Little Bits of History


Posted in History by patriciahysell on September 21, 2012

Depiction of the Great Fire of New York

September 21, 1776: The Great Fire of New York takes place. Prior to the American Revolutionary War’s beginning in April 1775, New York City was an important commercial center. It was not, however, anything like today. New York City occupied only the lower portion of the island of Manhattan and had a population of about 25,000. Before the war the city was politically divided. After hostilities began, Patriots seized control and arrested or expelled Loyalists. In the summer of 1776 British General William Howe began a campaign to take the city. The side in power would not only controlle the commerce, but also command an important military harbor. Howe took Staten Island in July and went on to attack Long Island with naval help from his brother, Admiral Lord Richard Howe.

As the brothers approached, General George Washington made a strategic withdrawal and moved the bulk of his army back about ten miles north to Harlem Heights. Several people, including General Nathanael Greene and John Jay, advocated burning to city down to avoid the British from enjoying its benefits. Washington put the question before the Second Continental Congress which rejected the idea. Prior to and during the Patriot occupation, much of the civilian population had fled and the Patriots had control, for military use of much of the real estate. On September 15, 1776, General Howe landed on Manhattan. He marched toward Harlem and the two armies clashed. As the British took the city, they also took control of the real estate.

In the early hours of this day, a fire broke out in the city. John Joseph Henry, an American prisoner aboard the HMS Pearl, said it began in the Fighting Cocks Tavern, near Whitehall Slip. The weather had been dry and there were strong winds. The fire spread both north and west. Residents still in the city took to the streets, fleeing the flames as they encroached amid the tightly packed homes and businesses. They carried what possessions they could as they ran from the fire and found refuge in the town commons, today called City Hall Park. The fire crossed Broadway and burned most of the city between Broadway and the Hudson River. The prevailing winds changed, the fire neared a relatively undeveloped area, and late in the day, it was extinguished.

It is unknown exactly how many buildings were destroyed. Numbers range from 400 to 1,000. That number is 10 to 25 percent of the 4,000 building then comprising New York City. Trinity Church was destroyed; St Paul’s Chapel survived. General Howe blamed the colonists for deliberately setting the fire in his report to London. George Washington wrote to John Hancock on September 22, vehemently denying this charge. Historians cannot find any evidence of arson. The British took over what buildings were left standing. Crime and poor sanitation plagued the area during the British occupation which ended in November 1783.

About one o’clock on the morning of Saturday, the 21st, a fire broke out near Whitehall Slip. A fresh gale was blowing from the south, and the weather was dry, thus spread with inconceivable rapidity. – Martha Joanna Lamb

Trinity Church was a blackened heap of ruins, together with the parsonage, charity school, and Lutheran Church. – Martha Joanna Lamb

Howe attributed the calamity to a conspiracy. – Martha Joanna Lamb.

Providence – or some good honest Fellow, has done more for us than we were disposed to do for ourselves. – George Washington, in a letter to his cousin

Also on this day:

Yes, Virginia – In 1897, Virginia finds out there is a Santa Clause.
Got Milk? – In 1995, the Miracle of the Milk began in India.
Monday Night Changes – In 1970, Monday Night Football premiered.

One Response

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  1. Anonymous said, on November 27, 2012 at 6:11 pm

    Thank you so much! This has helped me out a lot with my notes.

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