Who Burned New York in 1776?
Professor Benjamin L. Carp’s latest book sheds light on the origins and mythmaking of a Revolutionary fire.
A new book by Professor Benjamin L. Carp (GC/Brooklyn College, History) is drawing media attention for linking George Washington and his soldiers with a Revolutionary fire that burned much of Manhattan.
“The fire shows a side of the American Revolution that we are not used to seeing,” Carp says of the conflagration he investigates in The Great New York Fire of 1776: A Lost Story of the American Revolution.
The fire destroyed about a fifth of the structures in the city, which was a critical asset to both the revolutionaries and the British. The blaze created an advantage for Washington’s army by crippling a strategic port just as the British army took control of it. But, Carp points out, any suggestion that Washington had been involved would have tarnished a reputation for decency that was deeply important — as a matter of leadership and public relations — to the Revolutionary cause. Hence, the secrecy surrounding his actions and inclinations.
The Graduate Center recently caught up with Carp to learn more about his book, his thesis, and the massive fire that continues to kindle his imagination.
GC: Do you think Washington was responsible for this fire?
Carp: It’s very hard for me to draw a firm conclusion on this. I think we are unlikely to find “smoking gun” evidence. However, there is some evidence that’s very suggestive. He vouches for three captains who were suspected of having been involved in the fire. He is sort of cheeky with his cousin — and this was a letter that wasn’t discovered until the 1940s, as far as I can tell — when he writes “Providence — or some good honest fellow, has done more for us than we were disposed to do for ourselves.” And the British did catch Continental Army officers and soldiers who they then accused of having set the city on fire. Now, were they acting on their own? Were they acting in defiance of the high command? That’s also possible and potentially an even more interesting story. But I am reluctant to say firmly that Washington definitely ordered it. One thing I can say for certain is that Washington’s inner circle did their utmost to spread disinformation in order to take the blame off of Washington. That’s definitely true. Whether they were doing so because it just looked suspicious and they wanted to be sure, or because they knew that Washington had done it is unclear to me.
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GC: You write that “forgetting the fire was essential to the creation of a national story.” What do you mean by that?
Carp: Too often I think K–12 education and popular understandings of the Revolution default to what the late [Dean and Professor of History] Jan Lewis of Rutgers called the “bedtime story”: either genius founders in their knee breeches or brave soldiers suffering in the snow. And the truth is, there’s a lot more complexity. If you begin to look at loyalists, if you begin to look at women, if you begin to look at the role of Indigenous people and the enslaved, if you look at ordinary rank-and-file soldiers with a little bit more sophistication, there’s room to critique the founders. We don’t necessarily have to buy their line that they won the war because they were more virtuous than the British. There are all sorts of reasons to question that. And so I think it gives us a little bit more of a sophisticated understanding of the Revolution, if we can admit that the war was not always clean and shiny.
GC: How destructive was this fire and whom did it hurt most?
Carp: Geographer William Keegan and I determined that 20% of the city burned. There were something like 4,000 houses in the city at that time. So let’s say 800 houses, although the estimates among eyewitnesses vary very widely, but in looking at the map, and the area that was destroyed, it seems clear it’s about a fifth of the city. Both rebels and loyalists suffered. There was an idea that the city was dominated by loyalists, which is maybe not quite true. And I suggest the idea that the fire may have been set to deliberately target loyalists, the wealthy, and property owned by the Church of England, by Trinity Church, which of course still owns a lot of property in lower Manhattan today. So that may have been the intention, but, of course, fire is indiscriminate. And I’ve seen petitions from Continental Army officers who lost property during the fires saying essentially “I was ruined by this and can you get me compensation or maybe some kind of government job, so that I can recoup some of my losses?” The evidence suggests that people of all political stripes — and probably some people who just wanted to be left alone — had their houses and all their earthly possessions destroyed. The other effect of the fire by the way is that it reduces the amount of housing available to refugees and the British army. And so that creates a lot of suffering as well. It exacerbates crowded conditions for people who are looking for lodging over the winter.
GC: This fire seems to point again to the indiscriminate nature of the destruction that ensues when wars begin.
Carp: In an age of airpower and much more powerful ordnance, of course, we’re almost used to this. But you see this kind of thing in the 18th century as well. … Stuff is going to happen during a war, whether it’s intentional or not, and maybe that’s another lesson that I want people to take from my book, which is that you have to think carefully before going to war, because it’s very difficult to pursue a war in a way that won’t lead to indiscriminate violence towards civilians and their property.
GC: Is there any advice you might offer to a writer approaching a project like this one?
Carp: This is my third book, and I suppose I am learning new things all the time about putting together a book-length manuscript. Back when I was a graduate student, I thought I had to carve a hole in my life and fill the time with writing. As I got older and took on more responsibilities, I realized that it’s not always possible to do that. So, I have tried to get better about writing when I can and staying “connected” to the manuscript consistently even when I’m too busy to write.
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