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Friday, September 21, 2012

The Great Fire of 1776



Today marks the anniversary of the beginning of the end of American control of Manhattan during the Revolutionary War – the Great Fire of 1776, which decimated Lower Manhattan on the night of September 21.

As we write in 
Inside the Apple:
The fire started on the evening of September 21, 1776—perhaps in the Fighting Cocks Tavern on the wharf, though that has never been substantiated—and quickly engulfed the city west of Broadway. The churchyard surrounding Trinity Church kept the fire from heading south, but neither Trinity was spared, nor anything between it and St. Paul’s Chapel. St. Paul’s, itself only ten years old, had a bucket brigade manning its roof and was saved. In all, over 400 buildings were gone—nearly twenty-five percent of the city’s structures.

The British immediately blamed the Americans. (One American blamed by the British was Nathan Hale, who was arrested for spying that same day. Hale, however, had nothing to do with the fire.) General Howe called it a “horrid attempt” by a “number of wretches to burn the town….” As most of the damage happened on “Holy Ground” and other Trinity Church property, some saw it as an explicit attack on the Church of England’s power and influence. In truth, the Americans had contemplated the idea of torching the city if it fell into British hands. One of Washington’s generals, Nathaniel Greene (the “Fighting Quaker”), had pressed Washington in that direction. However, when Washington floated the idea by John Hancock, the Continental Congress immediately nixed it and it is unlikely that either Washington or Greene disobeyed Congress.
By the time the fire was extinguished, New York was firmly in British hands and it would remain the British center of authority until November 25, 1783 -- Evacuation Day.

One thing that ticked off the Americans left behind in the British-occupied city was the fact that none of the fire damage was repaired. Throughout the war the area west of Broadway was left to smolder in ruins. Much of the rebuilding -- including re-erecting the city's main church, Trinity, Wall Street -- would not happen until the 1790s.

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Read more about the Great Fire of 1776 and the American Revolution in


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