The Fight To Make Evacuation Day A NYC Holiday

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city-of-new-york-councilmember-margaret-chin-and-lower-manhattan-historical-society-co-founder-james-kaplan-unveiled-an-evacuation-day-plaza-signOn November 25, 1783, George Washington marched down Broadway in New York City retaking the last British stronghold in the United States. By prearrangement, the British and their many Tory supporters were to leave the City by 12 pm. The American flag was to be raised at the flagpole at the north end of what is today Bowling Green park, officially ending the American Revolution. There was, however, one minor snag. When the American advance guard sought to put up the 13-star American flag, they discovered the British had greased the pole, so that the British flag could not be brought down. Washington said he would not enter the lower part of the City until the American flag was flying. A young sailor John Van Arsdale then bought cleats from a local hardware store and shimmied up the flagpole to raise the American flag, and Washington’s triumphant march to Lower Manhattan continued.

That evening Washington with Governor George Clinton and many of his key officers had a dinner at Fraunces Tavern two blocks south of Bowling Green at which there were thirteen toasts to celebrate the American victory over the British and the creation of the new nation. The city into which Washington’s men had marched had been ravished by seven years of British occupation. Although Washington and his men had high hopes for the success of a democratic form of government, there were few historical examples of successful democracies. Most of the world was ruled by kings. However, the euphoria of Evacuation Day would long remain in the City, as Revolutionary War veterans and others would thereafter annually gathered every November 25 at Bowling Green to raise the American flag and celebrate the triumph of victory over the British. Frequently these celebrations were led by the New York Veteran Corps of Artillery, today the oldest continuously functioning militia organization in New York State.

Over time, as democratic movements throughout Europe and elsewhere would gain strength in the 19th century, these Evacuation Day celebrations took on a more profound meaning. The democratic principles announced by General Washington on Evacuation Day were sweeping through the world and the ancient European monarchies were falling. The City of New York and the United States were growing dramatically under stable democratic governments. The celebration of Evacuation Day was not only a celebration of Washington’s triumph during the Revolution but also a celebration of the triumph internationally of democracy, and the growth of New York City and the nation.

Evacuation Day, which was celebrated with varying levels of intensity at different times in the 19th century, became a major patriotic holiday in the City rivaling July 4. These celebrations invariably entailed a raising of the American flag at Bowling Green on the spot where the flag had been raised in 1783. Probably the high point of Evacuation Day ceremonies came in 1883, the hundredth anniversary, when a committee led by John Austin Stevens, the first President of a then newly formed group called the Sons of the Revolution of the State of New York (consisting of descendants of Revolutionary War veterans), supervised a very extensive celebration in which most of the City’s businesses were shut down.

A second very important Evacuation Day celebration took place approximately 10 years later on November 25, 1893 when 10,000 people gathered in City Hall park to dedicate Frederick Macmonnies statue of Nathan Hale. The statue was presented to Mayor Thomas Gilroy as a gift to the City of New York by Frederick Tallmadge, the then President of the Sons of the Revolution, whose grandfather Benjamin Tallmadge had been a close friend of Hale’s at Yale, and who was later Washington’s spymaster in New York City during the American Revolution.

Several factors, including the rise of the popularity of Thanksgiving on the third Thursday in November, interest in Evacuation Day began to wane. Around 1900, there arose a nasty controversy over who was going to control the celebration between Christopher Forbes, a great-grandson of John van Arsdale, the City Parks Department, apparently under the control of Tammany Hall, and City District Attorney Asa Bird Gardner, who was a leader of the New York Veteran Corps of Artillery.

To some extent Evacuation Day in this period had overtones of being an anti-British holiday, supported by the City’s large Irish community and Tammany Hall. In 1916, as the United States became increasingly allied with the British during World War I, Mayor John Puroy Mitchel, an ardent anglophile and bitter opponent of Tammany Hall, announced that the City would no longer support the celebration of Evacuation Day. As a result, the tradition of raising the flag on November 25th at Bowling Green ended, and the holiday was soon forgotten. The area where John Van Arsdale had raised the 13-star American flag, which had been hallowed ground to generations of New Yorkers, reverted to a nondescript plaza.

Some 75 years later that site would, through the efforts of Arthur Piccolo of the Bowling Green Association, become the location of Arturo DiModica’s famous statute Charging Bull, perhaps Lower Manhattan’s most famous landmark today. As a result of sporadic efforts by the Bowling Green Association to hold a ceremony marking Evacuation Day, a small plaque was placed on newly erected flagpoles.

Most detailed histories of New York City have described Evacuation Day as a “forgotten holiday” that has not been celebrated in the City since 1916. However, this is not entirely true. In the 1980s a group led by Joseph Fitzpatrick, working for City Council President Paul O’Dwyer, held a ceremony in honor of Evacuation Day at New York’s City Hall.

In the 1990s members of New York City Law Department, centered around Kathy Blyn and the Municipal Finance Department, annually celebrated Evacuation Day with a walking tour for government workers on the day before Thanksgiving.  The Bowling Green Association would also, from time to time, hold a ceremony at Bowling Green in honor of Evacuation Day (at one point Evacuation Day was renamed British American Friendship Day. At at least two of these ceremonies, a representative of the British consulate in New York raised the British flag along with the American flag.

The most significant efforts to keep Evacuation Day alive however, have been undertaken by the Sons of the Revolution of the State of New York.  In 1904, through a bequest from Frederick Tallmadge, the Sons of the Revolution acquired and renovated Fraunces Tavern on Pearl Street.  Since 1907, the Sons of the Revolution have operated a museum of early American history and leased the lower floor as a restaurant. In 1983, the Fraunces Tavern Museum, under its then director Chris Miles, sponsored a significant exhibition on Evacuation Day for its 200th anniversary, and the Sons of the Revolution held a large ceremony at Bowling Green. In addition, for many years the Sons of the Revolution have in late November held an Evacuation Day dinner at Fraunces Tavern in its Bissel Room, which in recent years has been sold out with more than 100 people. At this dinner, it has been a tradition that members of the Sons have given the 13 toasts that were made at the dinner in 1783 that George Washington and Governor Clinton attended.

The Efforts to Revive Evacuation Day.

In 2014, the recently formed Lower Manhattan Historical Society (the LMHS) decided to attempt a more formal revival of Evacuation Day. The LMHS is an outgrowth of the 2014 Lower Manhattan July 4 Festival Committee, whose purpose was to create July 4 activities in Lower Manhattan, at a time when the City’s major public July 4 activity was the Nathan’s hot dog eating contest in Coney Island. The purpose of the LMHS is to educate and advocate for efforts to teach the people of Lower Manhattan and elsewhere about the very rich and often unknown history of Lower Manhattan.

Arthur Piccolo, a director and one of the founders of the LMHS enlisted John Herzog, a founder of the Museum of American Finance to finance the purchase of a large American flag that was a replica of the 13-star flag that might have been flown over Bowling Green in 1783.  The Sons of the Revolution recognized Mr. Herzog for his longstanding support of Lower Manhattan history at the 2014 Evacuation Day dinner.) At that dinner Ambrose Richardson, President of the Sons of the Revolution, called on a representative of the LMHS who announced that the next day the flag would be flown from the Bowling Green flagpoles in an attempt to re-institute the forgotten holiday of Evacuation Day. In response to enthusiastic applause from the crowd, the LMHS Evacuation Day flag was unfurled, and all patrons at the dinner were invited to attend the ceremony the next day.

The next day at a few minutes before noon, a group of approximately 10 people including John Herzog, Arthur Piccolo, Wesley Oler, President of the 1st New York Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution and a director of the New York Sons of the Revolution, Wellington Chen of the Chinatown Partnership, and Ludger Balan of the Sable Soldiers gathered in front of the Bowling Green flagpoles.

The group was then joined by the guide and approximately ten people (presumably tourists) on an Evacuation Day walking tour being sponsored by the Museum of American Finance. In a brief ceremony, a representative of the LMHS stated that it was at this exact spot and at this exact time on November 25, 1783 John van Arsdale a continental sailor had climbed the greased flagpole and pulled down the Union Jack and hoisted the 13-star American flag to mark the official end of the American Revolution.

It was stated at that time that it was the intent of the LMHS and related patriotic organizations, such as the Sons of the Revolution, to reinstate the ancient tradition of raising the American flag at Bowling Green on November 25, thus reviving the historic holiday. All those present were asked to pledge that they, their children, and their children’s children, would see to it that the practice of raising the American flag there on Evacuation Day would continue and never again be abandoned. Abraham Kurtullus, with the assistance of Arthur Piccolo and my daughter Caroline Kaplan, then raised the flag which had been unfurled at the Evacuation Day dinner at Fraunces Tavern the night before.

There were probably three times as many people visiting Arturo Di Modica’s statue of the Bull a few feet to the north, all of whom were oblivious to the important ceremony unfolding at the flagpoles. However, with this inauspicious small ceremony of not more than 25 people, the seeds had been sown for the revival of Evacuation Day.

Over the following year, Arthur Piccolo interested the leadership of the Veteran Corps of Artillery of the State of New York (“VCA”) in participating in the planning and execution of the 2015 Evacuation Day celebration. (The VCA already fires 50 cannon rounds at Battery Park each July 4th.)  The VCA was founded on Evacuation Day 1790 and John van Arsdale was one of its founders. Historically it was one of the leaders of the Evacuation Day ceremonies in the 19th century and there is a direct historical link between the VCA and Evacuation Day. The VCA enthusiastically endorsed taking a leadership role in a much more expanded Evacuation Day ceremony.

With the backing of the Howard Hughes Corporation, VCA public affairs officer Allen Milman organized a ceremony with the assistance of the LMHS on November 25, 2015 that began at St. Paul’s Chapel on Vesey Street. This ceremony included talks by VCA chaplain and Trinity vestryman Robert Zito; a military historian from Fort Wadworth; a British military historian, who spoke about the impact of the American Revolution on the British Army; John Loeb, a prominent Wall Street financier and former Ambassador to Denmark; and a representative of the LMHS.

After these short speeches, there was a parade down Broadway of the VCA color guard to Bowling Green, where there were more speeches by among others Ambrose Richardson, President of the Sons of the Revolution, and City Council woman Margaret Chin, who represents the Lower Manhattan district encompassing Bowling Green. The LMHS Evacuation Day Flag was again raised at the Bowling Green flagpoles shortly after 12 pm. In contrast to the 25 people who were at the 2014 ceremony there were more than 250 people in 2015.

A further element of the 2015 Evacuation Day ceremony was the announcement of an effort to have the City rename the area around Bowling Green as Evacuation Day Plaza. This idea proved to be more difficult to accomplish than it was at first thought.

Ceremonial street naming has proliferated in recent years in New York City, as various individuals and groups have sought to obtain permanent recognition for various civic leaders or events. The procedure by which a street is renamed involves an application to the local Community Planning Board which then recommends it to the local City council person who sponsors it before the full City Council. The Council generally enacts renaming legislation about every six months. There were at least 42 such re-namings in the February 2016 legislation.

The LMHS and the Bowling Green Association applied to the Financial District Committee of Community Board No. 1 to have the north part of Bowling Green renamed Evacuation Day Plaza. Much to our surprise there was significant opposition to this proposal on the ground among others that no one had ever heard of Evacuation Day, it sounded like a bodily fluid, and there were too any ceremonial names for streets in Manhattan anyway. The proposal narrowly passed the Committee by a vote of 6 to 5, after Subcommittee Chairman Jerry Levine strongly endorsed it.

From here the Committee’s narrowly favorable decision would have to be approved by the full Community Board (approximately 40 people) at its next full board meeting. The Board members are generally residents of the area who are local civic activists appointed by the Manhattan Borough President. Previously there were very few actual residents of Lower Manhattan, as opposed to more than 70,000 today, so the members of Community Board No. 1 were generally people who had moved into the area over the past 20 years.

My impression was that they had something of a pioneer mentality among many who had occupied an area that hadn’t been residential in a hundred years, where amenities like grocery stores or cleaners had been in short supply. Furthermore many of them had recently been driven from their homes twice – during 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy. As a result of these factors, there was a somewhat close-knit community, sometimes distrustful of those perceived as outsiders. While many were rather vaguely aware that they had moved into the most historically important area of the City, most did not understand how rich the history of the area is and how knowledge of it might enhance their lives there.

Under the rules of the Community Board’s meetings there was a public comment session in which any individual could speak for up to two minutes on matters to come before Board. Those supporting the renaming assembled a team of five speakers for the public session consisting of me for the LMHS, Ambrose Richardson, President of the Sons of the Revolution, Allen Millman on behalf of the VCA, Arthur Piccolo on behalf of the Bowling Green Association, and lawyer, historian and writer Warren Shaw, who has written about Evacuation Day. Each of us spoke about a different aspect of Evacuation Day, the Borad proceeded with its scheduled business and it wasn’t until after 9 pm that Evacuation Day came up.

There was a spirited discussion in which most, if not all, members of the Board spoke. Some were favorable, but a number objected that the name Evacuation Day reminded them of having to evacuate their homes during 9/11. As the discussion see-sawed there came a point where it looked like the proposal might be defeated and a member of the Board suggested that it might be better to compromise on a plaque. Since there was already a plaque installed, we insisted that the Community Board vote positively or negatively on our proposal. We held our breaths when the Chair took the somewhat unusual step of requesting a roll call vote, but the vote concluded 19 to 6 in our favor.

Having won the favorable vote in the Community Board, and having the strong support of the local Councilwoman Margaret Chin, we assumed that it would now be clearl sailing to have the proposal approved by the City Council and signed by the Mayor.  This was not the case, however.

When the official list of renamed streets was promulgated on the City Council website, Evacuation Day Plaza wasn’t on it. When Councilman Chin’s staff asked about this omission they were told that certain lawyers on the City Council staff had decided that Evacuation Day Plaza did not qualify for renaming because it did not commemorate a specific person.

Arthur Piccolo immediately sent an angry letter of protest to all members of the City Council; Ambrose Richardson of the Sons of the Revolution and Allen Milman of the VCA composed more measured responses to the City Council President. A member of Councilwoman Chin’s staff cautioned us that we probably would be better advised to wait another six months until the next set of naming legislation was passed. We were told if we persisted trying to bring pressure on the Council, we risked offending the powerful lawyers on the City Council staff, and we might never get the renaming.

Nevertheless, Lower Manhattan’s local community paper the Downtown Express, ran a story entitled “Council snubs history” which blasted the refusal of the council staff to permit the renaming.  We also learned that the Council was going to hold a pro forma hearing on the street naming (at which no one usually showed up) and we assembled our team to testify.

In a move truly reminiscent of the late Robert Moses, the hearing was abruptly cancelled 12 hours before it was to begin. Finally as opposition to the secret action of the Council staff began to build beyond Lower Manhattan, Sam Roberts of the New York Times penned  an important story.  Noting that as Evacuation Day was once one of the City’s most important holidays, Roberts found it surprising that the City Council staff wouldn’t recognize it, despite the naming having received the support of both the local planning board and the local councilwoman. The next day Evacuation Day Plaza miraculously appeared on the list of approved renamings.

On February 6, 2016, the City Council held a meeting at which no fewer than 10 Councilmembers spoke about the importance of the individuals or events which were renamed in their district.  Councilwoman Margaret Chin, whose family came to the United States in the 1960s from China, eloquently spoke. She explained how George Washington had entered New York City in 1783 on Evacuation Day and how important it was to Lower Manhattan civic groups such as the Sons of the Revolution that their ancestors struggles in the American Revolution be recognized. Several weeks later there was an elaborate three-hour ceremony at the New York County Surrogate’s Court at which Mayor DeBlasio had photo made with the promoters of all 43 renamed streets, including one with me and my daughters and Ambrose Richardson, the Presidents of the Sons of the Revolution. At that ceremony the Mayor promised his support for Fraunces Tavern and the efforts of the LMHS to educate people about the history of Lower Manhattan.

The fight to name Evacuation Day Plaza thus advanced the interests of the LMHS far beyond what we could have imagined. As a result of the opposition we encountered, we were able to obtain thousands of dollars of free publicity to educate people in Lower Manhattan and throughout the City about Evacuation Day and its importance. Because of this opposition, disparate historical groups in Lower Manhattan were energized to work together and vigorously assert their positions.

Equally as important, we were able to show political leaders in the City, particularly in the relevant Community Board and the City Council, that there is a real political constituency in Lower Manhattan for educating people about the importance of history and historical events that occurred here. In an era in which finance – the traditional economic pillar of Lower Manhattan – may be somewhat in decline, the economic potential for historical tourism is just beginning to be realized.

On November 25, 2016, the day after Thanksgiving, the National Park Service will be giving an all-day program in honor of Evacuation Day at Federal Hall. The New York Veteran Corps of Artillery and the LMHS will have a ceremony beginning in Federal Hall, from which the VCA will march in uniform down Broad Street to Evacuation Day Plaza where around 12 pm we will raise the LMHS Evacuation Day flag. Evacuation Day, New York’s previously forgotten holiday, is forgotten no more. We urge you to join us.

Photo: City of New York Councilmember Margaret Chin and Lower Manhattan Historical Society co-founder James Kaplan unveiled an “Evacuation Day Plaza” sign at the 2015 Evacuation Day ceremony at Bowling Green (photo by Bill Egbert).

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James S. Kaplan

About James S. Kaplan

James S. Kaplan is a lawyer, writer and walking tour historian who is the President and one of the founders of the Lower Manhattan Historical Association. The Association annually celebrates July 4 Weekend with a parade through Lower Manhattan and the Alexander Hamilton Immigrant Achievement Awards ceremony recognizing contributions to New York City by prominent individuals born outside the United States. It also is responsible for naming Evacuation Day Plaza at Bowling Green and efforts to revive the ancient New York City holiday of Evacuation Day and for the Saratoga/Yorktown celebration in Trinity Churchyard annually held in October. Mr. Kaplan is also the founding partner of Greenberg & Kaplan, where his a practicing Tax, Estate and Guardianship lawyer.

2 thoughts on “The Fight To Make Evacuation Day A NYC Holiday

  1. Cindy Amrhein, Wyoming County Historian

    That was fascinating and something I knew nothing about. Congratulations on making history new again in the community.

  2. Pingback: About that Holiday on March 17…. – ZipperAgent

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