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Washington and His Comrades: Chapter V

The Loss of Philadelphia

Though the outlook for Washington was brightened by his success in New Jersey, it was still depressing enough. The British had taken New York, they could probably take Philadelphia when they liked, and no place near the seacoast was safe. According to the votes in Parliament, by the spring of 1777 Britain was to have an army of eighty-nine thousand men, of whom fifty-seven thousand were intended for colonial garrisons and for the prosecution of the war in America. These numbers were in fact never reached, but the army of forty thousand in America was formidable compared with Washington’s forces. The British were not hampered by the practice of enlisting men for only a few months, which marred so much of Washington’s effort. Above all they had money and adequate resources. In a word they had the things which Washington lacked during almost the whole of the war.

Washington called his success in the attack at Trenton a lucky stroke. It was luck which had far-reaching consequences. Howe had the fixed idea that to follow the capture of New York by that of Philadelphia, the most populous city in America, and the seat of Congress, would mean great glory for himself and a crushing blow to the American cause. If to this could be added, as he intended, the occupation of the whole valley of the Hudson, the year 1777 might well see the end of the war. An acute sense of the value of time is vital in war. Promptness, the quick surprise of the enemy, was perhaps the chief military virtue of Washington; dilatoriness was the destructive vice of Howe. He had so little contempt for his foe that he practised a blighting caution. On April 12, 1777, Washington, in view of his own depleted force, in a state of half famine, wrote: “If Howe does not take advantage of our weak state he is very unfit for his trust.” Howe remained inactive and time, thus despised, worked its due revenge. Later Howe did move, and with skill, but he missed the rapid combination in action which was the first condition of final success. He could have captured Philadelphia in May. He took the city, but not until September, when to hold it had become a liability and not an asset. To go there at all was perhaps unwise; to go in September was for him a tragic mistake.

From New York to Philadelphia the distance by land is about a hundred miles. The route lay across New Jersey, that “garden of America” which English travelers spoke of as resembling their own highly cultivated land. Washington had his headquarters at Morristown, in northern New Jersey. His resources were at a low ebb. He had always the faith that a cause founded on justice could not fail; but his letters at this time are full of depressing anxiety. Each State regarded itself as in danger and made care of its own interests its chief concern. By this time Congress had lost most of the able men who had given it dignity and authority. Like Howe it had slight sense of the value of time and imagined that tomorrow was as good as today. Wellington once complained that, though in supreme command, he had not authority to appoint even a corporal. Washington was hampered both by Congress and by the State Governments in choosing leaders. He had some officers, such as Greene, Knox, and Benedict Arnold, whom he trusted. Others, like Gates and Conway, were ceaseless intriguers. To General Sullivan, who fancied himself constantly slighted and ill-treated, Washington wrote sharply to abolish his poisonous suspicions.

Howe had offered easy terms to those in New Jersey who should declare their loyalty and to meet this Washington advised the stern policy of outlawing every one who would not take the oath of allegiance to the United States. There was much fluttering of heart on the New Jersey farms, much anxious trimming in order, in any event, to be safe. Howe’s Hessians had plundered ruthlessly causing deep resentment against the British. Now Washington found his own people doing the same thing. Militia officers, themselves, “generally” as he said, “of the lowest class of the people,” not only stole but incited their men to steal. It was easy to plunder under the plea that the owner of the property was a Tory, whether open or concealed, and Washington wrote that the waste and theft were “beyond all conception.” There were shirkers claiming exemption from military service on the ground that they were doing necessary service as civilians. Washington needed maps to plan his intricate movements and could not get them. Smallpox was devastating his army and causing losses heavier than those from the enemy. When pay day came there was usually no money. It is little wonder that in this spring of 1777 he feared that his army might suddenly dissolve and leave him without a command. In that case he would not have yielded. Rather, so stern and bitter was he against England, would he have plunged into the western wilderness to be lost in its vast spaces.

Howe had his own perplexities. He knew that a great expedition under Burgoyne was to advance from Canada southward to the Hudson. Was he to remain with his whole force at New York until the time should come to push up the river to meet Burgoyne? He had a copy of the instructions given in England to Burgoyne by Lord George Germain, but he was himself without orders. Afterwards the reason became known. Lord George Germain had dictated the order to cooperate with Burgoyne, but had hurried off to the country before it was ready for his signature and it had been mislaid. Howe seemed free to make his own plans and he longed to be master of the enemy’s capital. In the end he decided to take Philadelphia–a task easy enough, as the event proved. At Howe’s elbow was the traitorous American general, Charles Lee, whom he had recently captured, and Lee, as we know, told him that Maryland and Pennsylvania were at heart loyal to the King and panting to be free from the tyranny of the demagogue. Once firmly in the capital Howe believed that he would have secure control of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. He could achieve this and be back at New York in time to meet Burgoyne, perhaps at Albany. Then he would hold the colony of New York from Staten Island to the Canadian frontier. Howe found that he could send ships up the Hudson, and the American army had to stand on the banks almost helpless against the mobility of sea power. Washington’s left wing rested on the Hudson and he held both banks but neither at Peekskill nor, as yet, farther up at West Point, could his forts prevent the passage of ships. It was a different matter for the British to advance on land. But the ships went up and down in the spring of 1777. It would be easy enough to help Burgoyne when the time should come.

It was summer before Howe was ready to move, and by that time he had received instructions that his first aim must be to cooperate with Burgoyne. First, however, he was resolved to have Philadelphia. Washington watched Howe in perplexity. A great fleet and a great army lay at New York. Why did they not move? Washington knew perfectly well what he himself would have done in Howe’s place. He would have attacked rapidly in April the weak American army and, after destroying or dispersing it, would have turned to meet Burgoyne coming southward from Canada. Howe did send a strong force into New Jersey. But he did not know how weak Washington really was, for that master of craft in war disseminated with great skill false information as to his own supposed overwhelming strength. Howe had been bitten once by advancing too far into New Jersey and was not going to take risks. He tried to entice Washington from the hills to attack in open country. He marched here and there in New Jersey and kept Washington alarmed and exhausted by counter marches, and always puzzled as to what the next move should be. Howe purposely let one of his secret messengers be taken bearing a despatch saying that the fleet was about to sail for Boston. All these things took time and the summer was slipping away. In the end Washington realized that Howe intended to make his move not by land but by sea. Could it be possible that he was not going to make aid to Burgoyne his chief purpose? Could it be that he would attack Boston? Washington hoped so for he knew the reception certain at Boston. Or was his goal Charleston? On the 23d of July, when the summer was more than half gone, Washington began to see more clearly. On that day Howe had embarked eighteen thousand men and the fleet put to sea from Staten Island.

Howe was doing what able officers with him, such as Cornwallis, Grey, and the German Knyphausen, appear to have been unanimous in thinking he should not do. He was misled not only by the desire to strike at the very center of the rebellion, but also by the assurance of the traitorous Lee that to take Philadelphia would be the effective signal to all the American Loyalists, the overwhelming majority of the people, as was believed, that sedition had failed. A tender parent, the King, was ready to have the colonies back in their former relation and to give them secure guarantees of future liberty. Any one who saw the fleet put out from New York Harbor must have been impressed with the might of Britain. No less than two hundred and twenty-nine ships set their sails and covered the sea for miles. When they had disappeared out of sight of the New Jersey shore their goal was still unknown. At sea they might turn in any direction. Washington’s uncertainty was partly relieved on the 30th of July when the fleet appeared at the entrance of Delaware Bay, with Philadelphia some hundred miles away across the bay and up the Delaware River. After hovering about the Cape for a day the fleet again put to sea, and Washington, who had marched his army so as to be near Philadelphia, thought the whole movement a feint and knew not where the fleet would next appear. He was preparing to march to New York to menace General Clinton, who had there seven thousand men able to help Burgoyne when he heard good news. On the 22d of August he knew that Howe had really gone southward and was in Chesapeake Bay. Boston was now certainly safe. On the 25th of August, after three stormy weeks at sea, Howe arrived at Elkton, at the head of Chesapeake Bay, and there landed his army. It was Philadelphia fifty miles away that he intended to have. Washington wrote gleefully “Now let all New England turn out and crush Burgoyne.” Before the end of September he was writing that he was certain of complete disaster to Burgoyne.

Howe had, in truth, made a ruinous mistake. Had the date been May instead of August he might still have saved Burgoyne. But at the end of August, when the net was closing on Burgoyne, Howe was three hundred miles away. His disregard of time and distance had been magnificent. In July he had sailed to the mouth of the Delaware, with Philadelphia near, but he had then sailed away again, and why? Because the passage of his ships up the river to the city was blocked by obstructions commanded by bristling forts. The naval officers said truly that the fleet could not get up the river. But Howe might have landed his army at the head of Delaware Bay. It is a dozen miles across the narrow peninsula from the head of Delaware Bay to that of Chesapeake Bay. Since Howe had decided to attack from the head of Chesapeake Bay there was little to prevent him from landing his army on the Delaware side of the peninsula and marching across it. By sea it is a voyage of three hundred miles round a peninsula one hundred and fifty miles long to get from one of these points to the other, by land only a dozen miles away. Howe made the sea voyage and spent on it three weeks when a march of a day would have saved this time and kept his fleet three hundred miles by sea nearer to New York and aid for Burgoyne.

Howe’s mistakes only have their place in the procession to inevitable disaster. Once in the thick of fighting he showed himself formidable. When he had landed at Elkton he was fifty miles southwest of Philadelphia and between him and that place was Washington with his army. Washington was determined to delay Howe in every possible way. To get to Philadelphia Howe had to cross the Brandywine River. Time was nothing to him. He landed at Elkton on the 25th of August. Not until the 10th of September was he prepared to attack Washington barring his way at Chadd’s Ford. Washington was in a strong position on a front of two miles on the river. At his left, below Chadd’s Ford, the Brandywine is a torrent flowing between high cliffs. There the British would find no passage. On his right was a forest. Washington had chosen his position with his usual skill. Entrenchments protected his front and batteries would sweep down an advancing enemy. He had probably not more than eleven thousand men in the fight and it is doubtful whether Howe brought up a greater number so that the armies were not unevenly matched. At daybreak on the eleventh the British army broke camp at the village of Kenneth Square, four miles from Chadd’s Ford, and, under General Knyphausen, marched straight to make a frontal attack on Washington’s position.

In the battle which followed Washington was beaten by the superior tactics of his enemy. Not all of the British army was there in the attack at Chadd’s Ford. A column under Cornwallis had filed off by a road to the left and was making a long and rapid march. The plan was to cross the Brandywine some ten miles above where Washington was posted and to attack him in the rear. By two o’clock in the afternoon Cornwallis had forced the two branches of the upper Brandywine and was marching on Dilworth at the right rear of the American army. Only then did Washington become aware of his danger. His first impulse was to advance across Chadd’s Ford to try to overwhelm Knyphausen and thus to get between Howe and the fleet at Elkton. This might, however, have brought disaster and he soon decided to retire. His movement was ably carried out. Both sides suffered in the woodland fighting but that night the British army encamped in Washington’s position at Chadd’s Ford, and Howe had fought skillfully and won an important battle.

Washington had retired in good order and was still formidable. He now realized clearly enough that Philadelphia would fall. Delay, however, would be nearly as good as victory. He saw what Howe could not see, that menacing cloud in the north, much bigger than a man’s hand, which, with Howe far away, should break in a final storm terrible for the British cause. Meanwhile Washington meant to keep Howe occupied. Rain alone prevented another battle before the British reached the Schuylkill River. On that river Washington guarded every ford. But, in the end, by skillful maneuvering, Howe was able to cross and on the 26th of September he occupied Philadelphia without resistance. The people were ordered to remain quietly in their houses. Officers were billeted on the wealthier inhabitants. The fall resounded far of what Lord Adam Gordon called a “great and noble city,” “the first Town in America,” “one of the Wonders of the World.” Its luxury had been so conspicuous that the austere John Adams condemned the “sinful feasts” in which he shared. About it were fine country seats surrounded by parklike grounds, with noble trees, clipped hedges, and beautiful gardens. The British believed that Pennsylvania was really on their side. Many of the people were friendly and hundreds now renewed their oath of allegiance to the King. Washington complained that the people gave Howe information denied to him. They certainly fed Howe’s army willingly and received good British gold while Washington had only paper money with which to pay. Over the proud capital floated once more the British flag and people who did not see very far said that, with both New York and Philadelphia taken, the rebellion had at last collapsed.

Once in possession of Philadelphia Howe made his camp at Germantown, a straggling suburban village, about seven miles northwest of the city. Washington’s army lay at the foot of some hills a dozen miles farther away. Howe had need to be wary, for Washington was the same “old fox” who had played so cunning a game at Trenton. The efforts of the British army were now centered on clearing the river Delaware so that supplies might be brought up rapidly by water instead of being carried fifty miles overland from Chesapeake Bay. Howe detached some thousands of men for this work and there was sharp fighting before the troops and the fleet combined had cleared the river. At Germantown Howe kept about nine thousand men. Though he knew that Washington was likely to attack him he did not entrench his army as he desired the attack to be made. It might well have succeeded. Washington with eleven thousand men aimed at a surprise. On the evening of the 3d of October he set out from his camp. Four roads led into Germantown and all these the Americans used. At sunrise on the fourth, just as the attack began, a fog arose to embarrass both sides. Lying a little north of the village was the solid stone house of Chief Justice Chew, and it remains famous as the central point in the bitter fight of that day. What brought final failure to the American attack was an accident of maneuvering. Sullivan’s brigade was in front attacking the British when Greene’s came up for the same purpose. His line overlapped Sullivan’s and he mistook in the fog Sullivan’s men for the enemy and fired on them from the rear. A panic naturally resulted among the men who were attacked also at the same time by the British on their front. The disorder spread. British reinforcements arrived, and Washington drew off his army in surprising order considering the panic. He had six hundred and seventy-three casualties and lost besides four hundred prisoners. The British loss was five hundred and thirty-seven casualties and fourteen prisoners. The attack had failed, but news soon came which made the reverse unimportant. Burgoyne and his whole army had surrendered at Saratoga.