Sunday, January 3, 2021

ARP182 Occupied Philadelphia

As I mentioned back in Episode 160, General Howe’s British Army entered Philadelphia on September 26, 1777.  Prior to the occupation, Philadelphia had been not only the seat of the Continental Congress, it was also the largest city British North America.   It had a population of about 40,000, compared to 25,000 for New York City and 15,000 for Boston.  General Howe hoped that its capture would finally bring the rebels to their senses, or at least win him some praise in London.

In the end, the capture accomplished not much of anything beyond being a career-ender for the British commander of North America.  The army found itself surrounded by a hostile enemy, with a great deal of difficulty keeping its own army properly supplied.  Benjamin Franklin’s comment about Philadelphia having captured General Howe must have rung true for many British leaders.

Defending the City

Having occupied the city, the British began setting up defenses.  The British had slipped past the Continental Army to enter the city without having a major battle after Brandywine.  The Continentals, however, were still in the field. An attack on the city was not out of the question.

Captain John Montresor, Howe’s engineer, took responsibility for the defenses.  He proposed building a series of ten redoubts along a line north of the city, connected by defensive lines which stretched from the Delaware River on the east to the Schuylkill River on the west.  Each redoubt sat along a road that led into the city.  Montresor later added two additional redoubts just north of the main defensive line to serve as outposts which could alert the main body in the event of an attack.  Montresor surveyed the proposed defensive line with General Cornwallis, who gave final approval.

The next problem was actually building the defenses.  The soldiers had to be ready for combat, so the work fell on the civilian population.  The call for laborers led to almost no volunteers.  Most of the city’s remaining population was Quaker, which had religious proscriptions against working on military projects.  Beyond that, the work was hard and the pay was terrible.  General Cornwallis had to threaten to conscript the locals before he could finally get about 200 men to work on the project.  That was only about half of the amount they wanted.  As a result, the construction took many weeks before any of the defenses were even close to ready for a garrison.

Further slowing the project was that Captain Montresor was also tasked with helping to open up the Delaware River.  For weeks after the British occupation, the Americans still held forts below Philadelphia.  This prevented the navy from reaching the city.  Howe could not bring any supplies up the river until the British took control.  So, in addition to defending against a land attack from the north, the British still had to assist the navy to the south in removing the forts along the Delaware.

John Montresor
The British initially left the bulk of the army in and around Germantown where most of the soldiers slept in tents.  General Howe personally made his first headquarters at the home belonging to the family of James Logan.  This was about one mile south of Germantown.  Several weeks after the Battle of Germantown the British pulled back so that almost all of the army was in or near the Philadelphia city limits.  General Howe took up residence within the city as well.

Even after the failed Continental effort to capture Germantown, American attacks on the British lines continued.  Americans would send in small forces at night.  The men would get within range of a British camp and fire on them at dawn.  The men would then retreat before the British could deploy a detachment to capture them.  The purpose of this was not to take any ground.  It was simply to keep the British and Hessian soldiers nervous and on edge.

Washington encamped his army at Whitemarsh, only a few miles from Germantown. He remained there until December, meaning the British could never really let down their guard.  The main Continental army was only a few hours’ march away.  Once the Continentals pulled back to Valley Forge, there was a little more relief.  However, the Continentals and militia still sent raids on occasion to keep the pickets on edge.

Housing the Soldiers

With the city secured militarily, the next important issue was housing.  Howe’s regulars and Hessians totaled about 15,000 men.  There were a few thousand more camp followers: women and children who were families of the soldiers.  Even so, over 25,000 people had fled the city before the British had entered.  Overcrowding was not the problem, at least not like it had been in New York City when the British occupied it a year earlier.

Ball at Gen. Howe HQ 1777
Most homes, however, remained occupied.  While many men had left to fight with the Continental army, their wives and children often remained behind.  About three-fourths of the civilian population were women and children.  Housing soldiers among the civilian population was always a delicate issue.

Officers took the best houses downtown.  The families would be relegated to a few rooms in the house while the officer and his staff made use of most of it.  Most officers were relatively polite and paid rent to the owner.  The benefit of having an officer also meant that soldiers were less likely to vandalize or rob the home.  Even so, many residents only took in these boarders reluctantly and without having much choice it the matter.

Initially, most soldiers stayed in tents or huts that they constructed. However, the occupation moved into winter, most enlisted soldiers were moved into houses, primarily those vacated by patriot families who had fled the city.  Units were billeted together so that officers could keep tabs on their men and form up the companies and regiments quickly if needed.

The army also took charge of any public buildings and churches.  In New York, most churches other than Anglican churches, became stables or hospitals.  In Philadelphia, much the same thing happened, with the exception that Quaker Meeting Houses were respected as part of the attempt to retain local support.  There was a Catholic Church and a Lutheran Church remained in operation for Hessian soldiers.  The State House, what we today call Independence Hall, became a prison for captured officers as well as a hospital for enemy prisoners

While there were conflicts and disputes over housing, the army settled into the city with relative comfort.

Feeding an Army

In addition to housing, food was an immediate concern for the army occupying Philadelphia.  The army took the city in late September.  It took another two months before the navy could clear the Delaware River.  Until that happened, the army had no source for food or other supplies other than what it could obtain locally.

General Howe had experience in New York fighting the forage wars with patriots in New Jersey over supplies.  But in New York, the British controlled Long Island, which provided much of the food they needed. They also had easy access to anything that ships could bring to the city.

In Philadelphia, the British only controlled an area a few miles around the city.  As I mentioned in an earlier episode, one of the first things the British did was send a large raiding party out toward Darby.  Soldiers collected food and hay, sufficient to last them through most of the winter.  With these supplies secured, there was little danger of going hungry.

The British also had another important tool to obtain food.  They had specie, that is gold and silver.  Although the Americans tried to surround the city and prevent farmers from bringing anything into the city, the lure of gold and silver payment in these particularly hard times, led many farmers to sneak their products into the British lines for sale.  The Continental paper money was becoming more and more worthless each day.  Farmers were not willing to rely on it.  Sales to the British meant payments with real money.

Patriots disparaged these activities as greed.  Farmers were being unpatriotic by letting the Continental Army starve at Valley Forge, while trying to feed the British in exchange for money.  Sure, in one sense, this was greed, and certainly was unpatriotic.  But these farmers were not wealthy men.  They had their own families to feed.  Many of them were hit hard by the war and were suffering deprivation themselves.  The desire to be compensated for the intense labor it took to grow and harvest crops, or to raise animals is not an unreasonable one.  Whatever we think of the morality of it, the reality is that most people tend to act out of self-interest, and that British gold provided the incentive that the farmers needed.

As a result, the British army did not really suffer from serious food shortages during the occupation, at least not when compared to the deprivations of the Continental soldiers at Valley Forge.  For the British, there was some tightening of rations before the navy could get up the Delaware, and again in late spring when supplies became tight again.  

The civilian population in Philadelphia did not fare as well.  Civilians did not have access to military stores, and did not always have the money to buy things at market. Prices often soared as people tried to profit from shortages due to the difficulties in bringing food into Philadelphia.  As a result, the civilian population tended to go hungry, rather than the soldiers. 

One area that was a constant source of need was firewood.  This was the main way to heat the buildings in the city. It was also a necessity for cooking.  The army burned through 800 cords of wood each week.  Soldiers could earn extra pay by volunteering for wood-cutting crews that wiped out virtually all the trees near the city by the end of the winter.  By April, hay also fell into short supply as well.  Again though, this was felt most harshly by the civilian population still in Philadelphia.

Local Support

A big part of capturing Philadelphia was the British hope that it would convince most Americans of the hopelessness of the patriot cause.  Public opinion mattered.  The British needed to recruit local loyalists to rebuild government and local militias to hold an area once the regulars were ready to move on.

Joseph Galloway
In December of 1777, General Howe appointed Joseph Galloway as Superintendent of Police.  Now, like other colonial cities, Philadelphia did not have a police force as we understand that term today.  That was a mid-19th century invention.  This was more of a city supervisor job.

Galloway was a Philadelphia native.  He had served as speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly and had been a political ally and friend of Benjamin Franklin.  He had attended the First Continental Congress, but never supported independence.  When things moved too radically in that direction, Galloway threw in his lot with the loyalists.  In December, 1776, he traveled to British-occupied New York and offered his assistance to General Howe.  Galloway worked with Howe to bring the British army from New York to Philadelphia.  His reward was becoming the civilian commander of the city.  This gave Galloway the responsibility to enforce military edicts within Philadelphia. 

Part of his duties were keeping a tight control on all imports into the city.  Of particular importance were potential black market items such as liquor.  Any imports of liquor or even storage of large amounts of liquor had to be reported.  Anything not reported could be seized as contraband.  The sale of large amounts of liquor was banned. 

Other items in short supply were similarly limited.  Salt in large quantities had to be registered and could not be sold, except in small quantities for personal use.  Prices for the sale of food were set at fixed rates to prevent profiteering.  Attempts to sell above those rates could result in confiscation of one’s stock and arrest.  Merchants had to be licensed to sell food or tobacco.  Part of the reason the army kept track of such goods was that it enabled the leadership to compel the owners to deliver goods to the army as needed.  

Regulations also prohibited buying produce, meat, or other goods for purposes of resale.  Many enterprising merchants tried to meet farmers outside of town to purchase their goods and sell them at inflated prices.  To prevent this, purchases for the purposes of resale were banned.  Farmers had to sell their own goods at market. While there were great restrictions on commerce, at least the merchants could count on payment in specie for their goods, not paper like the Continentals offered.

The British also hoped to raise local regiments to supplement the army.  General Howe offered enlistment bonuses, plus a promise of fifty acres of land for two years’ service.  Local military recruiters tried to encourage young men to enlist.  Once again though, efforts met with disappointment.  Most of those in the area who still opposed the patriot movement were pacifists who would not enlist under any terms.  In fact, as I already mentioned, the army even had trouble finding workers to provide labor as civilian contractors. 

Andrew Allen
One attempt was to raise the Provincial Loyalist Corps of Pennsylvania.  To give some support to the regiment, General Howe agreed to serve personally as the regimental colonel.  However, the practical command went to William Allen, a son of the former Chief Justice of Pennsylvania.  Allen had some military command experience, but it came in a way you might not expect. He had served as a lieutenant colonel in the Continental Army.  His brother Andrew had served in the Continental Congress and on the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety.  Like others, though, the Allen brothers thought the movement had gone too far when Congress declared independence.  William Allen resigned his commission and traveled to New York to offer General Howe his services.

Allen was raising a loyalist regiment from locals around Philadelphia.  The regiment hoped to raise 400 soldiers.  This was not an optimistic number since most regiments began with a strength of at least 500.  In the end, they did not even raise half of the number hoped for.  Within months, about one-fourth of the 172 men who had first mustered had already deserted.  There were several other attempts to raise regiments.  Some recruits came from captured prisoners who agreed to serve.  Others were Continental deserters who were tired of starving at Valley Forge. Still others were escaped slaves who hoped that military service might improve their position within society.

The end result, however, was nowhere near the force that could be left behind to keep control of Philadelphia once the regulars had pacified the region and moved on.  Once again, promises of a loyalist army to rise up once regulars showed the flag proved to be a wishful fantasy.  In the end, the failure to recruit locals is what doomed the campaign to becoming a strategic failure.

Prisoners of War

Another large portion of the city’s population was prisoners of war.  The British had captured hundreds of prisoners at Brandywine, Germantown and in other engagements.  These, combined with deserters who abandoned the Continental army, led to thousands of prisoners.  Along with the military prisoners, were civilians who had been arrested in the city under suspicion of having engaged in activities in support of the patriot cause.

Walnut Street Prison
To oversee the prisoners, General Howe brought in William Cunningham.  This is the same man who had a reputation for abuse of prisoners in New York. Cunningham continued his sadistic abusive operations on a new group of victims in Philadelphia.  After receiving many complaints, Cunningham did leave Philadelphia, only to resume his post in New York. This was, at least, a relief for Philadelphia prisoners who saw much of the more open abuse leave with Cunningham.

Even if abuse slackened, deprivation still took its toll.  The primary housing for these prisoners was at the Walnut Street Prison just behind Independence Hall.  As in New York, the conditions were terribly overcrowded. Food rations were often at starvation levels.  Of course, disease broke out among the prisoners leading to many deaths from the deplorable conditions.

Thousands of men died and are buried across the street in what is now called Washington Square.  Today, only a few memorial stones serve as a reminder of the thousands of soldiers buried in mass graves beneath the park.

Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson
Perhaps one reason the death rate was not higher was that a number of civilians took an active effort to bring food and supplies to the prison.  There is one newspaper article of a person identified only as a “free negro woman” who used two of her hard-earned dollars as a laundress to buy the ingredients to make a pot of broth and buy some bread which she distributed to the prisoners.  Another local woman Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson who was married to a British officer, also led efforts to provide for the prisoners. After the Americans recaptured Philadelphia, Fergusson would face charges of treason and have her property confiscated.  However the numerous witnesses that attested to her support of the prisoners allowed her to recover her confiscated property eventually. 

Another reason more did not die was that the Americans had agents on hand for the prisoners in Philadelphia almost right away.  Thomas Franklin, a local Quaker (and no relation to Benjamin) served as an effective advocate for the prisoners during the British occupation.

A final explanation for why more did not die in Philadelphia, was that the British were only in  the city for less than a year. Sadly for the prisoners, most of them were shipped to New York when the British left, only to die in New York prisons or prison ships..

Many officers were held as prisoners in the State House, or what we call today Independence Hall.  Although conditions were a little better there, men were still crowded, left underfed, and without basic needs.  The British also used the hall for wounded Americans, who were left there with minimal medical treatment.

The British were reluctant to grant parole to most officers because they were so close to the American lines.  Escape was a great temptation. At one point, the army had to hire women to search females leaving the city.  It seems that some Americans were attempting to escape from Philadelphia dressed in women’s clothes.  Guards were given orders to shoot to kill anyone attempting to escape.  

One officer was released after a local Quaker, John Roberts, put up a £100 bond to guarantee his good behavior.  When the officer fled the city, Roberts was forced to pay the bond.  After the British left the city Roberts was unable to recover his money because the radicals had him executed for treason.

The British would remain in Philadelphia until June 1778.  And I’ll cover that departure in a future episode.  

Next week though, I want to talk about a group of loyalist outlaws known as the Doan Gang, as well as a skirmish that took place in May: the Battle of Crooked Billet.

- - -

Next Episode 183 The Doan Gang & Crooked Billet 

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Further Reading


The British in Philadelphia

Sullivan, Aaron “In but not of the Revolution: Loyalty, Liberty, and the British Occupation of Philadelphia” Dissertation, Temple Univ. 2014:

Coleman, John M. “Joseph Galloway and the British Occupation of Philadelphia” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, Vol. 30, No. 3, July, 1963, pp. 272-300

Secrest, Jeremy "British Policy Towards Loyalists in the Philadelphia Campaign, 1777-1778" School of Advanced Military Studies, 2017:

Mishoff, Willard O. “Business in Philadelphia during the British Occupation, 1777-1778.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 61, no. 2, 1937, pp. 165–181. JSTOR,

Fisher, Darlene Emmert. “SOCIAL LIFE IN PHILADELPHIA DURING THE BRITISH OCCUPATION.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, vol. 37, no. 3, 1970, pp. 237–260. JSTOR,

Rightmyer, Nelson Waite. “Churches under Enemy Occupation: Philadelphia, 1777-8.” Church History, vol. 14, no. 1, 1945, pp. 33–60. JSTOR,

Wiener, Frederick Bernays. “The Military Occupation of Philadelphia in 1777-1778.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 111, no. 5, 1967, pp. 310–313. JSTOR,

A History of the Royal Provincial Corps of Pennsylvania Loyalists:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Cuthbert, Anthony "Assessment of Damages Done by the British Troops during the Occupation of Philadelphia, 1777-1778" The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 1901.

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

Trussell, John B. B. Jr. The Battle of Germantown, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1974. 

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

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

Harris, Michael C. Germantown: A Military History of the Battle for Philadelphia, October 4, 1777, Savas Beatie, 2020.

Jackson, John W. With the British Army in Philadelphia 1777-1778, Presidio Press, 1979. 

Johnson, Donald Occupied America: British Military Rule and the Experience of Revolution, Univ. of Penn Press, 2020. 

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

McGuire, Thomas J. The Surprise of Germantown: Or, the Battle of Cliveden, October 4th, 1777, Thomas Pubs, 1996.

Sullivan, Aaron The Disaffected: Britain's Occupation of Philadelphia During the American Revolution, Univ. of Penn. Press, 2019 (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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