Sunday, October 11, 2020

ARP170 Battle of Whitemarsh

For the last few weeks, I’ve been neglecting Washington’s army as we finished off Saratoga, spent a couple of weeks with the British Clearing the Delaware, and then last week catching up with the Continental Congress at York.  We last left Washington retreating from his attack at Germantown on October 4, 1777 (see Episode 163).

Whitemarsh (from RevWar US)
After the retreat from Germantown, Washington and his men marched to Lansdale, about twenty miles northwest of Germantown.  In the couple of weeks following the battle, Washington spent most of his time trying to consolidate his army in case there was a counterattack, trying to explain to Congress what had happened, and seeking food and supplies for his increasingly desperate soldiers.

After about two weeks, he moved his army closer to Philadelphia, setting his headquarters at the home of Peter Wentz, about 12 miles from Germantown.  A few weeks after that, on November 2, he moved his army to Whitemarsh, only eight miles from Germantown.  By creeping closer to the British, Washington hoped to draw British attention away from the Delaware River defenses and keep the focus on his army.  If he could keep the British from seizing the forts on the Delaware, he could perhaps keep Howe’s army isolated and without supply lines over the winter.  

As we saw a couple of weeks ago, that did not work.  The British leveled the forts along the Delaware.  The British Navy swept aside the river defenses and reached Philadelphia by late November.

Hamilton Meets with Gates

Washington’s generals were divided on next steps.  Some wanted a second attack on Philadelphia.  Others wanted to withdraw a short distance and give the army time to rebuild and recover.  Whatever the next step, Washington knew he was going to need a larger army if he had to contend with the larger British and Hessian force occupying Philadelphia.

With the victory at Saratoga and the surrender of Burgoyne’s army, much of the northern Continental Army under General  Horatio Gates would be freed up to come help Washington around Philadelphia.  Convincing Gates to give up his army, however, would prove more difficult.  

Washington did not want to put down in a letter the details about his army and its needs.  There was too much danger that correspondence could be captured and turned over to the enemy.  Instead, he sent his twenty year old aide-de-camp, Colonel Alexander Hamilton to apprise Gates personally of the situation and pass along the Commander’s orders to send the bulk of the northern army down to Pennsylvania.  As Washington often did, he left some discretion with Hamilton because he might find different circumstances upon his arrival in Albany that might not make his orders to be the best course of action.

Alexander Hamilton
(from Nat Port Gallery)

Hamilton made the three hundred mile journey to Albany in five days.  Along the way, he stopped at the Peekskill command to give General Israel Putnam similar orders to deploy several brigades to Washington’s command in Philadelphia.

When Hamilton reached Gates on November 5, he called for a meeting right away to convey Washington’s messages.  Gates, who was cocky enough to disrespect Washington by not sending him notice of the victory at Saratoga, was irked at having to listen to orders from a 20 year old messenger boy, sent by the man he thought he should replace.

Gates told Hamilton that he was still concerned that General Clinton might bring another British army up the Hudson River that year and that he needed an army to oppose that danger if it came.  He agreed to send Washington one brigade of about 600 Continentals under the command of General John Paterson.  

After several days of arguing, Hamilton finally asked Gates if he should just go back to Pennsylvania and tell Washington that Gates was refusing to obey any orders to send the soldiers that Washington needed.  Gates finally relented and agreed to send Morgan’s rifles, as well as troops under Generals Poor and Glover.  The reinforcements finally made it to Washington, but not until it was too late to use them for the defenses at Forts Mifflin and Mercer.

It probably did not help relations between Gates and Hamilton that Hamilton was still on very good terms with General Philip Schuyler, Gates’ rival for the northern army.  Hamilton stopped to spend some time with Schuyler, who was by this time, essentially retired from the army with no command of his own.  He was living on his estate near Albany.  It was on this visit that Hamilton had the opportunity to meet Schuyler’s daughter Elizabeth.  Although it does not appear that any sparks flew at this first encounter with the future Mrs. Hamilton.

On Hamilton’s return to Pennsylvania, he discovered that Putnam’s promised reinforcements for Washington had never left Peekskill.  Hamilton had to berate the major general and the general’s aide, Aaron Burr, for their failure to deploy the army.  The main problem though, was not Putnam.  It was that the men refused to march until they got paid.

During his travels, Hamilton got sick with a terrible fever.  He took a few days to recover then continued on his way.  Unfortunately, the sickness got much worse and he needed to return to bedrest.   From some accounts, many witnesses thought the young man was on his death-bed, where he remained for several weeks.  Shortly before Christmas, Hamilton felt well enough to travel and hired a coach to take him back to Washington’s camp.  Again, though, he fell ill and had to return to a sick bed in New York.  He would not make it back to Washington until late January.

Court Martial of Adam Stephen

Meanwhile back at Whitemarsh, Washington’s army settled in and waited for the British to react.  As they waited, the day after arriving at Whitmarsh, November 3, Washington ordered an inquiry into the actions of Major General Adam Stephen.  Stephen faced charges of drunkenness and neglect of duty at the Battle of Germantown.

During the battle Stephen’s and General Anthony Wayne’s troops fired on each other and then fled the field.  Stephen’s chief accuser, Brigadier General Charles Scott, whom Stephen had criticized in his after-battle report to Washington, laid the blame back on Stephen.

Adam Stephen (from SAMS)
Remember that Stephen and Washington knew each other from way back.  Stephen had come to Virginia from Scotland in 1748.  He had served as a surgeon aboard a British Navy vessel during the War of Jenkin’s Ear.  Having settled near Fredericksburg, he became a militia officer and served as Colonel Washington’s second in command of the 1st Virginia Regiment during the Braddock campaign of 1755.  By all accounts, the two men seemed to get along reasonably well at that time.

After the French and Indian War, Stephen and Washington got into competition with each other over some western lands.  They also ran against each other for the House of Burgesses seat in Fredericksburg.  Although Washington won the seat, some have argued that he continued to hold a grudge against Stephen for running against him.

In truth, Stephen had a rough frontiersman persona which the elitist Washington detested.  General Stephen also was not afraid to oppose the commander-in-chief councils of war.  Washington had rebuked Stephen at least twice before.  At Trenton, he had accused Stephen of alerting the British to the surprise attack when he sent a team to attack the Hessians. That team executed the attack without knowing about Washington’s planned attack several hours before the rest of the Continental arrived.  A few months later, Washington criticized Stephen for inflating casualty numbers.

The inquiry led to a full court martial headed by Major General John Sullivan a few days later.  Sullivan had been the subject of his own court martial only a few weeks earlier for his actions at Brandywine and on Long Island.  While Sullivan had been acquitted, Stephen did not fare so well.  Without getting into specific details, the court found him guilty of drunkenness on repeated occasions and conduct unlike an officer.  It recommended Stephen be dismissed from the Army.  On November 20, Washington approved the recommendation.

Stephen appealed to Congress, arguing that “a person of high rank” was out to get him - almost certainly a reference to General Washington.  Nevertheless, Stephen did not have strong political support in Congress.  It upheld Washington’s recommendation and cashiered Stephen.

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Washington gave command of Stephen’s division to General Lafayette.  The young Frenchman had been lobbying heavily for a command.  Washington had been reluctant due to the Marquis’ lack of experience and a concern that if he was killed in battle, it could damage relations with France. Despite these concerns, Washington also expressed an apprehension that if Lafayette did not receive a command, he might resign and go home.  That would also hurt relations with France.  In the end, Lafayette took command of Stephen’s division.

Stephen returned to Virginia, where he remained active in politics.  He would later go on to settle the town of Martinsburg, in what is today West Virginia.

Washington Orders Navy Ships Destroyed

Around this same time Washington ordered the remaining American ships on the Delaware River to be destroyed.  The British Navy was still moving up the Delaware River toward Philadelphia.  Washington feared that the British might capture several vessels that were not quite complete and outfitted for war that had been moved upriver to Bordentown, New Jersey.

John Barry (from Wikimedia)
One of these ships, the Effingham, was commanded by Captain John Barry of the Continental Navy.  At first, Barry resisted orders to sink his ship, and demanded to speak with Washington first.  Barry believed he could still use the ships, and would have the ability to sink it, if needed, at a moment’s notice.

Barry ended up in a huge fight with Congressman Francis Hopkinson of the Marine Committee.  Hopkinson gave Barry the orders to sink his ship, and denied him any time to question the orders.  Barry argued that unless he received orders from the Marine Committee, not just one member acting on his own, he would not destroy the ship.  By most accounts, Hopkinson was arrogant and dismissive of Barry’s position and called him a bunch of names that had, on other occasions, led to duels.

In the end, Hopkinson ordered Barry off his ship and gave the orders himself to sink it.  This led to other problems.  They had planned to sink the ship in such a way that it could be raised later.  Hopkinson’s lack of experience resulted in the ship being sunk irretrievably, even though he reported to Washington that it could be raised later.  The incident became a big deal because it led to Congressional Hearings against Barry in January.  Congress acquitted Barry, I think mostly because they knew their colleague, Hopkinson, could be a bit of an overbearing jerk and put most of the blame for the incident on the way he had handled it.

British Attack Whitemarsh

The Continentals remained at Whitemarsh for a month, daring the British in Philadelphia, only a few miles away, to do something about it.  Finally, on the night of December 4, the British marched out in full force, with about 12,000 soldiers, to take Whitemarsh.  The British easily repulsed an attack by 600 Pennsylvania militia, under the command of General James Irvine before reaching the American defenses.

The surprise attack was not a surprise to Washington.  Several days earlier, General Howe had discussed plans for the attack. Howe had taken a large house near the Delaware River as his headquarters.  He also commandeered the house across the street to use for meetings.  The house for meetings belonged to the Darraghs, a Quaker family.  Although Quakers tended to be loyalists, the Darraghs supported the patriot cause.  Their oldest son was fighting with the patriots outside the city.

Lydia Darragh
(from Britannica)
When Howe’s officers used the home to develop their attack plans for Whitemarsh, Lydia Darragh was forced to remain upstairs in her bedroom so that she could not overhear the plans.  Darragh, however, could hear the discussions from her bedroom closet and heard the necessary intelligence about the attack.  The next day, she obtained a pass to leave town, ostensibly to visit her children who were staying with relatives outside of Philadelphia.  Darragh  then made her way to a tavern outside of town where she could get the message to the Continental army of the imminent British attack.

When the British Army arrived in Whitemarsh in the pre-dawn hours of December 5, they found the Americans ready and waiting behind their entrenchments.  The Americans were getting better at building defenses.  They were on heights behind a swampy land that the attackers would have to cross.  The flanks were covered by abatis and artillery.  The only realistic course of attack for the British was a frontal assault that would be extremely costly if successful.

Instead, the British stopped and set up camp within sight of the Americans.  They hoped to draw out the Americans into an attack.  Washington, however, was not taking the bait.  The Americans remained behind their defenses, watching the British for two days.  Finally, shortly after midnight on December 7, the British packed up and withdrew to Germantown,

From there, they marched west, hoping to move around the American left flank and find a better way to attack.  Their move, however, was not much of a secret.  The British left no forces in front of the lines at Whitemarsh to distract the Americans.  As they marched through small towns, they burned homes, which let everyone know where they were.

Whitemarsh (from Wikimedia)
Howe deployed General Grey’s regulars along with several companies of Hessian jaegers. Joining them was the loyalist regiment known as the Queen’s Rangers, that had recently come under the command of John Graves Simcoe.  This advance column was supposed to probe for weaknesses in the enemy lines.  Instead, they ran into the newly-deployed Morgan’s riflemen who Hamilton had managed to get General Gates to send back to Washington.  Morgan, backed up by the Maryland militia under Mordecai Gist, contested the British advance through the forest, inflicting casualties. 

Not finding any weaknesses in the American lines before dawn, the British paused.  General Howe then ordered the army back to Philadelphia, arriving that evening.  Washington sent out troops to harass the British rear during its retreat, but the British moved so quickly that the Americans never caught up with them.

Overall the attack cost the British nine killed, sixty wounded, and thirty-three missing.  Again, those are British reports, which tend to be notoriously lower than reality.  Other accounts list total British casualties at around 350 dead, wounded, or missing.  American losses came primarily from the Pennsylvania militia who had attacked the British column that first night, and from the engagement with Morgan’s riflemen in the forest on the night of December 7.  Overall the Americans are estimated to have lost about 150 killed or wounded and another 54 captured.

Retreat to Valley Forge

While Washington’s army could withstand the British assault, there were more persistent enemies facing the army: hunger and cold.  Ever since the British took Philadelphia, Washington had been complaining that his soldiers did not have blankets, shoes, tents, and other basic necessities.  There were also rampant food shortages.

Campaign around Philadelphia (from JAR)
Having spent a month at Whitemarsh, the army had ravaged the immediate area of all food, supplies, and wood for fires. These needs became worse with the December cold descending upon the ill-housed and ill-clad soldiers. Washington held a council to decide what to do next.  Several officers wanted to initiate another attack on Philadelphia.  But the majority rejected that, as the men were in no condition for another attack and the British defenses were too well established.  

Others wanted to move the army into winter quarters at Wilmington Delaware, where they could continue to harass British movements on the Delaware River.  That position, however, did not allow a good line of retreat and also opened up an undefended path of attack on York, where Congress was sitting.  In addition, any British movements to the north to link up with New York would also find them out of position.  The army also considered moving to Lancaster, but that was too far from Philadelphia to keep an eye on the British and also would displace a great many civilians who had fled to that area from Philadelphia.

A third option was winter quarters in an area a little further away from Philadelphia. At just over a day’s march, the distance would prevent a surprise attack.  The location was also near a large forested area that would provide firewood and lumber for building cabins for winter quarters.  It was also closer to farming communities that would provide a source of food for the army and had access to the Schuylkill River for water.  

March to Valley Forge (from MOAR)
Washington’s generals were pretty evenly divided on the three locations.  Washington made the decision for the third option: Valley Forge.  The army broke camp at Whitemarsh on December 11.  The men trudged through freezing rain and muddy roads as they made their way to the undisclosed location.

As the column began to cross the river at Matson’s Ford on the Schuylkill River,  it unexpectedly ran into a force of several thousand British soldiers under the command of General Cornwallis.  The British had been out on a large foraging party.  Neither side had expected to see the other.  The British were on the east side of the river.  The surprised Americans quickly retreated back to the western side.  Although Washington’s army far outnumbered Cornwallis’ brigade, it was not prepared for the fight, and allowed the British to escape.  

The Americans reported five killed, twenty wounded and another twenty captured from the advance force that had encountered Cornwallis.  The British reported capturing 160 prisoners after a “stubborn resistance.”

Washington paused his march for a week, sending out groups to look for more British in the area, camping at an area known as the Gulph, or Gulph Mills.  On December 19, finding no more British, the army continued its march to Valley Forge.  It reached its intended destination the following day.

With that, the two armies went into winter quarters, with no more major operations planned until spring.

Next week, we return to France where the King is finally ready to enter into a secret alliance with the Americans.

- - -

Next  Episode 171 The Conway Cabal 

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Further Reading


“From Alexander Hamilton to George Washington, [6] November 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From Alexander Hamilton to George Washington, 10 November [1777],” Founders Online, National Archives,

Drunkard or Dissenter: The Case of Major General Adam Stephen:

“THE STORY OF COMMODORE JOHN BARRY.” The American Catholic Historical Researches, vol. 4, no. 2, 1908, pp. 97–192. JSTOR,

Philadelphia Campaign, Whitemarsh:

Armstrong, John. “‘A Whitemarsh Orderly Book’, 1777.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 45, no. 3, 1921, pp. 205–219. JSTOR, or

Lydia Darragh

“From George Washington to Henry Laurens, 10 November 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives,

“From George Washington to Henry Laurens, 10 December 1777,” Founders Online, National Archives,

Vance, Sheilah  "Valley Forge's Threshold: The Encampment at Gulph Mills" Journal of the American Revolution, Nov. 5, 2019.

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Ford, Worthington C. Defences of Philadelphia in 1777, Brooklyn: Historical Printing Club, 1897.

Jones, Charles Henry Whitemarsh; an address delivered before the Pennsylvania society of Sons of the revolution at Whitemarsh, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, June 19, 1909, Philadelphia, 1909.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Buchanan, John The Road to Valley Forge: How Washington Built the Army that Won the Revolution, Wiley, 2004.

Chernow, Ron Alexander Hamilton, Penguin Press, 2004 (Book recommendation of the week).

Drury, Bob & Clavin, Tom Valley Forge, Simon & Schuster, 2018.

Jackson, John W. Whitemarsh 1777: Impregnable Stronghold, Historical Society of Fort Washington, 1984.

McGrath, Tim John Barry: An American Hero in the Age of Sail, Westholme Publishing, 2010.

McGuire, Thomas J. The Philadelphia Campaign, Vol. 2, Stackpole Books, 2007.

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

Ward, Christopher The War of the Revolution, Macmillan, 1952.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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