and burnished arms, made a brilliant display. The troops that marched in, on the contrary, were ill-clad and weather-beaten, and made a forlorn appearance. But then they were our troops, and as I looked at them, and thought upon all they had done for us, my heart and my eyes were full, and I admired and gloried in them the more because they were weather-beaten and forlorn.”

At Cape’s, a group of patriot citizens formally welcomed Washington. “In this place, and at this moment of exultation and triumph,” they declared, “while the Ensigns of Slavery still linger in our sight, we look up to you, our deliverer, with unusual transports of Gratitude and Joy.” An infantry and artillery detail meanwhile discovered that the enemy, in a parting insult, had nailed the royal ensign to the flagstaff of Fort George and greased the pole to prevent its removal. John Van Arsdale, a sailor wearing cleats, climbed up and replaced it with the Stars and Stripes while a throng of spectators cheered their approval. Except for Cunningham’s bloody nose, there had been no violence. Said one witness: “One day the British patrolled the streets, next day the American soldiers.”


Washington’s Triumphal Entry, 1788. Washington and his retinue on Broadway, passing St. Paul’s Church. (© Museum of the City of New York)

That same evening, Governor Clinton hosted a grand public banquet at Fraunces Tavern for Washington and his officers. Thirteen toasts were drunk, concluding with “May the Remembrance of this DAY be a Lesson to Princes.” More banquets followed over the next week, all marked by “good humour, hilarity and mirth.” Clinton’s dinner for the French ambassador at Cape’s Tavern drew 120 guests who consumed 135 bottles of madeira, thirty-six bottles of port, sixty bottles of English beer, and thirty bowls of punch; they also broke sixty wine glasses and eight cut-glass decanters. Bowling Green was the site of a huge display of fireworks on December 2. Spectators saw a “Balloon of Serpents,” a “Yew Tree of brilliant fire,” and an “Illuminated Pyramid, with Archemedian Screws, a Globe and vertical Sun,” climaxed by “Fame, descending” and the launching of a hundred rockets. Printer James Rivington, who had just stripped the British arms from the masthead of his Gazette, said the show that night “exceeded every former Exhibition in the United States.”

On the morning of December 4, Washington bade farewell to his officers in another gathering at Fraunces Tavern. After a brief toast, marked by “extreme sensibility on both sides,” he embraced each of those present in turn. “In every eye was the tear of dignified sensibility and not a word was articulated to interrupt the eloquent silence and the tenderness of the scene.” Escorted by a column of infantry, the Father of His Country walked silently to the foot of Whitehall Street, where a barge waited to take him across to Paulus Hook on the New Jersey shore.

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