But Congress refused, which Washington regarded as a grievous error. Happily, he noted, God or “some good honest Fellow” had torched the city anyway, spoiling the redcoats’ valuable war prize.For more than 15 years, the historian Benjamin L. Carp of Brooklyn College has wondered who that “honest fellow” might have been. Now, in The Great New York Fire of 1776: A Lost Story of the American Revolution, he cogently lays out his findings. Revolutionaries almost certainly set New York aflame intentionally, Carp argues, and they quite possibly acted on instructions. Sifting through the evidence, he asks a disturbing question: Did George Washington order New York to be burned to the ground?..Popular histories of the American Revolution treat the “glorious cause” as different from other revolutions. Whereas the French, Haitian, Russian, and Chinese revolutions involved mass violence against civilians, this one—the story goes—was fought with restraint and honor.But a revolution is not a dinner party, as Mao Zedong observed. Alongside the parade-ground battles ran a “grim civil war,” the historian Alan Taylor writes, in which “a plundered farm was a more common experience than a glorious and victorious charge.”..At the 1775 Battle of Bunker Hill, [the British] burned Charlestown, outside Boston, so thoroughly that “scarcely one stone remaineth upon another,” Abigail Adams wrote. The Royal Navy then set fire to more than 400 buildings in Portland, Maine (known then as Falmouth). On the first day of 1776, it set fires in Norfolk, Virginia; the city burned for three days and lost nearly 900 buildings...A year later, the Virginia legislature commissioned an investigation, which found that “very few of the houses were destroyed by the enemy”—only 19 in the New Year’s Day fire—whereas the rebels, including Howe, had burned more than 1,000. That investigation’s report went unpublished for six decades, though, and even then, in 1836, it was tucked quietly into the appendix of a legislative journal. Historians didn’t understand who torched Norfolk until the 20th century.
The story, including the role of Indigenous peoples, continues at The Atlantic.