New York City played an important role in the public life of George Washington, spanning the final five decades of the eighteenth century. Washington suffered his worst military defeat and experienced some of his greatest personal triumphs in New York, including the Continental Army's triumphant re-entry into the city and his inauguration as the first President of the United States.
George Washington first visited New York City in February 1756. Washington was en route to Boston to confer with Britain's military commander in the colonies, Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts, regarding his commission in the British army and the coming war with France. At the time, Washington was known in New York, as well as in Europe, for two things: the journal of his mission to the French in the Ohio country on behalf of the Virginia governor, which was published in 1754; and his role during Braddock’s retreat the following year. The city's elites welcomed Washington and during his six-day stay he attended a number of balls and the theater.
In 1773, Washington returned to enroll his willful stepson, Jacky Custis, in King's College. Two years later, he again passed through New York amidst lined streets of cheering crowds on his way to Boston, after accepting the Continental Congress’s appointment to lead the new Continental Army.
In June 1776, Washington brought his army south to New York City to head off the British after forcing their retreat from Boston. The British plan was to use New York City as their new base and split the colonies in two by controlling the Hudson River. The impossibility of defending an island against the world’s greatest naval power without a navy of his own was not lost on Washington. However, Congress ordered Washington to defend New York. Furthermore, Washington understood the strategic importance of the Hudson River.
After months of preparations on both sides, the British invaded Long Island at the end of August. Due in part to Washington’s tactical naïveté, the British outflanked and cornered his army at Brooklyn Heights, across the East River from Manhattan. Washington engineered a daring escape across the river for his army under the cover of night and a timely fog. When the British charged the camp the next morning, the Americans were gone. The British pursued them up the island of Manhattan, before Washington and his army crossed into New Jersey.
Throughout the rest of the war, Washington longed to recapture New York City and avenge his humiliating defeat. However, he did not return until the British forces evacuated on November 25, 1783. On that day, Washington marched around 800 troops into the city before throngs of celebrating citizens. On December 4, he bade farewell to his remaining officers in the long room of Fraunces Tavern. Less than a month later he left the city to go to Annapolis where he returned his commission to Congress before heading home to Mount Vernon.
Five years later on April 23, 1789, Washington returned to New York City, the new nation's temporary capital, to serve as its first President. He arrived on a barge manned by thirteen men in white uniforms, followed by a grand naval procession. Inaugurated on April 30, Washington took his oath of office on the balcony of Federal Hall at the corner of Wall and Broad Streets. While in New York the Washingtons resided at a house at 3 Cherry Street, in lower Manhattan. On August 30, 1790, Washington left New York City for the last time en route to the nation’s new capital, Philadelphia.
Michael D. Hattem
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