The Bicentennial Edition is a special issue of 14 features commemorating the American Revolution Bicentennial in Pennsylvania, published June 1976.

With some conspicuous exceptions, Pennsylvania was W largely on the outskirts of the scenes of Revolutionary War military operations. True, in December, 1776, Gen. George Washington brought the remnants of his retreating army from New Jersey into Pennsylvania, using the area in the vicinity of McKonkey’s Ferry as the jumping-off point for the Christmas-night crossing of the Delaware and the surprise assault on the Hessian garrison at Trenton, N.H. But not until September 9, 1777, almost two and a half years after war began, did enemy forces enter the State, prosecuting a campaign through which the British commander, Gen. William Howe, aimed at capturing Philadelphia.

Having landed at the upper end of Chesapeake Bay, Howe’s force advanced while Washington maneuvered to block it. The first major clash took place along Brandywine Creek. There, the American army was posted on the east bank, covering what Washington had been told were the stream’s only fords. But Howe had learned of still another ford, farther upstream. Early on September 11, hidden by a morning fog, he led part of his army northward. While the rest of his force, under the Hessian Gen. Wilhelm Kny­phausen, made a diversionary attack which focused Washing­ton’s attention to the front, at Chadd’s Ford, Howe turned eastward across the creek, then southward to surprise the the American right flank.

Although the blow was unexpected, the Americans on the right fought vigorously before being compelled to retreat. Then Knyphausen’s men stormed across the Brandy­wine at Chadd’s Ford and drove back the Americans in that sector.

Washington’s men were compelled to leave the battlefield to the enemy, but they were not disorganized or disheartened, and they quickly reassembled at Chester. While Howe continued his advance, Washington maneu­vered to stay between the enemy and Philadelphia. The two armies found themselves facing each other again on September 16, a little west of Paoli. Just as a battle was beginning to develop, however, a torrential downpour soaked the men and their gunpowder, turned the ground into a quagmire, and drastically reduced visibility. Both opponents broke contact and the Americans pulled back to the north, to be ready to block Howe if he should move toward either Philadelphia or the important supply depot at Reading.

Meanwhile, Washington detached Brig. Gen. Anthony Wayne’s division to stay behind and cut oft the baggage train at the rear of the enemy column as it passed by. Wayne concealed his men near Paoli and waited. Before he could act, however, Howe learned his location, and during the night of September 19-20 the British made a surprise attack, killing some fifty of Wayne’s men, wounding about a hundred, and scattering the rest. Although an embarrassing setback, this was not the “massacre” which American pamphleteers sought to make it.

Also on September 19, Washington led his army across the Schuylkill River. Then, on September 21, he learned that the enemy seemed to be preparing to turn toward Reading. Convinced that he had detected Howe’s real objective, Washington marched his troops upstream, there­by leaving the route to Philadelphia unobstructed.

Howe’s threat to Reading had been a feint. With Washington outmaneuvered, the enemy crossed the Schuylkill early on September 23 and took position between the American army and Philadelphia. Three days later, a British and Hessian detachment moved south to occupy the city formally; but Howe, fearing an American attack, held his main force in defensive positions at Germantown.

Washington was indeed planning a stroke. During the night of October 3-4, the Americans moved toward Ger­mantown in four columns. One, under Maj. Gen. John Sullivan, aimed at the center of Howe’s line. To its left, a column under Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene was to come in from the side and roll up the enemy right flank. The col­umns on the extreme flanks, the one on the right consisting of Pennsylvania militia under Maj. Gen. John Armstrong and the one on the left made up of Maryland .and New Jersey militia under Brig. Gen. William Smallwood, were to swing around the enemy flanks, cutting Howe off from Philadelphia. All forces were to reach their jumping-off points before dawn and then converge simultaneously.

As it developed, Armstrong’s column halted after tentatively probing the British left; Smallwood’s force never reached the battlefield; and the civilian guiding Greene’s column got lost, making it about an hour late in arriving. Sullivan’s column did move ahead on schedule, but what was intended to be a coordinated assault ended up as a series of piecemeal and disconnected attacks.

Just at daylight, Sullivan’s troops drove in the British outposts and forged toward the center of Howe’s line. Some of the outposts took cover in Benjamin Chew’s stone mansion, called Cliveden. The main attack forces by-passed this strongpoint, but as they neared the enemy’s main de­fenses, Washington decided to commit part of his reserve to capturing Cliveden.

A dense fog had settled, isolating each segment of the force from the others and inhibiting coordinated action. Nonetheless, Howe found himself so heavily pressed that he was debating whether to order a retreat. Just then, Greene’s column moved in from Howe’s right.

Unfortunately, one part of this force had got off its assigned approach route so that instead of moving against the enemy’s right flank it was actually advancing at an angle against the left rear of Sullivan’s force. Through the fog, the troops glimpsed a line of soldiers ahead and, mistaking them for the enemy, opened fire.

This volley, reinforcing the noise from the brisk fight where Washington’s reserve was trying unsuccessfully to storm Cliveden, convinced Sullivan’s troops that they were encircled. They abandoned their attack and despite their officers’ urging, began to retreat. They were gone before the main part of Greene’s column arrived, so it found itself fighting alone, and its leading elements were soon sur­rounded and captured.

The main American force rallied on the far bank of Perkiomen Creek, and Washington was soon taking every possible initiative. Bucks County militia were given the mission of blocking movement of enemy forage parties north of Philadelphia. Other Pennsylvania militia, under Brig. Gen. James Potter, undertook a similar mission beyond the Schuylkill, southwest of the city. Continental forces blocked British movements to the west. Work was intensified on Fort Mercer (near Red Bank, J.J.) and Fort Mifflin (on an island in the Delaware just below the mouth of the Schuylkill) – the crossfire from these, along with obstruc­tions set into the channel and the support of a river fleet of the small craft of the Continental and Pennsylvania navies, could block British access to or from Philadelphia by the river route. Washington meant to turn Philadelphia into a trap in which, cut off from all supplies, Howe’s men would be starved into submission.

To counter this threat, the enemy began systematic attacks against the two river forts.

On October 7, Howe began building gun positions on the mainland opposite Fort Mifflin. American naval forces attempted to interfere but were beaten off, as were sorties by troops from Fort Mifflin. By October 15, a semicircle of batter­ies had been completed and the bombardment of the fort began.

On October 22, a Hessian brigade from Philadelphia assaulted Fort Mercer, but was smashed by the fire of the fort’s garrison, reinforced by gunfire from American naval craft in the river. Two British ships moving upstream to support the attack ran aground. Disastrously defeated, the Hessians retreated to Philadelphia. Ameri­can cannon fire set one of the grounded ships aflame and her magazine exploded. The other was burned by her crew to prevent capture.

Still hoping to attack the British in Philadelphia, on November 2 Washington moved his army to Whitemarsh, a few miles north of the city, and occupied a strong position on an east-west line of hills. But Howe remained within his own defenses and continued to concentrate on the siege of Fort Mifflin. The American naval forces and Fort Mifflin’s cannon struck back, but the bombardment continued inexorably. On November 15, British ships sailed into range and added their broad­sides to the weight of metal raining on Fort Mifflin. With American ammunition almost exhausted, that night the garrison was evacuated to Fort Mercer. By November 18, Howe was massing troops on the New Jersey side of the river to assault that post. The Fort Mercer garrison was too weak to resist such a large force, and on the night of November 20 the troops abandoned the fort, blowing it up behind them. The American naval craft fell back upstream above Philadelphia.

Freed now from the threat of starvation, Howe turned his attention to Washing­ton. Just before midnight on December 4, he led a large force toward Whitemarsh. Next morning, Pennsylvania militia attacked the British leading elements but were brushed aside, and the enemy column camped opposite the American line. Howe spent December 6 studying Washington’s defenses. An American detachment skirmished with enemy units near Edge Hill on the morning of December 7, but the fight soon broke off. Later, there was another brief engagement, which again amounted to little. During December 8, the Americans waited for a British move­ment but Howe was reluctant to attack such a strong position. On the afternoon of the following day, the enemy started back toward Philadelphia.

But Howe’s attack had shown that Whitemarsh was too accessible from Phila­delphia, and in any case the area was not suitable for the winter encampment which the season made imperative. On December 11, therefore, the Americans began a march toward Gulph Mills while Washington considered his various options.

That same morning, the British Gen. Charles Cornwallis had led a strong recon­naissance in force, also moving toward Gulph Mills but marching along the southern side of the Schuylkill. On the way, he was engaged in a series of substantial skir­mishes by Pennsylvania militia, but these were not enough to block his movement, and he reached Gulph Mills and camped for the night. Unaware that the American army was just across the river, he turned back toward Philadelphia the following morning. When Washington was certain that Cornwallis had left, he moved his troops to Gulph Mills and made camp.

There, Washington reached the decision to establish the army’s winter quarters at Valley Forge, and on December 19 the troops marched to their new campsite. The six months which followed represented a triumph of endurance over hardship, but also brought the Continental Army its first exposure to sound reorganization and sustained training. No major fights took place, but there were some small-scale actions between British and American patrols: among other engagements, on January 18, 1778, a cavalry detachment ranging to the southward beat off a British force which tried to capture it; on May 1, a large British force surprised some Pennsylvania militia at the Crooked Billet Tavern and inflicted heavy casualties; and on May 19, a 2,000-man American task force was almost cut off by three British columns at Barren Hill.

On June 18, 1778, the enemy evacuated Philadelphia, marching across New Jersey toward New York, and on the next day the American army followed. This ended conven­tional operations in Pennsylvania, but another phase of the war had already begun.

By early 1778, British-allied Indians along the far-flung Pennsylvania frontier had started to make serious trouble. In February, militia from Fort Pitt advanced toward mod­ern Cleveland in the so-called “Squaw Campaign,” killing an old man and a woman at present New Castle, further rousing the Indians. By March, Washington had felt com­pelled to transfer the 8th Pennsylvania Regiment from the main army to Fort Pitt. Then, just after the troops had had left Valley Forge for good, a large body of Indians and Tories moved down the North Branch of the Susque­hanna River to the vicinity of Wyoming. On July 3, they severely defeated the local militia, killing some 300. The survivors surrendered the next day and were compelled to leave the area.

Responding to this disaster, on September 21, Col. Thomas Hartley led a mixed group of Continentals and militiamen from Fort Muncy, on the West Branch of the Susquehanna, to the Indian town of Tioga, just below the New York border, burned it, then started down the Susque­hanna’s North Branch toward Wyoming. On September 29, at Wyalusing, the column was overtaken by a large band of Indians but drove them off, inflicting considerable loss. By October 5, .Hartley had completed the move downstream and had established himself at Sunbury.

For the next several months, although small-scale raids continued, there was no substantial combat. From Fort Pitt, a force moved down the Ohio River, building Fort McIntosh at what is now Beaver, then pushed on to the Muskingum, in Ohio, where it built Fort Laurens. On a more ambitious scale, Washington was planning a major campaign against the Indians in New York State.

Maj. Gen. John Sullivan, commanding this expedition, began in May, 1779, to assemble troops at Easton, Pa., while supplies were collected at Wyoming. On July 31, the expedition set out for Tioga.

Such elaborate arrangements could not be concealed, and as part of an attempt to throw the Americans off balance, groups of Indians and Tories ranged through Pennsyl­vania’s back country, striking at outlying farms. On July 29, they hit a large installation, Fort Freeland, near modern Milton, Pa., capturing it and killing some thirty of its defenders before withdrawing to New York.

These efforts were unavailing. On August 26, after having been joined at Tioga by more Continental troops, Sullivan moved deep into New York, burning Indian villages and destroying crops along his route. In a parallel if smaller scale operation, on August 11, Col. Daniel Brodhead had started his 8th Pennsylvania Regiment, reinforced by militia, northward from Fort Pitt, advancing almost to the New York border. Like Sullivan, he burned and destroyed as he went. The only opposition he met was on August 18, when his advance guard unexpectedly encountered and quickly scattered a band of about thirty warriors. By September 14, he had returned to Fort Pitt. Sullivan’s force was back at Easton by October 15.

Indian raids had not been brought to a complete halt, but from that time on they occurred on a greatly reduced scale on Pennsylvania’s northern frontier. To the west, however, around Fort Pitt, it was another story. Frequent raids caused many settlers to abandon their farms, and the need for able-bodied men to perform militia duties at blockhouses and stockades seriously drained the manpower available to work the few farms that were still cultivated. What was needed was an expedition into the Indian country to force the raiders onto the defensive. Few Continentals could be spared, however, and militiamen were reluctant to leave their homes unguarded to take part in such an expedition. When a force was finally assembled in the summer of 1781, therefore, it was seriously inadequate in size.

Nevertheless, in July, 1781, a group of Virginians under Gen. George Rogers Clark started down the Ohio River, their objective being Indian towns in what is now Ohio and Indiana. A few days later, they were followed by 106 Pennsylvania militia under Col. Archibald Lochry.

Lochry’s detachment never caught up. On August 24, at a point near the mouth of the Miami River, it was attacked by a large Indian band. Lochry and forty of his men were killed and all the others captured. Subsequently, Clark abandoned the campaign and the troops returned home.

The surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, Va., in October, 1781, by no means brought the end of hostilities, particularly on the frontier. In May, 1782, Col. William Crawford led 480 mounted Pennsylvania militiamen from Fort Pitt into Ohio. On June 4, near the Upper Sandusky, they were defeated with substantial losses, among whom was Colonel Crawford.

Still another sizable action took place on July 13, when a mixed force of Tories and Indians fell upon Hannastown, then the county seat of Westmoreland County. Some peo­ple found refuge inside the local fort, but al most everyone in outlying houses for several miles around was killed or taken prisoner. Although Hannastown itself was burned, the enemy did not attack the fort, and departed before dawn the next day.

That ended Revolutionary War combat on Pennsylvania soil. The State had supplied the locale for one major campaign. It had suffered the effects of Indian warfare along its borders. It had also provided the staging area for the attack on Trenton, for Sullivan’s Expedition, and for the unsuccessful campaigns into the Ohio and Indiana areas.

Apart from furnishing the arena for parts of the war, Pennsylvania had contributed significantly in men – over seventeen regiments – to fight on other fronts, from Quebec and Boston to Yorktown, Savannah, and Charleston. In this respect, as well as in providing the scene of some of the war’s important operations, Pennsylvania played a prominent role in the military effort which brought America’s independence.

 

John B. B. Trussell, Jr. is a historian on the staff of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission since his retirement from the U.S. Army in 1972, Colonel Trussell is the author, among other works, of the Commission publication, Epic on the Schuyl­kill and the forthcoming The Pennsylvania Line: Regimental Organization and Operations, 1775-1783, and Birthplace of an Army: A Study of the Valley Forge Encampment.