The Great Fire of 1776 destroyed between 10 and 25 percent of New York City. Catastrophic city fires were common when most buildings were constructed of wood with wood roofs. However, this fire began less than a week after the British occupied the city, and nobody knows who started the fire or whether it was accidental. The answer, of course, depends on who is presenting an opinion.
General Washington was ordered to not burn the city and denied that his troops started the fire. The British blamed Loyalists but some believed the British started the fire so they could blame the retreating Americans. Some believed looters started the fire. No matter how the fire started, it caused many to live in squalor for years because no recovery was attempted until the defeated British withdrew in 1783.
New York City in 1766 had a population of about 25,000 and occupied the southern tip of Manhattan. Most structures were constructed of wood and most roofs were wood shingles. There was a history of major fires in most cities, so the Provincial government of New York had attempted to address the use of building materials. They enacted the first New York City regulations in 1761.
The early regulations required that by 1 January 1766 new structures were to be constructed of stone or brick and roofs to be tile or slate. However, these regulations were strongly opposed by builders and building owners because of costs, the scarcity of the building materials, and the substantial number of new structures being built each year. A reliable source estimated that about 100 structures were being added every year. The opposition carried the day, and the regulations were postponed and eventually dropped completely.
When the Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, New York City was already an important hub of business and trade. However, New York Province was politically divided with a strong Loyalist government, but with many Patriot groups throughout the province. After the battles of Lexington and Concord, Patriots gained control of New York City and began arresting and expelling Loyalists.
The Continental Army under the command of General George Washington occupied New York City in early 1776, but British General William Howe recognized the strategic value of the city and its deep-water harbor. In early summer 1776, Howe launched a campaign to take the city by occupying Staten Island. His force of 32,000 regulars,10 ships of the line, 20 frigates, and 170 transports defeated the Continental forces on Long Island by August. The British fleet was under the command of Admiral Lord Richard Howe, General William Howe’s brother.
General Washington realized his position was untenable and in May 1776 started to withdraw to Harlem Heights about 10 miles north. John Jay and General Nathanael Greene advocated burning New York to the ground to deny the British its benefits. Washington questioned Congress on their position on burning the city and they replied that “it should in no event be damaged.” Consequently, General Washington did not issue any order to burn the city.
During the American occupation, many Loyalists were expelled or willingly left New York City. Some Patriots also left realizing the city was a target because of its strategic value. Once the Continental Army began withdrawing from the city, a mass exodus of civilians began. New York City became nearly a “ghost town.” because about 80 percent of the citizens had evacuated before the British entered the city. Most of the city’s fire fighters were probably among the evacuees.
On the day after the British landed on Manhattan, Howe split his forces. One group moved to Harlem Heights where they skirmished with the Continentals. Howe’s other group marched into New York City on 16 September 1776 beginning a seven-year occupation. Being a good soldier, Howe immediately began the tasks of occupation such as establishing his defenses, establishing law and order, and quartering his army. He also appointed a Loyalist governing body to run day-to-day operations of the city.
At least 20,000 British troops, including 11,000 German mercenaries occupied the city. This massive enemy military presence significantly strained the city’s resources and required a lot of building space. The Americans had used vacant buildings for their use, but Howe confiscated Patriot’s property for use by his army.
Five days after their arrival the British were just beginning to get settled into the city of only about 5,000 residents. Security was still spotty. There were probably more Loyalists than Patriots in the city, and the Patriots were infuriated by the British occupation. With this as the background disaster struck the city just past midnight on 21 September 1778.
The most reliable eyewitness account of the Great Fire start was by an American prisoner aboard the HMS Pearl anchored in the harbor. His name was John Joseph Henry and he stated that the fire began in the Fighting Cocks Tavern on Whitehall Street near Whitehall slip. The tavern was a waterfront wooden building described as “a low drinking place” and a “fun house.” Another source said the “fire started in the fireplace” and the “drunken revelers were unable to stop the blaze.”
The weather had been dry and there were high winds, so the blaze quickly spread north and west among tightly packed homes and businesses. Residents poured into the streets with what possessions they could carry desperately trying to stay ahead of the fire. Many found refuge on the grassy town commons (today City Hall Park).
All chances to contain the blaze disappeared quickly since very few of the colonial fire fighters were still in the city and even fewer were on duty. Since the attempts at firefighting were in disarray, British troops attempted to do the job. They were inexperienced and found that much of the equipment had been sabotaged so they were also ineffective.
Looting was a big problem during the fire and the looters included British soldiers who were “supplementing” their salaries. Most of the looting occurred in areas of the city that were not affected by fire. The looting led to clashes between soldiers and civilians. Some soldiers were trying to stop the looting and others were looters. Some fleeing residents were bayonated by soldiers who mistook them for looters. These clashes resulted in an unknown number of injuries and death.
Meanwhile the fire raged on unabated. It crossed Broadway near Beaver Street and then burned most of the city between Broadway and the Hudson River. The fire continued into the daylight hours and was stopped later mainly by a change in wind direction. It may have also been stopped by the relatively undeveloped property of King’s College (Columbia University today) at the northern end of the fire damaged area.
Estimates of buildings destroyed were between 400 and 1,000 (10 to 25 percent) of the estimated 4,000 buildings existing at the time. Among the buildings destroyed was the magnificent 1698 Trinity Church. St. Paul’s Chapel survived, and George Washington attended services there on 30 April 1789 when he was inaugurated the first President of the United States. He attended St. Paul’s for the two years the capital was in New York City.
The blame game began before the ashes cooled. Howe’s report to London said, “a most bad attempt was made by a number of wretches to burn the town.” The Royal Governor William Tryon suspected that Washington was responsible because “some of his army were found concealed in the city.” Many Americans also believed Continental forces torched the city. John Joseph Henry recorded that marines from the HMS Pearl that had fought the fire claimed men were “caught in the act of firing houses.”
Some Americans believed the British started the fire so the city could be looted. A Hessian major wrote that some who fought the blaze managed to “pay themselves well by plundering other houses near by that were not on fire.” Others believed the British torched the city so they could blame it on Washington.
George Washington wrote to John Hancock on 22 September denying any knowledge of the fire’s cause. In a letter to his cousin Lund, Washington wrote, “Providence–or some good honest fellow, has done more for us than we were disposed to do for ourselves.”
After studying the facts, historians have never been able to pinpoint how the fire started. My opinion is that the fire started exactly as described in the Fighting Cocks Tavern. Most city fires were accidental, and I believe the identity of an arsonist (or arsonists) would have eventually become known. People who commit such large offenses usually cannot resist telling somebody about it. People like to brag.
No matter how the fire really started, the British rounded up more than 200 “suspects.” One source said that some were beaten and killed but I found no other references to such actions. No official charges were filed against any of the suspects. Nathan Hale was captured and hanged for espionage during this time. There was no evidence connecting Hale to the fire. He was an American spy that unfortunately got caught.
The British chose to establish martial law rather than returning to civilian administration and chose not to clear or rebuild after the fire. Many of the residents lived in tents and shacks in the burned-out areas and lived in squalor. This squalor was made worse by a huge influx of Loyalists who were returning or were escaping from Patriot controlled areas. Crime and miserable sanitation were persistent problems under British rule.
Contemporary accounts noted that many British soldiers were unruly and generally uncontrolled. Their patronage of the red-light districts and taverns, and their drunken behavior led to continued looting and civil disorder. The British also had logistical problems supplying the occupying troops which was complicated by massive smuggling and black-market activity.
British Major General James Robertson confiscated the vacant homes of Patriots for officer’s quarters. All church structures, except those of the Church of England, were converted to prisons, infirmaries, or barracks. Some common (enlisted) soldiers were billeted with civilian families. The British army did establish a firefighting capability, but it was generally incompetent and was formed to protect their facilities only.
During the seven years of occupation, thousands of American prisoners of war were confined in makeshift and disease infested prisons in the burned-out city. Even more prisoners were held in prison ships moored in the East River. These crowded ships were hellholes of disease and death.
The presence of thousands of prisoners made the supply problems worse, which meant the prisoners did not get much food and virtually no medical care. Volunteer Loyalist ladies provided as much care as they could and saved many lives, but their efforts were inadequate compared to the enormity of the situation.
Despite all the problems, New York City remained the seat of British administration of the colonies for the next seven years. A succession of British commanders-Sir William Howe, Sir Henry Clinton, and Sir Guy Carleton-ruled the city and Long Island as virtual military dictators. They were assisted by American Loyalists.
The Treaty of Paris, which officially ended the Revolutionary War, was signed on 3 September 1783, but New York City was not liberated until November when the British finally withdrew from the city. They were escorted by American troops to British ships to be transported away from American soil. George Washington marched triumphantly into the city on 25 November 1783.
The citizens immediately began to rebuild their city. The population grew rapidly, and New York City became the first capital of the United States of America. Unfortunately, the New York firefighting capability did not keep up with the growing city and there were other destructive fires. Changes in building standards, in firefighting techniques and the organization of a competent fire department began in the nineteenth century. Today New York City has one of the finest fire departments in the world and is a city of stone and steel and skyscrapers. ilur