Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Benjamin L. Carp's "The Great New York Fire of 1776"

Benjamin L. Carp is professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America and Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution. He lives in New York City.

Carp applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, The Great New York Fire of 1776: A Lost Story of the American Revolution, and reported the following:
Page 99 appears just before I describe how the Great Fire of New York began in the early morning hours of September 21, 1776. The fire destroyed a fifth of the city. Page 99 comes toward the end of Chapter Six, “The Loss of New York City,” and it includes one of the book’s thirty illustrations.

Because page 99 is only half filled with words, it probably doesn’t give the best idea of the book’s quality, but a browser might be intrigued and gratified to discover an eighteenth-century engraving that breaks up the text. Authors have to work hard to secure reproductions and permissions for images and organize them for the publisher. On the other hand, this visual evidence supports the book’s overall argument. In Augsburg, Franz Xaver Habermann engraved this scene of British troops marching through New York City, based on his reading of British newspaper accounts. Although the buildings have little resemblance to New York’s actual architecture, the image conveys the dramatic changes that were happening in the city on September 15: an occupying army tromping through the streets.

The chapter describes the British capture of lower Manhattan as part of the Battle of Kip’s Bay on that day, followed by six tense days as the occupiers began to settle in.
Other signs worried the British, too. Captain [Frederick] Mackenzie noticed that “many of the Rebels who were unable to make their escape yesterday, are now in the town, and as they have changed their dress it is extremely difficult to discover them.” . . . Americans knew that people’s clothes could easily disguise their true identity. Striving status seekers, con artists, gender nonconformists, rioters, deserters, and runaway slaves all took advantage of their ability to don disguises. In a civil war, this problem grew more fraught—it was hard to know whether a person was loyal or rebellious.
(Disguises were an important part of my book on the Boston Tea Party, too.)

A recurring character in my book also appears on page 99 among these clandestine Rebels: a tavernkeeper named Captain Abraham Van Dyck:
Van Dyck may still have been wearing his grenadier uniform—a blue coat with red facings over a white waistcoat, breeches, and stockings. The British arrested him on September 16, angry at finding a Continental Army officer “secreted in a private House.”
Van Dyck would spend almost twenty months as a prisoner, because the British accused him of having helped to set New York City on fire. Witnesses would later testify that he had been arrested not on the sixteenth, but during the fire. He himself told his friends that a Black man had “betrayed” him to the British.

Page 99, in other words, offers some slivers of evidence that support the book’s argument: in the first week of the British occupation of New York City, skulking Rebels in the town—and perhaps even a Continental Army officer—attempted to burn it to the ground. I doubt that page 99 is very convincing on its own, but the book contains plenty of other evidence that the Great Fire cannot be dismissed as a mere accident.
Visit Benjamin L. Carp's website.

The Page 99 Test: Defiance of the Patriots.

--Marshal Zeringue