December 8, 1883

Charles G. Bush


Holidays, Evacuation Day; New York City, Celebrations/Honors; U.S. Military; Wars, American War for Independence;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

New York City;

1883 (to 1783). "A hundred years--Rest!!--Ta, ta."

Evacuation Day on November 25 was a holiday celebrated in New York City from the late-eighteenth century into the early decades of the twentieth century.  It marked the departure of British troops from the city following the end of the American War for Independence.  After the Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783, the British commander in New York City, General Guy Carleton, made sure that British loyalists had safely left the city before removing his troops, making them the last to surrender their post in the newly recognized United States.  As the 7500 British servicemen boarded ships on November 25, General George Washington and Governor George Clinton of New York led 800 Continental Army soldiers in a triumphant parade from the Bowery to Pearl Street to Wall Street to Broadway.  At 1 p.m., the British Union Jack was lowered and the American Stars and Stripes raised at the Battery’s Fort George, as thousands of New Yorkers cheered. 

In the featured cartoon marking the hundredth anniversary of Evacuation Day, an American man from 1883 orders the saluting American Revolutionary soldier from 1783 to “rest” (i.e., to be “at ease”).  The cartoon’s title—“Apotheosis” (the process whereby a human becomes divine, or an ideal example)—is meant sarcastically, and implicates a decline in the character of American men over the century.  The image contrasts the dutiful vigilance of the elderly soldier with the attire and affectations of his modern counterpart, who mimics the British upper class with his monocle, boutonniere, bowler hat, pointed shoes, walking stick, and genteel good-bye (“ta, ta”).  To the cartoonist, the American War for Independence was fought for manly republican virtue, not so that later American men could imitate the effete heirs of the British aristocracy whom their ancestors had defeated.

The annual observance of Evacuation Day seems to have begun in the mid-1790s, and was marked by parades, fireworks, and patriotic speeches.  Over the ensuing decades, it was increasingly overshadowed by Independence Day festivities, but was revived with a major celebration on its hundredth anniversary in 1883.  Harper’s Weekly editor George William Curtis criticized New Yorkers’ neglect of anniversary observances, and lamented that “a large part of the crowd which will gaze upon the pageant of the celebration of Evacuation-day will wonder what Evacuation-day was…” He predicted that “the electric national appeal of great national anniversaries … will be wanting here.”  It was to be the final event in a series of centenary celebrations of the nation’s birth, which began with the 1874 commemoration of the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia and continued through the United States’ Centennial two years later and other events.

The cover of the post-dated December 8, 1883 issue of Harper’s Weekly, in which the featured cartoon appeared, was a full-page illustration of the Evacuation Day unveiling of an imposing statue of George Washington, by sculptor John Quincy Adams Ward, at Federal Hall, site of the federal sub-treasury at Wall and Nassau Streets.  Ward’s artwork actually commemorated Washington’s inauguration in New York City on April 30, 1789 as the nation’s first president, thus accounting for the figure’s civilian dress, rather than the typical military uniform used in other representations of the first commander in chief.  The bronze statue is 12-½ -feet high and stands on a marble pedestal.

Harper’s Weekly reported that the chilly rain on November 25 did not dampen “the universal glow of patriotism” manifested by the cheerful crowd at the Evacuation Day centenary.  The event was attended by President Chester Arthur, seven governors from the original thirteen states, and hundreds of thousands of spectators who braved the weather to watch the four-hour procession.  The ceremonies culminated with the unveiling of the Washington statue, at which editor Curtis spoke.  The observance of Evacuation Day largely disappeared after World War I because of the waning of anti-British sentiment and the holiday’s close proximity to Thanksgiving.  However, a bicentennial was celebrated in 1983.

Robert C. Kennedy

December 6, 2023

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