When reenacting or acting as a historical interpreter, its good to have a few historical dates and stories to share. This series will publish a few.
August 26, 1776 British take possession of New York City
Having defeated the Continental Army on Long Island and pursuing them into upstate New York, General Howe established a military occupation of New York. The British imposed martial law on the city. They also engaged in various excesses of an army intoxicated with the success of a major victory including patronage of the city’s red-light district and various taverns as well as systematic looting of American patriots’ property. With the army came a large influx of Loyalist refugees, making the city solidly Loyalist for the remainder of the British occupation. The city became the British political and military center of operations for the rest of the conflict but it was far from a comfortable headquarters.
On September 20, a huge and uncontrollable fire broke out in the West Side of the city destroying almost a quarter of the city. General Howe reported to London that the city was the result of revolutionary saboteurs who deliberately set the blaze. Royal Governor William Tryon suspected that Washington was responsible, writing that “many circumstances lead to conjecture that Mr. Washington was privy to this villainous act” and that “some officers of his army were found concealed in the city.” The British interrogated more than 200 suspects, but no charges were ever filed. Coincidentally, Nathan Hale, an American captain engaged in spying for Washington, was arrested in Queens the day the fire started. Rumors attempting to link him to the fires have never been substantiated; there is nothing indicating that he was arrested (and eventually hanged) for anything other than espionage.
The British Army confiscated the surviving uninhabited homes of known Patriots and assigned them to British officers. Churches, other than the state churches (Church of England) were converted into prisons, infirmaries, or barracks. Some of the common soldiers were billeted with civilian families. There was a great influx of Loyalist refugees into the city resulting in further overcrowding, and many of these returning and additional Loyalists from Patriot-controlled areas encamped in squalid tent cities on the charred ruins. The fire convinced the British to put the city under martial law rather than returning it to civilian authorities. Crime and poor sanitation were persistent problems during the British occupation, which did not end until they evacuated the city on November 25, 1783.
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