The Battle for Philadelphia
by Carl G. Karsch
War burst upon Philadelphia less than three years after delegates to the First Continental Congress concluded their sessions at Carpenters' Hall. What most hoped could be avoided — a contest with the world's strongest military power — became reality the following spring at Lexington and Concord. Now, after Washington's defeat at Brandywine, British regiments were marching on the capital.
Families loyal to the Revolution — the new nation's first civil war — found refuge in the countryside. A Lutheran pastor observed: "Today many teams loaded with furniture and people flying from Philadelphia... Coaches, chaises and wagons loaded with fugitives passing without intermission."
On the night of September 25, 1777, Elizabeth Drinker wrote: "[I] saw horses galloping, women running, children crying, [Congressional] delegates flying." Next morning at 11 o'clock, huge crowds — mostly women and children — lined 2nd St. to cheer 3,000 British soldiers and two battalions of Hessians as they marched past Christ Church to camp on Society Hill.
Soon the rest of General Sir William Howe's army arrived, 18,000 officers and men plus 2,000 wives and camp followers. Problems quickly arose, the first being housing. Soldiers, overflowing a barracks just north of the city, commandeered houses abandoned by residents who had fled. Officers were quartered with Quaker families; most became fond of their new allies.
Howe must have been chagrined by results of a census. Some 6,000 men — the most active and patriotic — were gone. Of 21,767 residents remaining, 17,285 were women, children and adolescents. Men, mostly Quakers, numbered 4,482. Of 5,470 houses, ten percent were unoccupied and 287 stores vacant. Ironically, the total population — including the British army, Tories who sought refuge in the city, and some 500 American POW's in the Walnut Street prison — was at least one-third greater than before the occupation. Food became desperately short and would worsen until transport ships could get past American fortifications on the Delaware. The General's problems were growing.
Company Members aid Defense. Philadelphians began defense preparations soon after the Declaration of Independence. And Carpenters' Company members had key roles. Two men — Thomas Nevell and Matthew McGlathery — won contracts to build gun carriages. At Fort Mifflin, key to defense of the Delaware River, James Worrell and Robert Allison led construction teams. Thomas Procter, later a colonel, organized the fort's artillery batteries.
Robert Smith, architect of Carpenters' Hall, probably made the greatest single contribution to the city's defense. He designed and — with six other Company members — supervised construction and placement of 60 underwater defenses called chevaux-de-frise. In Europe, "chevaux" impeded cavalry charges; in the sinuous Delaware River channel, the American adaptation could impale and sink enemy ships. As large as a two-story house, each "chevaux" had a frame of logs floored with two-inch planks. Stout logs tipped with iron barbs were angled to point downstream. Then the "chevaux" were towed into place, chained together, filled with stone ballast and sunk across the channel. Only ten trusted river pilots knew how to thread their way past the barrier. Even after the fall of Ft. Mifflin, Smith's invention delayed British ships from docking in Philadelphia.
Tragically, Smith became ill while supervising construction of barracks at Billingsport, NJ, a fort downriver. He died a short time later, in February, 1777, at age 55.
A wealth of craftsmen converted Philadelphia into an arsenal; cloth, tents, weapons and ships flowed from shops and shipyards. The "Committee for American Manufactory of Linen & Woolens," formed at Carpenters' Hall, organized several hundred women who spun flax, then loomed it into linen for garments and tenting.
In December, 1776, as the British marched largely unopposed through New Jersey toward Philadelphia, General Howe expected to capture a trove of supplies. But Washington's victories at Trenton and Princeton dashed those hopes. During the next eight months, Owen Biddle, a Company member and chairman of the Pennsylvania Board of War, moved supplies and equipment to Reading, the new base 60 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Biddle even ordered all church bells — and the Liberty Bell — moved to Allentown to prevent their being melted down for British cannon. Howe captured a hollow shell.
Wagonloads of Wounded. Washington's failed attempt at Germantown to re-take the city created another crisis, casualties. Deborah Logan recorded: "Toward evening [of October 4] wagons full of wounded arrived in the city, whose groans and sufferings were enough to move the most inhuman heart." In the State House, men were literally dumped on the floor, staircase, any available space. Americans had to wait till understaffed British surgeons attended their own men. "In a very short time," Mrs. Logan continues, "the streets were filled with women carrying every kind of refreshment; lint, linen and lights in abundance" for the neglected Americans.
Of his own army, General Howe tallied 2,612 sick and 850 wounded. Americans were not counted. No one knows how many died. British, Hessians and Americans by the hundreds were carted one block away to a "potter's field" and deposited in trenches which, unfortunately, were too shallow. After a heavy rain, arms and legs protruded. Washington Square is the city's largest burial ground.
POW's become Casualties. Prisoners fared no better than wounded. Most were herded into the Walnut Street prison at 6th St., completed four years earlier by Robert Smith. Fed a starvation diet, they lowered baskets from broken windows, begging vainly for morsels. Soon they ate rats, chewed on leather, even wood. Some prisoners, to save themselves, accepted British offers to enlist. Washington had to supply blankets and clothing from his meager stock at Valley Forge. General Howe said he had none to spare. Perhaps he was right. Philadelphians were compelled to contribute 600 blankets for Howe's troops.
"Cries of the Poor..." November proved exceptionally cold; daytime in the 40's, in the 20's at night. To shelter his army, Howe expelled 200 adults and children from the city-run almshouse, on Spruce St. between 10th & 11th. Half were simply put on the streets. Those least able to survive found lodging in the Friends meeting house, at 4th and Chestnut Sts., just west of Carpenters' Hall. Some moved into the Hall. At least two looms were set up in the basement to weave flax into linen for garments. Quakers also gave 200 pounds for relief. Sarah Fisher, whose family was comparatively well off, commented: "The rich have not for themselves, nor have they the power to relieve the cries of the poor, for money will not procure the necessities of life."
A Day to Remember. For Philadelphians, November 27 would not soon be forgotten. It dawned with an unusual event, a mild earthquake. More important, it was the day the British put to the torch nearly a score of country estates north of the defense perimeter. One belonged to Joseph Fox, president of The Carpenters' Company. From the roof of her mother's house on Chestnut St., Deborah Logan saw 17 homes ablaze. "One we knew to be the beautiful seat of Fairhill, full of furniture and a valuable library, which the pressure of the times prevented the family from securing when they sought their own safety in flight." American patrols, declared the British, used the houses as staging points for raids. Since most properties were owned by Revolutionary leaders, revenge seemed more likely.
There was good news, too, at least for those with hard currency. Ten days earlier Fort Mifflin fell; enough "chevaux" blocking the channel had been towed aside to permit the first ships to dock. Together with desperately needed cargoes came a swarm of speculators, eager for quick profits, who set up shop in abandoned stores. Shipmasters sold from vessels or dockside. To prevent looting, the waterfront had to be fenced off and, at night, guarded by 250 marines.
Mrs. Drinker, a Tory and a Quaker, saw things differently: "It is an agreeable sight to see the wharves loaded with shipping. Goods will soon be plenty; nothing but hard money will pass; 40 to 50 sail below [the city] with goods." The poor, who if they were lucky had only American paper money, were out of luck.
Departure and Devastation. By spring, King George III ordered the city's evacuation with June 18 the deadline. Now it was the Tories, fearing for their lives, who panicked. Three thousand — including Dr. Jacob Duche, the rector of Christ Church — crowded aboard British troopships. Wrote one woman: "my head grew dizzy with the bustle and confusion; carts [and] wagons laden with dry goods and household furniture dragged through the streets by men to the wharves for want of horses." Many families' possessions had to be thrown overboard to accommodate military equipment.
The British could have burned the city; instead they trashed it. Behind the State House was a pit overflowing with refuse, dead horses, dead men. The stench caused Congress to convene at the College of Pennsylvania, several blocks away at 4th & Arch Sts. In houses used as barracks, soldiers tore holes in the floor, converting basements into privies. Trees, fences, church pews, even wooden houses became firewood. The French ambassador estimated 600 houses destroyed. Dr. Benjamin Rush, returning in mid-July, commented: "the filth left by the British army created a good deal of sickness... swarms of flies in the greatest possible number. The town stinks terribly."
"Our neighbor, Abraham Carlile." The Drinkers lived on north Front St. near Elfreth's Alley. Ann and Abraham Carlile were neighbors, close friends and fellow-Quakers. Mr. Carlile, a lumber merchant and member of The Carpenters' Company, provided timber for erecting the Hall and contributed generously to its construction. A Tory at heart, he accepted the job of "gate-keeper," granting permission to those with similar sympathies to pass through the British lines and purchase food from nearby farms and mills. Mrs. Drinker wrote: "The poor people have been allowed for some time to go to Frankford mill and other mills that way. Abraham Carlile gives them passes, and his door is very much crowded every morning."
When the British evacuated Philadelphia, returning Americans who had wintered in the countryside came down hard on collaborators. At least seven members of the Company were among those "pledging to disclose facts about persons who are enemies of America during the occupation of the city." The grand jury charged 45 with treasonous offenses. Twenty-three came to trial. Some had their property confiscated. Only two, both Quakers, were hanged. Carlile was convicted of granting passes through the British lines to those who gathered not only food but intelligence on American forces. About noon on Wednesday, November 4, 1778, the two men, according to their sentence, were "hanged by the neck until dead" on the common, where City Hall now stands.
Soon the conflict moved south to Savannah, to Charleston, finally to Yorktown. The battle for Philadelphia was over. Won. But at a terrible price.