New York City is a battlefield. I know what you’re thinking — psychological warfare, the endless grim clashing of economic forces — but I am being literal. When we ponder America’s defining war, the Revolution, we think of Bunker Hill, or Saratoga, or Lexington and Concord, yet its largest battle, a vast and ferociously fought chess match in August and September of 1776, right after the formal declaration of the colonies’ independence, ranged over what are now the five boroughs. As to why the place was so hotly contested, you already know the answer. Then, as now, as ever, New York City was the center of it all. Both sides believed that if the British took control of New York and the Hudson River, the American resistance would likely collapse.
The battle isn’t as well known today as other encounters during the Revolution, in part because the city has done an excellent job of removing most traces of it. Where Boston sets aside hallowed historic precincts and wends a handsome brick Freedom Trail through its revolutionary sites, New York City buries its past under mountains of concrete and steel. Hills have been flattened, islands swallowed up by landfill, shorelines redrawn.
But I was determined to find revolutionary New York, and I did eventually, after a fashion. It helped that I had an organizing principle. I was researching a book, and, since my book isn’t about military strategy I wasn’t trying to cover all of the complex maneuverings of troops. I write narrative history, which to me means focusing on people’s lives. Getting to know the places in which those lives unfolded helps me in my efforts to get into the individuals’ heads and hearts.
The book tells the story of the founding era by following the interwoven stories of six people from the period, from birth to death. They include a Connecticut slave, a Seneca warrior, a British aristocrat and an Albany shoemaker. But it was because of the other two — a Virginia planter and the teenage daughter of a British officer — that I found myself going from subway to bus to ferry around the five boroughs, with old maps in one hand and Google Maps in the other. These two figures of 18th-century America were caught up in the mayhem of New York. They gave my journey through the city’s past what I always crave when I write, research or travel: a personal angle.
George Washington is everyone’s touchstone for the Revolution, and I made him mine as well. To orient myself alongside the commander of the American army in New York, I began at “the commons,” now City Hall Park, joining municipal workers on the benches at lunch hour. On July 9, 1776, as British soldiers were gathering on Staten Island and preparing to attack Manhattan, Washington arrayed his troops here and had the newly minted Declaration of Independence read aloud to them. The men were so roused up they charged southward and pulled down the statue of King George at what is now Bowling Green. I hiked down to the same spot and stood there, surrounded by the skyscrapers of the Financial District. Washington was furious at the lack of discipline, but pleased at the men’s ardor.