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The Great Republic by the Master Historians
The Capture of Philadelphia
by Bancroft, Hubert H.


[The active military operations of the year 1777 in the North were matched by as active ones in the Middle States, though the latter did not end so successfully for the American cause. In the early part of the year, as we have seen, Washington had regained possession of New Jersey, and closed the avenue to Philadelphia by that route. Half the year was occupied by Howe in vain endeavors to bring Washington to a general engagement. Failing in this, he withdrew all his forces from New Jersey, and began extensive preparations for a sea- expedition, whose object it was not easy to ascertain. Washington, however, believed it to be the capture of Philadelphia, and made energetic preparations for the defence of that city. Howe set sail from Sandy Hook on the 23rd of July with a large and well-appointed army, leaving a strong garrison to hold New York. Rhode Island was also strongly garrisoned. Yet about this time an adventure of striking boldness occurred on that island. General Prescott, who commanded the Rhode Island forces, had become very negligent of his guard, under assurance of perfect safety. In consequence, on the 10th of July, a party of militia secretly landed on the island and carried him off prisoner from the midst of his army. This exploit gave the greatest satisfaction to the Americans, who hoped to exchange this prisoner for General Lee, who had been captured in much the same manner.

About this time several French officers of distinction entered the service of the United States, principal among them being the Marquis de Lafayette, a young nobleman of the highest rank, and for whom Washington ever afterwards felt the warmest friendship. The intentions of Howe for some time remained doubtful. His fleet kept at sea off the coast, and Washington was in doubt whether its destination was Delaware or Chesapeake Bay, or whether it might return to the Hudson or assail Charleston. The Delaware had been rendered impassable by obstructions, and all doubt was finally ended by the appearance of the fleet in the Chesapeake. It was now the last of August, the fleet having been baffled and delayed by persistent contrary winds. On the 25th of August the British army, eighteen thousand strong, landed near the head of Elk River, in Maryland. Washington, who had advanced beyond Wilmington, retreated before this superior force, and took up a position behind the Brandywine, where he designed to make a stand for the defence of Philadelphia. The story of the subsequent events we select from a well-known and valuable work on American history by an Italian author, Botta's "History of the War for Independence of the United States of America," as translated by George A. Otis.]

Early in the morning of the eleventh of September the British army marched to the enemy. Howe had formed his army in two columns, the right commanded by General Knyphausen, the left by Lord Cornwallis. His plan was, that while the first should make repeated feints to attempt the passage of Chadsford, in order to occupy the attention of the republicans, the second should take a long circuit to the upper part of the river, and cross at a place where it was divided into two shallow streams. . Knyphausen advanced with his column, and commenced a furious cannonade upon the passage of Chadsford, making all his dispositions as if he intended to force it. The Americans defended themselves with gallantry, and even passed several detachments of light troops to the other side, in order to harass the enemy's flanks. But after a course of skirmishes, sometimes advancing, and at others obliged to retire, they were finally, with an eager pursuit, driven over the river. Knyphausen then appeared more than ever determined to pass the ford; he stormed, and kept up an incredible noise. In this manner the attention of the Americans was fully occupied in the neighborhood of Chadsford. Meanwhile, Lord Cornwallis, at the head of the second column, took a circuitous march to the left, and gained unperceived the forks of the Brandywine. By this rapid movement he passed both branches of the river at Trimble's and at Jeffery's Fords, without opposition, about two o'clock in the afternoon, and then, turning short down the river, took the road to Dilworth, in order to fall upon the right flank of the American army. The republican general, however, received intelligence of this movement about noon, and, as it usually happens in similar cases, the reports exaggerated its importance exceedingly, it being represented that General Howe commanded this division in person. Washington therefore decided immediately for the most judicious, though boldest, measure: this was, to pass the river with the centre and left wing of his army, and overwhelm Knyphausen by the most furious attack. He justly reflected that the advantage he should obtain upon the enemy's right would amply compensate the loss that his own might sustain at the same time. Accordingly, he ordered General Sullivan to pass the Brandywine with his division at an upper ford and attack the left of Knyphausen, while he, in person, should cross lower down and fall upon the right of that general.

[This operation was checked by the arrival of a new report, to the effect that the previous information was false. Washington was thus kept in uncertainty till it was too late to make any decisive movement. On learning that the enemy was really approaching in force, he hastily made preparations to meet this imminent danger.]

But the column of Cornwallis was already in sight of the Americans. Sullivan drew up his troops on the commanding ground above Birmingham meeting-house, with his left extending towards the Brandywine, and both his flanks covered with very thick woods. His artillery was advantageously planted upon the neighboring hills. But it appears that Sullivan's own brigade, having taken a long circuit, arrived too late upon the field of battle, and had not yet occupied the position assigned it, when the action commenced. The English, having reconnoitred the dispositions of the Americans, immediately formed, and fell upon them with the utmost impetuosity. The engagement became equally fierce on both sides about four o'clock in the afternoon. For some length of time the Americans defended themselves with great valor, and the carnage was terrible. But such was the emulation which invigorated the efforts of the English and Hessians [between whom a feeling of rivalry existed] that neither the advantages of situation, nor a heavy and well-supported fire of small-arms and artillery, nor the unshaken courage of the Americans, were able to resist their impetuosity. The light infantry, chasseurs, grenadiers, and guards threw themselves with such fury into the midst of the republican battalions that they were forced to give way. Their left flank was first thrown into confusion; but the rout soon became general. The vanquished fled into the woods in their rear: the victors pursued, and advanced by the great road towards Dilworth. On the first fire of the artillery, Washington, having no doubt of what was passing, had pushed forward the reserve to the succor of Sullivan. But this corps, on approaching the field of battle, fell in with the flying soldiers of Sullivan, and perceived that no hope remained of retrieving the fortunes of the day. General Greene, by a judicious manoeuvre, opened his ranks to receive the fugitives, and after their passage, having closed them anew, he retired in good order, checking the pursuit of the enemy by a continual fire of the artillery which covered his rear. Having come to a defile, covered on both sides with woods, he drew up his men there, and again faced the enemy.

[Knyphausen now prepared to convert his feint into a real crossing of the river.]

The passage of Chadsford was defended by an intrenchment and battery. The republicans stood firm at first; but upon intelligence of the defeat of their right, and seeing some of the British troops who had penetrated through the woods come out upon their flank, they retired in disorder, abandoning their artillery and munitions to the German general. In their retreat, or rather flight, they passed behind the position of General Greene, who still defended himself, and was the last to quit the field of battle. Finally, it being already dark, after a long and obstinate conflict, he also retired. The whole army retreated that night to Chester, and the day following to Philadelphia.

There the fugitives arrived incessantly, having effected their escape through by-ways and circuitous routes. The victors passed the night on the field of battle. If darkness had not arrived seasonably, it is very probable that the whole American army would have been destroyed. The loss of the republicans was computed at about three hundred killed, six hundred wounded, and near four hundred taken prisoners. They also lost ten field-pieces and a howitzer. The loss in the royal army was not in proportion, being something under five hundred, of which the slain did not amount to one-fifth.

[The foreign officers, Count Pulaski, a noble Pole, Lafayette, Captain de Fleury, and the Baron St. Ovary, were of great use to the Americans in this conflict. St. Ovary was taken prisoner, and Lafayette wounded. The defeat did not discourage Congress, which had resumed its sessions in Philadelphia, nor Washington, who took active measures to retrieve his losses. Within a few days after the defeat he advanced again, and offered battle to the approaching enemy. But there came so violent a rainfall as seriously to injure the arms and ammunition of the Americans, and Washington was forced to withdraw his army. Meanwhile, General Wayne was surprised by a night attack at Paoli, assailed with the bayonet, and had three hundred men killed out of a total of fifteen hundred. This assault, which was little else than a massacre, was long remembered with indignation by the Americans. Washington now, finding the extensive magazines of provisions and military stores which he had formed at Reading threatened by the British, moved to cover them, and abandoned Philadelphia, which was occupied by the enemy on the 26th of September. Congress adjourned to Lancaster. Yet Washington's activity continued unremitting. Batteries were erected on the Delaware, and obstructions sunk, to prevent the British fleet from ascending the river. Learning that Howe had sent some regiments to reduce these batteries, Washington took the opportunity, on October 4, to fall upon the weakened British army, then encamped at Germantown.]

Germantown is a considerable village, about half a dozen miles from Philadelphia, and which, stretching on both sides of the great road to the northward, forms a continued street of two miles in length. The British line of encampment crossed Germantown at right angles about the centre, the left wing extending on the west from the town to the Schuylkill. . The centre, being posted within the town, was guarded by the Fortieth Regiment, and another battalion of light infantry, stationed about three-quarters of a mile above the head of the village. Washington resolved to attack the British by surprise, not doubting that if he succeeded in breaking them, as they were not only distant but totally separated from the fleet, his victory must be decisive.

[He divided his troops, so as to make a double attack, with the purpose of separating the right and left wings of the British army. Parties of cavalry were sent out to scour the roads, to prevent any one from notifying Howe of the movement intended. A silent and rapid night march was made.]

At three o'clock in the morning the British patrols discovered the approach of the Americans: the troops were soon called to arms; each took his post with the precipitation of surprise. About sunrise the Americans came up. General Conway, having driven in the pickets, fell upon the Fortieth Regiment and the battalion of light infantry. These corps, after a short resistance, being overpowered by numbers, were pressed and pursued into the village. Fortune appeared already to have declared herself in favor of the Americans; and certainly, if they had gained complete possession of Germantown, nothing could have frustrated them of the most signal victory. But in this conjuncture Lieutenant-Colonel Musgrave threw himself, with six companies of the Fortieth Regiment, into a large and strong stone house, situated near the head of the village, from which he poured upon the assailants so terrible a fire of musketry that they could advance no further. The Americans attempted to storm this unexpected convert of the enemy, but those within continued to defend themselves with resolution. They finally brought up cannon to the assault; but such was the intrepidity of the English and the violence of their fire that it was found impossible to dislodge them.

[Meanwhile, General Greene had assailed the left flank of the enemy's right wing; but the columns which were to aid his movement by turning the right and left flanks of the British army failed to perform the work expected of them.]

The consequence was that General Grey, finding his left flank secure, marched, with nearly the whole of the left wing, to the assistance of the centre, which, notwithstanding the unexpected resistance of Colonel Musgrave, was excessively hard pressed in Germantown, where the Americans gained ground incessantly. The battle was now very warm at that village, the attack and the defence being alike vigorous. The issue appeared for some time dubious. General Agnew was mortally wounded, while charging, with great bravery, at the head of the Fourth Brigade. The American colonel Matthews, of the column of Greene, assailed the English with so much fury that he drove them before him into the town. He had taken a large number of prisoners, and was about entering the village, when he perceived that a thick fog and the unevenness of the ground had caused him to lose sight of the rest of his division. Being soon enveloped by the extremity of the right wing, which fell back upon him when it had discovered that nothing was to be apprehended from the tardy approach of the militia of Maryland and Jersey, he was compelled to surrender with all his party: the English had already rescued their prisoners. This check was the cause that two regiments of the English right wing were enabled to throw themselves into Germantown, and to attack the Americans who had entered it in flank. Unable to sustain the shock, they retired precipitately, leaving a great number of killed and wounded. Lieutenant-Colonel Musgrave, to whom belongs the principal honor of this affair, was then relieved from all peril. General Grey, being absolute master of all Germantown, flew to the succor of the right wing, which was engaged with the left of the column of Greene. The Americans then took to flight, abandoning to the English throughout the line a victory of which in the commencement of the action they had felt assured.

The principal causes of the failure of this well-concerted enterprise were the extreme haziness of the weather, which was so thick that the Americans could neither discover the situation nor movements of the British army, nor yet those of their own; the inequality of the ground, which incessantly broke the ranks of their battalions; . . and, finally, the unexpected resistance of Musgrave, who found means, in a critical moment, to transform a mere house into an impregnable fortress.

[The American loss was about twelve hundred in killed, wounded, and prisoners; that of the English, about five hundred in killed and wounded. Washington retreated immediately to Perkiomen Creek, while in a few days after the battle the British army was removed from Germantown to Philadelphia. Congress expressed warm approbation of the plan of action and the courage shown in its execution, and passed a vote of thanks to the general and the army. Washington quickly advanced again to a threatening position at Skippack Creek.]

Thus the British general might have seen that he had to grapple with an adversary who, far from allowing himself to be discouraged by adverse fortune, seemed, on the contrary, to gain by it more formidable energies; who, the moment after defeat, was prepared to resume the offensive; and whose firmness and activity were such that even the victories obtained by his adversaries only yielded them the effects of defeat. Nor was the taking of Philadelphia attended with those advantages which were expected from it.

The inhabitants of the country were not in the least intimidated by that event; and the victorious army, surrounded on all sides by enemies, found itself, as it were, immured within the precincts of the city. Washington, posted on the heights of the Schuylkill, maintained a menacing attitude: he employed his cavalry and light troops in scouring the country between the banks of that river and those of the Delaware. He thus repressed the excursions of the English, prevented them from foraging with safety, and deterred the disaffected or the avaricious among the people of the country from conveying provisions to their camp.

[Howe, thus rendered unable to supply himself from the surrounding country, diligently endeavored to remove the obstructions from the Delaware, that his fleet might come up. Arrangements were made for attacks in force on the batteries of Fort Mifflin, on the Pennsylvania side, and of Fort Mercer, at Red Bank, on the Jersey shore.]

According to these dispositions, the English put themselves in motion on the evening of the twenty-first of October. Colonel Donop, a German officer, who had distinguished himself in the course of the campaign, passed the Delaware from Philadelphia, with a strong detachment of Hessians, at Cooper's Ferry. Then marching down the Jersey shore, along the bank of the river, he arrived at a late hour the following day in the rear of Red Bank. The fortifications consisted of extensive outer works, within which was a strong palisaded intrenchment, well furnished with artillery. Donop attacked the fort with the utmost gallantry. The Americans, after a slight resistance in the outer intrenchment, finding their number too small to man it sufficiently, withdrew into the body of the redoubt, where they made a vigorous defence.

Their intrepidity and the want of scaling-ladders baffled all the efforts of the Hessians. Colonel Donop was mortally wounded and taken prisoner. Several of his best officers were killed or disabled; Colonel Mingerode himself, the second in command, received a dangerous wound. The Hessians were then severely repulsed; and Lieutenant-Colonel Linsing drew them off with precipitation; but even in their retreat they suffered extremely by the fire of the enemy's galleys and floating batteries. The loss of the Hessians was estimated at not less than four or five hundred men. Donop expired of his wounds the next day. The Americans owed much of their success to the Chevalier du Plessis, a French officer, who directed the artillery with great ability and valor. The vanquished returned to Philadelphia.

[The attack on Fort Mifflin was at first unsuccessful, but a new attack rendered the fort untenable. Fort Mercer was soon after so injured by a severe bombardment that it was necessarily abandoned. The navigation of the Delaware was thus opened to the British ships. Washington's army at this time numbered over twelve thousand regulars, and three thousand militia. Howe had about twelve thousand men. The former took up a strong position at White Marsh, while Howe faced him on Chestnut Hill. Various unsuccessful efforts were made by Howe to draw Washington from his intrenchments. Finally, as it appeared that the American general could not be induced to give battle, Howe withdrew to place his troops in winter-quarters in Philadelphia. Washington marched his army for the same purpose to Valley Forge. With these movements the campaign of 1777 ended.]

Charles Botta

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