Sunday, May 24, 2020

Episode 150 Howe leaves New York

In July 1777, General Howe remained in New York City after the Continentals and militia had pushed his army out of New Jersey six months earlier.  Everyone had expected him to begin to do something by this time.  Typically, campaigns began in the spring.  Most people expected Howe to capture Philadelphia, the largest city in American and the seat of the Continental Congress.  In June, the British had made a couple of feints into Northern New Jersey, resulting in the battle of Short Hills that I talked about back in Episode 140.

But all the real action was happening in upstate New York as General Burgoyne marched his army through the Hudson Valley.  In New York City, General Howe did not make any significant deployments anywhere, not toward Philadelphia, and not up the Hudson Valley toward Burgoyne.  He left everyone to wonder what he was waiting for, and where he would go?

Clinton Returns

On July 5, General Henry Clinton returned to New York from London.  Recall that General Clinton had sailed for London months earlier with the intent of resigning his commission.  General Howe had refused to make use of him and had him sitting in Rhode Island without sufficient forces to take any offensive actions.  When the King refused to accept his resignation, refused to give him the independent command that went to Burgoyne, and ordered him to return to serve as Howe’s second in command for another year, Clinton did as ordered, but was not happy about it.

Sir Henry Clinton
(from Wikimedia)
The day following his arrival in New York, Clinton met with Howe to discuss what he had planned.  Clinton had expected Howe to send a force up the Hudson Valley to support Burgoyne.  When he learned that there was no such plan, the two men argued over that and a range of other things.  Clinton accused Howe of bad mouthing him to people in London for incompetence in his Rhode Island command.  In response, Howe angrily accused Clinton of badmouthing him to people in London for the entire prior year’s campaign.

The two men went back and forth at each other for hours.  It ended with Clinton announcing that he still wished to resign once this campaign was over.  Howe responded that he would be happy to allow him to resign once Howe returned from Philadelphia.

In the meantime, Clinton would be left in command at New York City.  Howe would take the bulk of his army with him, leaving Clinton with a few thousand Hessians and loyalist militia.  Clinton was concerned that it was barely enough to defend New York City from an attack, let alone send any sort of relief force to assist Burgoyne’s army.  That, however, did not seem to be a concern for General Howe.

Heister Leaves

Another general who had clashed with General Howe was Lieutenant General Phillip von Heister, the commander of all Hessian Auxiliaries in America.  Heister had arrived a year earlier when the British were still in Newfoundland.  He had been part of the landing at Staten Island and the subsequent capture of New York City and the surrounding area.

Heister and Howe had never really gotten along well.  The 70 year old German general had performed well at the Battle of Long Island, but repeatedly clashed with Howe over issues of command and the use of the Hessians.  Heister thought that Howe mostly used the Hessians as cannon fodder, causing unnecessary casualties among his men.  The two generals also butted heads over how much independence the Hessians had over the command of British officers.

Phillip Leopold von Heister
(from Wikimedia)
After the capture of the Hessians at Trenton, Heister and Howe exchanged words and blamed each other over responsibility for the loss.  Howe sent word back to London that he could not work with the general and wanted him dismissed.

This was a touchy issue since the British most certainly did not want all of the Hessians to pack up and go home.  Dismissing their commander could have caused real problems.  Intead, officials in London conferred with the leadership in Hesse.  The Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel soon sent notice that General Von Heister was being recalled temporarily for reasons of his health and age.  In truth, despite the attempted face saving, everyone knew he was being blamed for Trenton and being removed from command as a result.

Heister boarded a ship for London in late June and eventually made his way back to Hesse-Cassel.  He would die later that same year a dejected and frustrated man.

The new commander of Hessian forces was General Wilhelm Von Knyphausen, who had been Heister’s second in command.  Von Knyphausen and much of his Hessian army would join General Howe on the Philadelphia Campaign.


On July 8, two days after his meeting with Clinton, Howe began boarding his army of somewhere between 16,000 and 18,000 soldiers, and another roughly 5000 civilians, aboard a fleet of 267 ships commanded by his brother, Admiral Richard Howe.  The army disembarked from Staten Island, where they had first landed almost exactly one year earlier.  Although the army began boarding ships on July 8, the fleet went nowhere.  Soldiers sat aboard ship for days in the sweltering July heat.  The temperature, the lack of fresh air or fresh food, and seasickness made the time aboard ship unbearable for the soldiers.

 General William Howe
(from Wikimedia)
A week later, on July 15, General Howe received word that General Burgoyne had taken Fort Ticonderoga.  To Howe, like many others, it seemed like the hardest part of Burgoyne’s mission was complete.  The Americans were scattering and Burgoyne should be well on his way to Albany.  Confident that Burgoyne would not need his help, Howe continued his preparations to set sale.  Two days later, he wrote Burgoyne to congratulate him on his success and to confirm that no one would be marching north to meet him.  Howe was confident that Burgoyne could complete his march without assistance.

Around this same time Howe also tried to send a little disinformation to the enemy.  He arranged for a letter to be captured by the Continentals discussing his plans to sail for Boston.  Howe figured that if they believed it, the enemy would move far away from both Burgoyne’s army and his own.  Washington believed none of it.  He was still certain that Howe would send a force up the Hudson river to assist Burgoyne.  Despite intelligence to the contrary, he did not think Howe was stupid enough to abandon Burgoyne in the wilderness of upstate New York with no support.
Finally, on July 20, after leaving his soldiers aboard ship for nearly two weeks, the fleet began to sail out of New York Harbor.  Over the next three days, foul weather and poor winds meant that the fleet went exactly nowhere.  By July 23, they still had not cleared Sandy Hook, New Jersey.  The fleet slowly made its way out to sea, trying to sail beyond the horizon so that no one on land could determine where they were headed.

Where did they go?

With the British fleet out of sight, the Americans had to figure out where they were going so that Washington could march his army to meet them.  Philadelphia remained the best guess for many, although Washington still was not convinced that the fleet was a ruse to get him to march south so that the fleet could return and sail up the Hudson river virtually unopposed.  The famous Culper Spy Ring would not be set up in New York for another year, so intelligence from the city was still sketchy.  Washington could not be sure that intelligence he did receive was genuine or disinformation from the enemy.

The Americans sent scouts to southern New Jersey to keep a lookout for the enemy fleet.  If they intended to sail up the Delaware River to Philadelphia, they should be sighted there first.  Watchmen set up posts at Little Egg Harbor, which is near modern day Atlantic City, and also at Cape May, New Jersey.  At the time, most of this area was uninhabited, except by Indians.  The pine barrens of southern New Jersey, or West Jersey as it was then known, were a largely impassable swampy forest full of dangerous wildlife and outlaws that made passage both slow and risky.  Even so, the teams maintained express riders ready to return to Philadelphia in the event that they sighted the fleet.

HMS Roebuck (from ArtNet)
Because of its remote and largely uninhabited location, Egg Harbor was a known port for smugglers to land goods.  This made it a dangerous area for members of either army.  In late July, a small heavily armed British expedition landed on one of the uninhabited barrier islands near Egg Harbor, where what is today Ocean City, New Jersey.  A couple of the British sailors took the opportunity to desert and found the Americans.  Alerted to the landing, local New Jersey militia captured the remainder of the landing party for interrogation.

It turned out the party was from the HMS Roebuck.  They had landed in search of rum smugglers.  The Roebuck was not part of the fleet, but rather an independent navy ship that had been assigned to the mouth of the Delaware River for many months.  The squad did not send any express riders.  However, rumors about the incident popped up in a Philadelphia tavern the following day. General Thomas Mifflin wrote to Washington that he heard a rumor that 70 ships had been spotted off Egg Harbor, headed for Cape May.  The rumor then metastasized to spread that the British fleet had already entered Delaware Bay.

Washington took the rumor seriously, but still waited for further confirmation.  He wrote back to Mifflin that it was still possible the British wanted to be seen there, then turn around and head back to New York to sail up the Hudson River.  By this time, Washington had moved his army to Flemington, New Jersey, about sixty miles from Philadelphia.  From there, he could still move north or south as needed.

Several days later, on July 30, the Americans at Cape May did spot part of the fleet and sent their express riders to Philadelphia.  Another group of sentries also reported sightings from Cape Henlopen, Delaware, and sent express riders to Philadelphia from there, alerting forces across Delaware as they rode.  Washington received notice the following day.

Alarm in Philadelphia

Philadelphia, of course, was focused on the potential invasion.  One delegate commented “Nothing is said or heard now except war and rumors of war.”  Congress voted to imprison and remove from the city several prominent city leaders who they thought would support the British occupiers.  Among those taken into custody were Governor John Penn and the Chief Justice of the colonial government.   The prisoners were taken west into the back country where they would be out of reach if the British occupied the city.  Congress also issued calls for the militia to turn out for all of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland

Late in the evening of July 31, General Washington arrived in Philadelphia with a small escort, riding ahead of his army.  He rented a room at City Tavern and consulted with members of Congress as to the defense of the city. It was at this time that he was first introduced to the Marquis de Lafayette, who would begin serving as his aide.

Of course, defenses had been well underway for months.  Because Philadelphia was not a coastal town, the only way for a ship to reach it was to travel up the Delaware River.  For the previous two years, patriots had been working to make the river impassable by the British Navy.  Naval ships had already threatened the city several times and been driven back.

Patriots had constructed two forts just below the city, Fort Mifflin sat on Mud Island, near the Pennsylvania side of the river, near where Philadelphia airport is located today.  Across the river in New Jersey, they constructed Fort Mercer at Red Bank.  Any ship passing up the river to Philadelphia would have to pass by the cannons of both of these forts. The Americans were also working on another fort with artillery at Billingsport, a few miles downstream of Fort Mercer.

Chevaux de frise (from Joel Campbell Blog)
The patriots also sunk rows of chevaux de frise into the river so that no ship could simply sail past the forts at full speed.  These were essentially large pointed sticks anchored below the waterline that would puncture the hull of any ship that did not steer clear of them.  There were safe paths through these traps that only local pilots knew.

Pennsylvania maintained a fleet of longboats with mounted cannons.  These boats hid in shallow waters behind islands.  They could row out and fire on ships, then row away before sailing ships could get in position to return fire.  There were a few larger ships as well, but nothing that compared to the larger British ships of the line.

The Americans also planned to use fire-rafts.  These were large wooden vessels, often older ships barely seaworthy or just wooden rafts built for this purpose.  They would be set on fire and set to float downstream.  They could bump into ships moving upstream and set them on fire.  That was the way the British had destroyed the Spanish Armada nearly two hundred years earlier.

As the river narrowed, larger warships had limited maneuverability and were at their most vulnerable.  With news of the fleet’s arrival, all defenses were activated and ready to go into action.

British Bypass the Delaware

Although the British fleet had been far out at sea for over a week, the Howe brothers wanted intelligence on American activities.  As I mentioned, the HMS Roebuck had been patrolling the Delaware Bay for months and actively collected intelligence.  The Roebuck sailed out to meet the fleet so that the ship’s commander, Captain Andrew Hamond could provide Admiral Howe and General Howe with information on the American positions. On the morning of July 30, Hammond informed the Howe Brothers that Washington’s Continentals had crossed the Delaware River and were marching to Wilmington Delaware.  This was not accurate.  Washington was still in New Jersey, miles north of Philadelphia.

Troop Movements 1777 (from Wikimedia)
Hamond did provide more accurate intelligence about the extensive Delaware River defenses that the fleet would have to defeat in order to reach Philadelphia by that route.  Even so, Hamond had a plan to land troops at New Castle Delaware, south of Wilmington.  From there, the armies could march up river, taking out the various river forts that were designed to attack ships, not withstand a land assault.  With the forts destroyed, the fleet could move up the river, take out the small ships and destroy the chevaux de frise and sail into Philadelphia.

Howe listened to the captain but then rejected the plan.  It seems clear that Howe, who knew about the river defenses long before he left New York City, had planned a different approach all along that he did not share with his officers.  Instead of fighting their way up the Delaware River, the fleet would continue to sail south into the Chesapeake Bay.  From there, the army could land in Northern Maryland and march overland to Philadelphia from the south and west.

Howe’s plan had the benefit of being unexpected and bypassing most of the long planned American defenses.  It was, however, unexpected because the plan had a number of problems with it.  First, it meant that the British Army would have to remain aboard ship for at least another couple of weeks.  The men were suffering miserably from their weeks at sea.  Man and animals were already getting sick and dying from the miserable conditions and quantity and quality of food available to them at sea.  This would only get worse if the voyage continued.

Also, it meant that the British would not land until at least the middle of August, and would have a much longer march to Philadelphia than if they had marched from New York City.  The overland march meant they would have to abandon their ships and not have the naval cannons for support.  The Americans would have plenty of time to call out the militia and and use natural defensive barriers to attack the army, just as was happening to Burgoyne’s army in upstate New York.  Even if successful, the campaign would certainly go well into September.  Having any time to help Burgoyne’s army in New York that fall would be completely out of the question.

British cartoon shows Howe Brothers plotting to get rich by
prolonging the war, Oct. 1777 (from British Museum)
Despite these concerns, Howe confirmed that would be his plan.  The fleet continued on its way further south, down the coast.  Except they did not sail directly south.  On August 1, American surveillance at Cape May reported seeing the ships sail away from the coast again, heading east, by northeast.  Washington feared that Howe had sprung his trap.  He had allowed his fleet to be spotted near the Delaware Bay so that Washington had committed most of his army to move south of Philadelphia.  Then, the fleet was going to dash back to New York and sail up the Hudson River to join up with Burgoyne.  Washington issued orders for all armies marching south either to halt, or reverse themselves and begin moving north again.

Much of the Continental Army had marched as far as Germantown, just northwest of Philadelphia. With word that the British might be headed back to New York, Washington ordered these men to march back to Coryell’s Ferry on the Delaware River, north of Philadelphia.  If the British were headed to New York, getting them across the Delaware into New Jersey again would be critical to marching his army north to confront them.

On August 10, Washington left Germantown himself, headed north, setting up his new headquarters in Neshaminy, a small village on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River, near Trenton. It had been more than a week since the fleet was last seen and no one knew what direction it was headed.  That same day, locals reported seeing the fleet off the coast of Maryland, moving south.  But these were unconfirmed reports and Washington was not confident enough to act on them.  Washington remained in Neshaminy, waiting for further intelligence. On August 21, three weeks after the fleet had last been seen, Washington held a council of war with his officer to guess where the fleet might be.  The consensus was that Howe was headed for Charleston, South Carolina and that he planned to recapture the southern colonies.

The next day however, Washington received confirmation that the fleet was, in fact, in the Chesapeake Bay.  With this information, Washington finally committed his army to marching south to meet the enemy south of Philadelphia.  On August 23, he marched his army through Philadelphia, an event I discussed in more detail back in Episode 141.

A few days later, he received word that the British were disembarking at the Head of Elk, Maryland.  Washington finally understood Howe’s plan, and could prepare his defense.

But before we get to that, next week, we will head north again as the British and Americans do battle at Fort Stanwix in upstate New York.

- - -

Next Episode 151 St. Leger Expedition

Previous Episode 149 Lafayette in America

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Further Reading


Mervine, William M. “Excerpts from the Master's Log of His Majesty's Ship ‘Eagle," Lord Howe's Flagship, 1776-1777.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 38, no. 2, 1914, pp. 211–226. JSTOR,

Sullivan, Thomas. “Before and after the Battle of Brandy-Wine. Extracts from the Journal of Sergeant Thomas Sullivan of H.M. Forty-Ninth Regiment of Foot.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 31, no. 4, 1907, pp. 406–418.

W. H. Moomaw. “The Denouement of General Howe's Campaign of 1777.” The English Historical Review, vol. 79, no. 312, 1964, pp. 498–512. JSTOR,

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Kauffman, Gerald J. and Michael R. Gallagher The British Invasion of Delaware, Aug-Sep 1777,, 2013 (Univ. Del. website).

Reed, John Ford Campaign to Valley Forge, July 1, 1777-December 19, 1777, Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1965 (borrow only)

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Harris, Michael C. Brandywine: A Military History of the Battle that Lost Philadelphia but Saved America, September 11, 1777, Savis Beatie, 2014.

Kauffman, Gerald J. and Michael R. Gallagher The British Invasion of Delaware, Aug-Sep 1777,, 2013.

McGuire, Thomas J. The Philadelphia Campaign Vol. 1, Stackpole Books, 2006 (book recommendation of the week).

Reed, John Ford Campaign to Valley Forge, July 1, 1777-December 19, 1777, Pioneer Press, 1980 (orig. Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1965).

Taaffe, Stephen R. The Philadelphia Campaign, 1777-1778, Univ. Press of Kansas, 2003

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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