By Elissa Gilbert
New York does a great celebration—think ticker-tape parades down Broadway for our winning sports teams. The Canyon of Heroes in lower Manhattan has been the scene of parades since just after the American Revolution. One of the first events celebrated downtown was Evacuation Day, when British troops left the city at the end of the war. They’d been settled in for seven years after George Washington was defeated here not long after the colonies declared independence.
Most signs of British and colonial life in New York were torn down long ago, but you can still find bits of the New York where George Washington fought, lost, and returned victorious. Several sites are close to each other between City Hall and Bowling Green, which was the entire length of the city back then, and you can spend a few hours exploring them. With more time, you can head to sites in surrounding areas uptown and in the other boroughs, where major battles of the Revolutionary War were fought.
The Declaration of Independence was read in City Hall Park on 7/9/1776, but the city’s revolutionary acts started long before then. The Sons of Liberty burned the carriage of the royal governor here in response to the Stamp Act. Later, a mob tore down the statue of King George that stood in the center of the park and melted it into tens of thousands of musket balls. The fence surrounding the park today, amazingly, is still the original one from the 1770s, minus the royal crown finials, which also became musket balls.
The Boston Tea Party is the most famous, but there were tea parties in other cities, including New York. The tea party was plotted in New York in 1774 at Fraunces Tavern, a meeting spot popular with many clubs, not just revolutionaries. The tavern’s roof was the victim of a British fusillade in 1775, when patriots—including Alexander Hamilton—attempted to steal British cannons from the nearby Battery.
The tavern remained open through the war, and patriots spied upon the British there. When the war ended, New York was the last city to be liberated from the British. George Washington dined at Fraunces Tavern during the week of Evacuation Day. He also made an emotional farewell speech to his troops in the Long Room in the tavern. Later, the tavern provided office space for cabinet departments when New York was the capital. Today, the Long Room is part of the tavern’s museum, which also exhibits other items related to George Washington and the American Revolution.
George Washington left New York after saying goodbye to his troops, but he returned a few years later when New York City became the capital. His inauguration was at Federal Hall, where his statue stands, but the building there now isn’t the original. The site is a National Memorial, with the Bible Washington took the oath of office on displayed inside.
Built shortly before the revolution in 1766, St. Paul’s Chapel—like Fraunces Tavern—served the needs of both sides of the war. British generals attended services here, but Alexander Hamilton drilled troops in the churchyard. George Washington worshiped here on his inauguration day and throughout his days in New York. His pew is beneath a painting of the Great Seal of the United States.
Not far from St. Paul’s Chapel is Trinity Church. The current building dates from 1846, but the cemetery is older. Alexander Hamilton is one of several revolutionary figures buried there. There’s also a memorial to unknown revolutionary martyrs.
Sites Outside of Old New York
There are lots of other Revolutionary War sites and George Washington connections at places within modern New York City that were outside city boundaries during the war.
George Washington made his headquarters at the Morris Jumel Mansion in Upper Manhattan during the Battle of Harlem Heights; it fell into British hands after Washington retreated from New York. Washington returned with members of his cabinet, including Adams, Jefferson, and Hamilton, after he became president.
Up in the Bronx, George Washington stopped at Van Cortlandt House during his retreat from the Battle of Brooklyn, as well as on his triumphal return.
The Revolutionary War might have ended early if the talks held at the Conference House on Staten Island had succeeded. Founding Fathers Franklin, Adams, and Edward Rutledge attempted a negotiated peace at this home.
At these sites, enough remains that it doesn’t take too much work to imagine the historic scenes unfolding. In other places, only the bare outlines of history remain. A row of stone blocks in the brick pavement on Pearl Street at Coenties Alley traces the outline of the old city hall and Governor Lovelace’s tavern, conveniently adjacent. You can find other remnants of colonial New York in exhibits at the New York Historical Society and the Museum of the City of New York.