Celebrating 17 years

The Tentative Rebels:
New York City During the First Year of the Revolution

« Back

Meanwhile, the Continental Congress dispatched a three-man committee to confer with General Lee and the Committee of Safety. Citing a Continental Congress resolution authorizing provincial authorities to take control of Continental troops, the Committee of Safety voted that Lee's troops should be placed under their direction. The simultaneous arrival of civil and military agents of the central authority seems to have aroused jealousy of the patriots in the Provincial Congress against any outside interference in New York's affairs. Notes from the Provincial Congress' deliberations on the issue included the phrases: "We cannot trust every man at the head of troops," and "Tyranny from every quarter is equal." Furthermore, if the locals controlled Lee's force they could prevent it from acting too rashly. Lee maintained that he acted under General Washington's orders and therefore couldn't submit to civil control. The Committee of Safety finally relented when the delegates from the Continental Congress sided with Lee. Lee and a regiment of Connecticut soldiers finally entered New York on February 4th, and were soon followed by other troops.[47]

The same day that Lee arrived, British General Clinton sailed into New York harbor. The simultaneous arrival of these two potential combatants heightened the city's anxiety, and prompted many more to flee into the wintry elements. Reverend Shewkirk's diary notes the city's fearful mood:

Monday 5th ñ Soldiers came to town both from Connecticut and the Jerseys, and the whole aspect of things grew frightful, and increased so from day to day. The inhabitants began now to move away in a surprising manner. The weather was very cold, and rivers full of ice, which proved a great obstruction to the People's moving...One could not pass the streets without feeling a great deal; and at last we were obliged to encourage it that our sisters and young People might retreat.[48]

The exodus continued despite Clinton's pledge to the mayor that he had no intention of attacking the city, and that he only wished to visit with his friend Tryon. Clinton went on to confess that his ultimate designs were far south in North Carolina where he expected to rendezvous with five fresh regiments from Britain. An incredulous Lee reported to Washington that Clinton's assurances were "the most whimsical piece of civility I ever heard of...This is certainly a droll way of proceeding; to communicate his full plan to the enemy is too novel to be credited."[49]

Lee soon applied himself to preparing a defense plan, but immediately recognized how extremely difficult the task would be. As he wrote Washington: "what to do with this City, I own puzzles me, it is so encircled with deep navigable water, that whoever commands the Sea must command the Town."[50] Nonetheless, he soon ordered the construction of fortifications at strategic locations throughout Manhattan and across the East River in Brooklyn. Even if New York could not be held indefinitely, he thought it might be possible to make it costly for the enemy to acquire.[51]

One of Lee's first actions was to seize the remaining cannon and military supplies in the abandoned Battery. Tryon and the Royal Navy had "threatened perdition to the town" if these stores were removed, but Lee was undeterred and on February 11 began removing them to the Common. Despite his threats, Captain Parker of the Royal Navy refrained from firing. He feared that random fire on the city would have harmed loyalists and rebels alike. Furthermore, the resulting damage would have diminished its prospective value as a military base for the British army, and probably wouldn't have prevented the removal of guns and stores in any event. However, not knowing what would happen, many of those New Yorkers who hadn't already left the city fled in panic. Although it was Sunday, the churches were largely empty.[52] Parker later mischievously spread the word that he spared the town because the real motive of Lee and his New Englanders for removing the munitions was to provoke him to fire on the town because it was supposedly full of Tories anyway, a pretense that New Yorkers apparently received with amused derision ñ and that even evoked a chuckle from Washington when he read of it.[53]

Citing as a pretext Governor Tryon's ongoing machinations against the rebels, Lee on February 16 interdicted all communications with the British naval vessels in the harbor, and requested the Provincial Congress to approve his action.[54] The Provincial Congress protested that Lee's action would provoke the British to interdict vital food supplies from New Jersey, and that these commandeered provisions would only be forwarded to the British garrison at Boston.[55] Two such supply boats from New Jersey had already been seized. One of Tryon's servants, apparently unaware of the souring relations, was taken into custody coming ashore to wash the Governor's linen.[56]

On March 1, the Continental Congress appointed Lee to command of all Continental forces in the South. Anticipating his imminent departure, Lee confessed his exasperation with the City, especially the affection many still held for Tryon:

The instant I leave it, I conclude the Provincial Congress and inhabitants will relapse into their former hysterics; the men of war and Mr. Tryon, will return to their old stations at the wharves, and the first regiments who arrive from England, will take quiet possession of the town and Long Island...The propensity or rather rage for paying Court to this great man, is inconceivable. They cannot be weaned from him. We must put wormwood on his paps, or they will cry to suck, as they are still in their second childhood.[57]

Lee's replacement was the energetic General William Alexander, who preferred the false title of Lord Stirling. Relations between the army and local authorities improved. Stirling agreed to an accommodation with the Royal squadron that allowed the navy to draw supplies from New York in return for the latter's pledge to not interfere with food shipments to the city from New Jersey.[58] Meanwhile, work on the city's defenses proceeded. The Committee of Safety voted to call out all males to work on the fortifications. White citizens were called upon to work every other day, while the city's population of black slaves were required to toil every day.[59]

The British evacuated Boston on March 17, and it was widely believed that their ultimate destination was New York City. Consequently, Washington set his army on the march for the town. Throughout the month of April, army formations poured into New York. Washington, who personally arrived on April 13, continued the fortification of the city begun by Lee and Alexander.[60] Only a few days after his arrival, on April 17, Washington moved to sever all communication and provisioning with the small British fleet. His letter to the Committee of Safety, while acknowledging the prudence of their past policy of allowing contact with the Royal Navy, asked the committee for their cooperation in now suppressing it ñ to which the committee agreed the next day. On April 29, Washington issued a proclamation banning all relations with the British.[61]

Accounts of relations between the soldiers and civilians were mixed. Washington, confessing "much regret and concern" at "the riotous Behavior of some Soldiers of the Continental Army, yesterday and the Evening before," issued a general order threatening severe punishment for any future miscreants.[62] He later saw it necessary to dispatch officers to take an inventory of damage to private houses where soldiers had been bivouacked.[63] General Greene felt compelled to admonish his soldiers that:

We came here to protect the Inhabitants and their Property from the Ravages of the Enemy but if instead of support and Protection, they meet with nothing but Insult and Outrage, we shall be considered as lawless Bandits and treated as Oppressors and Enemies.[64]

On the other hand, the New York Packet noted that "The behavior of the New England soldiers is decent and their civility to the inhabitants very commendable."[65]

Meanwhile, the persecution of suspected Tories continued. Reverend Shewkirk recounts the very uncivil treatment accorded some hapless loyalists at the hands of a patriot mob:

Thursday, 13th June. ñ Here in town very unhappy and shocking scenes were exhibited. On Munday night some men called Tories were carried and hauled about through the streets, with candles forced to be held by them, or pushed in their faces, and their heads burned; but on Wednesday, in the open day, the scene was by far worse; several, and among them gentlemen, were carried on rails; some stripped naked and dreadfully abused. Some of the generals, and especially Pudnam and their forces, had enough to do to quell the riot, and make the mob disperse.[66]

Meanwhile, the circulation of Thomas Paine's celebrated pamphlet Common Sense excited many New Yorkers to the idea of independence. One New Yorker credited the tract as having "converted thousands to independents, that could not endure the idea before."[67] Copies of Plain Truth, a pamphlet disputing Paine's arguments written by Maryland loyalist James Chalmers, were seized and destroyed by New York radicals, although it apparently sold without incident in Philadelphia.[68] The looming question of Independence colored the Provincial Congress' deliberations throughout May as radicals and moderates debated. As men of property, the moderate leaders had the most to lose if the rebellion failed. Furthermore, many may have feared the "leveling" spirit that potentially threatened their privileged position had the revolt succeeded. On May 29 a committee of the New York mechanics weighed-in on the question by urging the Provincial Congress to declare for independence.[69] When Virginia's Richard Henry Lee introduced his famous independence resolution in the Continental Congress on June 7, the New York delegation asked the Provincial Congress for instructions on how to proceed. The Provincial Congress deliberated three days later, and voted unanimously that they lacked authorization to declare independence. Instead, they called for the election of a new Provincial Congress with full power to decide this question. Consequently, the New York delegation, while declaring their personal support, officially abstained when the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. When a new Provincial Congress gathered on July 9, they immediately and unanimously joined their sister colonies in voting for separation.[70]

The arrival of Washington's Army combined with the Declaration of Independence concluded the opening phase of the war for New York City. The presence of the Continental Army steeled the New Yorkers' resolve, and the Declaration removed much of the lingering uncertainty and ambiguity as to the nature of the current conflict. As if to show the Continental Army's New Englanders of their determination, New Yorkers destroyed the equestrian statue of King George erected just ten years earlier after the Stamp Act's repeal.[71]

But, this situation would not last long. The disastrous Battle of Long Island in late August rendered New York City untenable; the Americans risked encirclement should they defend the town. Washington realized that New York City must soon fall, but, astonishingly, he resolved to hold his positions on Manhattan for the time being to delay the British.[72] The specter of catastrophe loomed for a few critical days; had Howe attacked immediately, he might have captured Washington and his entire army ñ possibly ending the rebellion in a single stroke. On September 11,a letter signed by seven senior Continental Army officers including Nathaniel Greene urgently implored Washington to reconsider his decision.[73] A council of war held the next day overwhelmingly recommended withdrawal to preserve the army, although General George Clinton of New York issued a vehement dissent.[74] The question of burning New York City in the event of a withdrawal to deny the British winter quarters had been considered earlier, however, the Continental Congress had already resolved to leave it intact.[75] Following close on the heels of the retreating Continental Army, the British occupied New York City; they would hold it for the duration of the war.

The fall of New York City was a moment of truth for many moderate patriots as the war turned against the rebels ñ many would ultimately turn loyalist. In all, seven of the twenty-one original delegates to the Provincial Congress from New York City, including Isaac Low, declared for their King.[76] The ultimate defection of several moderate leaders seems to confirm in part the suspicion that New Yorkers were closet loyalists all along. However, New Yorkers were not alone in switching sides as the rebellion seemed to fall apart. Furthermore, many other New York moderates such as John Jay, James Duane, and Robert R. Livingston remained true to the rebel cause, despite the immense personal risk.

Much of the restraint of New York City's moderate leadership was motivated by prudence rather than loyalist sympathies. Given their vulnerability to the Royal Navy, this was understandable; they couldn't allow the radicals of the town to push the rebellion too far for fear of provoking retaliation. Many other American maritime communities, including Philadelphia and Rhode Island, also provided supplies to the Royal Navy during this period.[77] In addition, the moderates were genuinely repelled from some of the more extreme measures of the radicals. Some of the moderates' actions, such as their defense of Rivington's right to publish a loyalist newspaper, seem quite commendable in retrospect.

As for the rest of the city's population, the friendly reception His Majesty's soldiers received upon entering New York City, as recorded by Shewkirk, indicates that some welcomed the British as liberators:

Monday, Sept. 16th. ñ In the forenoon the first of the English troops came to town. They were drawn up in two lines in the Broad Way; Governor Tryon and others of the officers were present, and a great concourse of people. Joy and gladness seemed to appear in all countenances, and persons who had been strangers one to the other formerly, were now very sociable together, and friendly.[78]

However, the actions of most New Yorkers following the fall of the city indicated strong support for the rebels. Most of the city's population fled as the British advanced on Manhattan, leaving behind an estimated 5,000 people. Another 4,000 would return as the fighting shifted away from New York. However, an additional 18,000 refugees abandoned their homes for the duration, and settled elsewhere.[79] Although many New Yorkers undoubtedly fled in part for fear of being caught amidst the fighting ñ as they had done on several earlier occasions ñ fear of combat couldn't have figured significantly in their decision to stay away. For most of the war, New York was fairly secure against any American attempt to recapture it. Living conditions in British-occupied New York were very poor for a variety of reasons,[80] but life as a refugee was also hard. These expatriates evidently voted with their feet for the rebel cause, indicating that New York City was not a loyalist stronghold.

The first year of the Revolution was a time of great uncertainty. Rebellion against the King was an unprecedented experience for virtually all Americans. The full implications of this revolt were unclear, and its outcome was unknown. Furthermore, the battle lines between the contestants ñ never sharp in a civil war such as this one ñ were especially diffuse during this first year. Sincere rebels from all sections of America still considered themselves as His Majesty's subjects during this period. That General Clinton revealed his military plans to New York when he briefly appeared in their harbor indicates that the boundaries between friend and foe were also uncertain from the British perspective. Given the inherent uncertainties surrounding the revolt during 1775 and the first half of 1776, it should not be surprising that New York City's actions showed ambivalence. While the people of New York City cannot be listed as in the vanguard of the Revolution, neither can they be fairly considered as traitors to it either.

 

The author wishes to thank Prof. Richard Johnson, Becky Kinney, and Mathew Barnette for their suggestions and advice in the preparation of this paper.

 

Bibliography

Primary Sources

American Archives, Series 4, Vol. 2-5.

The Papers of General Nathaniel Greene, vol. 1 (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1976).

Lee Papers (New York: New York Historical Society, 1871).

Historical Memoirs of William Smith, edited by William H. W. Sabine (New York: Colburn & Tegg, 1956).

The New York Gazette and Weekly Mercury

The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series, Vol. 3-6 (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1988).

Secondary Sources

Carl L. Becker, The History of Political Parties in the Province of New York, 1760-1776 (Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1909).

Alexander C. Flick, Loyalism in New York During the American Revolution (New York: The Columbia University Press, 1901).

Agnes Hunt, The Provincial Committees of Safety of the American Revolution (Cleveland: Press of Winn & Judson, 1904).

Henry P. Johnson, The Campaign of 1776 Around New York and Brooklyn (Brooklyn, NY: Long Island Historical Society, 1878).

Bernard Mason, The Road to Independence: The Revolutionary Movement in New York, 1773-1777 (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1966)

William H. Nelson, The American Tory (New York: 1961).

M. Christopher New, "James Chalmers and ëPlain Truth:' A Loyalist Answers Thomas Paine, The Early American Review (http://www.earlyamerica.com/review/fall96/loyalists.html) (Fall, 1996)

New York Division of Archives and History, The American Revolution in New York: Its Political, Social, and Economic Significance (Albany, NY: 1926).

New York Historical Society, Narratives of the Revolution in New York (Kingsport, TN: Kingsport Press, Inc.; 1975).

Phillip Ranlet, The New York Loyalists, (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1986).

John Shy, A People Numerous and Armed (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1990)

Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker, Father Knickerbocker Rebels: New York City During the Revolution, (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1948).

 

[1] Letter of March 21, 1776 from the John Eustace to Charles Lee; Lee Papers (New York: New York Historical Society, 1871) p. 362. Ranlet, pp. 66-7.

[2] Alexander Flick, Loyalism in New York During the American Revolution (New York: The Columbia University Press, 1901). Phillip Ranlet, The New York Loyalists, (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1986) pp. 5-7.

[3] William H. Nelson, The American Tory (New York: 1961) pp. 102-3.

[4] Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker, Father Knickerbocker Rebels: New York City During the Revolution, (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1948) , pp. 11-2, 20-1, 24.

[5] Wertenbaker, p. 13.

[6] Wertenbaker, p. 34.

[7] Wertenbaker, p. 43-4.

[8] Journal entry of September 7, 1774; Historical Memoirs of William Smith, edited by William H. W. Sabine (New York: Colburn & Tegg, 1956) pp. 192.

[9] Carl L. Becker, The History of Political Parties in the Province of New York, 1760-1776 (Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1909) p. 51.

[10] Wertenbaker, pp. 10-1.

[11] Becker, pp. 51, 82-3.

[12] Wertenbaker, p. 35-8.

[13] Flick, pp. 31-36. Ranlet, pp. 3-4, 182-6. Nelson, pp. 89-90.

[14] Flick, p. 52. Ranlet, p. 182.

[15] Wertenbaker, p. 44-6. Becker, p. 176.

[16] Wertenbaker, p. 53.

[17] Journal entry of April 29, 1775; Historical Memoirs of William Smith, p. 222.

[18] Wertenbaker, p. 53. Journal entries of April 24 & 27, 1775; Historical Memoirs of William Smith, pp. 221-2.

[19] Ranlet, p. 59.

[20] Ibid.

[21]Bernard Mason, The Road to Independence: The Revolutionary Movement in New York, 1773-1777 (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1966) pp. 76-7.

[22] Becker, pp. 196-7, Wertenbaker, p. 56.

[23] Mason, p. 77.

[24] The New York Gazette and Weekly Mercury, May 22, 1775.

[25] Wertenbaker, p. 62. Ranlet, p. 52.

[26] Agnes Hunt, The Provincial Committees of Safety of the American Revolution (Cleveland: Press of Winn & Judson, 1904) p. 63. American Archives, Series 4, Vol. 2, pp. 1785-6, 1792.

[27] Hunt, p. 63-7.

[28] Hunt, p. 67. Wertenbaker, p. 62. Becker, p. 219.

[29] Wertenbaker, p. 58. Proceedings of the New York Provincial Congress for June 3, 1775; American Archives, Series 4, Vol. 2, p. 1274.

[30] Journal entry of June 25, 1773, Historical Memoirs of William Smith, pp. 228c-d. Ranlet, p. 61. Becker, p. 218. Wertenbaker, pp. 60-1.

[31] Proceedings of the New York Provincial Congress for July 5, 1775; American Archives, Series 4, Vol. 2, p. 1341.

[32] Proceedings of the New York Provincial Congress for June 29, 1775; American Archives, Series 4, Vol. 2, p. 1331. Ranlet, p. 61. Wertenbaker, p. 58.

[33] Proceedings of the New York Committee of Safety for July 13 and 18, 1775; American Archives, Series 4, Vol. 2, pp. 1791, 1812. Wertenbaker, p. 62.

[34] Diary entries of August 24 & 25, 1775 by Reverend Shewkirk; in The Campaign of 1776 Around New York and Brooklyn by Henry P. Johnson (Brooklyn, NY: Long Island Historical Society, 1878) Part II, pp. 103. Letter of August 24, 1775, from Captain Vandeput to the Mayor and other Magistrates of the City of New York; American Archives, Series 4 Vol. 3 p. 550. Wertenbaker, pp. 62-3.

[35] Diary entry of August 28, 1775 by Reverend Shewkirk; Johnson, Part II, pp. 103.

[36] Proceedings of the New York Provincial Congress for July 29, 1775; American Archives, Series 4, Vol. 3, p. 565.

[37] Proceedings of the New York Provincial Congress for September 1, 1775; American Archives, Series 4, Vol. 3, p. 573.

[38] Becker, p. 225. Ranlet. p. 61.

[39] Ranlet, p. 62.

[40] Nelson, p. 100. Wertenbaker, pp. 64-5. Ranlet, p. 4. Becker, p. 245-6. Proceedings of the New York Provincial Congress for December 12, 1775; American Archives, Series 4, Vol. 4, p. 402.

[41] Letter of January 5, 1776 from Charles Lee to George Washington; The Papers of George Washington: Revolutionary War Series, Vol. 3 (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1988) pp. 30-1.

[42] Letter of January 6, 1776 from John Adams to George Washington and letter of January 8, 1776 from George Washington to Charles Lee; The Papers of George Washington, Vol. 3; pp. 36-8, 53-4.

[43] John Shy, A People Numerous and Armed (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1990) pp. 135-62.

[44] Letter of January 21, 1776 from the New York Committee of Safety to Charles Lee; Lee Papers, pp. 242-4. Johnson, pp. 51-3.

[45] Letter of January 23, 1776 from Charles Lee to the Chairman of the New York Committee of Safety; Lee Papers, Vol. 1 (New York: New York Historical Society, 1871) pp. 256-8.

[46] Letter of January 24, 1776 from Charles Lee to George Washington; Lee Papers; Vol. 1, p. 259.

[47] Hunt, pp. 69-70. American Archives, Series 4, Vol. 4, p. 1096.

[48] Diary entry of January 5, 1776 by Reverend Shewkirk; Johnson, Part II, pp. 105-6.

[49] Letter of February 5, 1776 from Charles Lee to George Washington; Lee Papers; p. 271-2. Extract of a Letter from New York, to a Gentleman in Philadelphia, Dated February 5, 1776, American Archives, Series 4, Vol. 4, p. 942.

[50] Letter of February 19, 1776 from Charles Lee to George Washington; Lee Papers; p. 309.

[51] Report on the Defense of New York, March, 1776; Lee Papers; pp. 354-6.

[52] Wertenbaker, pp. 70-1.

[53] Letter of February 14, 1776 from Charles Lee to George Washington; Letter of February 26, 1776 from George Washington to Charles Lee; Lee Papers, pp. 295, 326-7.

[54] Letters of February 16 & 20, 1776 from Charles Lee to the President of Provincial Congress of New York; Lee Papers, pp. 301, 315.

[55] Letter of February 20, 1776 from the Provincial Congress of New York to Charles Lee; Lee Papers, p. 315-6.

[56] Becker, p. 248.

[57] Letter of February 29, 1776 from Charles Lee to George Washington; Lee Papers, pp. 335, 338.

[58] Becker, p. 249.

[59] Johnson, pp. 59-60.

[60] Johnston, p. 63.

[61] Letter of April 17 from George Washington to the New York Committee of Safety, the Committee's reply of April 18, and Washington's proclamation of April 29; The Papers of George Washington, Vol. 4, pp. 77-9, 81, 164-5. Proceedings of the New York Committee of Safety for April 18, 1776; American Archives, Series 4, Vol. 5, pp. 1453-4.

[62] General Orders issued on April 27, 1776 by General Washington; The Papers of George Washington, Vol. 4, p. 140-1.

[63] General Orders issued on May 14, 1776 by General Washington; The Papers of George Washington, Vol. 4, p. 296.

[64] General Greene's Orders of May 5, 1776, The Papers of General Nathaniel Greene, Vol. 1 (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1976) p. 212.

[65] Wertenbaker, p. 78.

[66] Diary entry of June 13, 1776 by Reverend Shewkirk; Johnson, Part II, pp. 108.

[67] New York Division of Archives and History, The American Revolution in New York: Its Political, Social, and Economic Significance (Albany, NY: 1926) pp. 65-6.

[68] M. Christopher New, "James Chalmers and ëPlain Truth:' A Loyalist Answers Thomas Paine, The Early American Review (http://www.earlyamerica.com/review/fall96/loyalists.html) (Fall, 1996)

[69] Becker, pp. 265-70. Mason, pp. 172-5.

[70] New York Historical Society, Narratives of the Revolution in New York (Kingsport, TN: Kingsport Press, Inc.; 1975) pp. 25-31. New York Division of Archives and History, pp. 67-9. Becker, pp. 271-4.

[71] Wertenbaker, p. 84.

[72] Letter of September 8, 1776 from George Washington to John Hancock; The Papers of George Washington, Vol. 6, pp. 248-52.

[73] Letter of September 11, 1776 from "Certain General Officers" to George Washington; The Papers of George Washington, Vol. 6, p. 279.

[74] Council of War Minutes for September 12, 1776, and a letter of the same date from George Clinton to George Washington; The Papers of George Washington, Vol. 6, p. 289-92.

[75] Letter of September 3, 1776 from John Hancock to George Washington; The Papers of George Washington, Vol. 6, p. 207.

[76] Becker, p 206.

[77] Letter of October 23, 1775 from Nathaniel Greene to Samuel Ward, Jr.; The Papers of General Nathaniel Greene, p. 139. Ranlet, p. 7.

[78] Diary entry of September 16, 1776 by Reverend Shewkirk; Johnson, Part II, pp. 117.

[79] Mason, pp. 78-9.

[80] Ranlet, pp. 79-82.