The British are Leaving!


February 13, 2013 Ephemera Society

By Diane DeBlois

This autumn of 2009 marks the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson's journey up the river that now bears his name, the 200th anniversary of the Robert Fulton steamboat that revolutionized travel on that river, and the 100th anniversary of the Hudson-Fulton Celebration which was, by all accounts, a gargantuan affair. There's been much recent discussion about why our celebrations of these anniversaries seem so muted by contrast. It may be that we are not so aware of the Hudson River: geographic fact or historic/economic context. Or even that such anniversary markings are no longer as compelling.

The bi-centennial of 1976 inspired much hoopla -- but the bi-centennial of 1983 passed without a murmur. Not so the centennial in 1883 -- of the evacuation of New York by the British on November 25, 1783 -- which inspired many commemorations. After all, 1776 was merely the beginning of the impulse to self-government. When the British left in 1883, it had been achieved.

The souvenir shown here probably dates from that centennial. In form it is a large chromolithograph by the prolific firm of Donaldson Brothers, Five Points, New York, mounted on heavy card and die-cut in the shape of a dispatch case topped by a rolled horse blanket. It was a 'supplement' giveaway of the New York Weekly, and could be hung from a nail as a parlor decoration or, as was common, over the stovepipe hole in a parlor chimney during summer months.

The image shows a George Washington look-alike galloping off a path where a group of British soldiers await. Both the Continental soldier and his horse look frantic -- but we are confident they will escape. In fact, we are confident that whatever messages were in the dispatch case got through -- for the line of expresses that Washington initiated 1780-1782 was one of his formidable advantages over the British. A recent work by Professor Konstantin Dierks, In My Power: Letter Writing and Communications in Early America, argues that Washington won a 'war of communications' more than a war of engagements.

He did, in any case, win -- and the British left New York, 226 years ago, after occupying it for seven years. The city was in ruins, the Hudson Valley exhausted, and General Washington couldn't even raise the Stars and Stripes in victory because a departing British soldier had cut the halyards and greased the flagpole at Fort George, leaving the Union Jack flying over the Battery. The most common image of the 1883 centennial was a chromolithograph of one of Washington's men shimmying up the pole to nail on the flag of the new Republic.


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