As his boat was being rowed out into New York Harbor from the southern tip of Manhattan, Hessian Capt. Johann Ewald looked back on the land he was leaving after seven years of war. Slender and erect in his green coat and vest, with carmine red collar, cuffs and lapels, Ewald had been known for his compassion as well as his courage, but on this day he was just another defeated soldier who had survived.
It was Nov. 25, 1783, evacuation day in New York City, which had been the headquarters for the British army since September, 1776. The harbor was filled with British sailing ships, jammed with 7,500 troops. They were going home, leaving America to its destiny.
Ewald chose to remember the moment, not with bitterness, but with magnanimity, as well as a touch of sadness. In his book, "Diary of the American War,'' he wrote:
On all corners one saw the flag of thirteen stripes flying, cannon salutes were fired, and all the bells rang. The shores were crowded with people who threw their hats in the air, screaming and boisterous with joy, and wished us a pleasant voyage with white handkerchiefs. While on the ships, which lay at anchor with the troops, a deep stillness prevailed as if everyone were mourning the loss of the thirteen beautiful provinces.
At 8 a.m., a detachment of 800 American troops marched down from Harlem Heights to take over the city as soon as the British officially left. That came at 1 p.m., when the British removed their last guards and took down the Union Jack at Fort George at the Battery. As thousands of wildly happy New Yorkers cheered and waved, two companies of Gen. George Washington's men were sent to raise the Stars and Stripes in its place.
There was a hitch, because someone on the British side -- it is not known who -- had greased the flagpole at Fort George and stolen the halyards. The planned 13-gun salute could not take place without an American flag flying in place.
"Three times a sailor-boy attempted its slippery length, only to descend in haste,'' wrote Henry P. Johnston in Harpers New Monthly Magazine in November, 1883. "... Boards, hammer, saw, and nails were sent for, and cleats cut out. The sailor-boy stuffed his pockets with the cleats; he nailed them on, and climbed as he nailed, until the top was reached, where new halyards were reeved, and the flag raised, amid cheers, by an artillery officer.''
Winding down the war had been a long, tedious process. When Gen. Charles Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, Va., on Oct. 19, 1781, the war was effectively over. Little fighting was done in 1782. That November, a preliminary peace treaty was signed in Paris; it was ratified the following April by Congress, and officially signed in Paris on Sept. 3, 1783.
During this period, the Loyalist units on Long Island and elsewhere were disbanded. They were given the choice of receiving free transportation to safety in Nova Scotia or somewhere else out of the colonies, or to return to their old homes. Thousands chose the unknown trials of exile to the known problems of staying in a hostile environment.
On Long Island, the last military units to leave were in Queens. As so often happens in wartime, warm relationships often developed between the occupying soldiers and the local young ladies. Here is an often-told but unverified story about a Hempstead lady and her kilted Scottish lover as it appeared in Onderdonk's "Revolutionary Incidents of Queens County'':
"A Miss H., near Hempstead, had formed an intimacy with a Highlander, against the wishes of her friends. But when the British forces were about to evacuate the Island, she was missing. The distressed father expressed his apprehensions to the commanding officer that his daughter had eloped, and was now in the company of her lover. Forthwith the men were drawn up, and the father walked along the ranks, when he discovered his daughter in the guise of a soldier, by the whiteness of the skin where the garter is usually tied.''
The British and Loyalist soldiers left Long Island in an orderly fashion, some with bands playing, others quietly marching toward New York and the ships. "On the evacuation of Flushing, in the morning there were thousands around, barns full,'' Onderdonk reported. "In the afternoon all were gone, and it seemed quite lonesome.''
For the winners, however, it was time to cheer. In Jamaica on Dec. 8 there was a celebration of peace, with rifle volleys, an elegant dinner and band music. "After drinking thirteen toasts,'' the Independent Gazette reported, "the gentlemen marched in column, thirteen abreast, in procession through the village, preceded by the music, and saluting the colors as they passed. In the evening, every house in the village, and several miles around, was most brilliantly illuminated, and a ball given to the ladies concluded the whole.''
Although evacuation day in New York City was Nov. 25, 1783, Long Island would not get its freedom until Dec. 4. The Island was occupied longer than any other area in the 13 colonies during the Revolutionary War.
The British ships were carrying not only military men, but an unknown number of Loyalists fleeing the country. But the British did not have sufficient ships to carry them all, and a large number of Long Island-based troops were detained for nine days.
"This long delay was owing to the removal of so many loyalists, who dared not remain here after the passage of so many violent resolutions by whig meetings in various parts of the Union,'' 19th-Century historian Henry Onderdonk Jr. wrote. "Ships were sent for from the West Indies, and even Europe.''
War's Ravages on Long Island
As the Loyalists were leaving Long Island at war's end, 5,000 refugees who had fled to Connecticut were returning. What they returned to was not always pleasant.
"The situation there was a tragedy,'' wrote Frederic G. Mather in his 1913 book, "The Refugees of 1776 From Long Island to Connecticut.'' "Nearly all the refugees were men of small means. They returned one by one; not in large groups, as was the case in New York. They found their properties wasted, and often destroyed altogether.''
Those who were farmers, and this would have been the majority, found their lands abused by British occupiers. Valuable timber had been cut for firewood, wooden buildings destroyed for lumber, and homes damaged. In other cases, there was seven years of disuse, crops not planted and once-bountiful fields gone to seed and brush. And, of course, farm animals were gone: work horses and oxen stolen, and cattle, sheep and pigs long since fed into the bellies of the occupying British soldiers.