Sunday, August 11, 2019

Episode 109: Great Fire of New York & Nathan Hale

By mid September, 1776, the Continental Army held onto the Harlem Heights at the northern tip of Manhattan, and Fort Washington along the Hudson River.  The British controlled the remainder of the island.  General Lord Percy, who you may remember from his dramatic rescue of the British Army at Lexington, commanded a force posted just north of the city on the east side of the Island.  General Lord Cornwallis, who had sailed to America only to fail miserably under General Henry Clinton at Fort Sullivan in South Carolina, still served under Clinton.  After their success at the Battle of Long Island, commanding General William Howe posted them with the command of front lines, just south of Harlem Heights, but with strict instructions to stay put and not advance on the enemy.

Howe himself settled into a comfortable estate at Mount Pleasant, north of Kip’s Bay but still well back from the front lines.  There, he wrote dispatches to Lord Germain and others in London about their successful capture of New York.  Once again, following his victory, Howe would pause for several weeks, giving the enemy time to regroup and plan their next steps.

On September 19, General Howe issued another decree to the public urging the American people to return to their old allegiance to the King and bring the violence to an end.  This proclamation got little attention since only a few loyalist newspapers in New York and New Jersey published it.  Some Americans then under the direct occupation of the British army swore allegiance, but mostly because any patriots living in those areas had already fled.  The Howes somehow seemed convinced that they could get the patriots to lay down their arms without a long and terrible bloodletting.  But that was not going to be the case.  The proclamation, much like others before it and after it went largely ignored.

This is not to say no one flocked to the Tory cause.  With the greater New York City area now firmly under the British Army’s control, local Tory leaders began to recruit locals to join Tory militia units to assist the British in retaking the colonies for the King.  Militia General Oliver De Lancey raised a brigade of about 1500 on Long Island.  Major Robert Rogers raised a provincial corps of Tories known as Rogers Rangers, resurrecting a name he also used during the French and Indian War.

The Great Fire

While much quieter now though, some local New Yorkers remained loyal to the patriot cause and were willing to cause trouble for the occupying army.  Just after midnight on September 21, 1776, alarm began to spread through New York that the city was on fire.  There were no alarm bells since the Continentals had taken all bells before leaving the city.  Word spread by shouts that much of the city was engulfed in flames.

The Great Fire of NYC 1776 (from Wikimedia)
Civilians and soldiers worked through the night to control the fire and extinguish the flames.  They tore down several houses as fire breaks to keep the fire from spreading, and formed bucket brigades to bring water to the burning buildings.  Actually, most of the military working on extinguishing the fire were marines from the navy.  Some soldiers may have acted independently, but General Howe did not deploy any soldiers until the following day.  Instead, Howe kept his soldiers on alert all night just in case the fire was an attempt to distract him as part of a daring night invasion.  That, of course, never happened.

Some thought the arson attacks specifically targeted the Church of England.  Much of the area burned was the area around Trinity Church, including the church itself.  The area was mostly residences, as well as Holy Ground, where the prostitution and night life was most active.  The commercial areas and dockyards mostly survived intact.  Though many had already fled the city before the British Army arrived, the army’s arrival had created a major housing shortage.  The loss of so many buildings left many families homeless, with nowhere to go.

Though no one seems certain how the fire started, rumors shot around, probably correctly, that it was the work of patriot saboteurs.  The fire seems to have started in several places at once, and spread very rapidly, in part thanks to a strong wind blowing north.  General Howe’s reports indicate that several arsonists were caught and killed on the spot, but gives little detail.  Other accounts give gruesome stories of arsonists being pinned to walls with bayonets, hanged from lampposts.  One report says that soldiers who caught an arsonist in the act picked him up and threw him in the burning building he had just set on fire, to be burned alive.

Some patriots accused the occupying army, mostly the Hessians, of starting the fire in order to cover their looting of the city.  There were some accusations of soldiers looting burning buildings.  But the notion that the British or Hessians started the fire seems to be propaganda with no factual basis.

Whatever the accuracy of any of these stories, it is clear that the British believed the fire was a deliberate act of sabotage to deny them use of the city.  The fire ended up burning about one thousand buildings, about one-fourth of the city.  Only a shift in winds prevented it from destroying much more.

Map showing area burned in red (from Wikimedia)
There is no evidence that Washington had anything to do with the fire.  Congress had instructed him not to destroy the city and Washington was not the type of man to defy Congress, even when he thought privately that its decision was foolish.  The majority in Congress seemed to think the patriots would retake the city and that it would be a waste to destroy it.

Washington wrote to Congress the following day to report the fire, which he described as an accident.  Again, it would be highly out of character for Washington to lie in a report to Congress.

However, in private correspondence, Washington did make clear he was not sorry about the fire.  He wrote to his cousin that if he had been allowed to use his own judgment, he would have burned the city to the ground before leaving it.  He also commended “providence, or some good honest fellow, has done more for us than we were disposed to do for ourselves” with the fire.

Following the fire, the British increased vigilance to prevent any further cases of arson.  Howe decided to keep the city under martial law rather than returning Governor William Tryon and Mayor David Mathews to power.  Instead of returning the King’s peace to the city, it remained an armed camp under military control.

The British Army also went to great efforts to find the culprits responsible for setting the fire.  They rounded up and questioned over 200 suspects.  One reason to question the rumors of unnamed saboteurs being killed during the fire is that no one was caught in the act and arrested.  If several people were captured, one would think not all of them would be killed and some would be arrested.  The 200 suspects arrested in the following days all faced questioning and were eventually released.  The British never even found enough evidence to bring anyone to trial.

Nathan Hale

One unlucky victim of the fire was Continental Army Captain Nathan Hale.  A few weeks earlier, before the British invaded Manhattan, Washington had asked for volunteers to cross over to Long Island and gather intelligence on the enemy.  Hale volunteered for the mission.

As a former schoolteacher from Connecticut, Hale decided his best cover would be to play a schoolteacher from Connecticut looking for work before the beginning of the school year somewhere on Long Island.  He had to go back to Connecticut and take a boat across to the northeastern part of Long Island on September 12, about three days before the British landed at Kip’s Bay.

Nathan Hale hanged as a spy (from Today in Conn. History)
Hale made his way across Long Island down toward New York, paying attention to the enemy’s troop deployments and numbers.  He took detailed notes and drew sketches to record what he found.

Sadly for Captain Hale, he had missed some critically important Spying 101 classes.  He wrote down lots of notes, but did not bother to use any code or invisible ink, both in common use by other spies during this period.  He did not have any local contacts or safe houses along the way, nor anyone local he could trust.  He also had no way to get any information back to the American lines unless he returned with the information himself.

We don’t know exactly what information Hale discovered, because he never returned any reports to the Americans.  He wandered across Long Island while the British crossed the East River at Kip’s Bay, captured the city and set up defenses against the Americans at Harlem Heights.  Somehow, he made his way across the river into New York City.  He was there on September 21 when the fire swept across the island.  The morning after the fire, he made his way north towards the front lines.

As Hale waited on the coast, the British ship Halifax came ashore.  Hale apparently approached the landing party, thinking they might be Americans.  Aware of the fire and seeing Hale was nervous, the British crew arrested him, thinking he might be one of the arsonists.  They found his notes and sketches in his clothing and took him to General Howe as a suspected spy.

Hale admitted to being a Continental officer.  Since he was caught behind enemy lines and out of uniform, Howe could treat him as a spy rather than a prisoner of war.  He could be hanged immediately and without trial.  Although there does not appear to be any reason to believe Hale was involved in the New York fire, Howe was in no mood to offer clemency.  Although not required, accused spies normally would at least receive a court martial.  Having spent the whole night prior dealing with the fire and hunting for suspected arsonists, he ordered Hale hanged as a spy without trial.
Hanging of Nathan Hale (from Fine Art America)

Howe turned over Hale to the Provost Marshall, William Cunningham, a Tory who had fled Boston a year earlier and who had been the victim of patriot mob attacks in New York before the British arrived.  Cunningham was in no mood to show any kindness or sympathy to any rebel who fell into his hands.  He scheduled the hanging for the following morning.  He also denied Hale his last requests of having a clergyman present, or access to a Bible.

The next morning, during a delay as they prepared the gallows.  The Chief Engineer John Montresor took Hale into his tent and had a short conversation.  He also provided Hale with paper and ink so that he could write two final letters: one to his brother and the other to his commanding officer.

Famous Last Words

Once the gallows were ready, guards led Hale to his execution.  Montresor recorded Hale’s famous last words “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”  The phrase came from a popular play of the day: Cato by Joseph Addison.  It was about a Roman politician who committed suicide rather than living under a tyrannical emperor.

Another officer McKenzie, also present at the execution noted that Hale showed bravery and commented that it was the duty of every soldier to obey the orders of his commander, but did not record Hale’s supposed famous last words.  His failure to note them has led to some debate as to whether Hale actually uttered the phrase for which he is remembered.

On September 22, 1776 at around 11:00 AM, the British hanged Hale and buried his body.  Montresor turned over the two letters he had written to the Provost, who promptly destroyed them.  Later that evening, Montresor went over to the American lines as Harlem Heights under a flag of truce in order to discuss a prisoner exchange.  While there, he revealed to the Americans that the British had hanged Hale as a spy that morning, and passed along his famous last words.

Word of Hale’s last words circulated among the army, but Washington did not choose to publicize the matter at the time.  Washington may have been embarrassed at the great risk and lack of support to which he subjected Hale.  He may have also been concerned about publicizing his use of spies at all.  Washington was already preparing to send other spies, though with greater protection and training.  Reports of Hale’s famous last words did not appear in newspapers until months later.

Ebenezer Leffingwell

The same day the British hanged Hale, the Continental Army prepared an execution of its own, Ebenezer Leffingwell.  During the battle of Harlem Heights, Col. Joseph Reed encountered Leffingwell headed away from the front lines.  Reed thought Leffingwell was deserting and confronted him.

Joseph Reed

I’ve mentioned Joseph Reed in passing a few times, but since he will be important in several future events, it might be worth a little more background now.  Reed was a Philadelphia lawyer who had accompanied Washington from Philadelphia to Cambridge back in 1775 when Washington first took up command of the Army.  Reed had not intended to follow Washington all the way, but got so swept up in the moment that he found himself in Cambridge with the Army.  He provided some clerical assistance to the new commander but then insisted he needed to return home and resume his legal practice.  Washington begged him to return and claimed he could not function well without him.  Reed became Washington's first adjutant and remained close to the commander.  Washington was always a very closed and private man, but did seem to open up to a very small number of trusted associates.  Reed apparently became one of those trusted confidants during the early war.  While we will see later that Reed would lose Washington’s confidence and trust, at this time the two remained very close.  Reed carried Washington's confidence and authority.

Leffingwell’s Execution

 So on September 16, Reed was on his horse, delivering orders for Washington during the battle when he encountered Leffingwell.  According to Reed, Leffingwell was clearly afraid and running away from battle.  Reed ordered Leffingwell to return to the front lines, but soon found him doubling back and running in the other direction.  Reed rode after the soldier and confronted him again.  At that time, Leffingwell pointed his gun at Reed and pulled the trigger.  The gun either misfired or was not loaded.  Reed attempted to shoot Leffingwell on the spot, but could not fire his gun either.  He slashed at Leffingwell with his sword, injuring the soldier, but not seriously.
Joseph Reed (from Geni)

After that encounter, Reed had Leffingwell arrested on charges of desertion and mutiny.  Leffingwell, however, told a very different story at trial.  He said he was following the orders of his commanding officer on the front lines to go to the rear to get more ammunition.  While on this mission, Colonel Reed confronted him and ordered him to return to the front lines.  Leffingwell said he informed Reed that he was under orders to obtain more ammunition, but that Reed did not believe him.  Reed drew his sword and threatened to kill him unless he immediately returned to the front lines.  Fearing for his life, Leffingwell cocked his gun and pointed it at Reed.

On September 19, three days after the encounter, a court martial found Leffingwell guilty and sentenced him to be shot by firing squad.  Washington, eager to enforce discipline against deserters, approved the sentence to be carried out on September 22.  Much of the army, however, was greatly upset at this decision.

On the morning of the execution, a firing squad led Leffingwell in front of the assembled army, lined up and pointed their guns at the condemned prisoner.  At the last minute, a chaplain announced a last minute reprieve from Washington, and Leffingwell’s life was spared.

Washington had hoped to make an example by shooting a deserter.  Conventional wisdom of the time was that such examples helped keep the troops in line during battle.  But it seems Washington wisely listened to the grumbling of his soldiers on this day.  The army seemed deeply against this execution.  Carrying it out might only have the effect of harming morale and increasing the number of desertions.  Sparing Leffingwell, avoided this.  There is also some evidence that Colonel Reed lobbied Washington to spare Leffingwell, though it is not clear if this was for humanitarian, or practical purposes.

Joseph Plumb Martin

I should also mention that much of what we know about this incident comes from Joseph Plumb Martin, a soldier who was fighting with the Continental Army during this time.  Martin was a Connecticut soldier who joined the Continental Army during the call for volunteers just before the British invasion of New York.  Martin joined the army as a private, eventually rising to sergeant and serving through the remainder of the war.  He never became an officer.  Though he appears to have fought honorably and remained in the army for almost the entire war, there is nothing in particular that stands out about Martin’s service that would not apply to thousands of other soldiers during the war.
Joseph Martin & Wife
(from Wikimedia)

What makes Martin noteworthy and of special interest to history is that after he survived the war, returned home, and grew into old age, Martin wrote an account of his participation in the war.  In 1830, he published a book called A Narrative of Some of the Adventures, Dangers and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier.  The book provides a unique perspective into the life of an enlisted man during the war.  While there exist many “common soldier” books from later wars, this is the only one from the Revolution that covers more than a short period.

The book never got much attention from historians until they rediscovered it in the late 20th Century.  Because of its unique perspective, focusing on the lives of enlisted men rather than the generals, it has become an important source for anyone learning about the Revolution.  If you are so inclined, I strongly recommend giving it a read.

Next week: While we wait for Howe to give Washington another nudge, we check back with Generals Carleton and Burgoyne as they finally make their move from Canada into Lake Champlain in their push toward Albany, NY.
- - -

Next  Episode 110: Battle of Valcour Island

Previous  Episode 108: The French Connection

Click here to donate
American Revolution Podcast is distributed 100% free of charge. If you can chip in to help defray my costs, I'd appreciate whatever you can give.  Make a one time donation through my PayPal account. 
Mike Troy

Click here to see my Patreon Page
You can support the American Revolution Podcast as a Patreon subscriber.  This is an option for people who want to make monthly pledges.  Patreon support will give you access to Podcast extras and help make the podcast a sustainable project.  Thanks again!

Further Reading


Ross, Tara This Day in History: New York City and the great fire of 1776, Sep. 20, 2016:

The Great Fire of 1776 in NYC:

Perilous Night: The Great Fire of 1776 - Bowery Boys Podcast (Oct. 2, 2015):

Joseph Reed:

The Enigma Of General Howe, by Thomas Fleming, American Heritage, Vol. 15, Issue 2 (Feb. 1964):

Nathan Hale: Military Leader, Spy:

Joseph Addison’s Cato: Liberty on the State, by Eric Sterner (JAR) (2016):

George Washington Convenes a Firing Squad, by Joshua Shepherd (JAR) (2016):

Proceedings of a General Court-Martial, Sept. 19 1776: Trial of Ensign Macumber and Ebenezer Leffingwell:

General Orders, 22 Sept. 1776, confirming Court Martial of Ebenezer Leffingwell:

Joseph Plumb Martin:

Joseph Plumb Martin: Soldier-Author, by Robert Carver Brooks (JAR) 2015:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

The Detail and Conduct of the American War, under Generals Gage, Howe, Burgoyne, and Vice Admiral Lord Howe, (original reports and letters) The Royal Exchange, 1780.

Carrington, Henry Battles of the American Revolution, 1775-1781, A.S. Barnes & Co. 1876.

Babcock, James, Memoir of Captain Nathan Hale, Hale Memorial Assoc. 1844.

Force, Peter American Archives, Series 5, Vol 3, Washington: St. Claire Clarke, 1837.

Holloway, Charlotte Nathan Hale. The martyr-hero of the revolution, with a Hale genealogy and Hale's diary, Perkins Book Company, 1902.

Johnston, Henry The Campaign of 1776 Around New York and Brooklyn, Long Island Historical Society, 1878.

Johnston, Henry Phelps Nathan Hale, 1776; biography and memorials, New York: Privately Published, 1901.

Martin, Joseph Plumb The Adventures of a Revolutionary Soldier, 1830 (This is a copy of the original print, but in poor quality.  You can borrow a better quality copy or listen to a free audio copy of the book).

Reed, William Life and correspondence of Joseph Reed, military secretary of Washington, at Cambridge, Vol. 1, Lindsay and Blakiston, 1847.

Root, Jean Christie Nathan Hale, New York: MacMillan Company, 1915.

Reed, Henry Sparks, Jared (ed) The Library of American Biography, Vol. 8: The Lives of Charles Lee and Joseph Reed, Little & Brown,1834.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Atkinson, Richard The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777, Henry Holt & Co. 2019 (book recommendation of the week).

Daughan, George C. Revolution on the Hudson: New York City and the Hudson River Valley in the American War of Independence, New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 2016.

Ellis, Joseph Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013.

Fleming, Thomas 1776: Year of Illusions, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1975.

Gallagher, John J. Battle Of Brooklyn, 1776,  Da Capo Press, 1995.

McCullough, David 1776, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.

Schecter, Barnet The Battle for New York, New York: Walker Publishing, 2002.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

1 comment:

  1. Growing up in Connecticut, I had heard the story of Nathan Hale many times. But the part about the New York fire and its effect on General Howe's probable mood was new-to-me news. Good work, Mike!