Sunday, March 22, 2020

Episode 141 Congress Returns to Philadelphia

When we last left Congress in the winter of 1776-77, they had fled Philadelphia for Baltimore.  The British in New Jersey had threatened to take Philadelphia and the politicians did not want to be there if that happened.

General Washington, of course, eliminated that threat when he crossed the Delaware, captured the enemy at Trenton and Princeton, then forced the British and Hessians to pull back their front lines to the area of North Jersey around New York City.  With the threat removed, Congress returned to Philadelphia in March 1777.  Not everyone else returned though.  John Adams, in a letter to his wife, noted that “more than one half of the inhabitants removed themselves into the country.  Most of those who remained were Quakers" who Adams called “as dull as beetles.

Debate on the Articles of Confederation

Although everyone expected that British would make another attempt on Philadelphia in the summer of 1777, for the moment there was no emergency.  Congress once again turned its attention to Articles of Confederation, a document that would authorize and define Congress’ authority to do anything.  They did not actually agree on much of anything, but did agree to devote at least two days each week to working out an agreeable plan.  By the end of April, they had agreed to three articles.  One which contained the name of the document, a second which affirmed that each of the separate states retained their sovereignty, and a third, to mutual defense of all states against any outside enemy.  In other words, fighting together in the war that they had already been fighting for two years.

The second article was the only one that proved contentious.  Congress had begun its debates using draft articles submitted by John Dickinson.  The Dickinson draft envisioned a more powerful national government that would handle most matters, leaving states only control over their internal affairs.  The delegates rejected this approach.  Instead, the majority viewed Congress as an international assembly of separate states.  They would work together for mutual defense.  They might unanimously agree to do some other things in cooperation, but there was no way a state could be forced by the others to do anything it did not want to do.

Over the next few months, the delegates debated what additional powers the states should give to the Congress, but could not agree on much of anything.  Once again the most contentious issues were over voting and representation, whether states should be represented by population or with equal representation for each state.  These debates pushed on for months, when in July, Congress once again voted to table debates on the Articles since they could not reach any consensus.  Congress would just continue to operate without any guiding document.

Flag Day

Congress took up other various matters on other issues during this same time.  On June 14, 1777, it passed a resolution saying “That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”  That is why we celebrate Flag Day on June 14.

Hopkinson Flag (from Wikipedia)
Back in Episode 89, I talked about the story of Betsy Ross creating the first flag in May 1776.  I mentioned at the time that there was no good contemporary evidence of the Betsy Ross story being true.  The story comes from Ross family lore and was not written down until decades after all the contemporaries were dead.  It is still quite possible that the story is true.  The flag’s creation was not a momentous event that would necessarily be recorded at the time.  There was no record of it being flown at that time, and congress did not authorize as the official flag until 1777.

Congress’ main purpose for the resolution in 1777 was to create a standard ensign for naval ships.  It did not specify that the stars on the flag be put in a circle.  There are some flags from that time that have different star designs.  The first mention of the sight of the new flag came a few months later, in August 1777.  Making Flag Day a day of celebration did not become a thing until more than a century later, after the Civil War.

First Independence Day Celebration

Congress was ready for one celebration.  At the end of the day on July 2, Congress adjourned for two days to celebrate the first anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.  On July 4, 1777 Congress and all of Philadelphia celebrated.  Warships and gallies gathered at Philadelphia decorated in red, white and blue, and with streamers.  Each of the ships fired a thirteen gun volley in honor of the thirteen independent states.  A newspaper article reported that
The evening was closed with the ringing of bells, and at night there was a grand exhibition of fireworks, which began and concluded with thirteen rockets on the commons, and the city was beautifully illuminated. Every thing was conducted with the greatest order and decorum, and the face of joy and gladness was universal. Thus may the 4th of July, that glorious and ever memorable day, be celebrated through America, by the sons of freedom, from age to age till time shall be no more.
According to another report, a band made up of Hessian POWs from Trenton played for crowds in Philadelphia that day as well.

New Generals

Another contentious issue for Congress was the promotion of generals.  That spring, Congress commissioned a few more brigadier generals: George Clinton of New York, Edward Hand of Pennsylvania, Charles Scott of Virginia, Ebenezer Learned of Massachusetts, and Jedediah Huntington of Connecticut.

Gen. Edward Hand
(from Rock Ford Plantation)
During the Baltimore session, Congress had agreed to give primary consideration to three factors when promoting generals.  One was merit.  The second was seniority. The third was the numbers of troops supplied by each state.  In other words, a state that provided more soldiers to the army should get more general officers.  Of course, each of these were general factors, with no firm rule on how they should be applied or even how much weight each would be given.  So it really did not solve anything.

But whatever little value the resolution had got thrown out the window when French officers began to arrive with notes from the American Commissioners in Paris promising them commissions and officers in the Continental Army.  These men had no seniority, were not from any state that supplied troops, and whose merit was a matter of debate.  Most did not even speak English.  In March, after receiving word of dozens of French officers making their way to America, Congress passed a resolution saying that unless the officer had mastered English and had top recommendations, he would not be accepted.  The problem was, Congress could not simply anger French officers who had taken the trouble to come across the ocean to America with promises already made. Turning them away would possible ruin chances of forming a military alliance with France. In the spring of 1777 many of the French officers promised commissions as general or other high ranking officers arrived in America.

Up until this time the only French general in the Continental army was Mattias de Fermoy.  He was the soldier of fortune who somehow sailed to America from the French West Indies in late 1776.  To this day, we know nothing about his real background before coming to America.  He claimed to be a colonel of engineers in the French army, although there are no records of his service.  I mentioned him in Episode 125 when he commanded a small force near Trenton, and at the first sight of the enemy, ran away, abandoning his soldiers.  People were beginning to suspect he was a fraud, but for now was still serving.  Many by 1777 were ready to consider any Frenchmen claiming titles and experience to be imposters.

Conway and de Borre

Silas Deane, however, had already approved dozens of French officers to serve in America.  Many of them attempted to sail in December 1776 aboard the three ships that Deane and his French partner Beaumarchais had packed full of supplies and planned to sail out of La Havre.  I mentioned this back in Episode 115, when the British Ambassador Lord Stormont caught wind of the venture and forced foreign minister Vergennes to shut the whole thing down.  Only one ship got out, but it turned around and got blocked as well.

Most of the officers looked for another option.  The first one to make it successfully was Lieutenant Colonel Philippe Hubert Preudhomme de Borre.  He arrived in Portsmouth, NH on March 17, 1777 aboard the Mercure, one of Deane’s supply ships that was able to make its way to America.  In April, Congress approved de Borre’s commission, and backdated de Borre’s date of commision as brigadier to December 1, 1776.  This retroactively put him ahead of sixteen other brigadiers who had received commissions since then.

De Borre was almost 50 years old.  He had fought as a cavalry officer in the War of Austrian Succession, where he was badly wounded and lost the use of one hand.  Although still an active officer in the Seven Years War, there is no record of his active participation in any battles.  Before leaving for America, he was serving as an artillery brigadier, an area the Continentals needed experienced officers.  He took command of a brigade of mostly Maryland regiments, along with one from Quebec, which was made up of many French-speaking soldiers.

A month later, another of Deane’s supply ships, the Amphritrite, arrived in Portsmouth, this time carrying to men holding commissions as generals Thomas Conway as brigadier and Philippe Charles Tronson du Coudray as a major general. The Amphritrite was the ship that had gotten away in December, but then returned back to France a few days later.  It finally slipped out of France at the end of January, and made a difficult three month voyage to New Hampshire. The officers then made their way overland to Philadelphia to present their credentials.

Gen. Thomas Conway
(from Wikimedia)
I mentioned Conway last week when he commanded troops at the battle of Short Hills, but did not give any background on him at that time.  Conway was born an Irish Catholic.  His family moved to France when he was a child to escape the restrictions put on Catholics in Ireland.  Conway joined the French Army at age 14 in France’s Irish Brigade, a special group for Irish expats serving in France.  Through his service, he rose to the rank of colonel.  Because Conway was not only an experienced officer, but also spoke English, Congress approved his commission as brigadier in May, just a few weeks after his arrival.  Conway entered service as an infantry commander.

Coudray was another matter. Deane had offered him command of artillery and engineering for the Continental Army.  The current commander, General Henry Knox, made clear he that would resign from the army if Congress put him under the command of Coudray.  Congress spent most of the summer debating what to do with him.  Coudray busied himself by advising on the Delaware River defenses protecting Philadelphia from a naval invasion.

Finally in August, nearly four months after he arrived in America, Congress offered Coudray a commission as a major general, but with the understanding that he would not be part of the command structure.  Instead Congress created a new position of "Inspector General of Ordnance and Military Manufactories" where he could advise on matters, but not issue orders.  Coudray reluctantly accepted the position, figuring he could make his way into command after proving his worth in the field.

There were a bunch of other French officers I neglected to mention because even just limiting myself to naming the generals is throwing a bunch of names out that no one will remember.  I’ll make one exception to that rule and also note that Louis Duportail received a commission in July as a Continental colonel and commander of engineers.  I made an exception for him since he would be promoted to brigadier in a few months and has one of the longest and most successful roles of all the French officers in the Continental Army.  But Congress was also receiving dozens of French officers who had been promised commissions as colonels, majors and captains.

The French Keep Coming

While Congress was still deciding what to do, more than a dozen other French officers made it to Philadelphia holding promises of commissions granted by Silas Deane in Paris.  Three of the officers had been promised commissions as major generals.  Initially, Congress just said no.  They did not want more general officers who could not speak English.  That just created too many problems.

Gen. Johann de Kalb
(from Wikimedia)
The French officers persisted in making their case. One of the most persistent was the least experienced officer, the nineteen year old French captain named Gilbert du Motier.  Although the boy had no combat experience, he had been an officer since the age of thirteen when his family obtained a lieutenant’s commission.  Since his family was very well connected to the French King, Congress did not want to insult him.  Probably most importantly, he offered to serve without pay.  By the end of July, Congress opted to make this young man a major general in the Continental Army.  So du Motier, better known by his aristocratic title, the Marquis de Lafayette, received his commission on July 31, 1777.

With Lafayette were two more senior officers and would be major generals. General Johann De Kalb, a German-born officer in the French army, was the most senior officer to travel to America. He and Colonel Charles-Louis, vicomte de Mauroy both expected to be made major generals. Unlike Lafayette, both very much expected to get paid.  Instead, Congress dithered and left these men cooling their heels in Philadelphia for the rest of the summer.

I want to devote an entire episode to Lafayette’s backstory in a few weeks.  So I’ll get more into the story of these other men at that time.

Arnold Comes to Philadelphia

Congress took care of one other important piece of business regarding generals.  After receiving word of Benedict Arnold’s brave leadership during the Danbury Raid (see Episode 135), Congress finally promoted him to major general on May 2.  For Arnold, this was too little, too late.  We went from being the most senior brigadier general to the most junior major general, meaning the promotion did nothing to change his place in the command structure.

Gen. Benedict Arnold
(from Lake Champlain)
After receiving word of his promotion, Arnold traveled to Philadelphia to meet directly with Congress.  He brought with him a pamphlet published by one of his enemies, Colonel John Brown which ended famously with an accusation levied against Arnold: “Money is this man’s god, and to get enough of it he would sacrifice his country.”  Arnold thought such scurrilous attacks were the reason Congress had been reluctant to promote him and wanted a hearing to challenge such accusations.

The Board of War, headed by John Adams, allowed Arnold to give testimony at a committee meeting on May 21, that ran well into the night.  It was not the full hearing Arnold wanted, but did give him the chance to tell his side of things directly to members of Congress.  Two days later, the Board of War presented a report to Congress exonerating Arnold of the charges against him.  Congress, however, refused to act on restoring Arnold’s seniority.  After nearly two months of waiting, Arnold had enough and submitted his resignation to Congress.

Before Congress could act, it also received a letter from General Washington informing Congress that the British had begun their invasion of upstate New York.  Washington recommended that Arnold be sent immediately to help defend against this invasion.  Arnold asked that his resignation request be put on hold and rushed off to fight another battle in defense of his country.

On August 8, after Arnold had left for New York, Congress finally took up the resolution to adjust Arnold’s seniority, and voted against it, overwhelmingly.  Even John Adams, who seemed to have a good impression of Arnold voted no.  The main reason seemed to be that Arnold was pressuring them to do it.  Congress thought such pressure was inappropriate.  As Arnold fought the battles of Saratoga, Congress denied his request for seniority.

Leaving Philadelphia, Again 

Shortly after its independence day celebrations, Congress received word of the British capture of Fort Ticonderoga and that British General Johnny Burgoyne was marching south through New York’s Mohawk Valley.  A few weeks later, Congress learned that British General Howe had left New York and then landed in Maryland where he would assault Philadelphia from the south.

General Washington marched his army from New Jersey toward the British.  On August 24, 1777, just days after confirmation that Howe’s fleet was in the Chesapeake Bay, the Continental Army marched through the streets of Philadelphia on their way south.  This was a bit of theater by General Washington.  He wanted to impress the city and Congress with his army of around 12,000 men.

Washington gave orders the night before to make sure the officers and men were ready to march smartly through the city street carrying their arms smartly.  The army marched down Front Street to Chestnut, then across the city, marching right past Independence Hall toward the Schuylkill River.

Wagons with baggage and extra ammunition, as well female camp followers were redirected around the city and would not march through Philadelphia along with the soldiers.  Orders also prohibited officers and men from stepping out of line for any reason during the march through the city, on punishment of 39 lashes to be carried out at camp the next night if they did.

John Adams was not overly impressed by the sight of the army.  In a letter to Abigail later that day, he wrote:
The Army, upon an accurate Inspection of it, I find to be extreamly well armed, pretty well cloathed, and tolerably disciplined….—Much remains yet to be done. Our soldiers have not yet, quite the Air of Soldiers. They dont step exactly in Time. They dont hold up their Heads, quite erect, nor turn out their Toes, so exactly as they ought. They dont all of them cock their Hats—and such as do, dont all wear them the same Way.
Adams when on to say that with the army now between the enemy and Philadelphia, he felt as safe there as he would in Braintree.  That sense of safety did not last long.  General Howe fought a series of battles that fall, which will all be topics of future episodes.  By September, Philadelphia was about to fall to the British army.  Congress once again had to flee the city.  This time they went first to York, Pennsylvania which is about 65 miles west of Philadelphia, then to Lancaster, which is another 20 miles further west, and across the Susquehanna River.  Congress would remain there for the course of the British occupation of Philadelphia.

- - -

Next Episode 142 Disease and the Revolution

Previous Episode 140 The Battle of Short Hills

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Further Reading 


First Fourth of July Celebration:

John Brown warns about Arnold:

Procknow, Gene "Personal Honor and Promotion among Revolutionary Generals and Congress" Journal of the American Revolution, January 23, 2018

Continental Generals by Date of Commission:

Kite, Elizabeth S. “LaFayette and his Companions on the Victoire” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, vol. 45, no. 1, 1934, pp. 1–32. JSTOR,

Kite, Elizabeth S. “LaFayette and his Companions on the Victoire(Continued).” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, vol. 45, no. 2, 1934, pp. 144–178. JSTOR,

Kite, Elizabeth S. “LaFayette and his Companions on the Victoire (Continued).” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, vol. 45, no. 3, 1934, pp. 212–245. JSTOR,

Kite, Elizabeth S. “LaFayette and his Companions on the Victoire (Continued)” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, vol. 45, no. 4, 1934, pp. 275–311. JSTOR,

Letter, John Adams to Abigail Adams, August 24, 1777, Founders Online, National Archives,

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Journals of Congress,Vol. 3 January 1, 1777 - January 1, 1778.

Adams, John Quincy Life of General Lafayette, Napis & Cornish 1847.

Crow, Martha Foote Lafayette, The MacMillan Company, 1918.

Headley, P. C. The Life of the General Lafayette, Marquis of France, General in the United States Army, etc., C. M. Saxton, 1860.

Howe, Archibald Murray Colonel John Brown, of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, the Brave Accuser of Benedict Arnold, Geo. H. Ellis Co. 1908.

Kapp, Friedrich The Life of John Kalb, Major-General in the Revolutionary Army, H. Holt & Co. 1884.

Lowery, Robert A Complete History of the Marquis de Lafayette, self-published, 1826

Smith, John Spear Memoir of the Baron de Kalb, Maryland Historical Society, 1858.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Leepson, Marc Lafayette, Lessons in Leadership from the Idealist General, Palgrave-MacMillion, 2011.

Montross, Lynn The Reluctant Rebels, Harper & Brothers, 1950.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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