George Washington Papers

From George Washington to John Hancock, 22 September 1776

To John Hancock

Head Qrs Heights of Harlem Septr 22d 1776


I have nothing in particular to communicate to Congress respecting the Situation of our Affairs, It is much the same as when I had the honor of addressing you last.

On Friday night, about Eleven or Twelve OClock, a Fire broke out in the City of New York, near the New or St Pauls Church, as It is said, which continued to burn pretty rapidly till after Sun rise the next morning. I have not been Informed how the Accident happened, nor received any certain account of the damage. Report says many of the Houses between the Broadway and the River were consumed.1 I have the Honor to be with great esteem Sir your Most Obedt Servt

Go: Washington

LS, in Robert Hanson Harrison’s writing, DNA:PCC, item 152; LB, DLC:GW; copy, DNA:PCC, item 169; Varick transcript, DLC:GW. Congress read this letter on 23 Sept. (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends , 5:810).

1Fanned by strong winds, this fire, which began about midnight on 20–21 Sept. near Whitehall Slip at the southern end of Manhattan Island, burned nearly a quarter of the city before it was brought under control about twelve hours later. All of the houses in the area directly north of the slip were destroyed as were most of the structures west of Broadway as far north as King’s College, including Trinity Church and the Lutheran church. St. Paul’s Chapel on Broadway near Vesey Street was saved by citizens who climbed to its flat roof and extinguished the burning debris blown there by the wind. The commercial district east of Broadway escaped destruction in large part because the wind, which had been blowing out of the southwest, shifted about two o’clock in the morning to the southeast and pushed the fire northwest toward the Hudson River instead of northeast up the East River. For contemporary descriptions of the fire and its effects, see particularly David Grin’s account in Moore, Diary description begins Frank Moore. Diary of the American Revolution from Newspapers and Original Documents. 2 vols. New York, 1859–60. description ends , 1:313–14, n.1; Mackenzie, Diary description begins Diary of Frederick Mackenzie Giving a Daily Narrative of His Military Service as an Officer of the Regiment of Royal Welch Fusiliers during the Years 1775–1781 in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass., 1930. description ends , 1:58–61; Kemble Papers description begins [Stephen Kemble]. The Kemble Papers. 2 vols. New York, 1884-85. In Collections of the New-York Historical Society, vols. 16–17. description ends , 1:89–90; E. G. Shewkirk to Nathaniel Seidel, 2 Dec. 1776, in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography description begins [Oswald G. Shewkirk]. “Occupation of New York City by the British, 1776. Extracts from the Diary of the Moravian Congregation.” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 1 (1877): 133–48, 250–62, 467–68. description ends , 13 (1889), 376–80; the New-York Gazette; and the Weekly Mercury, 30 Sept. 1776; and the Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia), 2 Oct. 1776. Most British and Loyalist observers believed that the fire was the work of American arsonists, and a number of persons were arrested on suspicion of setting or spreading it. William Tryon says in his letter to Lord Germain of 24 Sept. that “many circumstances lead to conjecture that Mr Washington was privy to this villainous act as he sent all the bells of the churches out of town under pretence of casting them into cannon, whereas it is much more probable to prevent the alarm being given by ringing of the bells before the fire should get a head beyond the reach of engines and buckets. Besides, some officers of his army were found concealed in the city supposed for this devilish purpose” (Davies, Documents of the American Revolution description begins K. G. Davies, ed. Documents of the American Revolution, 1770–1783; (Colonial Office Series). 21 vols. Shannon and Dublin, 1972–81. description ends , 12:230–31; see also William Howe to Germain, 23 Sept., in Force, American Archives description begins Peter Force, ed. American Archives. 9 vols. Washington, D.C., 1837–53. description ends , 5th ser., 2:380; Lydenberg, Robertson Diaries description begins Harry Miller Lydenberg, ed. Archibald Robertson, Lieutenant-General Royal Engineers: His Diaries and Sketches in America, 1762–1780. New York, 1930. description ends , 99; Tatum, Serle’s Journal description begins Edward H. Tatum, Jr., ed. The American Journal of Ambrose Serle: Secretary to Lord Howe, 1776–1778. San Marino, Calif., 1940. description ends , 110–11; Huth, “Hessian Mercenary,” 494–95; and Baurmeister, Revolution in America description begins Carl Leopold Baurmeister. Revolution in America: Confidential Letters and Journals, 1776–1784, of Adjutant General Major Baurmeister of the Hessian Forces. Translated and annotated by Bernhard A. Uhlendorf. New Brunswick, N.J., 1957. description ends , 51). No one ever was brought to trial for burning the city, however, and no evidence of an official or unofficial American conspiracy for that purpose has been found.

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