Sunday, June 14, 2009

Evacuation Day Nearly Leaves Town

Who doesn’t love Evacuation Day? Boston City Council, apparently.

You may have recognized by now an oft-stated lament in this blog that once-proud holidays born of struggle and feasting have over time been reduced to little more than a day off of work, with little regard or observance for the past.

So it’s worth noting that Boston City Council only narrowly voted to keep its Evacuation and Bunker Hill days as floating holidays for around 35,000 Suffolk County employees, after it threatened to cancel the holiday slate to save taxpayer dollars in hard times. The Beacon Hill pols managed a resolution of support for the June 17 Bunker Hill holiday and the earlier March 17 Evacuation Day observance "so our citizens may reflect and remember the sacrifices of those who gave gone before us."

How quickly they forget March 17, 1776, when a British naval fleet sailed out of Boston harbor on route to Halifax, Nova Scotia. That came 11 months after the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 15, 1775. After a long siege, British troops were finally allowed to leave Boston harbor, within incident or injury. The anniversary of this date is conveniently celebrated by the Irish American (and other) residents of Boston and Suffolk County on March 17.

Truly, when Evacuation Day, which celebrates the evacuation of British forces from Boston on March 17, 1776, is judged non-essential, then the observance of American history has truly come to a sorry pass. Especially when it comes to Irish-Americans, for whom March 17 is also St. Patrick’s Day, a convenient coincidence and a reminder when they gave the boot to the British redcoats.

That tie to St. Patrick’s Day may well explain why Evacuation Day survives in Boston but has long since lapsed among New Yorkers who once marked the holiday on November 25, the day the defeated British army left that city’s shores in 1783.

Indeed, the conquering general of the day, George Washington, held a famous victory feast to celebrate the departure of the British at Capes Tavern at Pearl Street in lower Manhattan. Besides the usual delicacies like lamb, oysters, Virginia ham and deserts, Washington and his merrymaking officers downed 133 bottles of Madeira port and claret wine. According to the food historian Mary Donovan in her Thirteen Colonies Cookbook.

It turns out Evacuation Day early on became a convenient holiday for Brahmins in Boston and New York City to hold popular parades and private dinners where they proclaimed their respect for the sacrifices of the American revolutionary war, and projected their own political and economic power.

Historian Cliftoon Hood recounts that, by the mid-1790s, Evacuation Day in New York City had settled into an annual calendar holiday with parades and rituals, so much so that newspapers of the day reported that the Evacuation Day celebration passed off "as usual" or "with the usual military honor."

The emotion and revelry that surrounded Evacuation had long ebbed by the time of the holiday’s 100th anniversary, and it wasn’t until 1901 that Evacuation Day became a legal holiday in Boston. A year later on March 17, 1902, Boston dedicated the Dorchester Heights monument in Irish south Boston. And in Suffolk County, Evacuation Day became an official holiday, with school and government offices closed.

But in 2009, 226 years after the British redcoats took their leave of Boston, Evacuation Day has largely been forgotten in New York City, and nearly came to an unceremonious end in Suffolk County.

And with the near demise of this once joyous occasion has gone much of Evacuation Day’s historical memory.

Etan Vlessing

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