Benjamin L. Carp—
New York City was the most important spot on the map in 1776. The British thought it was vital to retake it, and the American rebels strained to defend it. General William Howe drove the rebels from Staten Island, Long Island, and lower Manhattan, with the help of one of the largest amphibious assault forces in history up to that time. The British hoped that a decisive victory in New York would end the rebellion. Then, six days after the British took New York City, more than a fifth of it burned to the ground on September 21. The fire crippled a city that was the focal point of the 1776 campaign just weeks after the United States declared its independence. This was New York City’s first great fire.
In the summer of 1776, the rebels rapidly came to understand that they could not successfully defend New York without losing a significant portion of their fighting force. They evacuated the city, and they did not quite leave it intact. As the fire raged, almost everyone at the scene believed that the rebels had lit the spark deliberately. The incendiaries may have begun with specific targets, but the fire quickly became indiscriminate, destroying the homes of friends as well as foes. The British troops and their Loyalist supporters reacted to the fire with horror. British soldiers and sailors executed a few suspected incendiaries on the spot. Outside the city, Americans weren’t sure what to think.
For months before the fire, many people had predicted that New York City was doomed, because it was too important to British success, but too difficult for the rebels to defend. The rumors sounded certain that the rebels would sooner burn New York than leave it for the British. When the redcoats arrived on September 15, they found combustible materials, which they assumed had been prepared to set fire to the city. That day, the troops extinguished a small blaze and found a trail of gunpowder leading away from it. John Baltus Dash, the fire chief, buried his valuables to keep them safe from a conflagration he knew was coming. He wasn’t the only one.
Who had set the Great Fire of 1776, and why? Were they mischiefmakers with no political motivation? The British soldiers or sailors themselves? Civilians who supported the rebellion? Saboteurs with orders from the Continental Army? The fire appears to have been the intentional work of perpetrators with political motivations—the more radical elements of the rebel coalition. Witnesses spoke of the fire being set by white men from across the Northeast along with women and at least one mixed-race man. They acted either of their own volition or under orders from a commanding officer. Perhaps George Washington himself gave the command.
In 1776, many Americans’ allegiances were not yet fixed, and European powers had not yet committed themselves to joining a fight against the British. Both sides, therefore, were trying to convince the world that they were fighting a just war. What would people say of the American rebellion now? If the fire was deliberate, then it would be harder to call the rebellion morally righteous. Rebel politicians and newspaper publishers worked furiously, therefore, to convince the public that the fire was an accident, and not worth dwelling on. They did their best to make the story disappear, leaving the British frustrated at their failure to influence public opinion, and showing the Loyalists how little room they had to express their grievances.
Fire and mayhem were undeniable features of the Revolution that its earliest chroniclers were eager to suppress. The nation’s founders dismissed the fire as an accident, cast doubt on the evidence, and exonerated Washington from suspicion.1 Continental Army staff officers and statesmen like Benjamin Franklin tried to dispel the notion that Washington had given the order to burn New York City. The evidence is ambiguous, as it is in most arson cases: it is too late to question eyewitnesses, and we have little forensic evidence, no clear confessions, no trial record, or any other type of documentation that might lead to the absolute truth. The Anglo-American legal standard to protect an accused criminal is “beyond all reasonable doubt,” but that is not the standard of proof for historians, who must use the imperfect evidence at their disposal to try their best to get at the truth of the past, given what they know about the broader historical context.
Even if the fire was an accident, as the rebels claimed, the Great Fire of 1776 reveals the mayhem and instability that accompanied the creation of the United States. It was a noteworthy disaster followed by a handful of misguided murders. The fire reveals the volatile conditions of New York City and the hundreds of people who were displaced by having their homes reduced to ash. Crowding plagued the city’s British garrison for the rest of the war. New Yorkers—both renters and property owners—complained about the lasting displacement and loss they had suffered. They lived in fear of new fire scares.
From The Great New York Fire of 1776: A Lost Story of the American Revolution by Benjamin L. Carp. Published by Yale University Press in 2023. Reproduced with permission.
Benjamin L. Carp is professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America and Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution. He lives in New York City.
1. For examples asserting the innocence of the rebels (or Washington), see, among many others, William Gordon, The History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment, of the Independence of the United States of America [ . . . ] (London, 1788), 2:330; David Ramsay, The History of the American Revolution (Philadelphia, 1789), 1:308; John Marshall, Life of George Washington [ . . . ] (Philadelphia, 1804), 2:475–76n; Mary L. Booth, History of the City of New York from Its Earliest Settlement to the Present Time (New York, 1859), 2:540–42; George Bancroft, History of the United States from the Discovery of the American Continent (Boston, 1866), 9:129. Other historians found insufficient evidence for a deliberate fire, e.g.: Philander D. Chase and Frank E. Grizzard Jr., eds., PGW:RS (1994), 6:370n1; Joseph S. Tiedemann, Reluctant Revolutionaries: New York City and the Road to Independence, 1763–1776 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997), 254–56; Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 240–42; Barnet Schecter, The Battle for New York: The City at the Heart of the American Revolution (New York: Walker, 2002), 205–9; David McCullough, 1776 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), 221–23. Some historians considered the possibility: William L. Stone, History of New York City from the Discovery to the Present Day (New York, 1872), 250–53; Theophilus F. Rodenbough, “New-York during the Revolution, 1775–1783,” in The Memorial History of the City of New-York from Its First Settlement to the Year 1892, ed. James Grant Wilson (New York, 1892), 2:524–27; John R. Alden, A History of the American Revolution (New York: Knopf, 1969), 269–71; Philip Ranlet, The New York Loyalists (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986), 73–76; David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 107; John Ferling, Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 142.