On September 2, 1776, George Washington wrote to the Continental Congress, seeking permission to burn New York City to the ground.
The general knew his beleaguered Continental Army couldn’t hold the city against the world’s greatest navy, but as he prepared to retreat, he hoped to deny the British harbor through a strategy nearly as old as warfare itself: a scorched-earth policy.
“If we should be obliged to abandon this town, ought it to stand as winter quarters for the enemy?” he asked John Hancock, the Congress’ president. “They would derive great conveniences from it on the one hand—and much property would be destroyed on the other.”
Washington chose his words carefully, but he later made it clear that his wish before retreating was to see New York City—the second-largest urban center in the Thirteen Colonies, with a population of around 25,000—“laid in ashes.” He knew this plan would be controversial, so he urged Congress to be discreet in its response, writing, “If Congress therefore should resolve upon the destruction of [the city], the resolution should be a profound secret.”
Refused permission by Congress, Washington and his army retreated from New York on September 15, leaving the city intact. Two and half weeks after the general’s unsuccessful appeal, on September 20, a sentry awoke British Brigade Major Frederick Mackenzie with urgent news: New York was engulfed in flames. The British had taken control of the city less than a week earlier, and Mackenzie was stationed at a house outside the commercial center of the city. Looking out a window, Mackenzie saw an “immense column of fire and smoke.” He hastily dressed and ran the two miles into town, where the fire, spread by a strong southerly wind, was already out of control.
“It is almost impossible to conceive a scene of more horror and distress,” Mackenzie wrote in his diary. “The sick, the aged, women and children, half naked, were seen going they knew not where, and taking refuge in houses which were at a distance from the fire, but from whence they were in several instances driven a second and even a third time by the devouring element, and at last in a state of despair laying themselves down on the Common” (an undeveloped area of land that’s now City Hall Park).
The sound of burning, falling buildings filled Mackenzie’s ears, mixing with the “confused voices of so many men [and] the shrieks and cries of the women and children.” He watched as Trinity Church, the tallest building in the area, was consumed by “a lofty pyramid of fire” until it “fell with a great noise.”
The fire cast such a monumental glow that it could be seen in New Haven, Connecticut, 70 miles away. Some four miles away, watching from the deck of a British frigate where he was being held as a prisoner of war, Rebel soldier John Joseph Henry couldn’t help but notice the inferno’s beauty. “If we could have divested ourselves of the knowledge that it was the property of our fellow citizens,” Henry wrote, “… the view might have been esteemed sublime, if not pleasing.”
Estimates of the number of buildings destroyed in the fire, which raged through the night and into the next morning, range from 200 to 1,600. Maps suggest the flames razed between an eighth and a fifth of the city. While officials never calculated the cost of the inferno, one Hessian journal placed the financial toll at around £225,000, nearly $40 million today.
Sources would later claim the blaze’s unusual spread was caused by burning shingles carried by the wind; Rebels and Loyalists alike agreed that the fire jumped around, skipping whole city blocks. But to Henry, the flames looked like two distinct fires with separate ignition points. That could only be possible, he reasoned, if the fires had been deliberately set. His first instinct was to blame the British, but all around him, British soldiers were filling boats and heading to the city to help fight the flames. “This circumstance repelled the idea that our enemies were the incendiaries,” Henry wrote. But if the British hadn’t started the fire, who had?
For nearly 250 years, the mystery of how the fire started has gone unsolved—and, for the most part, unexamined. Generations of Revolutionary War historians and Washington biographers, when they’ve mentioned the fire at all, have generally concluded that there’s not enough evidence to say how the blaze broke out. In the new book The Great New York Fire of 1776: A Lost Story of the American Revolution, however, historian Benjamin L. Carp argues that the causes of the fire were never quite so mysterious as Washington and his fellow founders might have claimed.
“I feel that it was definitely set deliberately,” said Carp on a recent afternoon outside of Trinity Church, which has been rebuilt twice since the 1776 fire. A historian at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center, Carp knows he hasn’t proved this theory “beyond all reasonable doubt,” but he points out that legal standard isn’t the norm for historians. He believes many accepted historical truths—including the “dinner table bargain” of 1790, in which Thomas Jefferson supposedly brokered a deal between Alexander Hamilton and James Madison—are built on similar or flimsier evidence.
In his meticulously researched, peer-reviewed book, Carp recounts how New York City, which was centered around modern-day Lower Manhattan and didn’t yet include any boroughs, was a figurative and literal tinderbox in the days before the fire. The vast majority of buildings were wooden. In the aftermath of the Continental Army’s retreat on September 15, the city was crawling with ardent Loyalists, New England radicals, British soldiers and Rebel spies—not to mention rumors that a fire was coming.
When the inferno finally broke out, many witnesses said they saw people starting smaller fires, carrying incendiary devices or interfering with efforts to put the fires out. These accounts are found in diary entries, contemporary newspaper articles and later testimonials. Additionally, Carp counts more than 15 distinct fire ignition points reported by witnesses.
A number of alleged incendiaries were caught in the act and summarily executed by the British. Some were thrown into the fire, while others were stabbed with bayonets. According to one London newspaper, “The first incendiary who fell into the hands of the troops was a woman, provided with matches and combustibles, but … her sex availed her little, for without ceremony, she was tossed into the flames by the soldiers.”
It’s unclear precisely how many were killed in retribution, but New York’s British governor, William Tryon, reported two or three “detected in their hellish design.” (Carp’s best guess is as many as eight.) Ironically, these impromptu executions accounted for the only deaths during the great fire. While the wooden structures that dominated New York at the time were flammable, they weren’t tall and were therefore easy to evacuate.
Dozens and possibly as many as 200 people were arrested by the British on suspicion of involvement in the fire. Because the famous Connecticut spy Nathan Hale was executed in New York City the day after the fire, some historians have suggested he was part of the plot. Hale was caught on September 21 while spying behind enemy lines, but accounts of his mission are contradictory, meaning it’s difficult to confirm or disprove this theory. Still, Carp found no evidence suggesting Hale was involved, and no sources indicate Hale was in Manhattan when the fire broke out. Carp did, however, find continual references to other men from eastern Connecticut who were allegedly involved in the plan.
In the aftermath of the fire, Rebel leaders, among them Benjamin Franklin, launched a campaign to deny any wrongdoing related to the fire and focus outrage on how the British had executed colonists without a trial. In this Franklin-backed version of events, the executions of alleged incendiaries were evidence of British abuses of power, not the Rebels’ wrongdoing.
Today, thanks in large part to Carp’s book and his previous work on the topic, historians are rethinking this interpretation of the fire. Michael D. Hattem, author of Past and Prologue: Politics and Memory in the American Revolution, says Carp’s book tips the scale in favor of the fire being started by the Rebels. “Do I accept the notion that … the fire was most likely started by army-adjacent Patriots?” he asks. “I think I do. [Carp] makes a really strong case. There are so many firsthand accounts from people on the day who were sure that that’s what had happened.”
Historian Barnet Schecter wrote about the fire in his 2002 book, The Battle for New York, concluding there was not enough evidence available to determine the cause of the fire. Schecter hasn’t revised that opinion, though he says he’s impressed by the work Carp has done. (He even provided a blurb for Carp’s book.) Carp “makes the most convincing possible case, given the evidence, that the Americans set the fire,” Schecter says. But “I’m not sure that I am completely convinced.”
For many, the idea of Rebel soldiers burning American cities is difficult to believe. But scorch- and-burn tactics weren’t uncommon at the time. Washington not only condoned but actively ordered the burning of Indigenous settlements aligned with the British throughout the Revolutionary War. Petitioning the Passamaquoddy peoples for support in December 1776, the general issued a harsh warning:
The Cherokees and the Southern Tribes were foolish enough to listen to [the British], and to take up the hatchet against us. Upon this, our warriors went into their country, burnt their houses, destroyed their corn, and obliged them to sue for peace and give hostages for their future good behavior.
Burning cities or civilian properties occupied by the British or at risk of falling under British control was more controversial, but it did happen. Torching a strategic port before retreating made tactical sense for the Rebels but represented a grim reality of warfare at odds with the lofty rhetoric of the burgeoning democracy. Even if civilian loss of life was kept to a minimum in these fires, the destruction of property could leave colonists homeless, impoverished and angry.
After the invading British started fires in Norfolk, Virginia, in early 1776, Rebel militiamen kept the flames burning by setting fire to Loyalists’ homes and other buildings before retreating.
On November 5 of that year, Major Jonathan Williams Austin of the 16th Continental Regiment ordered his men to burn down the White Plains, New York, courthouse; the tavern next door to it; and several houses. Though Austin was discharged from the service for his actions, Washington considered reinstating him in the army. The British were even more likely to employ fire as a weapon during the war, burning cities in Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island and elsewhere.
These burnings lay the foundation for the most controversial question Carp poses in the book: Did Washington order saboteurs to burn New York?
On June 6, 1777, the British executed a Rebel spy named Abraham Patten. Carp’s research suggests he was working for Washington behind enemy lines in New York in 1776. He was captured as part of a plot to set fires in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Before he died, he made an extraordinary confession that had been mostly forgotten. “At the gallows,” the New York-Gazette reported, “he acknowledged all the charge[s] brought against him, and said he was a principal in setting fire to New York, but would not accuse any of his accomplices.”
Patten’s last words were reportedly “I die for liberty, and do it gladly, because my cause is just.”
In a letter to Hancock a few days later, Washington didn’t address the accusations linking Patten to the fire but praised the slain spy and asked that his family be compensated under the table. Patten “conducted himself with great fidelity to our cause rendering services and has fallen a sacrifice in promoting her interest,” Washington wrote. “Perhaps a public act of generosity, considering the character he was in, might not be so eligible as a private donation.”
Patten wasn’t the only person accused of setting the fire to later be praised by Washington. At some point in September, the British arrested army captains Amos Fellows and Abraham Van Dyck, alleging they had been left behind in New York to start the fire. But details of these arrests are contradictory and confusing. Both men’s whereabouts the night of the fire are uncertain. By some accounts, they were arrested prior to the fire’s outbreak but possibly let out on parole. Less murky is Washington’s admiration for them. Recommending Van Dyck to Congress’ Board of Admiralty in May 1780, Washington said, “No man, considering his abilities, has made greater sacrifice for the cause.”
As Carp notes, “At one point or another, Washington vouches for all three of those men.” Has this fact convinced the historian that Washington ordered a covert mission to burn New York City? “I try not to claim that Washington definitely countenanced it,” he says. “However, I do think the evidence is suggestive.”
While it remains unclear if Washington ordered the fire or gave his tacit approval to those planning it, the historical record is crystal clear that he really wanted to burn New York. He was happy when the city burned and expressed regret that more of it had not been destroyed during the fire.
In a letter to his cousin written a few weeks after the fire, Washington complained that the blaze had not done enough damage. “Had I been left to the dictates of my own judgment, New York should have been laid in ashes before I quitted it—to this end I applied to Congress, but was absolutely forbid,” he wrote. “This in my judgment may be set down [among] one of the capitol errors of Congress.”
Later in the letter, he added, “In speaking of New York, I had forgot to mention that providence—or some good honest fellow, has done more for us than we were disposed to do for ourselves, as near one-fourth of the city is supposed to be consumed. However, enough of it remains to answer [the British’s] purposes.”
Washington’s correspondence with Congress prior to the fire confirms this sentiment. Hancock responded to Washington’s letter requesting permission to burn New York the day after it was sent, on September 3. “The Congress would have especial care taken, in case [Washington and his army] should find it necessary to quit New York, that no damage be done to the said city by his troops on their leaving it,” Hancock wrote.
But Washington wasn’t content to let the matter rest. On September 8, he wrote back, “That the enemy mean to winter in New York there can be no doubt—that with such an armament they can drive us out is equally clear. The Congress having resolved that it should not be destroyed, nothing seems to remain but to determine the time of their taking possession.”
Hancock, in turn, sought to make sure his previous communication was “rightly understood” and reiterate that Congress’ “wish is to preserve N. York.”
Carp speculates that letters between Washington and Congress could have been accompanied by secret orders long since destroyed. The explicit orders not to burn New York could have been a paper trail left intentionally for deniability. This theory “makes you sound like a little bit of a tinfoil hat conspiracy theorist, so I don’t want to lean too heavily on that,” Carp says. “But I do want to at least open up the possibility that there may well have at one time existed documentation of Congress authorizing Washington to burn New York City.”
Carp believes there is more to the story, and he hopes his book—the first devoted to the fire—serves as a “bat signal for other historians” to uncover new documents and accounts. “I’m open to the fact that it might be evidence that points against what I’m arguing, but I really hope that this is the beginning rather than the end of research into this,” he says.
He does not, however, expect to find an order from Congress to Washington condoning the burning of New York. After all, if such an order ever existed, it would likely have been destroyed—perhaps even burned.
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