Before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, New York City was a thriving port city with a population of around 25,000 people. The early events of the war caused this number to drop quickly. The first mass departure happened when news of the Battles of Lexington and Concord reached New York in April 1775. Excited to join the uprising, the Sons of Liberty rose up and overthrew the colonial government. Lieutenant Governor Cadwallader Colden retreated to Long Island, and Governor Tryon moved his headquarters to a ship in New York Harbor. By September, a third of the city’s population had fled, most of them Loyalists who feared attacks from the Patriots in power. In early 1776, it became clear that New York would be the next major battleground of the war, causing thousands more to flee before the gathering storm. Those who ran left behind homes and possessions that they were unlikely to ever recover. By July 1776, only about 5,000 residents remained. Those who stayed faced grave dangers.
In this letter to her daughter, New York resident Mrs. A. Hampton describes a terrifying experience she had on July 12, 1776. George Washington was stationed in New York City with the entire Continental Army. The British Army and Navy were camped on Staten Island, preparing to invade New York. On July 12, British General Howe sent the warships Phoenix and Rose sailing up the Hudson River to test Washington’s defenses. The ships fired on New York, creating a full-blown panic among the general public. Mrs. A. Hampton and others ran through the city, desperate to find a safe place to hide. Washington’s troops were unable to organize an effective response. Reports filed after the incident show that fewer than half the troops reported to their positions, and there were rumors that many of those who did report for duty were drunk. Meanwhile, the captain of the Rose relaxed on the deck of his ship with a bowl of punch and bottle of claret, confident that the American cannons did not have the range to do serious harm to his ship. He was right.
Mrs. A. Hampton’s letter stands as a testament to the very real dangers faced by non-combatants when the war arrived on their doorstep.