During the revolutionary war, in the summer of 1776, the city experienced another major fire. George Washington and other officers in the Revolutionary army had decided that the city would be difficult to defend against the overwhelming British force. Some of Washington’s advisors suggested burning New York City so that the British would gain little from its capture. This idea was abandoned and Washington withdrew his forces from the city on September 12, 1776. Three days later the British occupied the city and on September 21st, a fire broke out in the Fighting Cocks Tavern. Without the city’s firemen present and on duty, the fire quickly spread. A third of the city burnt and 493 houses destroyed. Trinity Church was destroyed in minutes. With the fire department in disarray and largely missing, the British solders attempted to extinguish the flames. Unable to quell the fire because of sabotaged equipment, the fire raged on from day into night.
Washington mused that some honest patriot might have helped them out by setting the fire. The British were also convinced that the fire had been deliberately set. They arrested 200 suspected sympathizers and hung the self-described American spy, Nathan Hale. Those citizens displaced by the fire set up canvas tents around the destroyed areas in lower Manhattan. The British made little attempt to rebuild the city but did create their own fire department, realizing that fire was as much their enemy as the colonial rebels were.