After General Howe and his brother, Admiral Howe, took over Long Island, General Washington's troops were in New York City. They knew it was just a matter of time before General Howe and his men would come to the mainland and take New York City. The Continental Army was outnumbered and they had no fortifications in the city. Some colonists who lived in the city wanted to set fire to it and leave, but the commanding officers were against this.
On September 15, 1776, the British troops came ashore and the Continentals retreated to Harlem Heights. There were about 22,000 residents in New York City, and all but 500 left. Most historians assume the 500 who stayed behind in New York were Loyalists. Loyalists who may have burned the City of New York and made it look like the British had done it.
From the diary of Ambrose Serle:
|Some of them were caught with matches and fire-balls about them. One man, detected in the act, was knocked down by a grenadier and thrown into the flames for his reward. Another, who was found cutting off the handles of the water buckets to prevent their use, was first hung up by the neck till he was dead and afterwards by the heels upon a signpost by the sailors. Many others were seized, on account of combustibles found upon them, and secured, and, but for the officers, most of them would have been killed by the enraged populace and soldiery.|
British Lieutenant Mackenzie wrote in his diary:
|During the time the Rebels were in possession of the town, many of them were heard to say they would burn it, sooner than it should become a nest for the Tories --- and several Inhabitants who were mostly violently attached to the Rebel cause have been heard to declare that they would set fire to their own houses sooner than they should be occupied by the King's troops.|
No one really knows who started the fire of New York City. It makes sense that a Colonist did it more than a British soldier, because the British had just captured the town and were planning on using it as their headquarters. It would also make sense that a Loyalist living in New York and being forced out by an enemy army would just as soon leave them ashes than buildings that could be used against the fight for freedom.