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Lectures from the Allen Room and the Wertheim Study: The Death of Evacuation Day : The Long, Slow Demise of what was once New York's Biggest Holiday


November 14, 2013

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As a military campaign, the American Revolution began in New York City, the first battle in Brooklyn, in August of 1776, and ended in Manhattan, when General George Washington rode his white horse victoriously into New York City as the British evacuated. For generations, New York City celebrated the British evacuation as a holiday—with parades and banquets, and a reenactment of the raising of the American flag on a Battery Park flagpole. Various ethnic and political groups vied for ownership of the parade over two centuries, and, during the debate over the ratification of the Constitution, created counter parades. By 1800, it was a huge spectacle, with parades, family dinners, and popular entertainments, such as cycloramas and illuminated transparencies depicting Revolutionary War battle scenes. In 1883, on the centennial of the British withdrawal, the associated events were described as “one of the great civic events of the Nineteenth Century in New York City.” Slowly, Evacuation Day transformed into a Thanksgiving celebration, instigated by George Washington when he lived, as president, in New York, and, at one point, linking it to a critique of commerce dating to New England Puritans. This transformation is evident in the monumental Iconography of New York, by Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, an architect, historian, housing reformer and New York Public Library board member who, in 1911, rescued the sword that Washington carried during the original evacuation. 

Robert Sullivan is the author of numerous books, including The Meadowlands, A Whale Hunt, Cross Country, The Thoreau You Don’t Know and, most recently, My American Revolution, a book about the relationship between landscape and history that is set in the New York city area, recently published in paperback by Picador. His books have been widely translated, and he has written for numerous magazines, including the New York Times, New York, the New Yorker and A Public Space. He is a longtime contributing editor at Vogue. At the Wertheim Study, he is researching a work on the nineteenth century landscape photographer Timothy O’Sullivan to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.