F.Y.I.: When Climbing a Greased Flagpole Was Patriotic

By KEITH WILLIAMS

Q. I heard that there was a holiday in which New Yorkers would climb greased flagpoles every Nov. 25. How did the tradition start, and why did it disappear?

A. It was called Evacuation Day, and it marks the date in 1783 when British troops finally left — evacuated, in the language of the day — the island of Manhattan, two months after the end of the Revolution.

That morning, George Washington and his troops marched triumphantly south from Harlem to reclaim the Battery, where they would replace the impeccably dressed redcoats with their own ragtag crew of citizen soldiers.

When they finally reached Fort George, at the tip of Manhattan, they discovered the British had committed one last act of defiance: they had nailed the Union Jack atop the flagpole, which they had afterward stripped and greased, preventing an easy removal.

Sure, the Americans could have cut the pole down — but then, where would they fly their own flag?

An enterprising sailor named John Jacob van Arsdale had a solution. After failing three times to climb the traditional way, he had others run to an ironmonger (the 18th-century version of a hardware store) to get supplies. With his pockets filled with nails and the rope for a new halyard over his shoulder, he made his way slowly up the pole, hammering in footholds as he ascended.

According to legend, The Star-Spangled Banner was aloft before the British were out of sight, meaning they had seen the failure of their ploy — and the end of their presence in America.

A hat was passed for the benefit of van Arsdale, with even Washington contributing, before most retired to Fraunces Tavern and other places to celebrate.

More than anywhere else in the young country, New York had suffered greatly at the hands of the British. General Washington miraculously evaded capture after the 1776 Battle of Brooklyn, the largest battle of the entire war. Two fires during the seven-year occupation destroyed much of the city. And in the filthy holds of prison ships in the East River, at least 11,000 Americans died — far more than were killed in all of the war’s battles combined.

As such, for New Yorkers, Evacuation Day was a bigger holiday than even the Fourth of July. It marked a sort of rebirth, a freedom from the hands of an oppressive king, not to mention his military representatives.

Until the early 20th century, New Yorkers would celebrate Nov. 25 with a large parade ending at the Battery, where a descendant of van Arsdale’s would replicate the slippery feat. Apparently, children would try their hands at it, too.

Although the tradition was already well on the wane, the biggest Evacuation Day celebration was the centennial, in 1883. President Chester A. Arthur unveiled the statue of General Washington at Federal Hall on Wall Street, on the spot where he had been inaugurated in 1789. Despite heavy rain, more than 200,000 took part in the festivities.

It was that poor late-November weather — not to mention the growing popularity of Thanksgiving — that hastened Evacuation Day’s decline. (Why march in the cold when you can feast indoors?)

The last official parade was in 1916. The United States entered World War I the following year. At that point, there was little appetite, understandably, for celebrating British defeat.


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