A “greased pole” challenge 233 years ago — Bicentennial Quarter Coin

Today, the Bicentennial Quarter Coin remembers the day 233 years ago when the British exited New York.

To give the Americans one last challenge, the British heavily greased the flag pole that played an important role in their celebrations that day.

An excerpt from an article in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine of November 1883 titled Evacuation of New York by the British, 1783:


These lines the enemy were still holding in part at noon of the 25th, and their final surrender was impatiently awaited by the Americans.

Some further delay occurred, when at one o’clock a British officer, by previous arrangement, announced that their last guards had been withdrawn.

Immediately the American corps re-formed and moved down the Bowery in full martial order.

In the van rode the troop of dragoons under Captain Stakes. Then came an advance-guard of light infantry, followed by the artillery; next the battalion of light infantry, followed by the Second Massachusetts; and last, a rearguard.

It was a little army, but it was an “army of occupation;” it was an army to be received, not as a pageant, with wild enthusiasm, but as a deliverer, with unaffected joy and tearful gratitude.

Following the designated line of march, the procession passed from the Bowery to Chatham Street, and turned down the present Pearl, then known as Queen Street.

That was New York’s principal thoroughfare at the time, given up largely to business purposes, and yet attractive with private residences and some notable mansions interspersed between the stores.

Broadway, which extended barely beyond the City Hall, had not begun to assume its metropolitan aspect, and just then its western front and background were disfigured with unsightly relics of the great fire of ’76.

It was on Queen and Wall streets that the crowds had gathered. Thousands turned out.

They lined the gardens, fences, and street sides, for the sidewalk had yet to appear as a public luxury: they filled the doors and porches and windows, and they mounted the roofs.

A motley though picturesque assemblage it must have been. The average New Yorker of 1783 was poor.

The returned inhabitant had pretty much worn out his clothes, for seven years of compulsory absence had shut him out from profits, and no convenient market was at hand wherein to replenish his stock, should he have been able to do so.

Some, no doubt, had drawn upon the last of their long-hoarded specie to buy at a bargain from those British merchants who had sold their goods and returned to England, but they were the exception.

The element of splendor which often distinguished a New York gathering was this time wanting.

Still the throng could not have been other than striking in appearance. In almost any state of dilapidation the colonial dress will set off the figure like a picture; in a crowd the effect would be enhanced.

In spite of the general weather-worn aspect one may imagine the display of powdered wigs, of profuse and snow-white ruffles, of polished buttons, of silver buckles, of ladies’ head-gear and flowing dresses, and of venerable silks of every hue, that marked the occasion.

Include the cocked hat, the high-collared and continuous coat, and the vest that rivaled it, and still further brighten the scene with Continental uniforms, as well as with fragments of British and Hessian gorgeousness decorating the colored servant—and we have a sightliness and variety which no modern crowd presents.

But that particular crowd of a hundred years ago cared very little how it looked. Its impoverishment was an honor to its patriotism.

It could only feel the gladness of the hour. It welcomed the troops with a full heart.

There were cheering and waving of hats and handkerchiefs and plumes and garlands all along the route.

The soldiers, too, marched by with the conscious air of victors and protectors.

Proceeding through Queen Street, they wheeled into Wall, then, as for some time after, one of the fashionable streets of the city, and continued to Broadway.

As they passed the corner of William, and looked up at the mutilated statue of the Earl of Chatham which then stood there, did any one observe the complete fulfillment of his prophetic words, which had worked like an inspiration throughout the colonies, “You cannot conquer America”?

It was a moment an orator might covet.

Turning into Broadway from Wall Street, the military halted opposite Cape’s Tavern, at the northwest corner of Rector Street, where it was to receive the civic procession, soon to follow.

Meanwhile the formal act of occupation took place at the Battery.

Upon the halting of the troops, one full company of light infantry and another of artillery were detached from the main body with instructions to march down Broadway to Fort George— whose site is now occupied by the steam ship offices at Bowling Green—take possession of the work, hoist the American colors on the flag-staff, and fire a salute of thirteen guns.

This duty was performed.

In the offing, around and beyond Governor’s Island, lay the British men-of-war and transports.

A short distance from the Battery, whose exterior wall then stood far within the present line, floated many barges filled with “redcoats” and Hessians, which had put off from shore as the Americans approached.

Around were crowds of citizens collected to witness the embarkation, whose enthusiasm could not be chilled by the frosty November air, and who appear to have indulged in no insulting jeers at the departing enemy.

As at Savannah and Charleston the year before, order and propriety were observed.

The last boat presumably carried away the British flag that had waved so long from Fort George; the Continentals hoisted in its place the flag of the thirteen States.

It was a quiet exchange of territorial possessions.

The old imperial Englishman moved out; the new American Englishman moved in.

The ceremony of the evacuation and occupation was thus complete, unless we introduce the incident at the fort mentioned prominently in the records of the day.

Whether ordered by the commander of the British garrison, or slyly done by some waggish soldiers, must remain unknown, but the fact was palpable that when the American detachment entered the work the flag-staff was found to be well greased from top to bottom, and the halyards gone.

No salute could be fired until our flag floated from that staff.

Three times a sailor-boy at tempted its slippery length, only to descend in haste.

John Bull perhaps looked on from his boats with a broad grin.

But something must be done. Boards, hammer, saw and nails were sent for, and cleats cut out.

The sailor-boy stuffed his pockets with the cleats; he nailed them on, and climbed as he nailed, until the top was reached, where new halyards were reeved, and the flag raised, amid cheers, by an artillery officer.

Then it was Brother Jonathan’s turn. He saluted the Stars and Stripes with thirteen rounds fired from John Bull’s guns!

The civic procession was next in order. After the military were in secure possession, General Knox rode back with many citizens to the Bull’s Head Tavern, where the Bowery Theatre stands, to meet Governor Clinton and Washington and party, and escort them into the city.

The procession followed the same route that the troops had taken—through Chatham, down Queen, up Wall, and into Broadway.

It was led by a body of Westchester Light Horse, under Captain Delavan.

Then came the Governor and General, with their suites, on horseback; then the Lieutenant-Governor and members of the Council for the temporary government of the city and southern district of the State, four abreast; then Knox and officers of the army, including Steuben, James Clinton, MacDougall, and others; eight abreast; next, citizens on horseback, eight abreast; and last, the Speaker of the Assembly and citizens, on foot, eight abreast.

There was another scene of welcome along the line, and as the procession halted at Cape’s Tavern the military presented arms to the Governor, the drums beat, and the artillery fired a salute.

Congratulatory addresses followed from the citizens to the Governor and General, and later in the day the Governor gave a public dinner at Fraunces’ Tavern, where a distinguished company assembled.

Among the thirteen toasts of the occasion the last was in the way of a moral “May the remembrance of this day be a lesson to princes!” the eleventh has been amply fulfilled—“May America be an asylum to the persecuted of the earth!” and the twelfth holds good for all time— “May a close union of the States guard the temple they have erected to Liberty!”

Governor Clinton established himself at the De Peyster mansion on Queen Street, near Cedar, and the machinery of the new civil government was set in motion without any friction.


The Bicentennial Quarter Coin shows with an image of a man hammering the American flag to the top of the pole at the fort in New York on November 25, 1783.

Bicentennial Quarter Coin