Allow me to take you back a few hundred years to the streets of New York, where anticipation and preparation were in the air, not for turkey and pumpkin pie, but for pole climbing and patriotic plays. For New Yorkers back then, this too was the beginning of the holiday season, but the holiday they were gearing up for wasn’t Thanksgiving; it was Evacuation Day.
The words “Evacuation Day” probably first conjure up images of thousands of New Yorkers with their families and possessions in hand, fleeing their homes. That’s actually another NYC-specific holiday, but this description isn’t too far off either; however, instead of New Yorkers fleeing the city, it was the British army, their Loyalist supporters, and thousands of black slaves who fought alongside the British in an effort to obtain their freedom. You see, Evacuation Day, November 25, 1783, marked the end of the British army’s occupation of New York City during the American Revolution.
And boy, were New Yorkers glad to see them go. For seven long years, since George Washington’s retreat after the disastrous Battle of Brooklyn, the British military made NYC their headquarters. While things weren’t the worst for Loyalists in the city, they were still obliged to feed and quarter the thousands of soldiers. As for supporters for the American cause, they could find themselves locked up on one of the British army’s horrific prison ships or executed. To make matters worse for everyone, soon after the British army took control of the city in late August 1776, a fire broke out, burning nearly one-fourth of the city to the ground. No one has ever been able to figure out whether the fire was set by the British or the retreating Patriots, but the city was left in ruins. So on November 25, 1783, now that the occupation was over, the city could finally rebuild.
But there was one last order of business to attend to before New Yorkers could move forward: the British Union Jack was still flying above the Castle Clinton fort. New Yorkers had planned to switch the flag with the new American one as the British exited but some mischievous British soldiers had greased the flagpole and cut its halyards. As George Washington and his army entered the city for the victory celebrations, New Yorkers scrambled to get the British flag down. After a few unsuccessful attempts to climb the pole, a young American soldier named John Van Arsdale used wooden cleats to climb high enough on the pole to rip the Union Jack down and put up the Stars and Stripes. The crowd below him went wild and the celebrations finally commenced.
For decades afterwards, Evacuation Day was celebrated with the same enthusiasm and vigor as the first time. New Yorkers celebrated with fireworks, parades, banquets, patriotic plays, and contests where people would climb up greased poles like John Van Arsdale (Can we bring this back?). But by the mid-1800s, as the people who witnessed the original Evacuation Day died off and Abraham Lincoln’s call for a day of thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November picked up traction, New York City’s unique November holiday was losing its relevance. By 1917, celebrating Evacuation Day seemed distasteful, as the British were now the U.S.’s allies in World War I.
Although there isn’t much buzz around Evacuation Day these days, there are still some remnants of the holiday around if you know where to look. Head over to Bowling Green (co-named Evacuation Day Plaza in 2017) where the Charging Bull statue is. Behind the bull and the hordes of people rubbing its balls is a white flagpole with a couple of plaques commemorating New York’s former favorite holiday. Try to climb the slippery pole for old times sake.
Want to read more about Evacuation Day and the British occupation of NYC? Check out these sources from the Bowery Boys and Early Americanists.