Sunday, July 26, 2020

ARP159 Battle of the Clouds

Last week I covered the Battle of Brandywine, which was the major battle both sides had hoped would be decisive.  General Washington had hoped to halt the British advance on Philadelphia.  General Howe hoped to wipe away the American rebels and take their capital.  Howe won the battle and forced the Continentals to retreat, but he did not capture the enemy army.  Washington and the bulk of his soldiers escaped to fight another day.

Brandywine Aftermath

Following the battle, General Howe made no real effort to follow up and crush his opponent.  Instead, the British and Hessian soldiers remained in camp near Brandywine Battlefield for five days.  Remember, the British had only landed in Maryland a little over two weeks earlier.  Most of the soldiers were sick or out of shape after being kept aboard ship for six weeks. Most of their horses had died, and the remainder were in terrible condition.  After fighting a major battle, Howe did not want to push his men too hard.

Gen. William Howe
(from Wikimedia)
Although Howe had tried to put a stop to looting in hopes of winning over the local populace, he was fighting a losing battle.  At least two British soldiers were executed in the days after the battle for looting and marauding.  The British army did spend its time looking for American soldiers in hiding and for stashed supplies.  They also commandeered necessary food, horses, and anything else the army needed from the local population.

Howe deployed General James Grant with a couple of regiments, to look for American stragglers during the Continental retreat.  Grant's men scoured the area, finding little. Without horses, the soldiers on the march could cover little ground.  The feeble horses they had to pull their cannons could barely make it up some of the hills.

The British also had a large number of their own wounded, as well as several hundred wounded American prisoners.  Howe sent a message under a flag of truce inviting him to send doctors to care for the wounded prisoners held by the British.  Several Philadelphia surgeons, including Dr. Benjamin Rush (as signer of the Declaration of Independence) entered British lines under a flag of truce to care for the wounded prisoners.  While there, Rush met with a number of British officers, and spoke with an old friend, Joseph Galloway, who had also been a delegate to the Continental Congress at one time.  Rejecting independence, Galloway had thrown in his lot with the British and was assisting General Howe.  The two men, now enemies, spoke cordially and respectfully to each other.

Continental Retreat

The Continental Army had retreated from Brandywine in relatively good order.  The men were exhausted, but did not panic.  Most of the army marched into the village of Chester for the night.  The next morning, Washington moved his soldiers up to the Schuylkill River where they crossed a pontoon bridge and entered Philadelphia.  Fearing an imminent attack on the city, Washington removed his wounded to Trenton and to other towns north of Philadelphia.  The wounded General Lafayette went to Bethlehem.

George Washington
(from Wikimedia)
The Schuylkill River was the last major barrier separating the British from Philadelphia.  It took the army two days to move across the narrow bridge to the east bank of the Schuylkill.  If the Continentals removed that bridge, there would be no way for the British to cross in the face of the enemy.

Of course, Washington knew that Howe could also move north further upstream and cross where it was easier further up river.  Then Howe could march down and turn Washington’s flank just as he had done on the banks of the Brandywine.  Washington could easily find himself pinned in Philadelphia and forced to surrender his army along with the city.

Washington’s other concern about this position was that his position left Reading exposed.  Reading was a village to the west where the Continental Army had stored a great quantity of food and supplies.  The British would undoubtedly receive intelligence about this supply depot.  Howe could send an army to capture the supplies that his own army needed and deny them to the Continental Army.

So, on September 14, while the British continued to camp near Brandywine for days after the battle, and after Washington had given his army one day’s rest, he provided his soldiers with more ammunition and crossed back over the Schuylkill River.  He crossed further upstream across one of the fords, near what is today called Conshohocken.  Washington put the Continental army in a position where they could contest any British movement to the north, either toward Reading, or to move upstream where the regulars might ford the Schuylkill and take Philadelphia.

British Take Wilmington

With the Continentals on the march, the British remained in camp.  The British spent much of September 12 burying the dead from both sides and tending to the wounded.  They sent out foraging parties to collect food for the army.  On September 13, Howe sent a detachment to capture Wilmington, Delaware.  The local militia there put up no fight, and fled, abandoning their cannons without a shot fired.  The British captured Delaware’s President John McKinly, who had remained in town to oversee the town’s so-called defense.  After taking the town, Howe moved his wounded and his American prisoners to Wilmington as well.

As planned, at least a few ships from Admiral Howe’s navy also reached Wilmington about this time and helped to remove the wounded.  The Continentals still had forts and other defenses that prevented the navy from sailing further upstream to Philadelphia.  But the lower part of the Delaware was relatively open to the British.

Philadelphia Threatened

Although the British Army took its time and Washington prepared to put up another defense once it started to march again, most people feared that Philadelphia would fall within days.  On September 12, Thomas Paine penned his Crisis #4 where he began by noting the loss at Brandywine:
The event of yesterday was one of those kind of alarms which is just sufficient to rouse us to duty, without being of consequence enough to depress our fortitude. It is not a field of a few acres of ground, but a cause, that we are defending, and whether we defeat the enemy in one battle, or by degrees, the consequences will be the same.
Paine went on to point out that with Howe’s limited number of soldiers, being reduced with every battle, he must eventually fail, no matter how many field victories he had.

Thomas Paine
(from Wikimedia)
The Continental Congress began in inquiry into the loss at Brandywine.  It ordered General Washington to open a court of inquiry against General Preudhomme du Boore for his actions at Brandywine.  As you may recall from last week, the Continental general from France had been in command of the left wing on Birmingham Heights.  The soldiers were out of position and ran when attacked.  The fall of the left flank led to the general retreat of all the divisions on Birmingham Hill and could have proven much more disastrous, but for the rear guard action led by General Nathanael Greene.

When informed that he would face a court of inquiry, General de Borre instead submitted his resignation on September 13, blaming his failure on ill-trained and incompetent soldiers.  Congress accepted his resignation the next day.  That would be the end of de Borre’s career in the Continental Army, but not his end in the Revolution.  De Borre returned to France and to his commission as a colonel in the French Army.  A few years later, he would return to America with the French Army after France entered the war.  But that is getting ahead of our story.  For now, de Borre was going home.

Congress also requested General Sullivan, who was supposed to be commanding the division on Birmingham Hill, also be recalled from duty until there could be a court of inquiry.  On this request, Washington demurred.  He needed Sullivan to remain commander of the Maryland troops.  He told Congress that he could not afford to suspend Sullivan or conduct an inquiry at that time because he anticipated another battle within days.  Sullivan would retain his command.  He would face a court martial later that year, not only for Brandywine but also for his actions on Staten Island a month earlier and for other things.  The court martial would acquit Sullivan of all charges and cleared him to return to duty.

Casimir Pulaski

Congress was not just looking for leaders to blame.  They also had praise for many of the commanders at Brandywine.  The Marquis de Lafayette’s battlefield wound only improved the young general’s reputation.  The other foreign hero from Brandywine was Casimir Pulaski.  On September 15, Congress granted Pulaski a commission as a brigadier general in the Continental Army.

Gen. Casimir Pulaski
(from Wikimedia)
I mentioned Pulaski last week when he organized a cavalry charge to halt the British advance and give the rest of the army time to retreat.  Congress had been debating whether to give him a commission since he had arrived in America in late July.  His leadership and daring at Brandywine was enough to convince the delegates that he was the man for the job.

Pulaski had been born in Warsaw in 1745.  At the time, Warsaw was capital of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.  It had a king who was elected by the nobles.  Coming from a noble family, Pulaski was a member of the national elite.  He served as a cavalry officer and grew in reputation.  The King, Stanislaw II Augustus, allied himself with the Russians and sought to turn the country into a Russian protectorate.  Stanislaw cut off alliances with France and Austria, leading to war.  The war went bad for Poland.  Russia, Prussia, and Austria partitioned the country in 1772.

During the war that led to the partition, Pulaski was part of a conspiracy to kidnap the King.  This led to charges of attempted regicide and made him a wanted man throughout Europe.  Pulaski had to flee his homeland, first to Prussia, then to the Ottoman Empire, and then again to France.  He attempted to join other armies, but the criminal charges against him meant that no other king would offer him a commission.

Facing debtors prison, Pulaski heard that American agents in Paris were looking for officers to go fight in America.  He met with Benjamin Franklin and impressed him with his military experience and zeal for liberty.  French officials strongly encouraged Franklin to give Pulaski a commission, and even offered to pay his travel costs to America.  France was eager to get him to leave the country before his presence created an international incident.

Pulaski took Franklin’s recommendation and boarded a ship for America in June 1777.  He arrived in Boston in late July, studying English during his voyage.  After presenting his credentials to Congress in August, he rode off to join the Continental Army without waiting for Congress to act.  He served as an unofficial gentleman volunteer to George Washington in the weeks leading up to Brandywine.

Along with his commission as general, Pulaski served as the Continental Army’s first Cavalry commander with the title “Commander of the Horse.”

Baron de Kalb

Also, on September 15, the same day Congress granted a commission to Pulaski, it also granted a commission as major general to Baron Johannes de Kalb.  Remember that de Kalb had traveled with Lafayette and several other would-be generals to America months earlier, but got caught up in the political dispute over having too many French generals.

Gen. Johann de Kalb
(from Wikimedia)
Congress had offered Lafayette a commission as major general after Lafayette agreed to serve without pay.  Congress left de Kalb and others cooling their heels in Philadelphia while they decided what to do.  In the weeks leading up to Brandywine, Congress had voted not to accept de Kalb’s offer of service.  Delegates then took a few weeks to debate how much to pay for his travel expenses and costs of returning home to France.

In the meantime, de Kalb did a little sightseeing, visiting the Continental medical facilities in Bethlehem.  Lafayette’s performance at Brandywine raised the reputation of French officers generally, and is credited in part with Congress’ change of heart.  It was probably also Lafayette’s strong support for de Kalb, who had been his superior and mentor in the French Army, that contributed to the change.

Congress voted to make de Kalb a major general. When de Kalb received the news of his appointment the following day, he sent a letter rejecting the offer.  Two days later, he had a change of heart and requested several conditions before he would accept his appointment.  One was the request that Congress back date his commission to the date of Lafayette’s.  That way de Kalb would not suffer the indignity of ranking below his former subordinate.  He also wanted the option to return to France if he determined his superiors disapproved of his service in the Continental Army.  He wanted his aide to be commissioned as a Lieutenant Colonel, that he receive a pension, and that his wife receive a pension if he was killed in service.

As a result of these negotiations, de Kalb did not join the army immediately, but remained in Bethlehem, where he remained with the wounded General Lafayette.  He would not accept his commission and join the army until well after the British occupied Philadelphia.

Battle of the Clouds

As Congress debated about officers, General Washington prepared for round two in the British Army’s advance toward Philadelphia.  As I said, the Continentals had retreated across the Schuylkill River.  When the British remained in camp near Brandywine, the Continentals moved back toward the British and prepared to contest any advance.

Troop Movements 
On September 15, General Howe learned that the Continentals had advanced toward his camp and were about ten miles north of his army.  Washington seemed to be daring him to fight another direct battle on open fields, something the British thought they would win every time.  Further, Washington’s forces had fallen to around 10,000 after Brandywine, so Howe had a numerical advantage.

In the early pre-dawn hours of September 16, General Howe assembled his army and began a march to meet the Americans near White Horse Tavern a few miles to the north.  Around 9:00 AM, Washington received word from Pulaski’s cavalry that the British were on the march.  Rather than take up an immediate defensive position, Washington marched his army three miles toward the advancing British.

Around 1:00 PM, General Cornwallis reported that his British regulars had encountered Pulaski’s cavalry and a few hundred militia, who fled as the first shots were fired.  Next, General Knyphausen’s Hessian jaegers ran into Continentals under General Anthony Wayne and William Maxwell.  An American charge unnerved the jaegers, and almost led to the capture of Hessian Colonel von Donop.  British grenadiers provided support to the jaegers and stopped the American advance.

The British formed a line of battle as General Matthews joined Knyphausen in a preparation to attack the Americans.  The Continentals were forced onto muddy ground which made maneuverability of their cannons difficult and was not an advantageous defensive position.  Washington ordered a withdrawal to higher ground, but it looked as though the British would be able to charge the American position before the Ameircans could withdraw.

Then, just as things were looking bleak, the sky darkened and a driving thunderstorm unleashed across the region.  One Hessian officer said that the rain  "came down so hard that in a few moments we were drenched and sank in mud up to our calves."  The wet powder prevented either side from being able to fire their guns.  The thick mud and driving rain made it impossible even to order a bayonet charge.

With the loss of their powder, and given the relatively weak defensive position, General Washington gave the order to withdraw as the worst nor’easter many had ever seen flooded everything.  The Continentals slogged north through the mud and rain, marching about five miles before reaching camp around 10:00 PM.  There, the soldiers spent a miserable wet night in the field before marching back to the Schuylkill River the next day.

The British march north, attempting to get around the American right flank and push the Continentals back against the flooded Schuylkill River.  The two camps eyed each other the next day, but neither seemed ready to re-engage.  By the following day, Friday September 19, the Schuylkill water levels had fallen enough that the Continentals could move across the fords and take up positions on the other side of the river.

Thus, thanks to the weather, what could have become a decisive major battle at White Horse Tavern was called on account of rain.  Both sides suffered about 100 casualties in the early fighting, but no full battle could play out.  The event became known as the Battle of the Clouds.

The British advanced as the Americans tried to remove supplies stored at Valley Forge and other areas around the region.  With their powder destroyed by the rain, it was not clear if the Americans even could put up a defense at the Schuylkill river. Washington directed Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton as one of many officers instructed to remove or destroy supplies that might fall to the enemy.  Hamilton was in the process of doing so when his small unit fell under enemy fire.  The team fled back to a flat bottom boat on the Schuylkill river, exchanging fire with the enemy as they polled back across to the American side.  The British Army was poised to cross the Schuylkill.  Hamilton wrote to President of Congress John Hancock that day: “If Congress have not yet left Philadelphia, they ought to do it immediately without fail, for the enemy have the means of throwing a party this night into the city.

With most of the Continental Army along the east bank of the Schuylkill, Washington left one contingent of soldiers under General Anthony Wayne in the field  on the west bank to harass the enemy and delay their advance.  Wayne’s army camped at a small village called Paoli.

- - -

Next Episode 160 The Paoli Massacre

Previous Episode 159 The Battle of Brandywine

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Further Reading


Virtual Marching Tour, Battle of the Clouds:

Paine, Thomas Crisis #4:

Casimir Pulaski

Johann de Kalb:

Letter From Alexander Hamilton to John Hancock, [18 September 1777]:

Itinerary of George Washington:

Fyers, Evan W. H. “GENERAL SIR WILLIAM HOWE'S OPERATIONS IN PENNSYLVANIA, 1777. The Battle on the Brandywine Creek—11 September—and the Action at Germantown—4 October.” Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, vol. 8, no. 34, 1929, pp. 228–241.

Ecelbarger, Garry “Aggressive Minded Gamblers: Washington, Howe, and the Days between Battles, September 12-16, 1777, Journal of the American Revolution, March 10, 2020:

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.

Battle of the Clouds Battlefield

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Kapp, Friedrich, The life of John Kalb, Major-General in the Revolutionary Army,
New York: H. Holt and Co. 1884.

Manning, Clarence A. Soldier Of Liberty Casimir Pulaski, Philosophical Library, 1945.

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

Smith, John S. Memoir of the Baron de Kalb, Baltimore: J.D. Toy 1858.

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.

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 (book recommendation of the week).

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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