By Toby Nash
Historians like to be ambitious, span decades in their writing, even centuries, but there is often great utility in examining the little things. I have found my interest drawn to one particular night in New York City.
In May 1757, New York was awash with wartime hysteria. Lord Loudon’s naval fleet of over one hundred vessels lay anchored in New York Harbour with orders from Prime Minister William Pitt to launch an assault on the French-Canadian port of Louisbourg—but it had not moved in months. Mass desertions of sailors into the city and onto privateering vessels had meant frustrating manpower shortages and delays in the voyage. The city’s privateering industry had proved a force to be reckoned with, privateers fighting tooth-and-nail in the streets and on the docks to shield deserters from naval press gangs. Still, the number of sailors in Loudoun’s fleet amounted to a contingent of 3,500; well below what the Admiralty expected. To rectify this, Loudon delegated to Rear-Admiral Sir Charles Hardy, who had, surrendering his position as the military governor of New York, taken up a position in Loudoun’s fleet, commanding the frigate Nightingale.
At 2 a.m. on May 20th, leaving only skeleton crews aboard the ships, Hardy ordered three battalions, over 3,000 of these men, to divide into squads, row silently across the harbour and enter the city. The result was a night of chilling violence. Squads of Hardy’s men snuck quietly onto the waterfront, quickly occupying tactical waypoints across the city. The sailors enclosed and encircled the lower half of Manhattan, cutting off all means of escape. Hardy’s men are said to have “patrolled the streets” and systematically “searched the taverns, and other houses, where sailors usually resorted” on the East River wharves—which quite clearly included brothels. They accosted all men of fighting age, of which there were many, and who at that time of night were likely in a drunken and vulnerable state. By sunrise, eight hundred men had been captured and detained; around one quarter of the city’s adult male population.
This affair was, by far, the largest and most dramatic impressment drive in colonial America and a significant military event in New York City’s early urban history. Its relative obscurity may stem from the fact that in terms of amphibious invasions of New York, William Howe’s landings in Brooklyn and Manhattan in August 1776 take precedence in historical memory. Yet, this was undoubtedly an act of wartime aggression; not one of competing armies, but rather a large-scale raid on an unsuspecting civilian population. While histories have covered this event in military and political terms, it is useful to consider the social effects of this night of violent disorder.
Impressment was a wartime reality in colonial British America, although it often provoked significant resistance. Mobs in Boston and Charleston had violently reacted to relatively small-scale press gang activities during King George’s War (1744-48). Given the brutality of Hardy’s raid in New York, therefore, it is incredible that we have little evidence of any local backlash. During the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), the scale of conflict and the ambition of the press gang intensified markedly both in scale and brutality, making the lack of mob resistance in 1757 all the more exceptional and remarkable. Conceivably, this may owe to New York City’s position as a key military headquarters and hub for troop quartering in North America, prompting at least some respect for the British state’s wartime needs. Even without evidence of a counterattack, however, we should not discount the immediate shockwave of emotion felt by a city in the face of such large-scale violence.
We also have little evidence of trauma whatsoever. Our sources are mostly governmental and military recount events as merely the course of business. With an absence of personal accounts from those involved, we are left with little from which to conduct an on-the-ground social history. But what can we reconstruct from what is missing? As the sun came up on the morning of May 20th, with so many of its men disappeared in the night, the city must have been shaken. Consider the hundreds of individual human experiences of not just the kidnapped, but those who witnessed, heard, or learned of what had happened to the men of lower Manhattan. What might New York City have looked like on this night—to the men taken, to those who escaped, to the prostitutes who had their clients ripped away from them, the wives and children who woke up in a panic.
Printer Hugh Gaine noted in his journal that “about Twenty soldiers … were sent on board every Transport in order to keep the men from getting on shore” and in order to “prevent all kinds of Disturbance.” The prospect of the detained men escaping to reach shore likely would have stoked the rage of the already distressed townspeople. What is remarkable is that Gaine wrote this in his personal journal, but did not think to publish it in his popular city-wide newspaper, the New York Mercury. In fact, the city’s other weekly newspaper, the New York Gazette, also kept a strangely quiet on what we can safely assume was a most cataclysmic of nights on a local level. What explanations do we have for this silence? Perhaps this was merely accepted as a way of life in a wartime city already quartering hundreds of troops and sailors. There was undoubtedly a lot of news of privateering and naval movements at sea, and troops on the frontier. Perhaps there was a deference to the military’s authority, or to the Governor in New York.
In the end, the townspeople were placated, Hardy let around 400 of these men go, insisted the rest were necessary. It is unclear why Hardy did this, but the outrage of the townspeople is one likely explanation. Nevertheless, the next day, Loudoun and Hardy sailed from the harbour and on to Halifax. Not much was said about it, but it is hard to imagine that this event was not momentous and deeply distressing to the city.
This one night may seem unimportant in the wider scheme of the Seven Years’ War. Death and destruction in the theatres of war, relegate this night to the periphery. But this surely constitutes one of the most chaotic and violent nights in New York City’s history and it is worth considering what social reality we might be missing—a curious lack of controversy, shock, suffering, and anguish.
 Douglas Edward Leach, Roots of Conflict: British Armed Forces and Colonial Americans (Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 1986), 156-7; Jesse Lemisch, Jack Tar vs. John Bull: The Role of New York’s Seamen in Precipitating the Revolution (New York: Garland Publishing, 1997), 23-4 Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 182; Thomas Truxes, Defying Empire: Trading with the Enemy in Colonial New York (New Haven, C.T., Yale University Press, 2008), 31.
 Truxes, Defying Empire, 31; Hugh Gaine, The Journals of Hugh Gaine, Printer, ed. P. L. Ford (New York: Dodd Mead, 1902), vol. 2, 8.
 Leach, Roots of Conflict, 156-7; Lemisch, Jack Tar vs. John Bull, 23-4; Burrows and Wallace, Gotham, 182.
 Stanley McCrory Pargellis. Lord Loudoun in North America (New Haven, C.T.: Yale University Press, 1933).
 William Shirley to the Lords of Trade, in Correspondence of William Shirley: Governor of Massachusetts and Military Commander in America, 1731-1760, ed. Charles Henry Lincoln (New York: Macmillan, 1912), 1:412-8; South Carolina Council Journal, 5 January 1748.
 Burrows and Wallace, Gotham, 167-8.
 Journal of Hugh Gaine, 2:8-9.
 New York Mercury¸ 23, 30 May 1757
 New York Gazette, 23, 30 May 1757
 Leach, Roots of Conflict 157; Lemisch, Jack Tar, 24
Image credit: Ratzer, Bernard, and Thomas Kitchin. To His Excellency Sr. Henry Moore, Bart., captain general and governour in chief in & over the province of New York & the territories depending thereon in America, chancellor & vice admiral of the same, this plan of the city of New York is most humbly inscribed. [London: s.n., ?, 1767] Map. https://www.loc.gov/item/91684092/.