The Great Fire of New York of 1776

The Great Fire of New York of 1776

 

On this day in history, September 21, 1776, the Great Fire of New York of 1776 burns down much of the city, less than a week after it was occupied by the army of British General William Howe. Howe marched into the city on September 15 unopposed. George Washington and the Continental Army had been in the city, but realized it was indefensible and retreated to the north of the island a few days before.

 

Upon leaving the city, Washington was encouraged to burn New York to the ground to prevent the British from using it as a base of operations. Such prominent people as Nathanael Greene and John Jay advocated the burning of the city. Washington, however, wrote to Congress and asked their wishes. Congress told him that abandoning the city was reasonable, but not to burn it.

 

New York at this time was only a city of 25,000 people, confined to the lower tip of Manhattan. On the evening of September 21st, a fire started at the Fighting Cock’s Tavern in Whitehall. The fire quickly spread to neighboring buildings by embers carried on the wind. Within hours, businesses, homes, churches and schools were burning. The panicked citizens fled into the streets carrying whatever belongings they could. By the time the fire burned itself out, somewhere between 10% and 25% of the city had burned to the ground and many of the remaining structures had been looted.

 

British General Howe suspected the rebel patriots of setting the fire and arrested more than 200 patriot sympathizers. Many patriots had fled the city, though, when the British occupation began. This led some to suspect it was started by the British as an act of revenge against the colonists. Others speculated the fire was begun to provide cover for thieves to loot the city.

 

Historians have never been able to determine who started the Great Fire of New York of 1776. There was evidence of arson. Alarm bells were mysteriously missing; fire-fighting equipment was found damaged and useless and many of the city’s public watering cisterns were mysteriously dry.

 

George Washington wrote to John Hancock, then the President of Congress, that he had instructed no one to set the fire, but that "Providence—or some good honest Fellow, has done more for us than we were disposed to do for ourselves."

 

After the fire, refugees from the burned areas set up tent cities and lived in squalor. Thousands of Loyalist refugees from other areas flooded into the city as well, putting even more pressure on the damaged infrastructure of the city. New York would remain in this condition, with much of the city lying in ruins for years to come.

 

The British did not leave New York City until the very end of the Revolution in November, 1783, the last city in the former colonies to be abandoned by its British oppressors. George Washington marched triumphantly into the city on November 25, 1783, and the city was able to rebuild freely in the hands of the victorious patriots.

 

http://www.revolutionary-war-and-beyond.com

 

Jack Manning

Secretary General

National Society Sons of the American Revolution

www.sar.org

 

"It is the manners and spirit of a people, which preserve a republic in vigor. A degeneracy in these is a canker which soon eats to the heart of its laws and constitution." Thomas Jefferson (1787)

 

The Battle of Paoli

The Battle of Paoli

 

On this day in history, September 20, 1777, the Battle of Paoli seals the fate of Philadelphia, allowing the British to take the city unopposed. British General William Howe had landed 17,000 troops in Maryland on August 25 and begun marching the 60 miles to capture the American capital.

 

George Washington's Continental Army had put up a fight at the Battle of Brandywine, but was driven back by the superior British forces. Washington retreated beyond the Schuylkill River, but then crossed back over to fight near present day Malvern. This battle was averted, however, when both sides were forced to abort because of a severe storm. The battle became known as the Battle of the Clouds.

 

Following the storm, Washington withdrew to the west to get dry ammunition and supplies from Reading, Pennsylvania, while General Howe's army remained stationary due to the wet and rutted roads. Washington sent Brigadier General Anthony Wayne with 1,500 men to pursue and harass Howe's rear. Major General William Smallwood was sent to assist him with 1,000 Pennsylvania militia.

 

On the evening of the 19th, Wayne camped near the Paoli Tavern, which is near modern day Malvern, while Smallwood camped two miles to the west near White Horse Tavern. Wayne believed his presence was unknown to General Howe, but Howe had learned of Wayne's mission from spies and local Loyalists.

 

On the evening of September 20, Major General Charles Grey left the British camp with 1,800 soldiers. As they approached Wayne's camp late that night, Wayne's sentries fired on the British and alerted the camp. Three waves of British soldiers carrying bayonets rushed through the camp. The Americans, surprised and with few bayonets, were quickly overcome. They began to scatter and many ran toward General Smallwood's camp hoping for reinforcement. As the British pursued and ran into Smallwood's force coming to the rescue, Smallwood's men were routed as well.

 

The Battle of Paoli, which has also been called the Paoli Massacre, was a stunning defeat to the Continental Army and the Pennsylvania militia. 53 Americans were killed, 113 were wounded and 71 were captured. The British suffered less than a dozen casualties. The outsized British victory was soon called a "massacre" by American patriots because of the high rate of American casualties. Rumors even spread that the British had bayoneted wounded survivors and surrendering men, but there is no evidence that has proved this accusation.

 

General Wayne was accused of poor decision making leading to the rout, which angered him and led him to demand a full court-martial. The court-martial later found him innocent of any wrong doing or guilt in the loss.

 

After the battle, General Howe's rear was clear of any American interference and he continued the march to Philadelphia. Washington and Howe maneuvered on opposite sides of the Schuylkill for a few days, but Howe was able to find an unprotected ford on the river and marched unopposed into the city on the 26th. Philadelphia would be occupied for the next 9 months.

 

http://www.revolutionary-war-and-beyond.com

 

Jack Manning

Secretary General

National Society Sons of the American Revolution

www.sar.org

 

"Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their death." 

James Madison

The Battle of Freeman’s Farm

The Battle of Freeman's Farm

 

On this day in history, September 19, 1777, the Battle of Freeman's Farm is the first of the Battles of Saratoga which culminated in the surrender of British General John Burgoyne's army. The battles were a major turning point in the American Revolution that encouraged France and Spain to join the war on the American side.

 

In 1777, the British began an effort to divide New England from the middle and southern colonies. The plan was to send General Burgoyne down Lake Champlain from Quebec; Brigadier General Barry St. Leger would cut across New York from the west; and General William Howe would come from New York City up the Hudson River. The three groups would meet at Albany.

 

General Burgoyne left Quebec in June and reached Saratoga by mid-September, but St. Leger's force was stopped at Fort Stanwix and turned back by Benedict Arnold. General Howe took the bulk of his forces to capture Philadelphia, instead of going to meet Burgoyne, leaving Burgoyne isolated. In addition, Burgoyne lost 1,000 men at the Battle of Bennington who were supposed to bring him support. Burgoyne had trouble getting supplies and communications across the vast wilderness and most of his Indian allies abandoned him after the loss at Bennington.

 

The American army under General Horatio Gates had dug in at Bemis Heights, about ten miles south of Saratoga. On the morning of September 19, Burgoyne decided to attack. Benedict Arnold understood that Burgoyne would attack the American left flank and ordered his men through the wilderness to meet him.

 

Colonel Daniel Morgan's sharpshooters met the British near Loyalist John Freeman's farm and the battle began. Morgan's sharpshooters picked off nearly every British officer in the British vanguard, driving them back into the main British army, which began firing on their own men.

 

Fighting took place all day around the farm, with both sides variously winning or losing the battle. The battle finally went to the British when German Baron, Friedrich Adolf Riedesel attacked the American right flank. Darkness began to fall and the Americans retreated to their defenses at Bemis Heights.

 

Burgoyne won the first of the Battles of Saratoga, although it cost him 600 men, which he could not afford to lose, including most of his artillery soldiers. The Americans lost half that number. Following the Battle of Freeman's Farm, Burgoyne was faced with a perplexing decision. Should he continue the battle, or wait for reinforcements? He quickly sent word to General Henry Clinton in New York, who had been left in command there with a small force to guard the city after General Howe left for Philadelphia.

 

Clinton quickly sent troops up the Hudson to distract Gates and hopefully pull him away from Burgoyne. Clinton's help finally came too late though. Burgoyne went to battle again on October 7 and this time Gates' army was victorious. Burgoyne was forced into retreat and surrendered his entire army on October 17th at Saratoga.

 

The victory caused celebration throughout the colonies, which were especially despondent after the capture of Philadelphia in September. France and Spain joined the war officially upon seeing that the Americans could truly stand up against the British army. Their involvement forced Britain into a worldwide war that reduced British numbers in America and eventually led to their defeat at Yorktown.

 

http://www.revolutionary-war-and-beyond.com

 

Jack Manning

Secretary General

National Society Sons of the American Revolution

www.sar.org

 

"It is in the interest of tyrants to reduce the people to ignorance and vice. For they cannot live in any country where virtue and knowledge prevail." 
Samuel Adams

John Langdon Dies

John Langdon dies

 

On this day in history, September 18, 1819, John Langdon dies. Langdon was a leader of the American Revolution from New Hampshire. He would be a member of the Continental Congress, a governor of New Hampshire and the first President pro tempore of the United States Senate.

 

John Langdon was born to a wealthy farmer in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. John and his older brother, Woodbury, both became sailors as young men, sailing out of Portsmouth, one of New England's primary ports. By the age of 22, Langdon owned his first ship and began sailing to the West Indies and London. Over time, both brothers had their own fleets of ships and became some of Portsmouth's most wealthy citizens.

 

As the American Revolution neared, Langdon's business was particularly affected by British policies since he was involved in shipping and trade. This made Langdon a strong supporter of American rights and independence. He became involved in New Hampshire's Committee of Correspondence and with enforcing the boycott on British goods. In 1774, he participated in the capture of ammunition and weapons from Fort William and Mary in Portsmouth to prevent the British from using them.

 

In 1775, Langdon was elected to the Continental Congress. He resigned in 1776 and returned to New Hampshire to oversee the building of several ships for Congress. He also became involved in importing weapons for the army and began serving in the New Hampshire congress, where he became Speaker of the House. In 1777, Langdon was personally involved in the Battle of Bennington, the Battles of Saratoga and, in 1778, the Rhode Island Campaign to take back Newport.

 

After the war, Langdon continued in the New Hampshire legislature and served a few terms as governor. In 1787, Langdon was elected to attend the Constitutional Convention where he supported the new Constitution. He was a leader of the effort to ratify the Constitution in New Hampshire and served at the ratification convention. When New Hampshire became the 9th state to vote to accept the Constitution on June 21, 1788, the Constitution became the law of the land and the United States was officially created.

 

Langdon was elected one of New Hampshire's first two senators to the United States Congress. He served in this position for two terms, from 1789 to 1801. During the first and second Congresses, Langdon was elected the first President pro tempore of the Senate, meaning he presided over the Senate's sessions in the absence of the President of the Senate, who was also the Vice-President of the United States.

 

Langdon was involved in an interesting affair with a slave of George Washington's in the late 1790s. Oney Judge, as she was called, had escaped Washington's custody in Philadelphia and sailed to Portsmouth where she made a home for herself. When Burwell Bassett, Washington's nephew, came to Portsmouth to bring her home, she refused. Bassett told Langdon over dinner that he was going to kidnap her. Langdon secretly sent word to Oney that she should go into hiding, which she did and avoided capture.

 

In 1801, Langdon began serving in the New Hampshire house again and spent several years as governor. He finally retired in 1812. He turned down an appointment by President Thomas Jefferson to serve as Secretary of the Navy in 1801, and again turned down an offer to run for vice-president with Jefferson in 1812. Langdon passed away on September 18, 1819 and was buried in North Cemetery in Portsmouth.

 

http://www.revolutionary-war-and-beyond.com

 

Jack Manning

Secretary General

National Society Sons of the American Revolution

www.sar.org

 

"They define a republic to be a government of laws, and not of men." 
John Adams (1775)

US Constitution is adopted

US Constitution is adopted

 

On this day in history, September 17, 1787, the US Constitution is adopted by the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. The Constitution was made to replace the failed Articles of Confederation, America’s first governing document. Today, the US Constitution is the oldest functioning constitution of any state in the world.

 

During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress created the Articles of Confederation as the first governing document of the unified colonies. Over time, the Articles proved to be too weak for the government to function. The Articles gave Congress authority over trade, foreign relations and war, but it did not give Congress sufficient power to compel the states to comply.

           

Representatives from several states met at Annapolis, Maryland in 1786 to discuss some of the failed aspects of the Articles. They wrote a letter to Congress and the states requesting that a new convention be held to revise the Articles so the government would be strong enough to function.

 

Delegates converged on the Pennsylvania State House, now called Independence Hall, in Philadelphia, in May of 1787. This was the same place Congress had met during the Revolution and created the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. The delegates, including such people as Roger Sherman, Elbridge Gerry, Alexander Hamilton, Ben Franklin, James Madison and Gouverneur Morris, chose George Washington to serve as President of the Convention.

 

Right from the start, the Philadelphia Convention did away with the idea of reforming the Articles of Confederation, instead choosing to write an altogether new constitution. The delegates debated the plan for four months, dealing with such questions as states’ rights vs. federal power, slavery, foreign affairs, the scope of presidential powers and the balance between the interests of small states and large states.

 

In the end, a single executive, the President, was chosen to enforce the laws of Congress, which would be made up of a lower house, the House of Representatives, with delegates apportioned by population, and an upper house, the Senate, where each state was represented equally. A Supreme Court and federal judiciary would judge all matters of controversy.

 

On September 17, 1787, the Congress adopted its final version of the new Constitution and 39 delegates signed the document. Over the next two years, each state held its own ratification convention and debated the merits and weaknesses of the Constitution. The Constitution required that 9 of the 13 states ratify it in order for it to become law. On June 21, 1788, New Hampshire became the 9th state to ratify and the Constitution became the law of the land.

 

The first Congress and the new government began meeting on March 4, 1789. George Washington would be inaugurated President in April. By the fall of that year, a bill of rights containing protections for many basic rights, such as freedom of speech, religion, assembly, the right to bear arms, and many others, was proposed for addition to the Constitution. The first ten amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, were added to the Constitution and became law on December 15, 1791.

 

http://www.revolutionary-war-and-beyond.com

 

Jack Manning

Secretary General

National Society Sons of the American Revolution

www.sar.org

 

“The greatest danger to American freedom is a government that ignores the Constitution.”
Thomas Jefferson

Samuel Adams is born

Samuel Adams is born

 

On this day in history, September 16, 1722, Samuel Adams is born. He would be a pre-eminent leader of the Boston revolutionaries, sign the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation and be called the "Firebrand of the American Revolution."

 

Samuel Adams was born into a wealthy Puritan Boston family. He was educated at Harvard and went into business after graduating. After several attempts at business failed, Adams found his real success in politics. In 1747, he was elected to his first political office as a clerk for Boston Market. He later served as a tax collector for the Boston Town Meeting. The town meeting asked him to write their instructions to their members of the House of Representatives in 1764. This writing proved to be the first instance of a public body claiming that Parliament had no authority to tax the colonies.

           

In the decade leading up to the Revolution, Adams was a member of the House of Representatives and served as that body’s clerk, giving him a great deal of influence. Adams became one of the leading voices against Parliamentary overreach in Boston and was closely associated with other patriotic figures such as James Otis, John Hancock and his second-cousin, John Adams.

 

Adams wrote the "Massachusetts Circular Letter" in response to the Townshend Acts, which placed taxes on various items, in 1768. The letter was sent by the House of Representatives to the other colonies, asking them to join in challenging the Townshend Acts. The British responded by dissolving the legislatures of Massachusetts and any other colonies that supported the letter.

 

Bostonians resisted the taxes of the Townshend Acts and Parliament occupied the city with soldiers, leading to the Boston Massacre. Adams published numerous letters and articles denouncing British policies and called for the mass meeting of citizens that led to the Boston Tea Party. Adams helped organize the boycott of British goods and helped create the Committees of Correspondence which kept the colonies in contact with one another.

 

In 1774, Adams was sent to the Continental Congress, where he served continually for the next 7 years. While in Congress, Adams was a leading advocate of American independence from early on. He served on numerous committees, especially those dealing with military matters. He signed the Declaration of Independence and served on the committee that wrote the Articles of Confederation, America’s first governing document.

 

In 1779, Adams helped write the Massachusetts Constitution with John Adams and James Bowdoin. He returned to Massachusetts politics for good in 1781 and served often as the moderator of the Boston Town Meeting. He served in the state Senate and helped promote public schools in Boston, even for girls. Adams was originally against the US Constitution, thinking it gave too much power to the federal government, but he supported it after the promise was made to include a bill of rights. He voted to support the Constitution at the Massachusetts ratifying convention in 1788.

 

Adams was elected lieutenant-governor of Massachusetts in 1789 and served in this position until the death of Governor John Hancock in 1793. Adams was then elected to the governorship annually for the next 4 years, after which he retired from public life. Samuel Adams died on October 2, 1803 and was buried in the Granary Burying Ground in Boston.

 

http://www.revolutionary-war-and-beyond.com

 

Jack Manning

Secretary General

National Society Sons of the American Revolution

www.sar.org

 

“Let each citizen remember at the moment he is offering his vote that he is not making a present or a compliment to please an individual — or at least that he ought not so to do; but that he is executing one of the most solemn trusts in human society for which he is accountable to God and his country.”
Samuel Adams (1781)

The British landing at Kip’s Bay

The British landing at Kip’s Bay

 

On this day in history, September 15, 1776, the British landing at Kip’s Bay opens the way for the British capture of New York City unopposed during the American Revolution. After the lost Battle of Long Island on August 29, the Continental Army escaped during the night to Manhattan, which was then called York Island.

 

George Washington was placed in the dilemma of having to choose what to do with New York City. Should he spend tons of blood and treasure defending the city, or should he abandon it? Most of Washington’s generals believed the city was strategically unimportant. Washington did not, however, want to abandon the city to the British, who could make the city a base of operations. For this reason, Washington considered burning the city to the ground.

 

Until he heard from Congress, Washington resolved to defend the island. Washington split his 19,000 troops into three groups, the first, under General Israel Putnam, to defend New York City, the second, under General Nathanael Greene, stretched across the middle of Manhattan and the third, under General William Heath, to defend Harlem Heights and the King’s Bridge, the only escape by land available to the Continental Army, at the north end of the island.

 

Kip’s Bay was a cove that sat roughly where E. 32nd Street to E. 38th Street in New York City lie today. It has since been filled in so is not visible today. The cove was a good place for a naval landing because it had deep water close to the shore. 500 Connecticut militia under Colonel William Douglas were stationed at Kip’s Bay and had built a flimsy breastwork there from which to fire.

 

On September 7, Washington received a letter from John Hancock stating that Congress did not wish New York City to be burned, but that Washington was not required to defend it either. British General William Howe was slow to invade Manhattan, however, waiting until a meeting on September 11th with Ben Franklin, John Adams and Edward Rutledge, which he hoped would produce some kind of peace. When the meeting failed, Howe set about his invasion plans.

 

On the morning of September 15th, 5 British warships sailed up the East River, firing their guns as they went. When they arrived at Kip’s Bay, they began bombarding the shore and the weak defenses. 80 cannons fired on the green militia, most of whom were armed with pikes made from scythes. The militia quickly scattered, while a flotilla of flat-boats began landing 4,000 British troops on the shore.

 

Washington came from Harlem Heights as soon as he heard the bombardment begin and watched from a nearby hill. He was horrified as he watched the militia retreat, riding onto the field himself in hopes of rallying them. As the soldiers continued to stream past him, he became angry and began cursing and striking the men with the flat of his sword, in one of the few instances he was known to have lost his temper. Washington came within 80 yards of the British soldiers before his aides were able to pull him off the battlefield.

 

As Howe’s men marched after the retreating soldiers, General Putnam scrambled to get his soldiers in New York City north of the British line before they trapped him in the south of the island. Fortunately, Howe ordered his troops to stop and wait for reinforcements, allowing the rest of the Continentals to escape to Harlem and regroup. This left New York City abandoned by the patriots and the British walked into the city unopposed.

 

The Battle of Kip’s Bay was a clear British victory. About 50 Americans were killed and 320 captured, while only a dozen British soldiers were killed or wounded. George Washington was ashamed and angry at the cowardly behavior of the troops. The following day, however, Washington would be encouraged when his troops won the Battle of Harlem Heights, even though they were outnumbered nearly 3 to 1, in Washington’s first battlefield victory of the war.

 

http://www.revolutionary-war-and-beyond.com

 

Jack Manning

Secretary General

National Society Sons of the American Revolution

www.sar.org

 

"No country upon earth ever had it more in its power to attain these blessings than United America. Wondrously strange, then, and much to be regretted indeed would it be, were we to neglect the means and to depart from the road which Providence has pointed us to so plainly."
George Washington (1788)