July 12, 1776

Detail, Phoenix and Rose near Long Island (map)

A brisk southwesterly wind came in that Friday afternoon, making conditions ideal for sailing, and perfect for demonstrating the force and speed of the British naval machine. The Americans may have symbolically toppled a statue of George III on July 9, but His Majesty’s Navy would not go down as quietly.

Around three o’clock in the afternoon, HMS Phoenix and Rose – carrying a combined total of 82 cannons – cast off from the Narrows at Staten Island and headed for Manhattan under full sail, taking advantage of the flood tide.

In a matter of minutes, alarm bells rang out in New York. The city’s nineteen-year-old artillery captain, Alexander Hamilton, ordered his men to fire as the ships cruised past Fort George. The warships returned fire, and sent cannonballs soaring down dirt roads and piercing through wood buildings near the Battery.

Within three hours, Phoenix and Rose were miles upriver, past Fort Washington [present-day Fort Tryon Park]. Staying all the while close to the New Jersey side of the North [Hudson] River, the ships evaded American cannons, and by sunset, had dropped anchor safely near Tarrytown, their crews out on a mission to “rouse local Loyalists.” The smoke lifted in lower Manhattan, people peered out of their houses and returned to the streets, and then the uneasy quietude was pierced once more.

Witnesses later wrote that, as evening fell, all eyes again turned to the water. Cannons fired: following a dramatic afternoon, there was one last surprise.

Lit by the setting sun, His Majesty’s flagship, the Eagle, sailed into New York Bay, bearing the flag of St. George. The cannon fire was the Royal Navy salute, and it meant that Admiral Lord Howe, commander of the British fleet, had finally arrived.

Image: Detail, Phoenix and Rose near Long Island. From A plan of New York Island… by William Faden (1750?-1856), engraver.

Issued Oct. 19, 1776 (fifth state, hand-colored). The Emmet Collection, Image ID: 433997. NYPL Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, call no. Map Div. 01-473 [Filed with N.Y.S. Revol. Maps, Long Island].