Philadelphia Lost

Instead of supporting Burgoyne’s campaign, General Howe went west to attack Philadelphia, the largest city on the seaboard and the capital for Congress. Although his troops greatly outnumbered Washington’s, Howe rejected taking the direct route overland across New Jersey. Instead, he squandered nearly two precious months by embarking 13,000 men in 260 ships for a circuitous voyage via Chesapeake Bay to the mouth of the Susquehanna in northern Maryland. He left Clinton and 9,000 troops behind to defend New York City. The long voyage removed the main British army from combat during the peak of the summer campaign, to the dismay of Howe’s officers. His folly enabled Washington to send reinforcements north to help Gates destroy Burgoyne’s army. Not until August 25 did Howe’s army land in northern Maryland, fifty-seven miles from Philadelphia, to resume the fight against Washington. He had taken forty-seven days to shorten his approach to Philadelphia by a mere forty-three miles. Although a superb battlefield commander, Howe was a paltry strategist, obtuse to the bigger picture both military and political.

Brandywine Creek

Heading south from New Jersey to confront Howe, Washington paraded his troops through Philadelphia in a bid to sway “the minds of the disaffected.” At Brandywine Creek on September 11, Washington arrayed 11,000 men to block Howe’s advance. As in the battle of Long Island, Howe menaced the front of Washington’s line but sent a strike force on a wide sweep around the Continentals to surprise their vulnerable flank. After suffering heavy casualties, Washington withdrew his battered army to safety.

With the help of the newly arrived Marquis de Lafayette, Washington and the Continental Army ventured open battle to prevent Gen William Howe’s thrust up from the Chesapeake to seize the American capital of Philadelphia. British forces numbered 13,000 men against Washington’s 15,000, making this action the largest battle on the North American continent before the American Civil War.

American light infantry shadowed the British Army’s approach to Washington’s line across Chad’s Ford through the namesake creek. Finding the Americans prepared to receive him, Howe dispatched light units and received intelligence from the local loyalists about the American positions. Howe decided upon a holding attack, with 5000 men under Gen Wilhelm von Knyphausen attacking at Chad’s Ford, while Gen Charles Cornwallis took 8000 troops around Washington’s right flank. The British forced the crossing, while Washington received a growing trickle of reports about a second British force to the north.

Washington sent troops to reinforce his right and ordered a defensive line prepared on Birmingham Meeting House, a half-mile to his rear. With both American flanks slowly yielding to his attacks, Howe launched a bayonet charge into the American centre that collapsed Washington’s line as other British units attacked frontally. Isolated American units slowed the British as the day drew on, while Gen Nathaniel Greene’s command’s determined resistance retreating from Birmingham Meeting House to Battle Hill frustrated British attempts to turn the defeat into a rout. Howe had cleared the way to Philadelphia, but his primary objective of Washington’s army survived with 300 killed, 600 wounded and 400 captured against the British losses of 100 dead and some 400 wounded. The grimness of American resistance signalled a fundamental shift in the war.

Philadelphia Abandoned

Abandoning Philadelphia, Congress fled to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania militia followed their lead at the first sight of British regulars. A disgusted Elias Boudinot lamented that “as soon as a Gun was fired within ¼ of a Mile of them [they] would throw down their arms & run away worse than a Company of [New] Jersey Women.” On September 26, Howe’s advance force entered Philadelphia unopposed. Three-quarters of the inhabitants stayed put and loudly celebrated the British as liberators, “tho’ by all accounts,” a Briton remarked, “many of them were publickly on the other side before our arrival.” Adams denounced Philadelphia as “that Mass of Cowardice and Toryism.” The former chaplain to Congress, Reverend Jacob Duche, urged Washington to disavow independence and negotiate reconciliation with British rule.

But Washington remained resolute. On October 4, his troops staggered the British with a counterattack on their outer lines at Germantown, a western suburb of Philadelphia. In the morning fog and heavy smoke of gunfire, however, the Continentals became confused and began firing on one another. It did not help that one of their generals, Adam Stephen, drank himself into a stupor during the battle. Howe brought up reinforcements and counterattacked, driving back the Continentals, but the fierce battle deflated British hopes that Washington’s army was spent, that losing Philadelphia had sapped the Patriot will to fight.

Despite capturing the rebel capital, the British were no closer to winning the war. Beyond the city, Howe found many farmers eager to sell produce but few willing to enlist as Loyalist soldiers. While Howe won the showy battles, Washington was winning a war of attrition as the British lost men whom they could ill afford to replace. His friend General Nathanael Greene, noted: “We cannot conquer the British force at once, but they cannot conquer us at all. The limits of the British government in America are their out-sentinels,” for they lacked enough committed Loyalists to hold the ground that Howe passed over. And Washington’s dogged ability to preserve his army impressed French leaders almost as much as Gate’s victory at Saratoga.

But some congressmen and a few officers nurtured the fantasy that Washington should have crushed Howe at Brandywine or Germantown. Impatient with a slow, inglorious war of attrition, Washington’s critics longed for a decisive military genius, who could quickly end the war by smashing the British. In mid-October, news of Gates’s great victory at Saratoga emboldened the critics, including John Adams, who had soured on Washington just two years after pushing for his elevation to command.

This malicious chatter irritated Washington and angered his inner circle of generals and staff officers, who admired his dignified character and relied on his patronage. Led by Nathanael Greene, Henry Knox, and Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s “military family” interpreted the criticism as an insidious conspiracy or “cabal” to sack Washington in favor of Gates. They especially blamed General Thomas Conway, an Irish-born officer formerly in the French service. Although able, Conway was also acerbic, angering American-born officers who felt slighted when he won promotions at their expense. They felt furious upon discovering that Conway had denigrated Washington in an indiscrete letter written to flatter Gates.

The winter of criticism ultimately strengthened Washington’s hold over the army. By responding forcefully, Washington’s partisans put his critics on the defensive. Within the army, Conway and other critics became shunned and marginalized, their prospects ruined. After resigning his commission, Conway sailed back to France, nursing a wound suffered in a duel with a Washington supporter. Most congressmen recognized that only Washington could hold the army together and command popular support. Knox assured Washington: “The people of America look up to you as their Father.” Adams sarcastically recalled, “Northern, Middle and Southern Statesmen, and northern, Middle and Southern Officers of The Army, expressly agreed to blow the Trumpets of Panegyrick in concert” to render Washington “popular and fashionable, with all Parties in all places and with all Persons, as a Centre of Union, as the Central Stone in the Geometrical Arch. There you have the Revelation of the whole Mystery.” An adept political infighter, Washington built a powerful “interest” among officers and in Congress. Underestimating Washington was a fool’s errand.

In late December, Washington had his ragged, shivering men build log huts for the winter. Up to a dozen men crowded into a hut, each a mere fourteen by sixteen feet and without windows or wooden floor. He located the main camp at Valley Forge, in the Pennsylvania hills eighteen miles northwest of Philadelphia: close enough to watch the British but sufficiently far for some security from attack. But the nearby farms could not support 11,000 hungry soldiers, and many farmers preferred to sell food for British coin rather than the depreciating paper money issued by Congress. Soldiers also suffered because of corruption and inefficiency in the army’s commissary department. In February 1778, Washington described his troops as “starving.” An army surgeon reported:

Poor food—hard lodging—Cold Weather—fatigue—Nasty Cloathes—nasty Cookery—Vomit half my time. . . . There comes a soldier, his bare feet are seen thro’ his worn-out Shoes, his legs nearly naked from the tatter’d remains of an only pair of stockings, his Breeches not sufficient to cover his nakedness, his Shirt hanging in Strings, his hair dishevel’d, his face meager, his whole appearance pictures a person forsaken & discouraged.

Two thousand men, nearly a fifth of the army, perished that winter from a debilitating combination of filth, exposure, malnutrition, and disease.

While Washington grew closer to his suffering soldiers, he felt more distant from the civilians whom they defended. He rebuked Pennsylvania’s legislators for criticizing, rather than supplying, his army: “I can assure those gentlemen that it is a much easier and less distressing thing to draw remonstrances in a comfortable room by a good fireside than to occupy a cold bleak hill and sleep under frost and snow without clothes or blanket.” He blamed the army’s plight on prosperous and selfish citizens who pursued profits instead of sacrificing for the cause: “Is the paltry consideration of a little dirty pelf to individuals to be placed in competition with the essential rights and liberties of the present generation, and of Millions yet unborn? . . . And shall we at last become the victims of our own abominable lust of gain?” As a planter and land speculator, Washington had chased profits, but at Valley Forge, he saw more clearly the human costs of profiteering.

Washington had his troops whip and even shoot civilians caught conveying provisions to Philadelphia. He left their bodies beside the road as a warning to others. His troops also destroyed the flour mills within twenty miles of the city and seized all the grain and livestock in that no-man’s-land for the Continental Army. General Greene reported, “The Inhabitants cry out and beset me from all quarters—but like Pharo[a]h, I harden my heart” and “forage the Country very bare.” Greene’s troops converted once prosperous farms into a barren landscape of “poverty and distress.”

In late winter, as their food supply improved, the soldiers also got their first systematic training in battlefield maneuvers and the manual of arms. In previous battles, their movements and firing had been ragged and uncoordinated: a poor match for disciplined British regulars. A Patriot officer declared that the typical Continental Army soldier had never learned how to wield the bayonet “but to roast his beefsteak”—and beefsteaks were rare in a starving army. To supervise the new drill instruction, Washington relied on a mercenary officer who called himself Baron von Steuben and claimed to have served as a general in the fabled Prussian army of Frederick the Great. Like most of the mercenaries who offered their services to Congress, Steuben greatly inflated his qualifications. Neither a general nor a baron, he had served as a mere captain in Prussia, but Steuben had real talents and adapted resourcefully to new circumstances. Admiring Washington’s persistent soldiers, Steuben marveled that no European army would have held together under such suffering.

Steuben’s powerful build, profane passion, and blundering English amused and intimidated his soldiers, who learned to fire more rapidly in synchronized volleys and to wield bayonets. Their morale improved as they took pride in their conspicuous progress in performing Steuben’s drills. Thrilled by the results, Washington longed to have another go at the British in a European-style battle in an open field. That opportunity would come in the summer thanks to an alliance with France.

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