Sunday, September 20, 2020

ARP167 Defending the Delaware

Following the battle of Germantown, the British Army’s position in Philadelphia seemed secure.  About two weeks after the battle, General Howe evacuated Germantown and moved his army closer to Philadelphia.  The 15,000 regulars and Hessians packed together behind entrenched lines that Washington’s army could not hope to break.  

Although Washington would not attempt to force another attack on occupied Philadelphia, the Continentals still could create problems for Howe.  As they had done when the British occupied Boston and New York, they prevented the occupiers from roaming the rural areas around the city to collect food, forage, and other supplies.  In both Boston and New York, the navy could make up for this loss by shipping in supplies from elsewhere.  But in October 1777, the British Army in Philadelphia, and the British Navy, still gathering at the mouth of the Delaware River, could not link up with one another.  

River Defenses

Since the outbreak of war, the Americans had fortified their defenses on the Delaware River to prevent a naval attack.  The lower part of the river was much wider, making it more difficult to defend.  But once a ship travels upriver north of the Delaware-Pennsylvania border, the river narrows, making larger sailing ships much less maneuverable.

Survey by Capt. Montresor
of the approach to Phila.
(from Journal of Am. Rev.)
The Americans set up a series of forts and river defenses that would prevent the approach of any fleet to Philadelphia. The first spot was at Billingsport, which was on the New Jersey side of the river, several miles south of Philadelphia.  It is actually near where the southern border of Philadelphia is now, but Philadelphia was much smaller in the 1770's.  At that point, the river narrowed and there was a slight bend, making it difficult for ships to navigate.

To make it more difficult, the Americans sank several chevaux de frise into the river.  A cheval de fries is basically a tree with all the branches removed.  The tip is sharpened and usually covered with an iron tip to make it into a giant spear.  The other end is then attached to a big box of rocks and sunk into the river.  Any wooden ship sailing into this would be punctured and likely would sink.  

Since the weapons were beneath the water, a ship needed a pilot who knew where they were to maneuver around them to get upriver.  Also, ships would have to sail near the New Jersey side of the river to get past.  The Americans erected a fort there at Billingsport to fire on any ships trying to pass without permission.

If a fleet got past this first defense, it next had to move a few miles upriver to get past Forts Mercer and Mifflin.  Again, the Americans sunk chevaux de frise into the river and put forts on both sides.  Fort Mercer sat on the New Jersey side at Red Bank plantation.  The land was owned by a local Quaker named James Whitall.  Generally, Quakers were considered Tories, but they often did not actively support either side.  Mostly, they just tried to stay out of the war as pacifists. James’ wife Ann had a brother who served in the Continental Congress, so the Whitalls were not particularly hostile to the patriot cause.  

In any event, the government set up a fort on their land, right next to their house.  The purpose of the fort was to house cannons that would prevent any hostile ships from moving upriver.

On the Pennsylvania side of the river the Americans established Fort Mifflin.  This was actually on an island known as Mud Island, separated from the mainland by a smaller branch of the river.  Fort Mifflin also mounted cannons to fire on ships, thus subjecting any enemy fleet to a deadly crossfire from both forts if they attempted to move upriver while avoiding the chevaux de frise in the river itself.  

If that was not enough, the Americans built a fleet of small gunboats.  These were basically large rowboats with a cannon or two mounted on it.  The boats could hide in the shallows behind Mud Island and row out when needed.  Because large sailing ships could not maneuver easily.  These smaller ships could row out, fire a shot, and then row away before the enemy could get in place to return fire.  There were also a few Continental Navy ships to supplement this fleet.  Finally, the Pennsylvania Navy had constructed a series of fire rafts.  These were basically large rafts that would be set on fire and floated down toward an enemy fleet, in hopes of causing some damage or chaos.

The British Navy had ships that had made advances up the river since the outbreak of war.  They were well aware of these defenses, and opted not to take them on directly.  That was one reason why the British opted not to sail up the Delaware for Howe’s attack on Philadelphia, but instead spent weeks sailing down to the Chesapeake in order to land at Head of Elk, Maryland.

Of course, as I said, these defenses did not really begin until one got into Pennsylvania.  Historians have questioned for years why the British fleet did not simply sail up to Wilmington, Delaware, disembark the army there, and then march to Philadelphia.  If they had done so, the army could have landed weeks earlier and at a spot much closer to Philadelphia than their landing in Maryland.

After Admiral Howe unloaded the army in the Chesapeake, he had no trouble sailing his fleet out of the Chesapeake and up the Delaware River to Wilmington by early October.

John Montresor

One of the British officers tasked with getting past these defenses was John Montresor.  Captain Montresor was quite familiar with the defenses because he had been responsible for building Fort Mifflin before the war.

John Montresor
(from Wikimedia)
Montresor is an interesting character who deserves an introduction.  He was present for most of the important events in the first part of the war.

Born at Gibraltar, Montresor was the son of Colonel James Montresor who was also a military engineer.  John grew up following his father around the world.  He did spend four or five years at school in London, but mostly grew up living at various military outposts.

In 1754, eighteen year old Ensign Montresor traveled to America with his father.  He served on the Braddock campaign along with men like Thomas Gage and Charles Lee, and a colonial officer named George Washington, as the British attempted to capture Fort Duquesne, in what is today Pittsburgh.  Montresor was wounded in that battle and also made lieutenant.  He received a commission as an engineer and participated in the Sieges of Louisbourg and Quebec during the French and Indian War.  Montresor led a relief force to Fort Detroit during Pontiac's Rebellion.  He also designed and oversaw construction of fortifications at Fort Niagara and Fort Erie.

When the French and Indian War ended, Captain Montresor remained in America, living in New York.  He bought an island in the East River.  He did survey work and constructed various military fortifications in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and the Bahamas.  Among these was a fort on Mud Island in the Delaware River, constructed in 1771 to provide defenses for Philadelphia.

When the war began in 1775, Montresor was in Boston.  He participated in the relief force that rescued British regulars returning from Concord. The following year, he was a part of the invasion of New York and the Battle of Long Island.  Montresor met with Continental Captain Nathan Hale the night before he was hanged.  He went on to participate in the fight over New Jersey in early 1777.

Captain Montresor accompanied General Howe in the landing at Head of Elk.  Some attribute Montresor’s description of the Delaware River defenses as convincing General Howe to land in the Chesapeake.  Montresor participated in the Philadelphia Campaign, including the Battle of Brandywine.  After the British took Philadelphia, Montresor was tasked with destroying the Delaware River defenses that he had helped to build.

American Defense

Traditionally, the Delaware river had no real defenses.  When William Penn founded the city of Philadelphia, he was decidedly anti-military and wanted to trust in God for the city’s defense.  His largely Quaker legislature continued to hold that position.  It was not until 1772 that the colony, largely due to the support of Benjamin Franklin, built the defenses on Mud Island that became known as Fort Mifflin.  Although British Captain Montresor helped design and construct the fort, it was manned by colonists and became a patriot controlled fort upon the outbreak of war.

The Roebuck with other British Ships
(from Wikimedia)
The British first tested American defenses in May 1776 when two British navy ships, the Roebuck and the Liverpool attempted to sail up the Delaware.  Their encounter with patriot gunships and the Reprisal under Captain Lambert Wickes, forced them to withdraw.  For the next year, British ships would linger around Delaware Bay, attempting to capture ships entering or leaving the river, but they did not venture up toward the city again, even while General Howe’s army was threatening the city from New Jersey in late 1776.

The Americans attempted to beef up the river defenses in 1777.  The ranking Continental Navy officer on the river was John Barry.  Pennsylvania also had its own navy under the command of John Hazelwood.  The Continental Congress gave overall command to Hazelwood, who also commanded the Continental ships on the river.  Pennsylvania gave him the rank of Commodore.  Some sources say he also received an equivalent rank in the Continental Navy, but I can find no record of that.

Hazelwood was an English-born merchant who had moved to Philadelphia as a young man.  He was serving as a captain of Philadelphia merchant vessels by the mid 1750s.  As early as July 1775 Hazelwood was working with the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety to begin developing the Delaware River defenses.

John Hazelwood
(from Wikimedia)
Hazelwood, however, did not have a free hand to create defenses however he liked.  He had to work with varied and sometimes conflicting interests between the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety, the Continental Congress, the Continental Navy, the Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware militia, and the Continental Army.  Within all those groups, there were different individuals who all seemed to operate on their own, each with different priorities and opinions on the best way to defend the river.

When Tadeusz KoĹ›ciuszko first arrived in American in late 1776, he began work on the fort at Billingsport.  He did this before Congress gave him a commission. Before he finished, the Continental Congress granted his commission and sent him off to Fort Ticonderoga.  Over the summer of 1777, French officer Philippe du Coudray also went to Billingsport, again to consult on the defenses there.

Du Coudray thought the Billingsport location was much better suited to defense than the other defenses at Forts Mercer and Mifflin further upriver.  He found that the river was narrower at Billingsport and a floating battery on a shallow area behind an island on the other side of the river provided supporting fire.  The fort itself, however, was entirely inadequate.   Du Coudray wanted 2000 laborers to build up defensive walls, and a total of 30 cannons along with artillery crews and a garrison to defend the fort itself against a land assault.

By this time, however, Washington was more concerned about the British landing an army and did not want to pour more resources into building up Billingsport.  Instead, he encouraged the use of the primary defenses at the already established at Forts Mifflin and Mercer.

Naval Battle at Philadelphia

On September 27, the day after the British Army first marched into Philadelphia, the Continental Navy struck at the city.  The Continental Navy ships, the Delaware, and the Fly, as well as the Pennsylvania ship the Montgomery and some smaller gunboats, sailed up the Delaware River to Philadelphia.  Captain Charles Alexander sought to deliver a warning note to the British.  Earlier that day Commodore Hazelwood had instructed Alexander to deliver the note if he saw the British constructing any batteries along the river.  It would contain a warning that unless the British would cease and desist the Americans would fire on them.

The Delaware attacked Philadelphia, leading to its
capture by the British (from US Naval Institute)
I’m not sure why Hazlewood felt that such a warning was necessary in the middle of a war, but it probably had to do with his concern over firing on Philadelphia and perhaps wounding or killing innocent civilians. As Captain Alexander approached the Philadelphia wharf, the newly installed British batteries opened fire on his fleet.  

A brief firefight ensued.  Most of the American fleet returned downstream to Fort Mifflin. The largest ship, however, the Delaware, ran aground under heavy British artillery fire.  The British cannons took out the main mast, wounded six of the crew and killed one.  Captain Alexander was forced to surrender.  He and his crew were taken prisoner.  His officers were imprisoned in Independence Hall, from which they would escape several months later.

The capture of the Delaware, gave the British a 28 gun frigate that was upriver from the American defenses.  Two other American ships, the Effingham and the Washington, under the commands of John Barry and Thomas Read, had sailed upriver to Burlington, New Jersey the day before the British took Philadelphia.  Both of these ships were larger, but had still been under construction and did not have armaments to go into battle.  

The Americans feared that the British might sail up and capture both of these ships as well.  If the British were able to assemble a small fleet of ships upriver of the American defenses, and that fleet worked in concert with the British fleet downriver, it could make the American defenses much more difficult.  The British, however, did not go after the other ships and were content to hold Philadelphia and await the British fleet.  The fear of these other ships being captured, however, was a big source of concern for the American leadership.

Fort Billingsport

It had taken the British Navy more than a month to complete its deployment at the Head of Elk in the Chesapeake, then sail back around to the Delaware Bay and make its way upriver.  By early October 1777, about the same time the Continental Army was attacking the British at Germantown, American observers were reporting dozens of British Naval vessels entering Delaware Bay and making their way upriver.  

The British made their way up to New Castle, Delaware and Chester, Pennsylvania with little resistance.  The first real threat to the fleet came at Fort Billingsport.  There, as I said, the Americans had sunk several lines of chevaux de frise in the river and maintained the fort to fire on any vessel trying to work its way around them.

British Operations (from Wikimedia)
Before assaulting the fort, Admiral Howe sent a message to Commodore Hazelwood, calling on him to surrender his fleet.  I don’t know if Howe seriously thought there was a real chance that the Americans would surrender without a shot fired, but I guess he figured it was worth asking.  Hazelwood, of course, declined the offer of surrender and continued his preparations for battle.

About this same time Commodore Barry received a more secretive offer.  A messenger, whose identity was never made known, met with Barry aboard the Effingham, which was still in hiding up north of Philadelphia.  The messenger conveyed a British offer of 15,000 guineas to Barry if he sailed down to Philadelphia and surrendered his ship.  Further, Barry received an offer of a commission in the British Navy and could continue to command the Effingham in his majesty’s service.  Conjecture is that the offer was delivered by one of Barry’s in-laws, several of whom were known Tories.  These relatives were, by this time, working for the British in Philadelphia.  As Barry later told the story, he lost his temper and ordered the man off of his ship.

At the same time, Admiral Howe assumed his overtures would be rejected and continued his planning and preparations to retake the river by force.  Howe conferred with Captain Andrew Hamond of the Roebuck.  Hamond had been trolling the waters of the lower Delaware for several years and was the naval officer most familiar with the current state of American defenses.

Hamond told Howe that he would be able to work his way past the chevaux de frise in the river if Howe could take out Fort Billingsport and prevent any artillery harassment from there.  Until that was clear, Admiral Howe kept the bulk of his fleet further downriver, avoiding a direct engagement.

On October 2, the navy assisted two regiments of regulars under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Stirling to cross the Delaware to the New Jersey side.  Stirling had been tasked with the capture of Fort Billingsport.  By October, there were very few Americans left to defend the fort. General Washington had recalled almost all troops in the area to join his army in  Pennsylvania, first for the land defense of Philadelphia and then for the attack at Germantown.  As a result, there were only a couple of hundred militia at the fort for its defense.  

Further, the fort had never implemented the defenses recommended by General du Coudray.  Its walls and entrenchments had not been completed and would not stand up to much of a defense.  The fort commander, Pennsylvania militia Colonel William Bradford deployed a cannon  and several dozen militia to confront the advancing regulars.

Billingsport Evacuation (from Marine Shop)
He then used what time he had to evacuate as many guns and supplies as he could, moving them on boats to the Pennsylvania side of the river.  He spiked the cannons that he could not transport and set fire to the fort and all of its buildings.  By the time Stirling’s regulars arrived a few hours later, Billingsport was an abandoned burning ruin.

The British had succeeded in eliminating the threat of cannon fire from Fort Billingsport.  Captain Hamond then set about removing the chevaux de frise from the river and creating a path for the British Navy.  The Americans floated fire rafts down the river at night in an attempt to force the British to withdraw.  The British were able to prevent the fire rafts from doing any harm, and within a few days had cut a hole through the American underwater defenses.  They moved six ships north of Billingsport.  The next barrier separating them from Philadelphia was the defenses at Forts Mifflin and Mercer.

We will get to that next week when we cover the Battles of Forts Mifflin and Mercer.

- - -

Next  Episode 168 Forts Mercer and Mifflin 

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First Do No Harm

by K. S. Avard (Releases Sept. 25, 2020).

In 17th Century Vienna, a local watchman discovers a dead body outside of Stephansdom Cathedral.  He soon realizes that the black plague is sweeping across the city.  He must determine: Is there a medical cure that will stop this illness from devastating the population? or is the plague the result of other-worldly beings bringing God’s wrath to a sinful people?

Author Kurt Avard takes readers on a journey through a society still emerging from medieval Europe to embrace enlightenment.  The struggle between religion and science breaks into open warfare as a determined group searches for a way to end this terrible suffering.  First, Do No Harm releases on September 25, 2020.  Pre-order your book on Amazon today.

Further Reading



Balderston, Marion. “Lord Howe Clears the Delaware.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 96, no. 3, 1972, pp. 326–345. JSTOR,

Coudray, Du. “Du Coudray's ‘Observations on the Forts Intended for the Defense of the Two Passages of the River Delaware’, July, 1777.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 24, no. 3, 1900, pp. 343–347. JSTOR, or on

Leach, Josiah Granville. “Commodore John Hazlewood, Commander of the Pennsylvania Navy in the Revolution.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 26, no. 1, 1902, pp. 1–6. JSTOR,

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,

William Bradford:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

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

Adolphus, John The History of England, from the Accession to the Decease of King George the Third, Vol. 2, London: J. Lee, 1840 (p. 457-59). 

McGeorge, Isabella C & McGeorge, Wallace Ann C. Whitall, the heroine of Red Bank, Gloucester County Historical Society (N.J.) 1917.

McGeorge, Wallace The Battle of Red Bank, resulting in the defeat of the Hessians and the destruction of the British frigate Augusta, Oct. 22 and 23, 1777, Camden: Sinnickson Chew, 1905.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Anderson, Lee Patrick Forty Minutes by the Delaware: The story of the Whitalls, Red Bank Plantation, and the battle for Fort Mercer, Universal Publishers, 1999.

Dorwart, Jeffery, M. Fort Mifflin of Philadelphia: An Illustrated History, Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.

Jackson John W. The Pennsylvania Navy, 1775-1781: The Defense of the Delaware, Rutgers Univ. Press, 1974. 

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).

Smith, Samuel Steele Fight for the Delaware, 1777, Phillip Freneau Press, 1970.

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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