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Battle of the Kegs

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

January 6.—Philadelphia has been entertained with a most astonishing instance of the activity, bravery, and military skill of the royal navy of Great Britain. The affair is somewhat particular, and deserves notice. Some time last week, two boys observed a keg of a singular construction, floating in the river opposite to the city; they got into a small boat, and attempting to take up the keg, it burst with a great explosion, and blew up the unfortunate boys. Yesterday, several kegs of a like construction made their appearance. An alarm was immediately spread through the city; various reports prevailed, filling the city and the royal troops with consternation. Some reported that the kegs were filled with armed rebels, who were to issue forth in the dead of night, as the Grecians did of old from their wooden horse at the siege of Troy, and take the city by surprise; asserting that they had seen the points of their bayonets through the bung-holes of the kegs. Others said they were charged with the most inveterate combustibles, to be kindled by secret machinery, and setting the whole Delaware in flames, were to consume all the shipping in the harbor; whilst others asserted that they were constructed by art magic, would of themselves ascend the wharves in the night time, and roll all flaming through the streets of the city, destroying every thing in their way. Be this as it may, certain it is that the shipping in the harbor, and all the wharves in the city were fully manned, the battle began, and it was surprising to behold the incessant blaze that was kept up against the enemy, the kegs. Both officers and men exhibited the most unparalleled skill and bravery on the occasion; whilst the citizens stood gazing as solemn witnesses of their prowess. From the Roebuck and other ships of war, whole broadsides were poured into the Delaware. In short, not a wandering ship, stick, or drift log, but felt the vigor of the British arms. The action began about sunrise, and would have been completed with great success by noon, had not an old market woman coming down the river with provisions, unfortunately let a small keg of butter fall overboard, which (as it was then ebb) floated down to the scene of action. At sight of this unexpected reinforcement of the enemy, the battle was renewed with fresh fury, and the firing was incessant till the evening closed the affair. The kegs were either totally demolished or obliged to fly, as none of them have shown their heads since. It is said his Excellency, Lord Howe, has despatched a swift sailing packet with an account of this victory to the court of London. In a word, Monday, the fifth of January, 1778, must ever be distinguished in history for the memorable battle of the kegs.1


1 Extract of a letter from Philadelphia in the New Jersey Gazette, January 21. A writer in the Pennsylvania Ledger, of February 11, says, in reference to this event:—”The town of Philadelphia not being as fully acquainted with the subject of the letter taken from a Burlington paper, as the ingenious author would have his readers believe them to be, it may be necessary to relate to them the fact. At the time it happened it was so trifling as not to be thought worthy of notice in this paper; and we do not doubt but our readers will allow this letter-writer full credit for the fertility of his invention. The case was, that on the fifth of January last, a barrel of an odd appearance came floating down the Delaware, opposite the town, and attracted the attention of some boys, who went in pursuit of it, and had scarcely got possession of it when it blew up, and either killed or injured one or more of them. So” far the matter was serious, and the fellow who invented the mischief may quit his conscience of the murder or injury done the lads, as well as he can. Some days after, a few others of much the same appearance, and some in the form of buoys, came floating in like manner, and a few guns were, we believe, fired at them from some of the transports lying along the wharves. Other than this no notice was taken of them, except, indeed, by our author, whose imagination, perhaps, as fertile as his invention, realized to himself in the frenzy of his enthusiasm the matters he has set forth.”

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