Did George Washington Burn New York?

Americans disparaged the British as arsonists. But the rebels fought with fire too.

Illustration: A colonial 13-star American flag forms a semicircle around blue sky with an enormous fire as background.
Illustration by Paul Spella. Sources: Vladimir Pomortzeff / Alamy; Art Media / Print Collector / Getty.

On July 9, 1776, General George Washington amassed his soldiers in New York City. They would soon face one of the largest amphibious invasions yet seen. If the British took the city, they’d secure a strategic harbor on the Atlantic Coast from which they could disrupt the rebels’ seaborne trade. Washington thus judged New York “a Post of infinite importance” and believed the coming days could “determine the fate of America.” To prepare, he wanted his men to hear the just-issued Declaration of Independence read aloud. This, he hoped, might “serve as a fresh incentive.”

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But stirring principles weren’t enough. By the end of August, the British had routed Washington’s forces on Long Island and were preparing to storm Manhattan. The outlook was “truly distressing,” he confessed. Unable to hold the city—unable even to beat back disorder and desertion among his own dispirited men—Washington abandoned it. One of his officers ruefully wished that the retreat could be “blotted out of the annals of America.”

As if to underscore the loss, a little past midnight five days after the redcoats took New York on September 15, a terrible fire broke out. It consumed somewhere between a sixth and a third of the city, leaving about a fifth of its residents homeless. The conflagration could be seen from New Haven, 70 miles away.

New York’s double tragedy—first invaded, then incinerated—meant a stumbling start for the new republic. Yet Washington wasn’t wholly displeased. “Had I been left to the dictates of my own judgment,” he confided to his cousin, “New York should have been laid in Ashes before I quitted it.” Indeed, he’d sought permission to burn it. But Congress refused, which Washington regarded as a grievous error. Happily, he noted, God or “some good honest Fellow” had torched the city anyway, spoiling the redcoats’ valuable war prize.

For more than 15 years, the historian Benjamin L. Carp of Brooklyn College has wondered who that “honest fellow” might have been. Now, in The Great New York Fire of 1776: A Lost Story of the American Revolution, he cogently lays out his findings. Revolutionaries almost certainly set New York aflame intentionally, Carp argues, and they quite possibly acted on instructions. Sifting through the evidence, he asks a disturbing question: Did George Washington order New York to be burned to the ground?

The idea of Washington as an arsonist may seem far-fetched. Popular histories of the American Revolution treat the “glorious cause” as different from other revolutions. Whereas the French, Haitian, Russian, and Chinese revolutions involved mass violence against civilians, this one—the story goes—was fought with restraint and honor.

But a revolution is not a dinner party, as Mao Zedong observed. Alongside the parade-ground battles ran a “grim civil war,” the historian Alan Taylor writes, in which “a plundered farm was a more common experience than a glorious and victorious charge.” Yankees harassed, tortured, and summarily executed the enemies of their cause. The term lynch appears to have entered the language from Colonel Charles Lynch of Virginia, who served rough justice to Loyalists.

Burning towns was, of course, a more serious transgression. “It is a Method of conducting War long since become disreputable among civilized Nations,” John Adams wrote. The Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius, whose writings influenced European warfare, forbade killing women and children, and judged unnecessary violence in seizing towns to be “totally repugnant to every principle of Christianity and justice.”

Still, in the thick of war, the torch was hard to resist, and in North America, it was nearly impossible. Although Britain, facing a timber famine, had long since replaced its wooden buildings with brick and stone ones, the new United States was awash in wood. Its immense forests were, to British visitors, astonishing. And its ramshackle wooden towns were tinderboxes, needing only sparks to ignite.

On the eve of the Revolution, the rebel Joseph Warren gave a speech in a Boston church condemning the British military. Vexed British officers cried out “Oh! fie! Oh! fie!” That sounded enough like “fire” to send the crowd of 5,000 sprinting for the doors, leaping out windows, and fleeing down the streets. They knew all too well how combustible their city was.

The British knew it too, which raised the tantalizing possibility of quashing the rebellion by burning rebel towns. Although some officers considered such tactics criminal, others didn’t share their compunctions. At the 1775 Battle of Bunker Hill, they burned Charlestown, outside Boston, so thoroughly that “scarcely one stone remaineth upon another,” Abigail Adams wrote. The Royal Navy then set fire to more than 400 buildings in Portland, Maine (known then as Falmouth). On the first day of 1776, it set fires in Norfolk, Virginia; the city burned for three days and lost nearly 900 buildings.

Thomas Paine’s Common Sense appeared just days after Norfolk’s immolation. In it, Paine noted the “precariousness with which all American property is possessed” and railed against Britain’s reckless use of fire. As Paine appreciated, torched towns made the case for revolution pointedly. “A few more of such flaming Arguments as were exhibited at Falmouth and Norfolk” and that case would be undeniable, Washington agreed. The Declaration of Independence condemned the King for having “burnt our towns.”

In Norfolk, however, the King had help. After the British lit the fires, rebel Virginia soldiers kept them going, first targeting Loyalist homes but ultimately kindling a general inferno. “Keep up the Jigg,” they cried as the buildings burned. From a certain angle, this made sense: The fire would deny the Royal Navy a port, and the British would take the blame. In early February a revolutionary commander, Colonel Robert Howe, finished the job by burning 416 remaining structures. The city is “entirely destroyed,” he wrote privately. “Thank God for that.”

A year later, the Virginia legislature commissioned an investigation, which found that “very few of the houses were destroyed by the enemy”—only 19 in the New Year’s Day fire—whereas the rebels, including Howe, had burned more than 1,000. That investigation’s report went unpublished for six decades, though, and even then, in 1836, it was tucked quietly into the appendix of a legislative journal. Historians didn’t understand who torched Norfolk until the 20th century.

This was presumably by design: The Revolution required seeing the British as incendiaries and the colonists as their victims. Washington hoped that Norfolk’s ashes would “unite the whole Country in one indissoluble Band.”

Carp believes that what happened in Norfolk happened in New York. But how to square that with Washington’s renowned sense of propriety? The general detested marauding indiscipline among his men. Toward enemy prisoners, he advocated “Gentleness even to Forbearance,” in line with the “Duties of Humanity & Kindness.” And he deemed British-set fires “Savage Cruelties” perpetrated “in Contempt of every Principle of Humanity.” Is it thinkable that he disobeyed orders and set a city full of civilians aflame?

It becomes more thinkable if you look at another side of the war, Carp notes. In popular memory, the Revolutionary War was between colonists and redcoats, with some French and Hessians pitching in. But this version leaves out the many Native nations that also fought, mostly alongside the British. The Declaration of Independence, after charging the King with arson, indicted him for unleashing “merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

This accusation—that Indigenous people fought unfairly—haunted discussions of war tactics. Redcoat attacks on American towns fed the revolutionary spirit precisely because they delegitimized the British empire, whose methods, John Adams wrote, were “more abominable than those which are practiced by the Savage Indians.”

Perhaps, but Adams’s compatriots, at least when fighting Indians, weren’t exactly paragons of enlightened warfare. A month after the Declaration of Independence complained about burned towns and merciless savages, the revolutionaries launched a 5,500-man incendiary expedition against the British-allied Cherokees, targeting not warriors but homes and food. “I have now burnt down every town and destroyed all the corn,” one commander reported.

This was hitherto the “largest military operation ever conducted in the Lower South,” according to the historian John Grenier. Yet it’s easily overshadowed in popular accounts by more famous encounters. The Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Rick Atkinson, in his painstakingly detailed, 800-page military history of the war’s first two years, The British Are Coming, spends just a paragraph on it. The Cherokee campaign was, Atkinson writes, a mere “postscript” to Britain’s short and unsuccessful siege of Charleston (even though, by Atkinson’s own numbers, it killed roughly 10 times as many as the Charleston siege did).

But the Cherokee campaign was important, not only for what it did to the Cherokees but for what it revealed about the revolutionaries. Washington brandished it as proof of how far his men were willing to go. The Cherokees had been “foolish” to support the British, he wrote to the Wolastoqiyik and Passamaquoddy peoples, and the result was that “our Warriors went into their Country, burnt their Houses, destroyed their corn and obliged them to sue for peace.” Other tribes should take heed, Washington warned, and “never let the King’s wicked Counselors turn your hearts against me.”

Indigenous people did turn their hearts against him, however, and the fighting that followed scorched the frontier. In one of the war’s most consequential campaigns, Washington ordered General John Sullivan in 1779 to “lay waste all the settlements” of the British-aligned Haudenosaunees in New York, ensuring that their lands were “not merely overrun but destroyed.” Sullivan complied. “Forty of their towns have been reduced to ashes—some of them large and commodious,” Washington observed. He commended Sullivan’s troops for a “perseverance and valor that do them the highest honor.”

It’s hard, looking from Indian Country, to see Washington—or any of the revolutionaries—as particularly restrained. In the 1750s, the Senecas had given him the name “Conotocarious,” meaning “town taker” or “town destroyer,” after the title they’d bestowed on his Indian-fighting great-grandfather. Washington had occasionally signed his name “Conotocarious” as a young man, but he fully earned it destroying towns during the Revolutionary War. “To this day,” the Seneca chief Cornplanter told him in 1790, “when that name is heard, our women look behind them and turn pale, and our children cling close to the neck of their mothers.”

Carp acknowledges but doesn’t linger over what the revolutionaries did on the frontier. As he shows, there’s enough evidence from Manhattan itself to conclude that the New York conflagration was intentional.

To start, this was perhaps the least surprising fire in American history. Rumors swirled through the streets that it would happen, and Washington’s generals talked openly of the possibility. The president pro tempore of New York’s legislature obligingly informed Washington that his colleagues would “chearfully submit to the fatal Necessity” of destroying New York if required. The fire chief buried his valuables in anticipation.

When the expected fire broke out, it seemed to do so everywhere simultaneously. Those watching from afar “saw the fire ignite in three, four, five, or six places at once,” Carp notes. He includes a map showing 15 distinct “ignition points,” where observers saw fires start or found suspicious caches of combustibles. The fire could have begun in just one place and spread by wind-borne embers, but to those on the scene it appeared to be the work of many hands.

As the fire raged, witnesses saw rebels carrying torches, transporting combustibles, and cutting the handles of fire buckets. Some offenders allegedly confessed on the spot. But, as often happens with arson, the evidence vanished in the smoke. The British summarily executed some suspects during the fire, others fled, and those taken into custody all denied involvement.

Months elapsed before the British secured their first major confession. They caught a Yankee spy, Abraham Patten, who’d been plotting to torch British-held New Brunswick. On the gallows, Patten confessed, not only to the New Brunswick scheme but also to having been a principal in the conspiracy to burn New York. “I die for liberty,” he declared, “and do it gladly, because my cause is just.”

After Patten’s execution, Washington wrote to John Hancock, the president of the Continental Congress. Patten had “conducted himself with great fidelity to our cause rendering Services,” Washington felt, and his family “well deserves” compensation. But, Washington added, considering the nature of Patten’s work, a “private donation” would be preferable to a “public act of generosity.” He’d made a similar suggestion when proposing burning New York. Washington had clarified that, if Congress agreed to pursue arson, its assent should be kept a “profound secret.”

It’s possible, given Carp’s circumstantial evidence, that New York radicals conspired to incinerate the city without telling the rebel command. Or perhaps Washington knew they would and feigned ignorance. Yet, for Carp, Patten’s confession and Washington’s insistence on paying Patten’s widow under the table amount to “a compelling suggestion that Washington and Congress secretly endorsed the burning of New York.”

Whoever burned the city, the act set the tone for what followed. As the war progressed, the British incinerated towns around New York and in the southern countryside. The rebels, for their part, fought fire with fire—or tried to. In 1778, Commodore John Paul Jones attacked an English port hoping to set it aflame, but he managed to burn only a single ship. Other attempts to send incendiaries to Great Britain were similarly ineffectual. British cities were too fireproof and too far for the revolutionaries to reach with their torches.

Vengeful Yankees had to settle for targets closer at hand: Native towns. In theory they were attacking Britain’s allies, but lines blurred. Pennsylvania militiamen searching for hostile Lenapes in 1782 instead fell on a village of pacifist Christian Indians, slaughtering 96 and burning it to the ground. If against the British the war was fought at least ostensibly by conventional means, against Indigenous people it was “total war,” the historian Colin G. Calloway has written.

That war continued well past the peace treaty signed in Paris—with no American Indians present—on September 3, 1783. Andrew Jackson’s arson-heavy campaigns against Native adversaries helped propel him to the presidency. Burning Indigenous lands was also key to William Henry Harrison’s election, in 1840. He won the White House on the slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too”: Tyler was his running mate; “Tippecanoe” referred to the time in 1811 when Harrison’s troops had attacked an Indigenous confederacy and incinerated its capital.

Native Americans deserved such treatment, settlers insisted, because they always fought mercilessly, whereas white Americans did so only when provoked. Crucial to this understanding was a vision of the Revolution as a decorous affair, with Washington, venerated for his rectitude and restraint, at its head.

The legend of the pristine Revolution, however, is hard to sustain. The rebels lived in a combustible land, and they burned it readily, torching towns and targeting civilians. Like all revolutions, theirs rested on big ideas and bold deeds. But, like all revolutions, it also rested on furtive acts—and a thick bed of ashes.

This article appears in the March 2023 print edition with the headline “Did George Washington Burn New York?”

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