Washington's Army Marches Past the Hall

by Carl G. Karsch

Twice the Continental army marched in review past Carpenters' Hall. The first: August, 1777, one month before their disastrous rout at Brandywine. Four years later they preceded units of French troops en route to the conclusive victory at Yorktown.

On both occasions the Continental army reflected the state of the new nation. In 1777 — although poorly clad and ill-equipped — morale was good among the more than 10,000 regulars and militia. By 1781 the army — exhausted, plagued by desertions, threats of mutiny and unpaid for months on end — had dwindled to 2,500. Washington's only hope lay with the smartly uniformed, professional corps of French troops bringing up the rear.

Now, to borrow a military phrase, let's look at the situation on the ground.

In 1776, just two months after adoption of the Declaration of Independence, General Howe captured New York, gateway to the Hudson valley and New England. A year later he was ready to advance on Philadelphia, the capital and at 25,000, the largest city. The logical route would be up Delaware bay, with British warships clearing the way. But there were several American forts designed to catch ships in a cross-fire as they endeavored to navigate the twisting Delaware river. Perhaps an overland approach from upper Chesapeake bay would be safer.

Washington, too, played it safe, keeping his army north of Philadelphia until Howe's decision was clear. American scouts reported British ships briefly inspected lower Delaware bay, then vanished over the horizon. Howe's approach would be overland through a countryside of mostly Tory sympathizers. Worse, there would be a head-on contest pitting Continentals against some of the best units Britain could field.

On August 23, 1777, Washington recorded: "I expect to encamp this evening about five or six miles [north] of Philadelphia. Tomorrow morning it [the army] will move again, and I think to march it through the city without halting... The march will be down Front and up Chestnut street [passing Carpenters' Hall], and I presume about seven o'clock."

At 3 A.M. the next morning the army broke camp and by seven o'clock, under rainy skies which gradually cleared, began a three-hour march through the city. Just how painfully aware the commander-in-chief is of the army's public relations role to the divided loyalty of Philadelphians is apparent from his General Orders. He urged officers to "use every reasonable method in their power to get rid of all such as are not absolutely necessary" of "the multitude of women in particular, especially those who are pregnant and have children." Further, drums and fifes are ordered to play a quickstep "but with such moderation that the men may step to it with ease and without dancing along, or totally disregarding the music, which too often has been the case... The men are to be excused from carrying their [heavy cast iron] camp-kettles tomorrow."

The Marquis de Lafayette, Washington's new 19-year-old colleague who would become a lifelong friend, could hardly believe his eyes. "About 11,000 men," he wrote, "poorly armed and miserably clad, offered an amazing display; among the motley assortment of dress and occasional undress, the best garments were hunting blouses, loose fitting gray sailcloth jackets..."

John Adams joined his fellow members of the Continental Congress in reviewing the army from the steps of the State House (Independence Hall.) Trying to be sympathetic, he confessed in a letter to his wife, Abigail: "Our soldiers have not yet quite the air of soldiers. They don't stay exactly in time. They don't hold up their heads quite erect, nor turn their toes so exactly as they might. They don't all of them cock their hats; and such as do, don't all wear them the same way."

A newspaper devoted only a terse paragraph to the event: "On Sunday, the 24th of August, the main body of the Continental army... marched into Philadelphia, proceeded to the common [roughly where City Hall stands], crossed the new floating bridge [of logs] over the Schuylkill river at the middle ferry [today's Market street] and took the road to Chester and Wilmington."

In 1781 the Continentals and their French allies followed the identical route through the city. In mid-August, Generals Washington and Rochambeau marched south from Newport, R.I., where 4,000 French soldiers had disembarked. They made a feint at New York's defenders to mask the army's true destination, Virginia.

On August 30, the commanding generals and their staffs arrived in Philadelphia several days ahead of the troops. A newspaper reported: "They were received by the militia and light horse in the suburbs, and escorted into town. Washington stopped at the City Tavern, and from thence proceeded to the State House where he had an interview with Congress." On the agenda — but not reported in the newspaper — was a demand from American troops for an advance on their back pay and in hard money. Congress, as usual, was broke, leaving Washington to borrow gold coins from the French army paymaster to give a month's wages to all ranks except those who "lost to all sense of honor ... had deserted the standard of freedom at this crucial moment." His worries about desertion were coming true.

The newspaper continued on a festive note: "At the house of Robert Morris, where he lodged [and would live during his presidency], Washington and other officers dined with the president of Congress, Thomas McKean. In the afternoon vessels in the Delaware displayed their flags and fired salutes. In the evening there were illuminations and Washington, with his suite, walked through the streets, attended by a vast concourse of people eagerly pressing to see their beloved general."

The armies took several days to pass through the city. First came the Americans, described by Dr. James Thacher, a military surgeon from Barnstable, MA. "On Sunday afternoon [September 2] we marched through the city. The streets being extremely dirty and the weather warm and dry, we raised a dust like a smothering snowstorm, blinding our eyes and covering our bodies with it. This was not a little mortifying, as the ladies were viewing us from open windows of every house as we passed through this splendid city... Our line of march extended nearly two miles. In the rear of every brigade were several fieldpieces, accompanied by ammunition carriages. The soldiers marched in slow and solemn step, regulated by the drum and fife... .

"We crossed the river Schuylkill [September 3] over a floating bridge and encamped four miles from Philadelphia, where we continued through the day to give the men time to rest and wash their clothes..."

French units followed in the Americans' footsteps, down Front street to Chestnut, past Carpenters' Hall to be reviewed by Congress at the State House. The newspaper continued: "...Here Thomas McKean, being chief officer of Congress, dressed in black velvet, a sword by his side, his head covered, reviewed them. On his left hand were Washington and Rochambeau, uncovered, and on his right the Chevalier de Luzerne, the minister of France. As the officers saluted, McKean acknowledged the courtesy by bowing and removing his hat. Ladies were at the windows and upon the balconies, and everything was bright and cheerful.

"...After the review the officers dined with M. de Luzerne. He had just received news of the arrival of Count de Grasse in the Chesapeake, which intelligence he imparted to them...and was greeted with wild enthusiasm." Thanks to Admiral de Grasse, his warships and 3,000 additional troops from the Caribbean, the only escape route for General Cornwallis was now cut.

Blue Bell Inn

Blue Bell Inn

Rochambeau's troops, camped on the city commons, decided to put on a show. Viewed by an estimated 20,000 spectators — most of the city's population, if the newspaper was correct — a regiment "using four field pieces, went through all the evolutions of a skirmish, to the delight and satisfaction of the vast crowd. The troops, on succeeding days, were put in motion and resumed their march southward."

St. James Church of Kinsessing

St. James Church of Kinsessing

They would see Philadelphia a year later while returning north over the Great Southern Post Road en route to Boston for the voyage home. Rochambeau, however, was not with them. He sailed from France from the more convenient port of Annapolis, MD.

Authorized by the colony 80 years earlier, the Great Southern Post Road linked towns along the western shore of the Delaware river. The road still exists; within Philadelphia it is Woodland Avenue. South of the city limits, much of the road is now U.S. Route #13. Surprisingly, a handful of landmarks along this highway of Revolutionary War history remain.

John Bartram's House

John Bartram's House

When traveling between Philadelphia and Mount Vernon, Washington made many overnight stops at the Blue Bell Tavern, a portion of which stands at 73rd street on the banks of Cobbs Creek. He stayed here on two memorable occasions: first, his journey to the First Continental Congress; second, while en route to New York for a triumphal inauguration as president. Just upstream from the tavern is the site of a dam built by Swedish settlers to power probably their first grist mill.

At 69th street is St. James Church of Kingsessing, the second congregation founded by Swedes and now a Protestant Episcopal congregation. The central portion of the building dates from 1762. In the cemetery soldiers who died during the retreat from Brandywine are thought to be buried in unmarked graves.

Just off Woodland Ave. at 54th street, along the banks of the Schuylkill river, John Bartram — America's pioneer botanist — created a garden with specimens of hundreds of native plants and trees. Some still survive. So does the house he built in 1731 with mica-encrusted bedrock quarried nearby. Bartram, who was 78, died September 1777, as victorious British troops marched along the Great Southern Post Road to occupy Philadelphia. He feared they would destroy his "darling garden, the nursling of almost half a century." They didn't.

The Woodlands

The Woodlands

Nor, at 41st street, did they touch The Woodlands, a handsome country mansion owned by William Hamilton, grandson of Andrew Hamilton, who when speaker of the Assembly, sketched the design for what we know as Independence Hall. Today, offices of the Woodlands Cemetery Co. occupy the building.

For the British what lay just ahead was a far richer prize, Philadelphia and the promise of comfortable winter quarters. The American army would spend a brutal winter some thirty miles to the northwest at Valley Forge.

Along the Post Road traveled express couriers with urgent dispatches. After Brandywine, a rider brought news of the British advance in time for Congress to escape capture. When the tide of war turned against the redcoats, the city went wild celebrating General Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown. But in late December, 1799 — as a new century was about to dawn — a courier brought the most mournful news: the country's first commander-in-chief and first president had died at his beloved home, Mount Vernon.