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Siege of Fort Mifflin

From Diary of the American Revolution, Vol I. Compiled by Frank Moore and published in 1859.

November 22. –A gentleman in the American army gives the following account of the late movements of the British forces on and about theDelawareandSchuylkillRivers:

About the 12th of October, the British erected a battery near the mouth of the Schuylkill, in order to prevent our boats going into that river, and then landed a large body of troops onProvinceIslandoppositeFortMifflin, with intention to erect batteries against that fort.

In the night they threw up one battery within point blank shot directly opposite to the fort, which was attacked the next day by the galleys, who kept up so warm a fire on them for two hours, that one captain, one lieutenant and ensign, with about eighty men, came on the bank with a flag, clubbed their muskets, and surrendered themselves prisoners; but a large body of fresh men coming in through the meadows to rescue them, they were fired at from the block house at Fort Mifflin, and many of those who had submitted, thinking it was them, ran off; that fifty-six privates with Lieutenant Finch and Ensign Hankey were brought off. On the next day the galleys attacked the battery again, but without any effect. The enemy now threw up another battery on the hospital wharf, from which they fired red hot shot, and kept up a firing every day of shells and red hot balls, but to little purpose, having since their first firing to the 9th November killed but two men and wounded a few, though they had thrown some thousand shot and shells. On Monday, the 10th of November, the enemy had completed five batteries, one on the hospital wharf above mentioned, one on the wharf below that, and three others, one just above the fort, another right opposite, and the third a little below the fort. From all these, about seven o’clock in the morning, they began a most furious cannonade, with shot, shells, and carcasses, not throwing less than fifteen hundred of them a day. Tuesday morning they began in the same manner, when Captain Treat of the artillery, a brave officer, with two others, were killed, and several wounded; and in the evening Colonel Smith, who commanded the fort, was brought off wounded. Three of the enemy’s ships came up the same morning a little above Mantua Creek, where we had thrown up a small battery, but had that day no guns in It, and kept a continual fire on it for some hours, without the least damage to the battery. Wednesday and Thursday the cannonade of shells, &c., was kept up most violently, which tore the stockades, barracks, &c., all to pieces, and dismounted and broke many of our guns. Friday the fire was also very hot, and the Vigilant galley, which had been cut down and carried sixteen twenty-four pounders, got behind Hog Island designing to get up to Fort Mifflin, but could not do it that day. Saturday the 15th we got three guns in the battery mentioned above, and that morning the Somerset of sixty-four guns, the Isis, and another fifty-gun ship, two large frigates, and a galley they brought from New York came up within reach of Fort Mifflin, when the battery began firing on them. This drew the fire from all the men-of-war, which was incessant; so that from the cannonade on the fort and the fire from the enemy, there was one continual roar of cannon. The wind was high, and directly against the galleys, which prevented them from getting to action for some time. In the afternoon the Vigilant got through close up to Fort Mifflin and fired most furiously on it. The commodore sent over six galleys to attack her; but she lay so covered by the enemy’s batteries that it could not be done to any purpose. The other galleys with the floating batteries, were engaged with the ships; and such a cannonade, I believe, was never seen in America. It continued till the evening, when all the ships fell down and the firing ceased except from the Vigilant and the batteries on Province Island against Fort Mifflin, which was by this time torn all to pieces, having scarce a stockade standing, the block houses almost beat down, and every gun dismounted or broken. It now being found impossible to defend it any longer, Major Thayer, who for some days had so bravely defended it, about eleven o’clock at night set fire to the remains of the barracks and brought off his garrison. Thus fell Fort Mifflin after a close siege of near one month, in which time we had on board the galleys only thirty-eight men killed and wounded.

Sunday and Monday the enemy were quite still, and on Tuesday the 18th, in the morning, a large number of transports with troops from New York came up to Billingsport and landed their men; and General Cornwallis came over from Pennsylvania with a number more, in order to attack the fort at Red Bank, where we had not men sufficient to hold a siege. In council it was thought best that it should be evacuated, and on Thursday evening the fort was blown up, and the garrison, with the ammunition, went off.

Our little fleet was now to be preserved; and in consultation with the land and sea officers, it was agreed that it should, if possible, pass by Philadelphia and go up the river. Accordingly, on Wednesday night, the commodore ordered the thirteen galleys to pass close under the Jersey shore, which they all did without a shot being fired at them. It being quite calm, the top-sail vessels could not attempt it. Friday morning, before day, it still being calm, the brig Convention, Captain Rice, the schooner Delaware, Captain Eyres, with six of the shallops, set off to get by, which they all did, through an exceeding hot fire of shells and shot, except the Delaware and one shallop, which were run aground and set on fire. Finding that all the troops were gone, and that there was no wind to carry the continental vessels by, it was thought better to set them on fire, than to let them fall into the enemy’s hands; and the same morning before day, the brig Andria Doria, the xebecks, Repulse and Champion, the sloops Racehorse and Champion, with the two floating batteries and three fire-ships, were accordingly set on fire and destroyed.1


1 New Jersey Gazette, December 5.


  1. Transcript of speech to my SAR Chapter:

    Captain Nathan Stoddard
    Woodbury CT
    August 8, 1742 – November 15, 1777
    My 4th Great-Grandfather

    Peter Stoddard

    I lived in suburban Boston in 1964-66. At age 7-9 I was riveted by colonial and Revolutionary War history. School field trips to Freedom Trail sites, Plymouth, Salem, down to tricorn hat flintlock musket skirmishes with friends deep in our back woods.

    My family moved to Atlanta in 1966. Only years later did I dust off the old Stoddard genealogy in the attic to discover that our clan has deep and wide New England roots.

    I can talk about this stuff for weeks, months and years, but even my two brothers begin to doze off after only a few minutes. I hope to find this a more captive and receptive audience, because it will be awkward for you to get up and leave as I wax nostalgic.

    My immigrant ancestor was Anthony Stoddard, who arrived in Boston in 1638. He was a linen importer and merchant, which included the export of fur and hides to England. He was a selectman, town clerk, town commissioner, deputy to the General Court and constable. Upon his death in 1687 he was reputed to be the wealthiest citizen in Boston. The site of his 1640s home and shop was adjacent the Old State House. The Boston Massacre took place in his front yard – 130 years later.

    His son, Rev Solomon Stoddard, was a member of Harvard’s 1662 graduating class and in 1667 was appointed as first librarian of the college. In 1670 he prepared to sail to England to explore his fortunes there. With his belongings on board a ship set to sail the next day, he was invited to become Pastor at the church in Northampton in the western Massachusetts wilderness. Had that invitation been one day late I would not be here today.

    Solomon served the church for 60 years, returning to Harvard annually for 30+ years to deliver the commencement sermon – an annual 200+ mile round trip trek. The original road from Boston to Northampton, now the Mass Turnpike, was constructed to facilitate his commute. He never missed a Sunday service in his entire pastoral career. He was succeeded in the pulpit by his grandson, Jonathan Edwards, known as America’s greatest early theologian.

    His son, Rev Anthony Stoddard, was a member of Harvard’s 1697 graduating class. Little is recorded about his time at Harvard, other than he was known for “breaking college rules and windows”. He served as the Pastor at Woodbury CT for 60 years. In 1736 he built the Curtis House, which still stands as Connecticut’s oldest inn.

    His son, Capt Gideon Stoddard, was a farmer, Deacon of the Woodbury church, and Captain in the CT trainband and militia. In 1757 he joined a company raised for the relief of Fort William Henry on Lake George, New York in the French and Indian War. The French victory is chronicled in James Fenimore Cooper’s highly fictionalized novel, The Last of the Mohicans. Colonials were allowed to keep their firearms, but no ammunition, and they were ordered to go home. Indians, having been denied the booty they were promised by the French, set out to attack the defenseless Colonials. Cooper’s depiction suggested a massacre of hundreds, but history records 40-50 casualties.

    Gideon was absent from Woodbury for only 3 weeks. How he returned 150 miles during the forced march from Fort William Henry is lost to history.

    Nathan Stoddard was born August 8, 1742, lived in Woodbury, CT, and married Eunice Sanford about 1767. Little is known about his childhood.

    In early 1775 he was commissioned Ensign of the first Company or trainband of Woodbury, which was known as the 13th Regiment of the Colony. Months later he entered the army as a private in the 4th Regiment. This outfit was ordered by Washington to join the troops opposed to the British near Lake Champlain and to garrison Fort Ticonderoga, led by Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen.

    In May 1775 he was taken prisoner and carried to Quebec. Before he was ordered to jail he was concealed by a French landlady, who apparently provided him food and shelter for some time. He eventually escaped by swimming the St. Lawrence River, then trekked 450+ miles on his return to Woodbury. In 1777 he formed another company, of which he became Captain.

    In November 1777 he raised a supply of blankets and other provisions, then joined his command at Fort Mifflin, at Mud Island on the Delaware River, south of Philadelphia.

    For six weeks the British navy had attempted to sail north on the Delaware to resupply the troops occupying Philadelphia. They had been obstructed in their efforts only by troops at Fort Mifflin on the Pennsylvania side and Fort Mercer on the Jersey side.

    Desperate, Admiral Richard Howe finally assembled enough artillery and warships to lay siege to Fort Mifflin beginning on November 10. Mifflin was staffed by no more than 500 men.

    From November 10-15 the Britain conducted what is described as the heaviest naval bombardment in US history or anywhere in the world in the 18th century. Toward the end cannonballs pounded the fort at a rate of 1,000 per hour.

    I once saw a DAR document citing that Nathan Stoddard was briefly the commanding officer at Mifflin following the death of his superior. No one had much time to write anything down, so I must question the veracity of that claim.

    On November 15 Captain Nathan Stoddard rose up to take fire and was beheaded by a cannonball. Lieutenant John Strong, also of Woodbury, related for over 30 years that “for a few moments Nathan stood there, erect, as in life, without a head, before falling.”

    In the book Private Yankee Doodle, author Joseph Plumb Martin described his experience at Fort Mifflin as the greatest hardship he endured in the entire war. For days it was bitter cold, with no ammunition, clothing, food, water, shelter or sleep. The only reward offered for recovery of a cannonball for return fire was a shot of rum.

    It is inconceivable to me that the few exhausted surviving troops somehow managed to remove bodies of the dead during their frantic evacuation, but they did. When British landed on November 15 they reported every inch of the fort to be covered in blood.

    Nathan died at age 35, leaving one son and six daughters. His burial place is unknown.

    Though Mifflin was leveled to the ground, the walls were rebuilt on the original footprint. It served various military uses until the 1950s. It still stands near the PHL airport.
    Had Fort Mifflin not impeded the advance of the British fleet for those crucial six weeks, Washington would have had too little time to organize his retreat to Valley Forge. In all likelihood England would have won the war. Thus, Mifflin is recognized as “The fort that saved America.”

    I moved to suburban Philly in 1998 and visited the fort often. I have a prized poster illustrating the bombardment with the caption:

    “Washington never slept here. Nobody slept here.”

    In 2001, just prior to moving to Florida, I walked the full perimeter of Mifflin with my 9 month old son in my arms. Knowing that at some point I crossed the very spot where Nathan fell, I thought it possible I might feel his hand on my shoulder. Alas, I experienced no such connection.

    Fort Mifflin is reputed to be extremely haunted, as attested to by staff, camping Boy Scout Troops, everyday visitors and numerous paranormal researchers. One spirit repeatedly cited is the “faceless man”, suspected my many to be the only man hanged there – with a hood – a Union Civil War deserter. During one visit I introduced myself to a docent obviously immersed in fort history, who just read some archived papers I left there years earlier. She was taken aback by my arrival that day. Days earlier she had seen the faceless man, and she insisted he was in Rev War, not Civil War period attire. She serves there to this day, and she is convinced the faceless man is Capt Nathan.

    I confessed to Chris that I have long been embarrassingly inactive in local SAR chapters. I began my application in Chicago in the 90s, was admitted in Kansas, moved to Philadelphia, then to Florida. For obvious reasons the Philly chapters drew my greatest interest, and I aspired to identify one somehow affiliated with Fort Mifflin or dedicated to the preservation thereof. I was frustrated to learn there was none.

    I am very pleased to go on record as saying I intend to stay put in Cumming and Forsyth for the foreseeable future, and I am excited by what I see as a vibrant and growing young chapter. Thank you for welcoming me into the fold.

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