In this dreadful situation, when the whole city was threatened with destruction, Major-General Robertson, who had the chief command, sent immediately for two regiments that were encamped near the city, placed guards in several streets, and took every other precaution that was practicable to ward off the impending ruin. Lord Howe ordered the boats of the fleet to be manned, and after landing a large number of officers and seamen to assist us, the boats were stationed on each side of the city in the North and East Rivers, and the lines near the royal army were extended across the island, as it manifestly appeared the city was designedly set on fire.
The fire raged with inconceivable violence, and in its destructive progress swept away all the buildings between Broad street and the North River, almost as high as the City Hall; and from thence, all the houses between Broadway and the North River, as far as King's College, a few only excepted. Long before the main fire reached Trinity Church, that large, ancient, and venerable edifice was in flames, which baffled every effort to suppress them. The steeple, which was one hundred and forty feet high, the upper part wood, and placed on an elevated situation, resembled a vast pyramid of fire, exhibiting a most grand and awful spectacle. Several women and children perished in the fire. Their shrieks, joined to the roaring of the flames, the crush of falling houses, and the widespread ruin which everywhere appeared, formed a scene of horror great beyond description, which was still heightened by the darkness of the night. Besides Trinity Church, the rector's house, the charity school, the old Lutheran Church, and many other fine buildings, were consumed. St. Paul's Church and King's College were directly in the line of fire, but saved with very great difficulty. After raging about ten hours, the fire was extinguished between ten and eleven o'clock this morning.
During this complicated scene of devastation and distress, at which the most savage heart might relent, several persons were discovered with large bundles of matches, dipped in melted rosin and brimstone, attempting to set fire to the houses. A New England man, who had a captain's commission under the Continental Congress, and in their service, was seized, having these dreadful implements of ruin. On being searched, the sum of five hundred pounds was found upon him. General Robertson rescued two of these incendiaries from the enraged populace, (who had otherwise consigned them to the flames,) and reserved them for the hand of deliberate justice. One White, a carpenter, was observed to cut the leather buckets which conveyed water; he also wounded, with a cutlass, a woman who was very active in handing water. This provoked the spectators to such a degree, that they instantly hung him up. One of those villains set fire to the college and was seized; many others were detected in the like crime and secured.
The officers of the army and navy, the seamen and soldiers, greatly exerted themselves, often with the utmost hazard to themselves, and showed all that alertness and activity for which they are justly celebrated on such occasions. To their vigorous efforts in pulling down such wooden buildings as would conduct the fire, it is owing, under Providence, that the whole city was not consumed; for the number of inhabitants was small, and the pumps and fire-engines were very much out of order. this last circumstance, together with the removal of our bells, the time and place of the fire's breaking out, when the wind was south, the city being set on fire in so many different places nearly at the same time, so many incendiaries being caught in the very act of setting fire to houses; these, to mention no other particulars, clearly evince, beyond the possibility of a doubt, that this diabolical affair was the result of a preconcerted, deliberate scheme.
Thus, the persons who called themselves our friends and protectors, were the perpetrators of this atrocious deed, which in guilt and villany, is not inferior to the Gun-powder Plot; whilst those who were held up as our enemies were the people who gallantly stepped forth, at the risk of their lives, to snatch us from destruction. Our distress was very great before, but this disaster has increased it tenfold. Many hundreds of families have lost their all, and are reduced from a state of affluence to the lowest ebb of want and wretchedness - destitute of shelter, food, and clothing.
The Diary of the American Revolution compiled by Frank Moore, pages 159-162
Washington Square Press, New York, 1967