Rebels, Radicals, Revolutionaries: Benjamin Carp’s Book On The Great New York Fire

Professor Benjamin Carp

Paulina Gajewski


   On the dawn of September 21, 1776, flames took to New York, at the time a center of the Revolutionary War. The origins of the fire, which devastated a fifth of the city, were chalked up to be a mystery by historians. 

   Benjamin Carp is the Daniel M. Lyons Professor of American History at Brooklyn College, as well as a professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. On Monday, Apr. 3, the Ethyle R. Wolfe Institute for the Humanities hosted a discussion of Carp’s newly-released book, “The Great New York Fire of 1776: A Lost Story of the American Revolution.” Details of his book as well as broader historical conversations transpired at an interview with Barnet Schecter, an independent historian of American History.    

   According to Carp during the talk, his book is “meant to be a ‘whodunit’ about this fire that has been treated as a great mystery by historians.” Carp and Schecter painted an image of New York City before the fire. Manhattan was predominantly rural and much unlike the present-day metropolitan depictions, and not many people resided above current-day Canal Street. The city, even back then, was diverse and thus politically complicated. 

   A common perspective that a majority of people hold in regard to the Revolutionary War is one glorified by patriotism. Most American school curricula teach an overly simplified and rudimentary story of the war. Carp’s book, intended for both scholarly and unscholarly audiences, aims to bring light to the bloodshed and machinations of warfare. Zeroing in on a specific, nuanced topic, the event was able to bring forth larger implications about American history. Carp’s story was years in the making. 

   “I first became interested in this fire when I was an undergrad student,” Carp said, “but then I settled down and wrote a senior thesis on the firefighters piece of it, but in looking at burning things during the Revolution, I’d come across the story of the fire and I couldn’t let it go.” 

   Delving deeper into the setting of the fire hatched further speculations about the motivations of the fire. Fires in colonial New York had been generally isolated, and this fire burned mainly along the Lower West Side, which was property of the Anglican Church. A question arose: was this an attack on the Church of England in response to the war?

   Carp described the various perceptions of New York at the time. Not only was it viewed as “sinful” and a center for the Anglican Church, but it was also home to a larger percentage of loyalists than colonies such as Boston. This inherently made New York vulnerable to American armies. Perception, in fact, held much power in regards to depictions of the fire, as in the image on the cover itself. 

   “I love the cover design for my book, particularly the cover, font, and “burn mark” design,” Carp told the Vanguard. “The cover uses an eighteenth-century image by a German printmaker, which other books have used on their cover, too. It’s one of the more exciting images of the war! The artist had never visited America, so the buildings look nothing like eighteenth-century New York. But the artist did try to capture the events of the Great New York Fire of 1776, because it’s clear he had read accounts of the incident that originated with British newspaper reports.”

   New York was a strategic point for the Revolutionary War, as it allowed for access to Long Island, New Jersey, Connecticut, areas in the Hudson River Valley, and as far as Albany. Diverging from the classic renditions of an overly triumphant army, Washington’s campaign could be characterized by uncertainty, as he was constantly juggling between the lesser evil of his options.  

   The tense atmosphere could have been attributed to contrasting perspectives due to the diversity of New York. Loyalists viewed the arrival of the British as liberation, whereas rebels viewed it as an occupation. Schecter summed up the arousing suspicions, “The New Englanders didn’t have a kind of affection for New York that they might have had for Boston or elsewhere.” 

   The diversity of New York and the differences between colonists in America at the time allowed for an intriguing cultural history. 

   Carp began his account of the fire with eyewitness testimonies along with the best depictions of the fire: maps. “​​To me perhaps the most ‘realistic’ portrayals are the maps,” Carp told The Vanguard. “Many of these were drawn by highly professional British engineers, and they worked to show, accurately, the extent of the damage, from a bird’s eye view.” Though at first rumors spread stating that the British began the fire, accounts made it clear that the British were doing everything in their power to halt it. 

   The mystery behind the cause of the Great Fire was similar to that of the Boston Tea Party, which is much more commonly known. The instigators of the Tea Party didn’t come forward until almost forty years later, and even then their testimonies had to be taken with a grain of salt. “And so there are other mysteries,” Carp stated, “that are kicked up by this fire. By looking at this fire, we get a more interesting perspective and a more interesting set of perspectives on the American Revolution […].” 

   Carp includes two narratives that depict an image unlike the classic white male colonist in action. One of these deals with a woman, who Carp said, “was needling gunpowder into balls to be used as incendiary materials,” and the other a person of color. Small narratives allow us to look into the lives and stories of the usually underrepresented in history. 

   The Great New York Fire of 1776 tells a suspenseful and thrilling story of a piece of Revolutionary history that was generally disregarded, despite the scale of its destruction. Inquiring into the enigma that is the cause of the fire itself, Carp was able to chronicle tales of suspects along with the settings of New York to depict a larger history of espionage, terror, and radicalism. 

   The book can be purchased in both physical and virtual formats from Amazon and Yale University Press. 

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