Washington Helped Mark NY's First Independence Day

The first Independence Day celebration in New York didn't happen on July 4th. It came five days later, on July 9th, because it had taken five days for a copy of the Declaration of Independence to travel from Philadelphia, where the Continental Congress was meeting, to New York.    

John Hancock, one of the Declaration's signers,  sent a note to Gen. George Washington with the document, suggesting he share the news with his troops. Washington thought it was important that they understood what they were fighting for, so he  assembled regiments of his ragtag army.

The soldiers lined up near the site of the present City Hall. The men, in neat uniforms, with bayonets fixed, formed a hollow square, with Washington in the center astride his horse. They listened attentively as an officer read the words: "When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which connected them with another ... a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.''

It was a critical moment in a war that had not yet begun. The British, with overwhelming force, were preparing to strike. On June 29th, a fleet carrying about 32,000 soldiers, had arrived from England. Many in this fighting force were German mercenaries. Washington expected the ships to unload the troops at any moment.

Although the huge British fleet -- 500 ships in all -- was clearly visible in New York Bay, it didn't deter the troops and many New Yorkers sympathetic to the patriot cause, from celebrating.

That night bells tolled. People cheered. And, according to historian Edward Ellis, "a mob spilled down Broadway to Bowling Green." They pulled down the bronze-lead statue of George III, which stood not far from the modern statue of the bull of Wall Street. While Washington reprimanded the soldiers who took part in this affair, he was happy  the statue's two tons of metal, when melted down,  provided 10,088 bullets for the Continental Army.

Even as this was happening, 10,000 British and  German soldiers had landed on Staten Island, where they whooped it up, drinking Jersey applejack and roaming about drunkenly. One British officer said: "A girl cannot step into the bushes to pluck a rose without running the most immediate risk of being ravished.''

But soon the British army recovered its discipline and crossed the Narrows to land on the beach of Gravesend Bay. In the following weeks, Washington, whose army was heavily outnumbered, followed the strategy of retreating to victory. He fell back through Brooklyn, Long Island, Manhattan, Westchester and New Jersey and, by the end of 1776, he surprised the German troops in their encampment in Trenton, winning a small but symbolically important victory. It was the beginning of the end for Britain's military fortunes in America.

Washington, it should be noted, had little faith in his own ability as a commander. When he was appointed commander-in-chief of the army, he told delegates to the Continental Congress: "I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with."
It may  have been the first clear-cut case of modesty paying off for an army that in a later century would include such immodest fellows as Patton and MacArthur.

As for New York, from that glorious moment when the troops lined up near City Hall, this city had a love affair with George Washington. It was here, 13 years after the declaration was read, that he was inaugurated as the first president of the United States. It was here, years earlier, at the end of the war, that he bid a sentimental goodbye to his officers:
"With a heart full of love and gratitude I now take my leave of you."
We New Yorkers, as we celebrate the Fourth with barbecues and fireworks and gatherings of families and friends, should remember George Washington. He was the father of our country and, in a real sense, a New Yorker too.

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