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This Day in History: The British evacuate New York — at long last!

On this day in 1783, the British finally evacuate New York, which had been their headquarters during the American Revolution.

Maybe you won’t be surprised to hear that the British took one last stab at insulting Americans before they left? They hoisted the Union Jack up a flagpole and greased the pole. The grease would make it difficult for Americans to switch out the flag for one of their own.

A young sailor, John Van Arsdale, was undeterred. He put on some cleats and climbed that greased pole! He was bound and determined to switch out the flag before General George Washington entered the city and saw the wrong flag flying. He succeeded, and his descendants would have the honor of hoisting the American flag during “Evacuation Day” celebrations for much of the 19th century. (These Evacuation Day celebrations were a major holiday in New York until sometime after the Civil War.)

The long years of British occupation had been rough on the city. Early in the war, Sir Henry Clinton’s aide-de-camp suggested that “[we should] give free liberty to the soldiers to ravage at will, that these infatuated wretches may feel what a calamity war is.” Judging by the state of the city, his advice was taken. The city was desolate and full of burned-out buildings when Washington arrived. Nevertheless, New York residents were thrilled to see their victorious General coming, and they lined the streets as he approached with New York Governor George Clinton.

Can you imagine how fun it must have been to join the cheering crowds that day?!

Of course, there was more to the day than just that. One unnamed American woman described the Continental Army’s triumphant entry back into New York that day. Perhaps she described the rush of emotions best:

“The [British] troops just leaving us were as if equipped for show, 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 and suffered for us, my heart and my eyes were full, and I admired and gloried in them the more . . . .

She was speaking of Washington’s re-entry into New York, but don’t her words apply to pretty much every aspect of the Revolution?

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