On November 26, 1883, a large statue of George Washington by the American Sculptor John Quincy Adams Ward was erected in front of New York City’s Federal Hall at 26 Wall Street, which statue remains there to this day.
This more than life size statute of George Washington was erected as part of a huge celebration of the hundredth anniversary of Evacuation Day, the day that the British finally left New York City on November 25, 1783 and Washington entered the City to claim it for the new American government.
Legend has it that on that day the British in one final hostile act greased the pole at the Fort near Bowling Green with the last British flag flying, and that Washington insisted that he would not enter the City while the British flag was flying over the city. Considerable embarrassment was avoided when John Van Arsdale, a young Sergeant in Washington’s army climbed the pole, pulled down the British flag, and to the cheers of an adoring crowd, nailed up the 13 star American flag so that Washington could make his triumphant entrance into the City.
For more than a hundred years thereafter Evacuation Day was celebrated as a major secular holiday in New York City, second only to July 4. John Van Arsdale, who was from Orange County, NY and apparently was in his late 20’s in 1783, invariably was asked to recreate his raising of the American flag at Bowling Green on November 25 (although as he got older he presumably no longer climbed the flagpole). After he died in 1836, the honors passed to his son David Van Arsdale, who continued to raise the flag at the Evacuation Day ceremony for almost 50 years until he died in 1883, shortly before the hundredth anniversary. For 12 years thereafter Van Arsdale’s great grandson Christopher Forbes took over the duties of raising the flag on Evacuation Day until in 1895 when as described below his authority to do so was questioned by a committee of the City Council.
Although the size and intensity of Evacuation Day celebrations may have waxed and waned over the years depending on national wars and patriotic fervor at the time, clearly the 100th anniversary ceremony in 1883 was one of the City’s high points. The ceremony was organized by a blue ribbon panel headed by John Austen Stevens, the President of the recently formed Sons of the Revolution of the State of New York, a group dedicated to promoting the memories of the Revolution, and numerous other military and other patriotic societies including the Veteran Corps of Artillery-State of New York (the oldest continuously operating military unit in New York State of which John Van Arsdale was a founding member). It is claimed that there was a parade of between 200,000 and 1,000,000 that marched down Broadway that included President Chester A. Arthur and virtually every military and political leader in the City. Many accounts refer to it as one of the largest and most important civic celebrations in the City’s history in the 19th century. Although subsequent Evacuation Day celebrations were apparently not as elaborate, they did continue with some force into the 1890’s, including a celebration on November 25, 1893 in City Hall Park at which Sons of the Revolution President Frederick Tallmadge presented a statue of Nathan Hale that still stands there to the Mayor. Hale was executed by the British in 1776.
In 1895 there apparently arose a controversy probably between two political groups as to who was to control the Evacuation Day celebration. The New York City Parks Department announced it would deny Christopher Forbes, Van Arsdale’s great grandson, the right to raise the flag on Evacuation Day because it believed a rival group was more deserving. Forbes and other representatives of the Van Arsdale family brought legal action and there ensued a bitter and lengthy hearing before a committee of the City Council to determine the merits of each party’s claim in which each side was represented by leading New York Counsel.
After hearing extensive testimony, the City Council concluded that there was not sufficient evidence to conclude that Van Arsdale had actually climbed up the pole (it thought that, Anthony Glean actually may have done that), although he may have obtained the cleats and perhaps procured the flag. Therefore, even though the Van Arsdale family had raised the flag for the past 112 years, the Council committee determined, Forbes, Van Arsdale’s descendant, should be denied that privilege in the future. The amount of effort that was spent by the Council in examining an event more than 112 years old whose history had purportedly been long settled is interesting and perhaps ironic in light of the fact later celebrations of Evacuation Day would be formally discontinued by the City and the holiday would be almost completely forgotten.
While Evacuation Day celebrations continued for the next 20 years by the Veteran Corps of Artillery-State of New York, which may have been allied with Tammany Hall, and ethnic Irish, it began to be eclipsed by celebrations of Thanksgiving and the Harvard-Yale football game. It also fell into disfavor in certain elements in the City when the nation became allied with the British in the First World War. In 1916 reform Mayor John Purroy Mitchell (“The Boy Mayor of New York”), who was an ardent Anglophile and a bitter opponent of Tammany Hall, ordered that City support for the holiday be completely discontinued. Mitchell allegedly believed that its Anti-British overtones and perhaps its support by the Irish were insulting to our strong British allies. As a result it quickly faded into oblivion, the area around what is today Evacuation Day Plaza at Bowling Green, which for more than 130 years, was hallowed Revolutionary ground became just another nondescript plaza.
Evacuation Day Revived
However, the memories of Evacuation Day were not completely forgotten. In 1983, for the 200th anniversary of Evacuation Day, the Fraunces Tavern Museum, which is run by the Sons of the Revolution, under its then director Christine Miles, mounted a major exhibit on Evacuation Day, and there was a somewhat significant celebration honoring its 200th anniversary at Bowling Green (although not nearly as elaborate as the 100th Anniversary). Around that time the Sons of the Revolution apparently began annually to hold an Evacuation Day dinner at Fraunces Tavern.
Other groups such as the New York City Council under Paul O’Dwyer and his public relations director Joseph Fitzpatrick, and members of the New York City Law Department began to hold tours of City Hall in honor of Evacuation Day. Most significantly Arthur Piccolo, Chairman of the Bowling Green Association, which had erected flagpoles in Bowling Green, would sporadically hold ceremonial flag raisings on Evacuation Day at what was near the Fort where Van Arsdale had raised the flag on November 25, 1783.
The Bowling Green Association Evacuation Day flag raising sometimes invited a representative of the British consulate to raise the British flag along with the American flag. This was in recognition that properly understood Evacuation Day was not an anti-British holiday, as Mayor John Purroy Mitchell had believed one hundred years ago. Rather Evacuation Day was a day of triumph celebrating the American triumph in the Revolution in 1783, but much more importantly the greater triumph of the reconciliation between the United States and Britain in the 19th and 20th century, and the great success of the Anglo-American alliance in the last two centuries. This alliance has built Wall Street and the United States into the great power that it is today. There was some thought that Evacuation Day should be renamed British American Friendship Day.
In 2014, Arthur Piccolo, with the financial assistance of Lower Manhattan Historical Association director John Herzog, purchased a replica of the 13 star flag that Van Arsdale raised, and had it unfurled at the Evacuation Day dinner at Fraunces Tavern, where it was stated that the following day November 25 at 1 pm (the time Van Arsdale is believed to have raised the flag in 1783) the newly formed Lower Manhattan Historical Association would, as one of its first official acts, raise the recently purchased Evacuation Day flag at Bowling Green in an attempt to formally reinstate the ancient holiday of Evacuation Day.
The following day approximately 15 people including Piccolo, John Herzog, Association director Wes Oler, and Caroline Kaplan held a ceremony at Bowling Green just south of Arturo DiModica’s charging bull, whereby it was stated that Evacuation Day was a day of triumph, representing the American army’s triumph in the Revolution, but, the more important triumph of Evacuation Day was the formation of the British American alliance over the past 200 years, which had been a basis for the City’s prosperity.
All those present were asked to pledge that they, their children and their children’s children would see that an Evacuation Day flag would be raised at Bowling Green on that day at that time henceforth into the future in honor of John Van Arsdale and his descendants.
The following year, 2015, in conjunction with its 225th Anniversary the Veteran Corps of Artillery-State of New York , which was founded by, among others, John Van Arsdale on Evacuation Day 1790; under the direction of Col. Allen I. Milman and Arthur Piccolo joined with the Association in staging the largest Evacuation event in the previous 100 years. The British Monarchy was represented by CPT John W. Conlin, Sandhurst Graduate, former member of the 6th Gurkha Rifles Regiment and Military Historian (having studied under Sir John Keegan).
Participating in the ceremony were Ambassador John L Loeb, Jr., COL Joseph D. Davidson, Commander of Army Garrison at Fort Hamilton, COL Stephen J. Ryan, Commandant, Veteran Corps of Artillery-State of New and City Councilwoman Margaret Chin.
In 2017 Arthur Piccolo led an effort to have the New York City Council rename the area around Bowling Green as “Evacuation Day Plaza.” This proved to be a tough fight in which Ambrose Richardson, President of the Sons of the Revolution, COL Allen I. Milman of the Veteran Corps of Artillery, Arthur Piccolo of the Bowling Green Association, the President of the Lower Manhattan Historical Association and historian Warren Shaw had to overcome some major skepticism before Manhattan Community Planning Board No.1. to gain approval for a recommendation to the City Council. You can read about that in “The Fight to Revive Evacuation Day as a New York City Holiday” here at The New York History Blog.
In recent years, the National Park Service has held an all-day program celebrating Evacuation Day at Federal Hall on Wall Street. This year the National Park Service celebration of Evacuation Day will take place on Friday, November 29 starting at 11 am at Federal Hall, 26 Wall Street.
The Veteran Corps of Artillery-State of New York will start the ceremony with the presentation of the colors. Around 12 pm the Veteran Corps of Artillery and the Lower Manhattan Historical Association will march down to Evacuation Day Plaza, where the British flag (previously raised) will be taken down taken and presented to CPT Conlin for symbolic return to the Queen. Then the Veteran Corps will raise the 13 Star Colonial flag in salute to John Van Arsdale and Evacuation Day.
The Lower Manhattan Historical Association invites all New Yorkers, and particularly those of British descent living or visiting the City to join us for what we hope will again be the largest New York City Evacuation Day celebration in 100 years.
Illustration: Evacuation Day and Washingtons Triumphal Entry by Edmund P Restein (1837-1891).