Sunday, February 7, 2021

ARP187 Evacuation of Philadelphia

As I discussed over multiple episodes, General William Howe’s major initiative for 1777 was the capture of Philadelphia.  As was his usual practice, Howe went about the process slowly and methodically, Leaving New York in July, he sailed down to the Chesapeake and then marched north to Philadelphia, fighting several battles before finally entering the city two and a half months later, in late September.  He then had to spend even more time defending the city against attacks and clearing defenses on the Delaware River to allow the navy to link up to the city and bring in supplies. 

Philadelphia was as close as the patriots had to a national capital.  It was the largest city in the colonies and the seat of the Continental Congress.  Its capture, however, seemed to evoke only a collective yawn on both sides of the Atlantic. Congress simply moved to York, Pennsylvania, and continued its work.  The Continental Army continued its efforts to keep the British pinned down in the city.  Most importantly, Howe’s focus on Philadelphia divided British forces.  This allowed the Continental Northern Army to capture General Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga.  The capture of that army was a major setback to the British war effort.  It also encouraged France to enter the war, which completely changed events.

As I discussed in more detail last week, the entry of France into the war completely upended the plans of war strategists in London.  Instead of simply focusing on putting down the rebellion, Britain had to defend colonies all over the world as well as a potential invasion of the British Isles themselves.  that was why the Carlisle Commission wanted to wrap up the war based on whatever terms they could get.

London’s New Leader & New Strategy

Shortly after capturing Philadelphia, General Howe submitted his resignation to London.  He had been frustrated for over a year that the Ministry would not provide him with sufficient troops to launch multiple campaigns and capture larger areas of the continent.  Without such reinforcements, Howe thought the whole strategy was unwinnable, and wanted out.  

Gen. Howe's HQ, later Gen. Arnold's

It’s not clear if Howe really wanted to resign, or whether he thought his offer might wake up some folks in London to the need for a substantial increase in soldiers to take and hold North America.  But shortly after his resignation request arrived in London, news of Saratoga also reached the ministry.  The King told Prime Minister, Lord North, that someone had to go as a result, either General Howe, or Secretary of State Lord Germain.  Firing Germain might have brought down the whole government, leading to new elections.  So North opted to accept Howe’s resignation and recall him to London.

Lord North tried to replace General Howe by asking General Jeffery Amherst to take the North American Command.  Amherst had served as commander during the French and Indian War.  Amherst, however, wanted an army of 75,000 in North America before he would agree to the command.  That was more than double the number of troops in North America at the time.  The ministry wasn’t going to pay for an army of that size for General Howe, and it was not going to do so for General Amherst either.   Instead, the King promoted Amherst to full general, what we would call a four star general today, and gave him a title of Commander-in-Chief of Forces, a position that had been vacant for nearly twenty years and which gave him a seat in the cabinet.  Amherst would remain in London, organizing the worldwide effort against France and providing military advice directly to the cabinet.

The ministry then turned to General Sir Henry Clinton to take command in North America.  Clinton, of course, had been second in command under Howe for many years.  He had famously chafed at his position and attempted to resign several times.  With this change, however, he finally got the full command that he had so long wanted.  But his army became a shell of its former self, and nowhere near large enough to retake control of North America.  

General Amherst
Along with his orders to take command, the ministry ordered Clinton to send thousands of his best soldiers to Florida and the West Indies to protect British colonies there from possible French invasions.  Lord Germain had sent orders to deploy 5000 men to take the French island of St. Lucia and another 3000 men to St. Augustine in East Florida.  That was about 40% of the total force what was in Philadelphia at the time.

Between those transfers and the loss of General Burgoyne’s 7000 man army a few months earlier, the British had a much smaller military presence in North America, from the numbers they had a year earlier, when General Howe was complaining that they did not have nearly enough soldiers to get the job done.

To prevent these reduced troop levels from being spread out too much and subject to an attack (like the outpost at Trenton) the military planners in London ordered Clinton to abandon Philadelphia and move the army to New York.  He even had discretion to abandon New York and Rhode Island and take his army to Halifax if he deemed that appropriate. 

This was about the same time that the ministry formed the Carlisle Commission that I discussed last week.  The Commission tried to see if there was any possible diplomatic solution that would end hostilities in North America.  Britain was writing off control of North America for the time being, and focused on not losing more of its empire to France.  

Sir Henry Clinton received his orders in New York and traveled to Philadelphia to take command of the army.  He arrived on May 8, 1778, spending the next few weeks conferring with General Howe, before Howe left for England.  Even before General Howe set sail at the end of May, Clinton focused on packing up the army in Philadelphia and getting ready to move to New York.

For the loyalists in Philadelphia, this was their worst nightmare.  Many of these people had remained quiet during the early war years, trying to avoid being attacked or harassed by patriot mobs.  When the British army arrived in the fall of 1777, the loyalists came forward.  They professed their support and even assisted the occupying army.  So, in 1778, when the British made the decision to leave, the loyalists knew that they would have to answer for what the patriots considered to be treason.

Before the army made public its plans to abandon Philadelphia, rumors abounded that it was about to happen.  One loyalist who had joined the police force in Philadelphia that the British army established, attended the Mischianza party for General Howe's departure.  At that party, he asked the General what the locals should do.  Howe’s suggestion was that they try to “make peace” with the Continental Congress.  That, of course, was a frightening prospect.  The Pennsylvania patriots considered the loyalist actions to be criminal.  At best, their property could be confiscated.  They could also face prison or even the gallows.  The time for making peace with Congress was long gone.

Gen. Sir Henry Clinton
On May 25, the day after Howe left Philadelphia, the city’s leading loyalist, Joseph Galloway, submitted a petition to General Clinton, asking the army to remain in Philadelphia.  Galloway suggested raising a force of several thousand loyalist soldiers. With the backing of British regulars, they could continue to hold Philadelphia against the Continentals.  Of course, Galloway had suggested raising a loyalist army when the British first arrived.  It had not happened because loyalists in the area were unwilling to enlist.  Other than out of a sense of desperation, it was unclear why Galloway or anyone else thought that another attempt on the eve of evacuation would inspire more loyalists to make themselves and their property a target for patriot wrath.

Loyalists, of course, were not the only ones who objected to abandoning a city they had worked so long and hard to capture.  Generals Grey and Erskine still wanted to take the offensive.  They proposed an attack on Valley Forge, pushing the Continentals to retreat across the Susquehanna River and allowing the British to take control of the region.  Erskine said the prospect of retreat made him “ashamed of the name of a Briton.”

Additionally, the recently-arrived Peace Commissioners, who were blindsided by the retreat orders, told Clinton that the decision to retreat completely undercut any attempts to bargain from a position of strength.  It made the British look weak and desperate.  The army had to remain and put up a strong front in order for negotiations to succeed.  The Commissioners requested that Clinton at least keep the army in Philadelphia until the Commission could negotiate an agreement with the Continental Congress.

Despite all these objections from loyalists, his own officers, and the Commission, Clinton had very clear and non-discretionary orders to abandon Philadelphia.  Even a delay was dangerous.  The French Navy was expected to arrive soon.  If the French bottled up the British by occupying the Delaware Bay, the British army might find itself trapped and face the prospect of surrender.

The one concession that Clinton did make was to free up the British ships for civilian evacuation.  Loyalist families could board the ships with what limited property that could fit aboard, and sail with the army to New York.  The soldiers, other than those who were wounded, sick or at risk of desertion, would march to New York across New Jersey.


On May 20th, the same day that the army marched out to Barren Hill in hopes of catching the Marquis de Lafayette, General Clinton issued orders to remove artillery and stores that could not be carried by the army when it marched.  The heavy ordinance would be loaded aboard ships.  Clinton continued to order offensive forays out of the city toward the American lines, in hopes of keeping the enemy from realizing an evacuation was underway and attacking.

Washington, of course, was well aware that he British were leaving.  On June 10, he wrote to his brother that he had been expecting the British to leave for the prior two weeks and could not figure out why they had not left yet.  Washington also suggested to Congress that it offer a conditional amnesty to the loyalists in Philadelphia.  An amnesty would allow the Continentals to benefit from these artisans and skilled workers who were ready to jump at the chance of continuing to work in Philadelphia.  Congress however, was unwilling to consider such a plan.

At the same time, the loyalists in Philadelphia hoped to send a delegation to York to ask for terms.  General Howe had recommended that they be allowed, but General Clinton refused.  If the Philadelphia loyalists sought and received amnesty, what would prevent New York loyalists from doing the same thing?  For Clinton, the loyalists would have to leave with the army or suffer the wrath of the patriots when they retook control of the city.

In total, between 3000 and 5000 loyalists boarded British transports or merchant ships and sailed to New York.  Some remained there, while others went from there to London or other parts of the Empire.  Thousands of other loyalists, unwilling to give up their homes, opted to remain in Philadelphia and take their chances under patriot rule.

Meanwhile, the army began the process of destroying its defenses and any supplies that they could not take with them.  Rumors spread that the army planned to burn Philadelphia as it left, although those proved to be just rumors.  Thousands of extra blankets, tons of food, even several ships that were under construction, were burned.  Some of the fires ended up burning a few houses, but these were unintentional.  Even some large cannons were spiked and dumped into the river to make room for more civilians and their property aboard the ships.

Many refugees sat aboard ships for weeks, waiting for departure.  These people could not return to land for fear of losing their spots on the ship.  But at the same time, they were getting sick and running out of food before they even left port.  Many of these refugees would arrive in New York in very poor condition.

Prior to the evacuation, Pennsylvania's Supreme Executive Council and attainted hundreds of named individuals of committing treason by cooperating with the enemy.  The vast majority of these people, remarkably, remained in Philadelphia and hoped for mercy.  For many well-to-do Philadelphians, the thought of abandoning all of their property to board ships to live as refugees in another colony was simply too much to bear.  

Hessian Map of Philadelphia area
By June 15, the last of the rearguard British and Hessian regiments began crossing the Delaware into New Jersey from various ferries in or near the city.  It had taken days to cross the thousands of soldiers and their supplies, all the while facing the fear of an enemy attack as the process continued.  By the morning of June 18th, the ships had set sail and the army was fully in New Jersey.  

At 10:00 AM on the morning of June 18, Lieutenant Colonel Cosmo Gordon, a British regular officer, woke up in Philadelphia after a night of heavy drinking.  He quickly discovered that the city had been completely abandoned.  His unit, along with the rest of the army, was marching away in New Jersey.  The final British ships in the river had set sail and were away from port.  The panicked officer quickly grabbed his things and rushed down to the port.  There, he found a friendly boatman who he paid to take him across the river.  As far as we know, Gordon was the last officer to leave Philadelphia.  Around 11:00 AM, Admiral Howe, already aboard his flagship Eagle, weighed anchor and sailed down the Delaware River.

The Continentals Return

That same morning a militia scout named George Roberts, rode out to Valley Forge to report that the British had abandoned Philadelphia.  About the same time that Colonel Gordon was making his escape across the Delaware River to New Jersey, Washington received Roberts’ report.  Another group of Delaware militia on horseback had entered the city that morning and captured about thirty enemy soldiers who had not left the city in time.

Washington dispatched Major General Benedict Arnold with a brigade of 400 soldiers to take control of the city.  Arnold was still recovering from his leg wound at Saratoga when he turned up at Valley Forge a month earlier, ready to return to duty.  Still not ready for combat, Washington designated Arnold to serve as military commander of Philadelphia following the British evacuation.  

Riding with Arnold into Philadelphia was Washington’s Aide-de-camp, Colonel Tench Tilghman, who had been a Philadelphia merchant before the war, as well as Washington’s former aide-de-camp Joseph Reed, a Philadelphia lawyer before the war. At that time Reed was a delegate to the Continental Congress.  Continental General Henry Knox and Philadelphia militia General John Cadwalader also rode with the first occupying force to enter the city.

Home Destroyed During Occuption
The comments of everyone who entered the city was that it was a complete and utter mess.  Piles of garbage lay everywhere, in the streets, in public buildings, and in private homes.  Occupying troops and others had used houses, public buildings, even Independence Hall as to relieve themselves.  The smell of human feces and urine was everywhere.  Some occupying soldiers had filled entire basements with their human waste.

Many churches had their gravestones knocked down so that the churchyards could be turned into horse-riding areas.  Church pews, and a great deal of other furniture had been used for firewood.  Almost no wooden fences had survived the occupation.  In some cases, entire houses had been dismantled and used for firewood.

Even some of the better houses were looted.  Major John Andre, who had occupied Benjamin Franklin’s house, left with a full length portrait of the founder, his musical and scientific equipment, as well as most of his library.  Andre blamed Franklin for bringing France into the war and for getting General Howe recalled.  He defended his looting as a form of payback against his enemy.

Damage to the city was severe.  It would take months of clean up and repair to make Philadelphia functional again.  

Aside from assuming formal control of Philadelphia, the purpose in sending in Arnold and other key officers was to take control of any supplies that the British had left behind that the Continental Army needed.  The following day, Arnold issued a proclamation of martial law and ordered all citizens to provide an inventory of any items held in the city.

The Continental Congress, still in York, had passed resolutions ordering the army to put an embargo on all trade and to secure all valuables within the city until a joint committee made up of delegates from Congress and the executive council of Pennsylvania could determine which items were British property, and therefore subject to seizure without compensation.

Continental and state forces secured warehouses and deployed guards to prevent looting.  They locked down the city to prevent any goods from entering or leaving Philadelphia until there could be an accounting.

General Arnold set up his headquarters at the Penn Mansion, where General Howe had kept his headquarters for the prior nine months.  Arnold spent a considerable amount of money refurbishing the mansion and hiring a domestic staff to run it.  

Despite the condition of Independence Hall, the Continental Congress voted to adjourn its session in York on June 27 and to resume work in Philadelphia the following week.  Although Congress planned to resume on July 2, they did not get a quorum to do business until July 7.

Although General Arnold took control of the city with a few hundred soldiers, the bulk of the army did not waste any time with an entrance back into Philadelphia.  Instead, Washington deployed his army directly to southern New Jersey in pursuit of his foe.  The Continental Army began its summer fighting season with an aggressive pursuit of the British Army as it retreated toward New York.  That is where we will take up the story next week.

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Next Episode 188 Pursuit Across New Jersey 

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Further Reading


The British in Philadelphia

Loyalists and the British Evacuation of Philadelphia:

Duffy, Shannon, Loyalists:

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, 1777-1778The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 1901: 

Siebert, Wilbur Henry The Loyalists of Pennsylvania, Univ of Columbus, 1920. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Commager, Henry Steele Commager (Ed) and Richard B. Morris (Ed) The Spirit of Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution As Told by Participants, 2002.  

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

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.

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

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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