Thanksgiving happens to coincide this year with another holiday, one that has since been lost to the fickle tastes of ensuing generations. But November 25 was once widely celebrated as Evacuation Day, and it commemorated the day the British — our onetime bossy parents — beat their retreat from New York, leaving the new nation to finally get down to the business of becoming its bratty self.
The year was 1783, and although the American Revolution had effectively ended two years earlier with General Cornwallis’s “mortification” at Yorktown, it took another 18 months for a treaty to be signed, and still more weeks for the British army to pack its things and go.
On the appointed day — November 25 — the citizens of New York had good reason to feel festive.
In the seven years of British occupation, the redcoats had treated Manhattan less like a place they planned to keep forever than like a rock star’s hotel room. They had ransacked its orchards, uprooted its trees, drained its wells and pocked its streets with trenches. The city, of but 12,000 inhabitants, had suffered two terrible fires during that time, and the British had co-opted most of the buildings still standing for themselves and their Loyalists.
Worse still, across the East River stretched the dark shadows of prison ships where some 11,500 Americans had died of deliberate neglect — more than in all the war’s battles combined.
So, yeah. The Americans were ready for their unwanted houseguests to go.
And yet, with the exception of a few acts of mischief, the transfer was peaceful. Washington’s army in the north kept an hour’s walking distance from the retreating British forces to avoid any enthusiastic exchange of gunfire.
There was the small matter of the greased flagpole – a slippery ruse to prevent the Americans from swapping out the British flag at the base of Manhattan with their own. But a sailor improvised cleats and climbed the pole to raise the Stars and Stripes in time for Washington’s arrival. A few accounts also mention one enterprising Mrs. Day, who beat a vandalizing British soldier over the head with a broom. And days later, as the last of the British fleet sailed past Staten Island, citizens there were said to jeer so loudly that one of the ships angrily fired a shot above their rebellious tri-cornered heads — the last shot, it is said, of the revolution.
Nonetheless, the surprising lack of chaos reportedly inspired a British officer to comment, “These Americans … are a curious original people, they know how to govern themselves, but nobody else can govern them.”
So emotional was this day — and the weeks afterward when Washington was feted at banquets across the city — that Evacuation Day became a big-deal holiday celebrated with parades, dinners, flagpole greasing, and jubilant gunfire for nearly a century. Only during the Civil War did enthusiasm for it begin to wane. And eventually, it faded entirely. No one at my Thanksgiving table today had even heard of it.
There was a splendid, if brief, revival of Evacuation Day at the centennial in 1883. On that November 25, after an extravagant parade attended by one million, celebrants unveiled the statue of George Washington that now stands on the steps of Federal Hall on Wall Street. A hundred years earlier, when Washington had tearfully bid farewell to his troops at a tavern in lower Manhattan, he had no inkling that he was about to become the nation’s first president. This statue commemorates both his triumphant return to the city and his later inauguration, although the throngs of tourists and bankers that now pass beneath his outstretched hand are largely ignorant of one of these events.
So. No more Evacuation Day.
It’s probably just as well. The Sons of the Revolution were getting downright snooty about the whole thing, using the holiday as an excuse to lord their heritage over everybody else — exactly the sort of elitist behavior the revolution was meant to repudiate. Plus, it’s no longer as much fun to hate the British, who have been our fierce allies for more than a century.
And then, of course, there are the original Manhattanites — those tribes who had hunted and fished the abundant green island for centuries — who never got their Evacuation Day. Their squatters stayed.
So give thanks. Today, you might dine with your once-domineering parents and still go home afterward to revel in your hard-fought independence — but without finding that they’ve trashed the place in your absence. For safe measure, consider greasing the doorknobs on your way out.