The Last Battle

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Yorktown was not the end of the Revolutionary War. The Americans were to gain one victory more.

In 1783 negotiations for final peace and independence for the Colonies were ended. By mid-November, 1783, there remained in New York the remnants of the British armies, some six thousand British soldiers. There were also several thousand civilians who were Loyalists and who had come to New York to be evacuated with the British fleet. The fleet was assembled in New York Harbor, and it was hoped that embarkation would be accomplished by November 23. There were delays, however, and the evacuation was finally set for Tuesday, November 25. The British were to occupy the old fort at Bowling Green until noon of that day, when an American contingent would march down the Old Post Road and into the Bowery, take final possession of the fort there, and raise the American flag—which represented a “new constellation among the nations,” as a contemporary observer put it.

Captain William Cunningham, the British provost marshal of New York during the war and the infamous commander of the military prison, was late and was only now on his way to board a British frigate. As Cunningham, who was a meandispositioned man, rode down Broadway, his eye lit upon an American flag flying from the tavern of Mr. and Mrs. Francis Day on Murray Street. The Days’ tavern was about a half block out of the captain’s route, but the military agreement had been that America would remain technically British until the fort was emptied and the Americans occupied it. The Days were in technical violation of the accord. Galloping over to the tavern, Cunningham reined his horse and tugged hard at the flag’s rope.

Out of the tavern came Mrs. Day, armed with a broomstick. The powder in Captain Cunningham’s wig dusted the air as Mrs. Day let him have one over the head. He tried to grapple with her, but she whacked him flush across the face. The Britisher was forced to retreat. The American flag remained flying.

Captain Cunningham was among the last British soldiers to leave the Colonies and among the first to leave the United States of America. His defeat at the hands of Mrs. Day made him the butt of many jokes and an extremely unpopular man among the good people of the mother country. His demise was most unmilitary: on August 10, 1791, he was hanged at Newgate Prison, London, for forgery.