The Gibraltar of North America

September 1776:  British-Hessian troops under the command of General Howe parading through New York as they took over the city during the American War of Independence. The city was occupied for seven years. Original Artwork: Engraved by Habermann  (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

September 1776: British-Hessian troops under the command of General Howe parading through New York as they took over the city during the American War of Independence. The city was occupied for seven years. Original Artwork: Engraved by Habermann (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)


For the thousands of Tories who fled New York between 1774 and 1776, its capture by the British was the signal for a jubilant homecoming. Sporting red badges in their hats as tokens of loyalty, they streamed into town behind Howe’s troops; the general’s personal chaplain, inspired by this devotion to the royal cause, reopened St. Paul’s Chapel with a sermon on Jeremiah 12:15: “And it shall come to pass, after I have plucked them out, I will return again and have compassion on them, each man to his heritage, and every man to his land.” Hundreds of people thronged Qty Hall in October to sign a memorial congratulating General Howe and his brother on their victory. Another crowd turned out in November to sign a “declaration of dependence,” reaffirming their “loyalty to our Sovereign, against the strong tide of oppression and tyranny, which had almost overwhelmed this Land.”

By early 1777 the Tory flood tide had lifted New York’s population to some twelve thousand; two years later, swollen by successive waves of Tory refugees from elsewhere in the colonies, the city had a record thirty-three thousand inhabitants. Conspicuous among the returnees was James Rivington, who won an appointment as “Printer to His Majesty the King” and resumed publication of his New-York Gazetteer (later the Royal Gazette). The Gazetteer’s reappearance, along with Hugh Gaine’s Weekly Mercury and James Robertson’s Royal American Gazette, would make New York the headquarters of Tory opinion for the remainder of the war. Also back in town, having been run out of Virginia by the rebels, was former governor Dunmore; joining him, at one point, were four other colonial governors and swarms of lesser imperial functionaries with similar stories to tell. All told, an estimated fifty thousand Tories had gathered behind British lines in and around New York City by 1782.

Those were the civilians. As the war waxed and waned in distant theaters, tens of thousands of troops also shifted in and out of the city—Waldeckers in their gaudy yellow-trimmed cocked hats, huge mustachioed Hessians, kilted and tartaned Highlanders, black-capped Anspach grenadiers—all trailed by numerous dependents and camp followers. Between November 1777 and July 1778 their numbers leaped from five thousand to nearly twenty thousand. By December 1779 they had fallen to four thousand, only to rise again to ten thousand by August 1781 and seventeen thousand by December 1782.

Organized rebel activity on Long Island and in much of Westchester County came to an abrupt end. Soon after Washington’s retreat from Brooklyn Heights, perhaps as many as five thousand patriots from Kings, Queens, and Suffolk counties fled across the Sound to Connecticut. In their absence one town after another disbanded its committees, repudiated the authority of Congress, and drafted congratulatory addresses to General Howe and Governor Tryon. Tryon toured the island in October 1776, handing out thousands of certificates of loyalty and administering an oath of allegiance to the militia in his capacity as head of the provincial forces. In Kings County, 593 out of the 630 militiamen took the oath; in Queens, roughly twelve hundred of a possible fifteen hundred did likewise, while some thirteen hundred “freeholders and inhabitants” put their names on a declaration denouncing the “infatuated conduct of the Congress” and describing how they had “steadfastly maintained their royal principles.” The army obligingly sent eight hundred stands of arms to Queens, where they were received “with demonstrations of joy.”

Military recruiters had an easy time of it for the next few years. Long Island men flocked to Tory militia regiments under the command of Oliver De Lancey, brother of the late governor. In Westchester County, Oliver’s nephew James De Lancey (not to be confused with James De Lancey Jr., the late governor’s son) raised a troop of some five hundred light horse to hunt for deserters and patrol the regular army’s supply routes through the Neutral Ground—a thirty-mile-wide no-man’s-land that ran north of Morrisania to the mouth of the Croton River, marking the unofficial boundary between British- and American-held territory.

Thousands of other New Yorkers joined a parade of colorfully named Tory units—the King’s American Regiment, the King’s Orange Rangers, the Loyal American Regiment, the British Legion, and the Volunteers of Ireland, among others—some of which would see action as far away as Georgia, Canada, and Jamaica. In all, around sixteen thousand New York men bore arms for the king as against thirty-six thousand for Congress. Over the winter of 1779-80, when Washington was rumored to be preparing an attack on New York, it took only five days to raise two thousand volunteers for the city’s defense.

Female Tories served the British as spies and couriers. Lorenda Holmes had carried messages to Howe’s forces in 1776. Captured by rebel committeemen, she was stripped naked and exposed to a patriot crowd but, she wrote, “received no wounds or bruises from them only shame and horror of the mind.” Holmes carried on, helping to slip loyalists through rebel lines into occupied New York City. When the rebels apprehended her a second time, they held her right foot on hot coals until it was badly burned.

It was men and women such as these, said one British commander, that made New York the principal bulwark of royal power and influence in the colonies. The “Gibraltar of North America” he called it—a proud allusion to the royal fortress that was, even as he spoke, standing fast against the combined forces of France and Spain.


Superficially, at least, the British occupation restored some of the prosperity that New York had enjoyed in the 1750s. The city’s rebounding civilian population opened lucrative new markets for area farmers and, after years of nonimportation, for British manufacturers eager to reduce inventories of clothing, hardware, and other finished goods. Provisioning the huge military machine—five hundred ships jammed the harbor within a month after the city’s fall—generated windfall profits for the Waltons, Bayards, Lows, and other Tory merchants. When Parliament authorized a fleet of 120-odd privateers to be fitted out in New York to prey on rebel shipping, it created work for thousands of seamen and attracted immense quantities of goods and money into the local economy. (In one six-month period, between September 1778 and March 1779, privateers came in with 165 prizes worth over six hundred thousand pounds.) Shopkeepers, cloakmakers, milliners, dressmakers, wigmakers, and coachmakers were busy again trying to meet the demand of His Majesty’s officers and their wives for all the comforts of home. There was money to be made, too, in illicit trade between the city and rebel-held areas of Westchester, New Jersey, and Connecticut, despite efforts of authorities on both sides to stamp it out. Alexander Hamilton calculated in 1782 that upstate patriots were buying thirty thousand pounds’ worth of luxuries from New York merchants every year, plus an additional eighty thousand from sources in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New England. Cartloads of specie were said to arrive in the city every week.

Thanks to this sudden wealth, plus General Howe’s own weakness for extravagant living—“Toujours de la gaiete!” he cried as the occupation got underway—New York’s fashionable classes were soon caught up in a social whirl that would have been unthinkable only a year or two before. Fox-hunting and golf made a fast comeback, dispelling the gloom of republican austerity. Billiards were all the rage at the King’s Head Tavern. Horse racing returned to Hempstead Plains, and its popularity prompted the opening of a new course, Ascot Heath, on the Flatland Plains, five miles east of the Brooklyn ferry. Two rival cricket clubs, the Brooklyn and Greenwich, squared off on Bowling Green or near Cannon’s Tavern on Corlear’s Hook. Ladies and gentlemen of quality entertained themselves with saltwater bathing parties and concerts, and every two weeks at the City Tavern on Broadway there was a “Garrison Assembly” where local girls danced with dashing officers like the young Captain Horatio Nelson—“genuine, smooth-faced, fresh-coloured” Englishmen “of family and consideration” (as the American prisoner of war Alexander Graydon described them). The John Street Theater, renamed the Theatre Royal, reopened in January 1777 with a production of Tom Thumb. Some 150 performances followed over the next half-dozen years, including works by Shakespeare, Garrick, and Sheridan. The actors, mostly officers, were fondly known as “Clinton’s Thespians.” Audiences usually numbered around 750.

Especially lavish festivities accompanied the Queen’s Birthday celebration of 1780, when “a transparent painting of their majesties at full length, in their royal robes” was suspended over the gate of the fort and “illuminated with a beautiful variety of different colored lamps.” The presentation of this tribute was followed by an elegant ball and formal supper. “It is said that the ball cost above 2000 Guineas, and they had over 300 dishes,” the Rev. Schaukirk noted sourly in his diary. When Prince William Henry (later King William IV) visited New York in September 1781, the social whirl became positively frantic. The prince especially liked the informal skating parties on the Fresh Water Pond, during which an attendant pushed him around in a chair mounted with runners.

Eating and drinking societies like the Old Church and King Club again crowded into the private rooms of Hull’s Tavern or the King’s Head, roaring out their loyalty to the crown in song and endless toasts. The St. Andrew’s Society, the St. George Society, and other fraternal organizations resumed their annual rites with gusto and aggressively loyalist overtones. In March 1779 the Volunteers of Ireland, a British regiment organized in Ireland that had arrived in New York the previous June, sought to win Irish recruits to the British cause by staging one of the first St. Patrick’s Day parades in the city’s history. According to the Weekly Mercury, “the Volunteers of Ireland, preceded by their band of music,” marched out to the Bowery, where a dinner was provided for five hundred people.


Military oppression and corruption also weighed heavily on the areas immediately adjacent to the city. Hessians and redcoats ran amok after the American retreat from Long Island, assaulting civilians and pillaging at will. The Tory Philip Van Cortlandt heard “many frightful accounts” of “cruel unnatural & inhuman” acts committed by His Majesty’s troops on friend and foe alike. Soldiers murdered several persons “in cold blood, plunging bayonets in their bodys & then trampling them under their horses feet, women without distinction taken into the lascivious embraces of Officers & then turned over to the Soldiery, torn from the arms of husbands & parents by Brutal force.” Colonel Stephen Kemble reported that rampaging redcoats had destroyed “all the fruits of the Earth without regard to Loyalists or Rebels, the property of both being equaly a prey to them.”

Little of this havoc was accidental. From the very beginning of the war it was taken for granted, especially among the subordinate officers responsible for day-to-day discipline, that the Americans were a cowardly, contemptible rabble—either descended (like the third- and fourth-generation Dutch of Long Island) from Europe’s most benighted and boorish classes or (as in the case of New York’s burgeoning Irish population) the genuine article, fresh off the boat. Rebel and Tory alike would benefit from a dose of Britannic wrath, wrote Lord Francis Rawdon, Sir Henry Clinton’s aide-de-camp, in September 1776. Only by giving “free liberty to the soldiers to ravage at will” could “these infatuated wretches” be made to realize “what a calamity war is.” “At heart they are all rebels,” agreed a high-ranking Hessian.

The yearning to bayonet and torch reached new heights in 1780 when William Franklin, Benjamin’s Tory son and former royal governor of New Jersey, organized the Board of Associated Loyalists in New York. Franklin’s plan was to unite supporters of the crown for self-preservation and revenge, and until Generals Clinton and Carleton put them on a short leash, the four hundred armed Associators compiled a record of atrocities unrivaled on either side. They plundered the country around New York, Jones wrote tersely, “without distinction of Whigs or Tories, Loyalists or rebels.”

Besides Associators, residents of Westchester County had to contend with a vicious little civil war between De Lancey’s “Refugees” and irregular “Cowboys,” who pillaged indiscriminately while pursuing rebel “Skinners” through the Neutral Ground. On Staten Island, said Lord Rawdon, “a girl cannot step into the bushes to pluck a rose without running the most imminent risk of being ravished” by soldiers “as riotous as Satyrs.” On Long Island, hundreds, often thousands, of regulars were stationed at Bedford, Flushing, Brooklyn, Newtown, Jamaica, Oyster Bay, Hempstead, and other villages after 1776. Clashes with civilians were common and all the more bitter when the troops belonged to one or another of the crown’s special black regiments. Officers and public officials with the authority to protect the local population did little or nothing. The Nassau Blues, a regiment of provincial troops commanded by Colonel William Axtell of Flatbush, entered local lore as the “Nasty Blues” thanks to their thuggish abuse of the town’s residents. Axtell himself allegedly tortured rebel prisoners in the secret chambers of his country house, Melrose Hall.

Always a sore point with loyal civilians was the obligation to quarter troops and prisoners, and the system of “contribution,” pitting military foragers against local farmers and householders, ensured that His Majesty’s forces would never be really welcome, even among their most patient friends. A more and more frequent source of friction, as time went on, was competition for rapidly dwindling stocks of firewood. After making fast work of city fences and shade trees, scavengers and foraging parties turned their attention to the orchards, woodlots, and forests of upper Manhattan and western Long Island. Not even loyalist estates escaped the ax: a Tory regiment stripped Morrisania of livestock and leveled 450 acres of timberland.

The heaviest cutting occurred during the terrible winter of 1779-80, when snow fell almost every day from early November to March and the East River, Hudson River, Long Island Sound, and the Upper Bay became a solid mass of ice. Military authorities couldn’t, or wouldn’t, distribute firewood to civilians, and it became so expensive that some of the city’s poorest inhabitants quietly froze to death. A year or so later, while studying the enemy’s positions on Manhattan from the New Jersey palisades, Washington was astonished to see that “the island is totally stripped of trees; low bushes . . . appear in places which were covered with wood in the year 1776.”


Protesting “the violence in the Americans which broke out soon after the cessation of hostilities,” General Carleton held on to New York until every Tory who wanted to get out had left. On November 21, 1783, satisfied that he had done his duty, Carleton ordered all British forces to begin withdrawing from Long Island and upper Manhattan. Governor Clinton and General Washington met at Tarrytown and rode down through Yonkers to Harlem, where they waited at a tavern (near the present intersection of Frederick Douglass Boulevard and 126th Street) for word of the final British departure.

Three days later, on the morning of November 25—long celebrated in the city as Evacuation Day—the last redcoats in New York paraded glumly down the Bowery to the East River wharves, from where they were rowed out to the fleet in the harbor. When a certain Mrs. Day prematurely ran up the American flag over her boardinghouse on Murray Street, Provost Marshal Cunningham, resplendent in his scarlet coat and wig, ordered her to take it down. She bloodied his nose with her broom, however, and drove him off. Delirious patriots now thronged the streets, many sporting a special “Badge of Distinction” that consisted of “a Union Cockade, of black and white Ribband, worn on the left Breast, and a Laurel in the Hat.” High-spirited seamen pulled down the signs of taverns that had welcomed the trade of Tories and British soldiers.

A contingent of Continental officers, including General Alexander McDougall, Colonel John Lamb, and numerous other old Sons of Liberty meanwhile assembled at the Bull’s Head Tavern on the Bowery to escort Washington and Clinton into town. Joining them there were some eight hundred Continental troops from Massachusetts and New York and a party of mounted townsfolk. Careful to keep a discreet distance behind the British, the Americans marched in formation down the Bowery to Pearl Street, turned west along Wall Street, then stopped opposite Cape’s Tavern on Broadway. “The troops just leaving us were as if equipped for show,” one eyewitness recalled, “and with their scarlet uniforms and burnished arms, made a brilliant display. The troops that marched in, on the contrary, were ill-clad and weather-beaten, and made a forlorn appearance. But then they were our troops, and as I looked at them, and thought upon all they had done for us, my heart and my eyes were full, and I admired and gloried in them the more because they were weather-beaten and forlorn.”

At Cape’s, a group of patriot citizens formally welcomed Washington. “In this place, and at this moment of exultation and triumph,” they declared, “while the Ensigns of Slavery still linger in our sight, we look up to you, our deliverer, with unusual transports of Gratitude and Joy.” An infantry and artillery detail meanwhile discovered that the enemy, in a parting insult, had nailed the royal ensign to the flagstaff of Fort George and greased the pole to prevent its removal. John Van Arsdale, a sailor wearing cleats, climbed up and replaced it with the Stars and Stripes while a throng of spectators cheered their approval. Except for Cunningham’s bloody nose, there had been no violence. Said one witness: “One day the British patrolled the streets, next day the American soldiers.”

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