Evacuation Day: New York's Former November Holiday
While today’s November brings an onslaught of holiday preparation, Thanksgiving gatherings, and Black Friday shopping, past generations of New Yorkers celebrated this season with a different occasion.
A once-annual holiday local to New York City, Evacuation Day was formerly equal in importance to the Fourth of July. Referring to the evacuation of British troops from New York City following the Revolutionary War, the celebration of the troops’ departure was observed yearly throughout the early 20th century. While interest wavered over the years, in its prime, Evacuation Day was one of the most important holidays in the city.
November 25, 1783: The Evacuation
Marking the end of their occupation in America, the last of the British soldiers who served during the American Revolution left Manhattan on November 25, 1783. Following their departure, the city was secured by American troops under the command of General Knox, who promptly called for all residents to welcome New York’s Governor Clinton and General Washington into lower Manhattan.
Clinton and Washington were escorted to Cape’s Tavern by a parade of soldiers, New York government officials, General Knox and his officers, and the Speaker of Assembly.
Meanwhile, U.S. troops sought to remove the British flag from Castle Clinton (known as the Fort on the Battery). However, thanks to British soldiers' departing gifts of sabotage (greasing the flag pole and cutting its halyards), this proved to be quite a difficult task.
After failed attempts to scale the pole, a young sailor ultimately used wooden cleats to successfully climb and raise the American flag in place of Britain’s. This triumphant symbol sparked the first Evacuation Day celebrations, which went on to last several days.
Beginning with a public dinner hosted by Governor Clinton at Fraunces Tavern, over 120 guests celebrated with 13 formal toasts in honor of Washington and his officers. Festivities continued until Washington departed the city over a week later on December 4th.
An Annual Holiday
On its first anniversary, Evacuation Day was remembered with the ringing of church bells, a flag raising on the (formerly greased) flagpole at the Battery, and entertainment at the City Tavern - as reported by the New York Gazetteer.
Encouraged by veterans and patriots of the Columbian Order or Tammany Society, Evacuation Day evolved into one of the city’s most important holidays and was observed as an official school holiday through the early 1800s at the height of its popularity.
Rivaling the Fourth of July, this holiday celebrated military heroism and the ideals of the Revolution through fireworks, public banquets, military drills, parades, and patriotic plays. Celebrations grew to be over-the-top, and the public's enthusiasm for planning elaborate anniversaries was so strong that the city (unsuccessfully) attempted to cap the holiday's ever-increasing budget in 1809.
Though once an immensely popular, city-wide celebration, interest for the holiday waned through the mid-1800s, as few witnesses of the original Evacuation Day remained.
Past efforts of Revolutionary War veterans were not carried on by following generations, and the public’s attention shifted to celebrating Thanksgiving during the end of November, as it gained prominence as a national holiday.
This New York-specific holiday was also curious to the rest of the country, posing the question: “Why the New Yorkers celebrate this evacuation day annually, I don’t know. Isn’t it as well to forget that an enemy once had possession of your city?” (Portland Advertiser, 1834).
Further lulls in Evacuation Day celebrations include times of conflict. During the Civil War the New York Tribune argued that “there was never any common sense in making it a holiday at all.”
The last spark in Evacuation Day celebrations followed the Civil War, and the holiday’s 1883 centennial proved to be monumental. Led by the city's military and business leaders, event highlights include a parade of 20,000 marchers (taking over four hours to pass any single location).
The centennial was celebrated in true New York fashion. Hundreds of ships flooded the Hudson and East Rivers, thousands feasted at banquets in Madison Square Garden and Delmonico’s Restaurant, and fireworks displays took over the city, accompanied by over 500,000 spectators at the day’s events.
A Shift in Popularity
While attempts at continuing this enthusiastic patriotism were seen through the late 19th century, the grandeur of Evacuation Day celebrations dissipated along with the city’s interest in the holiday.
Evacuation Day was just one of many elaborate celebrations in New York. From the late 18th century through the early 1900s, the city was a frequent host to extravagant festivals. Designed for city-wide observance and held through many events over multiple days, celebrations typically conveyed social and political messages about Americanism, patriotism, and New York pride - regardless of their relevancy.
However, the turn of the 20th century revealed the city’s disdain with traditional lavish patriotism. These all-encompassing celebrations of the past (including Evacuation Day) were no longer feasible or desired by the city’s rapidly expanding and diverse population.
The United States’ alliance with Britain in World War I seemed to provide the final push in ceasing celebrations altogether, and the last official Evacuation Day was seen in 1916 - commemorated by 60 veterans and a ceremonial flag raising at the Battery.
Ultimately, Independence Day reigned as the country’s patriotic holiday, and Thanksgiving took over as the dominant November holiday - in New York and nationwide.
For more information on Evacuation Day, search the NYPL Classic Catalog for the subjects: Evacuation Day, New York, N.Y., 1783. and Evacuation Day, New York, N.Y., 1783 -- Anniversaries, etc.
Materials on other historic New York City holidays and celebrations can be found through the following subjects:
- Holidays -- New York (State) -- New York -- History.
- Parades -- New York (State) -- New York.
- Festivals -- New York (State) -- New York.
- Pageants -- New York (State) -- New York.
Search the HarpWeek database for Evacuation Day illustrations and articles featured in the Harper’s Weekly magazine.
The U.S. History in Context database also includes primary sources, reference sources, academic journals, magazines, and newspapers relevant to Evacuation Day.