Nowadays, Evacuation Day lies dormant in the annals of American history; its significance entirely lost or unknown to most Americans. Outside of scholars, studied in this nation’s history, a mere handful of people would know what transpired in New York City on November 25, 1783: The orderly return of a city to its citizens, seven years after its capture. The transfer of power that officially ended a war; and the official recognition of New York as a state and of America as a nation.
On that November day, 225 years ago, the British army (or “Redcoats“) evacuated from New York City. While Gen. George Washington and his victorious army marched down Broadway, the last British troops were boarding ships and sailing out of New York Harbor. A monumental war had ended and victory and peace were now in the air; the killing and bloodshed were over, a time for festival had begun. There would be difficulties that needed to be resolved, as groups rivaled for political and financial power in a war-ravaged, disorganized municipality. The difficulties for a fledgling nation, loosely governed under its inadequate Articles of Confederation, also required resolution. However, for the present time, these difficulties were consigned to the wings and celebration took center stage.
Following the Revolution, Evacuation Day continued to be observed in New York. For decades, it was commemorated with splendid parades, joyous bands and symbolic events, including the lighting of bonfires along the Hudson River (recalling how signals were passed during the war) and reenactments of the Continental Army‘s tearing down of a British flag in Battery Park.
Around 1900, Evacuation Day lost its popularity all together; the day limited to a mark on the calendars rather than a spectacle on the streets. By World War One it disappeared entirely when, for the first time since the War of 1812, American and British armies fought and died on the same battlefields…but as allies, not as foes.
Last November 25, for the first time since a 1983 bicentennial, New York City officially commemorated Evacuation Day. A Brigade of the American Revolution held a mock ceremony where one of Washington’s officers was handed the keys to New York City from a British officer. In place of bonfires, a dozen 2,000-watt spotlights (five in New York, seven in New Jersey) created a 110-mile (177-kilometer) chain of lights along the Hudson, stretching from Beacon (in Manhattan) to Princeton, New Jersey. At Trinity Church, wreathes were laid at the graves of Alexander Hamilton and Declaration of Independence signer Francis Lewis. Federal Hall, the site of Washington’s 1789 inauguration as president, various documents and artifacts pertaining to Evacuation Day were on exhibition.
However, this time all were honored: Americans as well as the French; the British as well as their German allies (Hessians); African-Americans who were so disgracefully ignored in prior years; civilians, rebels and loyalists alike…all had a share in the day, a story to tell, and were deserving of honor.
Note: A spokesperson for the British consul-general in New York said he had no plans to commemorate Evacuation Day. As for myself, my wife and I were in London at the time visiting her parents. I’m happy to report that this Italian-descended Yank felt just at home in England as he always did, and always would, feel at home in her former colony. I was also happy to observe that my father-in-law, a man suddenly reduced to utter incomprehensibility after learning that I, a bumbling-stumbling unknown dared to marry his daughter, has regained comprehensibility and is currently speaking in complete sentences…all is forgiven.