It seems like every major city has, at some point, a major fire to go with it. London had one, Chicago had one, and Washington, D.C. had one. San Francisco had one, but that that more to do with the big earthquake that preceded it. Still, fire is fire, and when it rages uncontrolled, it’s a pretty devastating experience.
Citizens of the small community of New York City also experienced a fire. I say “small community” because, by today’s standards, the city was more townish in size. But by 1776 standards, it was pretty large. It was also about to be occupied by the British, so there’s been some speculation that Colonials or members of Washington’s Continental Army set the blaze. And the General certainly had motive.
He didn’t have the manpower or firepower to stop the British from taking the city, so he packed his troops and headed for the higher ground of Harlem Heights. There certainly was discussion amongst his staff about burning the city to deny its supplies and warehouses to the enemy, but that doesn’t seem to have been Washington’s style. At any rate, history doesn’t really name a culprit.
History does show that on September 21, 1776, the fires started. Fanned by high winds and fueled by closely packed wooden structures, they quickly overwhelmed any defensive measures taken. The populace could do little but grab what they could, run into the streets, and watch the conflagration, which burned all day, all night, and into the 22nd. All told, one quarter of the city’s homes and businesses were destroyed.
In our minds, that sounds like a massive fire, but that’s because we think in a 21st-century mindset…New York City…10 million people. In 1776, one fourth of the buildings was 500 buildings. A lot, yes, but not the destruction our mind’s eye might conjure.
The British certainly didn’t start the fires and, in fact, they were the ones who expended the most effort to put them out. They questioned a bunch of people concerning the fire (including a young spy named Nathan Hale), but never found a suspect. The buildings that survived became British hospitals and prisons. The homes still standing (and not owned by British sympathizers) were taken over by Redcoat officers.
Under British control, New York City became a Loyalist enclave, and would remain so for many years. It was many of these “Loyalists” to the Crown that, years later, would make the push to ratify the Constitution in New York such a struggle.