Philadelphia Campaign

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Philadelphia Campaign

PHILADELPHIA CAMPAIGN. During the last week of 1776 and the first week of 1777, a disintegrating American army closing out a disappointing campaign won two small but sharp engagements with regular British and Hessian mercenary forces at Trenton and Princeton, in New Jersey. These unexpected setbacks cost the British their hard-earned ascendancy in New Jersey, as well as the wide-spread assumption that the Revolution would soon end favorably to them in military terms. The British commander in chief, William Howe, withdrew his troops to winter quarters in New York City, leaving a small garrisoning force to secure an enclave in eastern New Jersey near Perth Amboy. Howe's American counterpart, George Washington, briefly considered attacking that remnant of British strength, but instead he prudently led his rapidly dwindling force to winter camps in the hills around Morristown, New Jersey.

The Trenton-Princeton campaign was of incalculable morale and psychological advantage to American revolutionaries, and it was politically critical to the rebel governments; but it did nothing to preserve the existence of what Washington soon remembered as his "old" army. Indeed, his object in placing that force in the Morris County hills was less to protect it than to conceal its dissolution from the enemy and from Americans as well. Some scholars have argued that one dividend of the year-ending triumphs was the retention of a core group of about one thousand veterans of 1776 who agreed to remain in arms indefinitely, as a skeleton force around which Washington could build his "new" army. Surviving strength records for the Continental Army are nowhere more fragmentary than for the first three months of 1777, however, and this claim is very doubtful. From Morristown in February, March, and April, Washington presided over the almost complete departure of his veteran troops, as his terse hints to civilian leaders and military peers suggest, while waiting for their long-promised replacements to materialize.

The sobering, but gratifying, end of the 1776 campaign persuaded an ideologically and fiscally reluctant Continental Congress to heed Washington's pleas to authorize the formation of a large "standing" army of soldiers enlisted for at least three years or the duration of the war. While recruiting officers scoured the hills of New England, ports in the Middle Atlantic states, and the southern backcountry, for men willing to accept these terms, Washington could do little except fret and try to keep the formal shell of his army alive. He borrowed militia forces from the Middle Atlantic states and deployed them with the dwindling remnants of his old force, maneuvering in and out of the New Jersey hills, both to beleaguer the enemy's Raritan River enclave and to deceive his foes about his temporary weakness. Washington expressed recurrent surprise that Howe and his aides did not see through this charade, and the contempt he came to feel toward his adversaries for their carelessness in this regard may explain some aspects of his behavior during the 1777 campaign.

William Howe, meanwhile, rightly considered Washington too strongly situated to attack, whatever his strength in troops, and instead contemplated how to launch a new campaign in the spring. The overall British campaign plan had evolved since the late fall of 1776 in personal discussions in London by Howe's subordinate, General John Burgoyne—who had returned to London to promote his ideas—and in correspondence between Howe and the British secretary of state for the American colonies, George Sackville Germain. That plan involved an invasion, led by Burgoyne, down the Lake Champlain-Hudson River corridor from Canada to New York City to isolate the militant head of the rebellion in New England from what Britain hoped was the more moderate rest of the continent. Howe's specific role in supporting this operation was left at best ambiguous in these discussions. Howe wanted try to end the rebellion in the Middle Atlantic states by carrying the fight to Pennsylvania. He was encouraged in this notion by Pennsylvania Loyalists, especially by that colony's former Assembly Speaker Joseph Galloway, who claimed that Pennsylvanians were eager to return to their king's side with protection from his army. Howe believed that he could achieve this and still return to New York, if necessary, to support Burgoyne's campaign.

Washington understood that he would soon engage Howe's forces, whether in the lower Hudson Valley or elsewhere in the Middle States, and he desperately tried to organize and if possible train the new recruits who began reaching his camps near Morristown in early May. Scholars have debated the social and economic character of the "new" army and its successors later in the war. A broad but disputed consensus suggests that the American regular army after 1776 was drawn from poorer and socially less secure groups than the broad cross-section of the populace who responded eagerly to the 1775 mobilization. This social transition had important implications for the army's military temperament and for its relationship to the larger society. Washington himself, viewing the new musters, speculated that recruiting agents were now meeting their goals from among "a Lower Class of People." Whatever their origins, the belated opening of the 1777 campaign allowed Washington to give at least some conditioning exercise to the recruits, even if more formal training was impossible. In June Howe moved large numbers of troops into New Jersey. By threatening to cross the flat lowlands toward the Delaware River, he hoped to lure Washington down from the Morris hills for the decisive engagement he craved. Washington might have willingly met his adversary in the hills, but he refused to fight on Howe's chosen ground. In early July, Howe withdrew his forces to Staten Island, where he loaded about fourteen thousand of them on the oceangoing transports of his brother, Adm. Richard Howe. The fleet put to sea on 23 July, leaving about seven thousand redcoats in New York City under the command of Howe's subordinate, General Henry Clinton.

Intelligence reports about the destination of the British force varied wildly and changed frequently. Washington knew that Howe might sail north to belabor the New England coast, trapping that region between Atlantic and interior invaders. He also might head south to secure a port like Charleston, or to harass the Chesapeake and Carolina coasts as their vital staple crops of tobacco and rice neared harvest. Or, Howe might lure the Continental Army off guard and return to New York to support Burgoyne's invasion of the Hudson. Delegates to the Continental Congress understandably credited threats to their own constituents most heavily, and that weak and regionally factionalized body exerted contradictory pressures on the army's leadership.

The Howe fleet was sighted in the mouth of the Delaware Bay on 29 July, supporting the view of many that the British in fact intended to rout the American civilian government and capture Philadelphia. Washington, who had marched his men back and forth across central New Jersey for two weeks, entered Pennsylvania the next day. The sudden disappearance of the fleet into the Atlantic upset these calculations, and strategic or political debates immediately resumed. Washington camped his force of ten thousand men in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, to await events, but he was prepared to march north or south as needed. Finally, on 23 August, reliable intelligence showed that the Howes were sailing up the Chesapeake Bay. General Howe still intended to campaign for Pennsylvania, if by a different route than he had initially imagined.

Howe's army began landing at the head of the Elk River in Maryland on 25 August. The men were considerably weakened by five weeks on shipboard, and the horses and other animals on which they depended for mobility were in even worse shape. It took several days for British commanders to prepare for overland campaigning. Howe's critics have complained that he used weeks of the summer campaign season bringing his army only fifty miles closer to Philadelphia than it had been in New Jersey. But until that time, the friendliness of Quaker Pennsylvanians was only an untested promise from Joseph Galloway. The disinclination for rebellion—identified at the time as "disaffection"—by inhabitants of Maryland's eastern shore and the lower counties of Delaware was well-known. Additionally, by opening the campaign near the narrow neck of the Delmarva Peninsula, Howe could threaten Washington's southern supply lines even as Burgoyne might succeed at severing the northern ones.

When it was clear that Howe would invade Pennsylvania from the south, Washington marched his army through Philadelphia, fretting about whether its members made a sufficiently "military" appearance to sustain morale among civilians and especially delegates to Congress. He brought the army to Wilmington, Delaware. Then, when the British left Head of Elk, he backtracked into Chester County, Pennsylvania, skirmishing and trying to stay between the redcoats and both Philadelphia on the one hand and, on the other, the vital American supply depots and forges in the upper Schuylkill Valley near Reading. By 10 September the Americans had formed behind Brandywine Creek, near the small village of Chads Ford. Howe's efforts the next day to force passage of that place provoked the first pitched battle of the 1777 campaign.

That engagement began in the morning with artillery fire and maneuvering in the British lines south of the Brandywine. Washington feared a direct assault across that stream, which was running low in the late summer heat, and he concentrated his forces there, detaching units to cover other fords several miles north and south of that point. Howe, who the previous year at Long Island had observed American difficulty responding to flanking attacks, left the Hessian general, Wilhelm von Knyphausen, with five thousand troops to maneuver and display noisily at Chads Ford. With his subordinate, Charles Lord Cornwallis, Howe marched nine thousand men northwest along the Brandywine to obscure fords across the two branches into which the creek divided. Washington either ignored or failed to receive warnings from soldiers and local farmers about this maneuver. Soldiers were presumed not to know the local territory well, while its inhabitants were mostly Quakers whose political reliability the army doubted. Joseph Galloway's boast that Pennsylvanians would eagerly deliver their province back to their king was about to be tested in the field.

In the late afternoon of a hot day, Howe and Cornwallis's troops fell on the army's right flank, commanded by General John Sullivan of New Hampshire. Their assault was somewhat halting, which allowed Sullivan to prepare for the blow, but the attack unraveled the American line. Washington, once he was convinced that the attack was in earnest, rushed two divisions from the center of his lines, and eventually a third, into the breach. Fighting desperately for several hours, the Americans stabilized the situation sufficiently to organize an orderly retreat. The Battle of Brandywine resulted in an unequivocal victory for the British side, but the inexperienced Americans emerged from it with a sense that they could survive on the field with their enemy. Washington had casualties of about three hundred killed, as many wounded, and perhaps three hundred prisoners of war. Howe lost ninety men killed and about five times that many wounded. The British rested on the battlefield for a day while the Americans limped away toward Philadelphia.

When Congress received formal notice of the day's result (the cacophony of battle itself was audible in Philadelphia, and confused oral reports filtered into the city that night), it made plans to relocate the seat of government if necessary. The weak and embattled state government arrested and exiled to Virginia a group of mostly Quaker men of doubtful political loyalty. The documentary records of the Independence and war efforts were dispersed. The soon-to-be-named Liberty Bell was sent to the Lehigh Valley for safekeeping. Civilians of "disaffected" sentiment began to taunt their "patriot" neighbors and to prepare for occupation.

On September 16 advance elements of both armies stumbled into each other in Chester County and another decisive battle seemed likely. A fierce rainstorm, however, washed out the encounter. The Americans retreated to the upper Schuylkill Valley in search of dry munitions. Howe led his army to an obscure iron-making settlement on the Schuylkill River called Valley Forge. They burned the industrial facilities there and crossed the river into Philadelphia County. Congress adjourned on 18 September and went to Lancaster. When the state government arrived a few days later and claimed that town, the dispirited rump of Continental delegates trooped off to York, a relatively new frontier settlement west of the Susquehanna River, to await events.

On the night of 20 September, a detachment of about fifteen hundred American troops that Washington had sent under Pennsylvania general Anthony Wayne to shadow the British was attacked in their camp at Paoli by a much larger force of redcoats. The rebels were savaged, mostly receiving bayonet wounds, and the event was spun into the Paoli "Massacre," an important propaganda issue for the Patriot side. For the second year in a row it looked like the military part of the Revolution was disintegrating. Howe adroitly maneuvered his forces in the middle Schuylkill Valley to threaten both Philadelphia and the Reading storage depots. Washington chose to protect the latter, and on 26 September Philadelphia was lost. Thousands of prorevolutionary civilians fled west with the political bodies, but thousands more remained behind. The demeanor of even the evacuees was more determined—and far less visibly panicked—than had been the case in 1776 immediately before the Trenton surprise. This little-noted fact would soon have important military consequences.

Howe at first brought only 5,000 troops into the city proper, which extended between the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, and ran from modern Vine Street to South Street in the north and south. He had witnessed civil-military tensions in Boston and New York before 1777, and he needed time to prepare the town for occupation. He left nine thousand troops camped in and around Germantown, a small crafts and manufacturing village currently inside the municipal limits of Philadelphia but then a half-day's march to the northwest. In addition to political sensitivities, Howe needed to open the Delaware River and make contact with his brother's fleet. Richard Howe had left the army in the Elk River and sailed around the Delmarva Peninsula in late August to return to the Delaware Bay. Below Philadelphia, rebel authorities had blockaded the river by building fortifications on either bank and placing floating obstructions hazardous to vessels in the shipping lanes. On the New Jersey side of the river lay Fort Mercer. On an island in the channel near the mouth of the Schuylkill River, where Philadelphia's airport is today, the Americans built a facility called Mud Fort, or Fort Mifflin. Admiral Howe anchored his fleet just below this bottleneck and began cautious operations, assisted by his brother's troops, to reopen the river.

The British army, and especially the largely Loyalist or neutralist residual civilian population of Philadelphia, were dependent on the stores and provisions in the fleet's holds. William Howe's commissary general reported that the army had lived off the land during the late summer, reaching Philadelphia with slightly more provisions than it had taken from Head of Elk. Those supplies began to dwindle rapidly now. If the British could not feed civilians, they would risk the political consequences of their alienation. Suspecting that Howe's tactical attention was divided between the river and the land sides of his defensive lines, and impressed by his own army's resilience after Brandywine, Washington began planning an assault on Germantown. During the last week of September, the Continental Army moved cautiously down the northern side of the Schuylkill River. Morale at headquarters was boosted on 28 September when preliminary news arrived from the north of American general Horatio Gates's success in stopping Burgoyne's invading army in the first Battle of Freeman's Farm, near Saratoga, New York.

On 3 October Washington divided his army into four columns, one of which was largely made up of Pennsylvania militia troops. These forces marched along four parallel roads toward Germantown. Washington planned for the columns to reach the British lines simultaneously at dawn and to fall on the surprised redcoats in successive waves. The plan was too complicated for the brave but inexperienced American soldiers and officers to execute. The day began well. The American columns marched under cover of an early autumn fog, and they were successful in surprising the British sentries. The two middle columns converged on the Germantown Road running through the village and drove the enemy back. The militia column, marching along the Schuylkill River, however, became lost in the fog and never found its way up from the ravine and into the battle. The leftmost column arrived too late and fell in on the rear and flank of the third column. Those forces soon engaged each other in a "friendly fire" episode. General Howe, awakened at his billet near Philadelphia, raced north with reinforcements and rallied his troops. American units fired too freely and began to exhaust their ammunition. Gun smoke added to the fog as a disorienting force, and Continental soldiers began to panic and withdraw from the field. The retreat became general as officers were unable to calm their men. Washington's unfortunate effort to seize the large stone house of colonial Pennsylvania's former chief justice, Benjamin Chew—into which British soldiers had retreated—consumed too much of his attention and contributed to the momentum shift. Once the Americans were in full retreat they continued so for more than twenty miles, coming to an exhausted halt far into the wilds of upper Philadelphia County.

The British thus had their second successive indisputable victory over the Americans. The rebels suffered casualties of about 150 killed, 500 wounded, and over 400 captured, while Howe's total losses in all categories were about 550. The British held the field at the day's end. Continental officers, however, saw more evidence at Germantown to reinforce their impressions from Brandywine that the performance gap between their troops and the enemy was not that great. Their correspondence emphasized their misfortune in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, and their firm expectation of soon having "another brush" with Howe's troops, from which many of them confidently expected to emerge victorious. The specific accuracy of this view is less important than the fact of its existence, and its implications for the army's willingness to endure. Until the Howe brothers succeeded in opening the Delaware River, many rebels doubted that the British would be able to consolidate their successes in Pennsylvania. And the enemy remained subject to news of reverses in other sectors. This recurred on 15 October, when Washington learned that Horatio Gates had followed up on his initial success against Burgoyne and defeated the British in a second battle near Saratoga. That defeat led to Burgoyne's effective surrender, and at least to the temporary removal of the northern British army from the field.

As these mixed events occurred on American battlefields, developments in parts of the military establishment ordinarily less visible than armies themselves converged to change the direction of the Philadelphia campaign. The complex logistical organizations that Congress had created in 1775 to supply and transport the army began to unravel during the early fall of 1777. Congress reformed the commissary department in the spring, replacing New England officers with merchants from the Middle Atlantic states thought better suited to the new "seat of war." The idea worked on paper but it failed disastrously in the field. The army discovered this only when food and supplies mysteriously failed to arrive in its camps in sufficient amounts in mid-October. By early November neither the ambitious dreams of the junior and middle-grade officers nor the far more cautious hopes of their headquarters-level superiors were realistic. Washington had to bring the army to rest at Whitemarsh, north of Germantown, to have any hope of feeding it, and he began to develop a more subtle plan to neutralize the British strategic and political advantages resulting from their capture of Philadelphia.

After November 1 the focus of the campaign—to the extent that it still had one—lay in the increasingly violent struggle for control of the Delaware River below Philadelphia. The Continental Army, as such, had only a modest formal role to play in that struggle. Washington brought it to the camp at Whitemarsh so that the struggling commissary functionaries would have a reliable stationary target to which to direct whatever food and supplies they obtained. The actual management of the river war fell to the commanders of the two forts, to the state militia forces in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey who supported their operations, and to a crazy-quilt collection of Continental and Pennsylvania "navy" forces who operated on the river in small row galley vessels with initiative and bravery but relatively little heed to centralized command.

From Whitemarsh, Washington developed an impromptu secondary "front" in support of the river battle, which spread around the entire perimeter of occupied Philadelphia. To relieve the ecological strain on his weak commissary, he detached small parties of troops to patrol in the countryside. These forces were especially useful in contesting British efforts to run overland night convoys to bring their own supplies from ships at anchor below the forts to Philadelphia. The extent to which the British—at the end of a 3,000-mile supply line from England and Ireland—faced material shortages before and during the winter of 1777–1778 has not been appreciated because of the folkloric concentration on the epic of the Valley Forge winter. Until the Delaware was opened—and the river was known to be vulnerable to icing over during the eighteenth century—it could not be presumed that they would be able to hold Philadelphia.

Whether by design or otherwise, detachments from camp also served to relieve strain on the morale of Continental soldiers, and to give them at least the illusion that they were doing what they had joined the army to do—engage in active military operations. The mood of the camp in mid-November began the cyclical oscillations between dejection, exhilaration, and grim determination that would characterize the army's experience at Valley Forge the next winter. The army itself became more diverse as a result of the relocation to Pennsylvania of troops from the northern army that had defeated general Burgoyne. As soon as he was confident that Burgoyne's Convention Army would remain in captivity, Washington ordered his commanders in the central Hudson Valley to send him large numbers of troops as he attempted to close the campaign season with a triumph. Thousands of these soldiers reached Whitemarsh in November. They arrived at a scene of stasis, frustration, and some real deprivation. The northern troops were mostly Yankees or New Yorkers, and they mixed uneasily with the Middle Atlantic and southern troops who dominated the "main" army. The New Englanders could boast of their success—indeed, they quickly elevated the term "burgoyne" to the status of a generic verb—and they understandably wondered aloud what their new comrades had accomplished that autumn.

Washington kept as many of his troops as possible on rotating detached duty in the countryside. Many of the New Englanders were sent to New Jersey, where they supported the efforts of local units to defend Fort Mercer. There, on 22 October, a British overland assault led by Hessian mercenaries was repulsed with heavy loss to the enemy. Other Continentals patrolled roads in the three Pennsylvania counties outside the city—Bucks, Philadelphia, and especially Chester—where they developed a taste for partisan skirmishing that would prove useful the next winter when the army struggled to pacify the occupied countryside. Regrettably, some of them also developed talents and a taste for abusing civilian "peasants," plundering the goods of supposedly "disaffected" Pennsylvanians, and similar activities that presented Washington with a constant menu of delicate public relations work with civilians. Soldiers, especially recruits from land-poor environments in northern New England and the southern backcountry, had never seen countryside as rich and prosperous as that in southeastern Pennsylvania's "best poor man's country." Their arrival there coincided exactly with the army's plunge into material misery. They were less apt to attribute their new travails to bureaucratic shortcomings than to the moral deficiencies of Pennsylvania's mixed population. The terms "Quaker" or "quaking" became handy substitutes for unfamiliar sociocultural groups.

The battle for control of the Delaware came to a crescendo during the first two weeks of November, and, perhaps inevitably—given the extent of the logistical immobility of so many Continental troops—the British finally prevailed. William Howe's forces slowly established battle platforms on the marshy ground behind Mud Island, where Fort Mifflin lay, while his brother's warships carefully maneuvered upriver toward the chevaux de frise which obstructed the channels. Placing the fort in nearly point-blank range, the British began bombarding it day and night, slowly reducing its crude structures and earthworks to a pulpy mass of earth and debris. The defenders heroically endured this bombardment and fought back as well as they could for as long as they could. Continental and state "navy" forces flitted about on the river in small row galleys and other vessels and did what they could to endanger Lord Howe's sailors and their expensive warships. In the end, access and artillery power prevailed. On 16 November, Fort Mifflin surrendered. The Americans continued to hold its companion facility, Fort Mercer, on the New Jersey side, but without the Pennsylvania installation it could not provide coverage of the wide river. Washington detached generals to consider the wisdom of holding Fort Mercer, but they could not report favorably on the plan, and that site was abandoned on 20 November.

The loss of the forts ensured that the British would be able to remain in Philadelphia. But what had they won? Admiral Howe completed the work of clearing the obstructions from the river channels and was able to bring his transports to the city's docks by early December. His brother was already receiving criticism in London and in army circles for becoming bogged down in Pennsylvania while Burgoyne's invasion was swallowed up. Discouraged, Howe offered the king his resignation in October. The battle for the river was an enormously noisy affair, and reports from civilians indicate that the roar of artillery fire and the explosion of several British ships that ran aground could be heard dozens of miles inland. This reminds us that the campaign for Pennsylvania was not fought on an empty or abstract topography, but rather that it involved the reactions and ultimately the allegiances of the members of a complex, plural, modern society. Pennsylvania never produced the caricatured Quaker and other eager subjects of the king, waiting patiently for their liberation from republican radicals, that Joseph Galloway had described to General Howe. Rather, it was the diverse and dynamic community that individuals from the generation of William Penn to that of Benjamin Franklin had struggled to understand and govern.

The same civilian diaries and letters that tell us about the noise of war also document the ability of civilians to learn about and for the most part successfully adapt to the confusion and danger of war. Pacifists and profiteers, and ordinary citizens in between those extremes, closely watched the occupation of their world, adapted to military ways, adopted military vocabularies, and otherwise taught themselves to survive. Benjamin Franklin, in Paris hoping to negotiate a treaty of alliance with France, may or may not have proclaimed that "Philadelphia has taken general Howe." But in the long run, and even in the medium, the social order of the Delaware Valley rose up, enveloped, and in a manner triumphed over the best intentions of its invaders.

SEE ALSO Brandywine, Pennsylvania; Burgoyne, John; Burgoyne's Offensive; Clinton, Henry; Cornwallis, Charles; Fort Mercer, New Jersey; Fort Mifflin, Pennsylvania; Franklin, Benjamin; Galloway, Joseph; Gates, Horatio; Germain, George Sackville;Germantown, Pennsylvania, Battle of; Howe, Richard; Howe, William; Knyphausen, Wilhelm; Liberty Bell; Morristown Winter Quarters, New Jersey (6 January-28 May, 1777); Paoli, Pennsylvania; Princeton, New Jersey; Quakers; Saratoga, First Battle of; Saratoga, Second Battle of; Sullivan, John; Trenton, New Jersey; Valley Forge Winter Quarters, Pennsylvania; Valley Forge, Pennsylvania; Wayne, Anthony; Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania.


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Jackson, John W. The Pennsylvania Navy, 1775–1781: The Defense of the Delaware. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1974.

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Taafe, Stephen. The Philadelphia Campaign, 1777–1778. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003.

                              revised by Wayne K. Bodle

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Philadelphia Campaign

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