Washington had just surrendered the city to the British. Military
doctrine of the 18th century would have required the Americans to
burn the town rather than leave it to the British with winter coming
on. Congress had specifically forbidden Washington from burning
New York. Most certainly, Washington didn't.
But it is not impossible that sympathizers to the American cause
were involved. In addition to purely military motives, arsonists
could have had less pure purposes. Hostility to Tories could have
been the impetus for helping to spread the fire, and a good disturbance
in New York even then was probably an occasion for some elements
of society to practice a little looting.
The British reported several summary executions, either by hanging
or throwing suspects into the flames. Since there were no trials
or formal inquiries, the political sympathies, motives and guilt
of the suspects will never be known.
The British press was hot to blame the Americans. One account said
a man who was hung by his heels had cut leather fire buckets and
stabbed a woman fire fighter. Another account of the same incident
said he sliced off the woman's arm.
English claims of American responsibility were so extensive and
so overblown, that they show a certain desperation in the propaganda
war. Perhaps the British were fearful that they would be held accountable
for occupying the town and then failing to prevent it from burning
Circumstances favored the fire. A wooden city was at serious risk
when the wind blew. Many of the people who would ordinarily watch
for and fight fires had left with the Americans. The British were
so recently arrived that they had little opportunity to take over
the responsibilities of local government. Because they needed iron
and lead to make weapons and bullets, Americans had taken all of
the church bells, leaving no way for the remaining inhabitants of
the city to spread the alarm.
The British were so eager to blame the Americans that press accounts
even inferred that Nathan Hale, executed for spying shortly after
the fire, had been an arsonist. These reports were certainly false,
casting doubt on the other British claims.
Whatever its cause, the fire denied the British the use of a good
part of the city and also denied posterity many of the city's early
buildings. St. Paul's survived the fire, but the original Trinity
Church did not.
In watching the blaze from Harlem Heights, Washington said, "Providence,
or some good honest fellow, has done more for us than we were disposed
to do for ourselves."
With British landings in the Bronx, Washington soon evacuated most
of his troops from Manhattan, leaving only a garrison at Fort Washington.
Fort Washington was supposed to be something of an American Gibraltar,
a rock commanding a narrow waterway that could be held by a small
force against an overwhelming enemy assault.
George Washington never felt very comfortable about the prospects
for his namesake citadel on rocky slopes 230 feed above the Hudson
River. As the rest of Manhattan was taken over by the British, Washington
several times asked that the fort be evacuated. The commanders in
the fort and Washington's subordinates always felt the fort could
be held, and if not, the defenders could easily be evacuated across
the Hudson River.
Washington's misgivings were well founded. On Nov. 16, 1776, the
British attacked with 8,000 troops against the American force of
approximately 2,800. While the Americans were too few to hold the
extensive outer works of the fort, they were too many to crowd into
the central portion and fight effectively. Col. Robert Magaw surrendered.
The Americans lost 53 killed, 96 wounded and 2,722 captured. Many
of those who surrendered were to die in the British prison ships
in the harbor.
Margaret Cochran Corbin was wounded in action while helping to
fire one of the fort's cannons after she took up the responsibilities
of her wounded husband.
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