Who Burned New York City in 1776?
George Washington’s first military campaign in the summer of 1776 was a disaster. Trying to defend the city of New York against the larger and more experienced British Army, without the support of a Navy, was a mistake which was largely forced upon him by the Continental Congress. In its aftermath, Washington was forced to withdraw across New Jersey, his army growing weaker by the day due to desertions and disease. British commander Sir William Howe meanwhile established garrisons at points in New Jersey and prepared to spend the winter enjoying the entertainments of New York.
Prior to Washington’s withdrawal the city of New York, then mostly huddled on the southern tip of Manhattan Island, was ravaged by a fire which destroyed almost one third of the buildings constituting the city, along with several docks and other port facilities, all of immeasurable value to the British. The fire began the night of September 20 and burned into the next morning. Several eyewitness accounts of the fire exist, from both British observers and American prisoners held on ships in the harbor. None agree on how the fire started.
It began, according to an American prisoner, in a tavern in Whitehall, and most of the city between Broadway and the Hudson was destroyed. The British occupiers immediately suspected arson, with Sir William Howe directly saying so in his report to London. More than 200 citizens were arrested by the British and questioned regarding the fire’s origins. Some Americans too believed the fire to have been deliberately set, citing the fact that it appeared to begin in multiple locations almost simultaneously.
After evacuating New York, Washington had met with both members of the Continental Congress and his staff to discuss strategy. During the meeting the possibility of destroying the city by fire was discussed, in order to deny the advantages of possessing it to the British. The idea was rejected but the fact of the fire occurring so soon afterward has led to speculation that Washington allowed the idea to go forward, looking the other way as it was carried out by other officers.
No official explanation of the cause of the fire was ever issued, and the British used the conflagration as an excuse to maintain martial law in the city, refusing to return it to civilian control, for the remainder of their occupation, which did not end until 1783. Washington specifically denied involvement even as he approved of the fire’s impact on the British occupiers. To this day it remains unknown whether the New York City fire of 1776 was an accident or an act of arson.