Sunday, December 23, 2018

People: Johann Rall

A little known (to most) Hessian Colonel named Johann Gottlieb Rall played a critical role in the trajectory of the American War for Independence. Unfortunately for him, that trajectory included his defeat and death. But that should not diminish the life and service of this German military officer. An experienced Hessian officer, Rall is often portrayed as the hapless loser of the battle of Trenton. But he was much more than that. He was the archetypal professional German officer of the mid-18th century: skilled, with a self-assurance that came from experience.


Johann Rall was born in the German principality of Hesse-Kassel in 1720. His father was a captain in the regiment Von Donop. At an early age the younger Rall joined as a cadet, then became a warrant officer and finally was commissioned a Second Lieutenant on August 28th, 1745. Within eight years he was a captain and, then promoted to Major on May 7th, 1760, under the command of Major General Bischhausen. In January, 1763, he was transferred to the garrison at Stein, where he was appointed Lieutenant Colonel.

On April 22, 1771, now a Colonel, he took command of  the Mansbach Infantry Regiment, a storied unit. Unlike the British army of the era, officers were promoted on a merit basis, and not by purchase of birth right. Along the way to his colonelcy, Rall would have served as platoon leader, company commander (perhaps more than once) and as a staff officer, likely adjutant. So at age 51, he was a highly experienced and professional military officer. Perhaps among the best of his age.

Early Service

So where did Johann Rall serve to reach the lofty heights of regimental command? Actually, Rall's service is a virtual taxonomy of the wars of the mid-18th century. He fought in the War of the Austrian Succession - serving in campaigns from the low lands of Flanders, on the Rhineland and in Bavaria.

A youthful Rall fought in the War of Austrian Succession

He even served in Scotland during the Jacobite rising of 1745 – not his last service to the German kings of England. Here Rall was part of a contingent of some six thousand Hessian troops under the command of their prince, the Elector, Frederick II, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel. Frederick deployed his forces in support of his father in law, George II of England.

The battle of Culloden ended the Jacobite Rising

Of course Rall was there when the big one broke out. Like pretty much all European professional soldiers, he saw action in numerous battles during the Seven Years' War (America’s French and Indian War) . This  global conflict was fought between 1756 and 1763, and  involved every European great power. It spanned five continents, affecting Europe, the Americas, West Africa, India, and the Philippines. The conflict involved two major coalitions, one led by the Great Britain (along with Prussia, Portugal, Hanover, and other small German states such as Hesse-Kassel), the other led by the France (with allies Austria, the Russian, Spain, and Sweden).

Storming a village in the seven Years War

Most of the professional armies of Europe had an interlude of peace after the The Treaty of Paris of 1763 ended the French and Indian War/Seven Years' War.  But Rall managed to stay busy in his chosen profession. From September 1771 until August 1772, he fought for Russia’s Catherine the Great under Count Orlov in the Russo-Turkish War.

The Russo-Turkish War of 1771 was one of many
fought between the two empires

Coming to Amerika

What makes Johann Gottlieb Rall interesting to the Yankee Doodle Spies is his role as a Hessian officer in His Majesty’s service during the American War for Independence.  Upon his return to Germany, Rall received command of a grenadier regiment that bore his name. In 1775, Landgrave Frederick Wilhelm II offered to “rent” several of his professional regiments to the King of England. It is said he used the revenues from such ventures to pay for his patronage of the arts. I guess it was blood for beauty.  And so Rall and the regiment bearing his name embarked for America with a division of German troops under General Wilhelm von Knyphausen.

Knyphaussen’s forces were part of British Major General William Howe’s army that invaded Staten Island, Long Island, New York (Manhattan), Westchester, and the Jerseys. in 1776.  Rall was noted for his performance under fire on Long Island and again at Fort Washington, where Knyphausen’s Hessians distinguished themselves with audacity, skill and courage.

Rall's Grenadiers storm a redoubt at Fort Washington

At Fort Washington, Rall led the final assault from the front. One of his men, Private Johann Reuber, recalled him encouraging the grenadiers, "All that are my grenadiers, march forward." Leading the charge, Rall’s grenadiers captured their objective. His grenadiers lost 177 men in the action, a large number of casualties for the period and a tribute to their courage and audacity - as well as Yankee marksmanship.

These battles were mostly, although not always, against raw, undisciplined and poorly supplied troops. It did not take long for the Hessians and Rall himself, to hold die Rebellen in contempt. In fact, most of the Hessian officers became perplexed that Howe did not strike the "rabble" more aggressively and destroy them. Howe’s ponderous style of warfare did not sit well with the smash mouth approach of the crack German troops and their leaders.

Blitzkrieg turns to Winter Quarters

As General George Washington led his defeated army across the cold and snowy Jerseys in December 1776, it looked like the war was about up. The Germans, along with many of the British officers, felt it was just a matter of days before they would have Washington crushed and the rebel capital taken. To their dismay, Howe decided he had done enough for the year. He put the army into winter quarters with the smug expectation that he would have a cake walk to Philadelphia in the spring. After all, the rebels had been chased across the Delaware with their tails between their legs and the morale of the American populace was at nadir. He was right, too. Except for one small problem, General Washington was not in winter quarters.

Gen William Howe put his
army into winter quarters a bit too early

Howe compounded his mistake by spreading his forces in small garrisons across West Jersey. From Perth Amboy, New Brunswick, Princeton, Trenton and Bordentown. The weather, and the appetizingly small, brigade-size garrisons gave the beleaguered American commander the opportunity he needed. He would strike the closest garrisons: Bordentown and Trenton.  Bordentown proved a missed opportunity but Trenton did not.

The some sixteen hundred Hessians that made up Trenton’s garrison had been under pressure. The Jersey militia had rallied against them. Couriers, patrols and foraging efforts were attacked. Rall’s officers recommended they fortify Trenton. The town had a comfortable barracks that the troops occupied but other than an isolated block house north of the town, they had nothing. Professional though Rall was, his contempt for the Americans was telling. He dismissed the suggestions as unnecessary. Rall in fact stated he dared the Americans to attack so he could crush them. This was not mere hubris, but a cold, professional calculation. It would, however, prove a bad one.

The Trenton garrison had some of the best infantry
in any army of its day

Rall also dismissed the engineer officer sent to assist with the defenses. He simply felt his men would overwhelm any rebel force that came near Trenton. Rall claimed he could be attacked from all sides and would defends from all sides. No redoubts were needed. But he did increase patrols, leading some of them himself.

As Christmas approached,  British intelligence had received word from a spy that the Americans might be preparing an attack on Trenton. The British commander in the Jerseys, General James Grant himself was skeptical of a rebel attack. But he sent a note to Rall to warn him anyway. Rall scoffed at the notion and dismissed the idea as alarmist. Besides, he had complete faith and trust in the professionalism of his men, and incompetence of the enemy. The former is usually a good thing, the latter not so good. Rall stuffed the note in his pocket.

Washington launches his gambit on Christmas

Heilege Nacht

Now, in the German world Christmas eve is a very big deal. Bigger than Christmas day. How much “celebrating” took place is subject to some speculation. Likely some did. But the real problem the Hessians faced was the weather, the Jersey militia, and frankly, some fatigue. The campaign had been long.

Rall spent Christmas eve at the Stacey Potts house in Trenton. Unbeknownst to him, his officer of the day, Major Friedrich von Dechow, cancelled the next morning’s dawn patrol due to the bad weather. Other officers ordered their troops in outposts to shelter in place as the weather came in in. It was, as they say, a perfect storm. Washington struck Trenton in a surprise early morning attack on Christmas Day 1776. Washington’s 2400 men outnumbered the 1600 hundred defenders. But numbers were not the decisive factor, surprise was.

The Americans depended on the cover of dark
and bad weather to fuel their surprise

The Element of Surprise

Just after sunrise, one of the Hessian officers sheltering near the outskirts of Trenton, Lieutenant Andreas von Wiederholdt, stepped out the building he had sheltered in and was surprised to see rebels emerging from the woods around the town. He rallied his platoon and exchanged fire with the oncoming troops, but was quickly overwhelmed. By time the alarm was finally sounded,Trenton was already surrounded on three sides.

Artillery rounds from Henry Knox’s battery began to pound the town. The Americans had occupied several houses and as the infantry tried to rally they picked them off. In the wet snow, return fire by the Hessians was difficult with wet powder and flints.

Knox's Artillery suppressed the Hessian attempt to
counter attack

Surprised, outnumbered, surrounded, and overwhelmed by firepower – the situation for the defenders was bleak. But the Hessian discipline was not gone. What you do in training you will do in combat. And the Hessians were well trained. Drummers were soon beating away and Rall’s regiment rallied.  Officers signaled for ranks to form. Sergeants and corporals got the men into ranks. Some were in partial sate of dress or without all their equipment. But they formed.

Washington's pincer movement almost bagged the entire garrison

Commands were shouted over the crack of musket shots. But confusion began to turn to order when Rall appeared. He looked tired, some say in his cups, but this is unproven. Rall struggled to mount his horse and rally the troops for a charge that would disperse the rebels like so much chaff from a scythe. That is how they always did it. They would do it again.

As at Fort Washington, Rall called on his grenadiers to advance with him. This they did and two of the three regiments formed ranks and advanced with colors flying and drums beating. They would disperse the rebels yet. But this was a different army. Well led and motivated. More importantly, the advancing formation was enfiladed from three sides by Continental infantry firing from the cover of houses and artillery bombarding them from the flank. The wet snow prevented much return fire and cold steel would not be enough this day. Still, they were advancing on the enemy. "Nach Vorne!"

The American infantry surpassed the crack Hessian regulars

At that critical moment, a musket ball struck Rall in the side. He jerked, but managed to turn his horse around and tried  raise his saber. Then a second round struck him. Rall went down, mortally wounded. Seeing their commander shot from his horse, the usually steadfast Hessian infantry retreated into an orchard and attempted to form up once more. Rall was carried to a nearby church and finally back to the house of Stacey Potts. He died there that night.

Rall was stuck down at the critical moment

Determined, Washington had his men pour fire into their ranks while Knox’s guns cut through them with round shot. Men were falling.  Having just seen their beloved commander carried off, morale was quickly ebbing. At first, the Hessians refused calls to surrender. Washington was preparing to order Henry Knox to switch canister – this would have torn through the Hessian ranks like a 12 gauge rounds through a flock of fat geese. But the grim work was not to be. Ever professional, the Hessians realized it was over and began to ground arms in surrender. Other than a few hundred who fled across the Assenpunk River, the Trenton garrison was captured by the ragged rebel forces led by General George Washington.

After he was struck down,
Rall's men forced to surrender to die Rebellen

What of Rall?

So was Johann Gottlieb Rall an arrogant Teuton and drunk, whose hubris cost him his command, his life, and most importantly, his reputation? As is usually the case, the verdict is mixed. Rall was well respected by his men. In an army when blind obedience to officers and NCOs was demanded, respect was not. And he had their respect. Even more remarkable, Rall was liked by his men.

Rall in better times

A noted diarist of the war and adjutant to Rall at Trenton, Lieutenant Jakob Piel writes, “Considered as a private individual, he merited the highest respect. He was generous, magnanimous, hospitable, and polite to everyone; never groveling before his superiors, but indulgent with his subordinates. To his servants he was more a friend than master. He was an exceptional friend of music and a pleasant companion."

Note that Rall was outspoken with his superiors. Few had his combat experience.  The brutally frank Rall let them know it. Fellow Hessian, Colonel Carl von Donop treated Rall with contempt. But Captain Johann Ewald of the Jaegers, who later rose to the rank of Lieutenant General claimed that,  when it came to fighting, none of the other German officers were fit to carry Rall’s sword.
British Colonel William Faucitt considered Rall, “... one of the best officers of his rank in the Landgrave’s Army."

Goat? Or Scapegoat?

Friederich Wilhelm II - not
Rall’s ruler and commander in chief, Prince Frederick Wilhelm II convened a court martial to determine what had happened to his proud army at Trenton. Bad for business if the Hessians were seen as easy marks for undisciplined troops. Predictably, the court blamed the defeat on Rall and four of his officers.  Since they were now dead there was no real defense made. Colonel Rall was found "guilty" of not fortifying Trenton. But the truth is, fortifications would have been of little help as most of the men were sheltering from the weather. And the Americans had superiority in artillery. Not surprisingly, all the surviving Hessian officers were conveniently cleared of wrong doing. Of course, a Hessian court could not address the larger factors in the defeat: Howe’s dispersal of small garrisons in a hostile region. Grant’s inability to support the forward garrisons, who were under constant rebel militia pressure. Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rall was not inculpable of course – but he took the hit for the whole thing.

Yankee Doodle Postscript

Actually, a shameless Yankee Doodle Spies plug - my second novel in the famed Revolutionary War espionage series concludes with all the events surrounding the campaign that led to and the battle of Trenton. I take some liberties with dialogue and certain scenes but none with the actual events of history. I believe I captured Rall pretty well as part of the mix.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Things: The Prediction

The French Connection

Most  know that Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, known in the United States simply as Lafayette, was a 19 year old French aristocrat and military officer who fought in the American Revolutionary War, commanding American troops in several battles, including the Siege of Yorktown.

Lafayette leading troops at Yorktown

 Reform, Revolution & Chaos in France

Marie Adrienne Francoise de Noailles,
Lafayette's wife
The young general and confidant of General George Washington later returned to France where he played a key and tragic role in his own nation's revolution. Lafayette led the original reform movement and stayed the course hoping to be a moderate influence as the French veered left and violence entered the body politic. He led the National Guard and the French Army when his Patrie was invaded. Eventually the Marquis and his family were caught up in the reign of terror in Paris in 1792. Accused of treason, Lafayette escaped to the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium), where he was captured by Austrian troops and spent more than five years in prison. Meanwhile, his wife Adrienne was imprisoned in Paris, a prisoner of the revolution's Committee of Public Safety. There she and her daughter waited in fear as the reign of terror was sending thousands of her fellow nobles (and others) to the guillotine. In fact, Adrienne’s mother, grandmother, and sister were all executed during the bloodbath in the name of Liberte, Egalite & Fraternite.

The reign of terror stained the revolutionary cause and the streets of Paris

Elizabeth Monroe
future First Lady
Fortunately, in 1794, his former comrade in arms (and future American president)James Monroe had become American Minister to France. Monroe and his wife Elizabeth arranged a carriage in which Elizabeth rode to the prison and managed to meet and embrace Adrienne in view of a crowd of Parisians. The emotion of the event forced the Committee of Public Safety to grant Adrienne’s freedom, and she and her daughter traveled to Austria to be with Lafayette. He remained there under dire circumstances until Napoleon Bonaparte forced his release in 1797. But when he returned to France Lafayette refused to support Napoleon's government. He lived as a private citizen until the restoration government where he served as a member of the Chamber of Deputies. In 1807 Adrienne died of illness on Christmas eve.

The Return of Lafayette

Samuel Morse
(telegraph inventor)
portrait of Lafayette 
By 1824 Lafayette was the last surviving French general of the American Revolutionary War.  As he approached his own "evening parade" he made a tour of the 24 states in the United States from July 1824 to September 1825. This was his first return trip since the American Revolution.The former Continental Army general was received by the populace with a hero's welcome at many stops, and many honors and monuments were presented to commemorate and memorialize the visit. On New Year’s Day in 1825, Congress gave Lafayette a dinner to honor the hero. At the event, Lafayette returned the kind words and gestures of his American hosts with a toast that presaged the future: “The perpetual union of the United States: It has always saved us in time of storm; one day it will save the World.” He might have added, "and France twice..."

NYC parade honoring Lafayette was one of many across the new nation

We are Here

Almost a century after the Marquis toasted the power of the nation he helped to birth, Charles E. Stanton, the nephew of Lincoln's Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, took the Marquis's vision seriously. Stanton, a career Army officer, arrived in France as an aide to General John J. Pershing during World War I. They were on a close hold mission to begin planning for the arrival and training of the American Expeditionary Force. After three years of watching from the sidelines America declared war on the German empire and its allies.

President Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Imperial Germany
in April 1917

On July 4, 1917, Stanton, as part of John J. Pershing's staff visited the tomb of  La Lafayette and said, "Lafayette, we are here!" to honor the nobleman's assistance during the Revolutionary War and assure the French people that the people of the United States would aid them in World War I. Stanton’s remarks were originally attributed to Pershing because the press was under a strict censor policy not to print the name and location of any U.S. soldier in Europe, with the only exception, General Pershing.

Charles Stanton is third from left in photo
Pershing is forefront facing

The Prediction

Lafayette's toast predicting his adopted land's saving the world is more than a polite tip of the hat. By the early 19th century, the growth and potential power of the new nation was widely accepted. And Lafayette's devotion to the country's  basic goodness, combined with its potential gave him every reason to make the leap with such a bold statement. As it turned out, his faith in his adopted country was more than a good bet.


Sunday, October 28, 2018

Things: Chatterton Hill

A War of Maneuver

The campaign of conquest in New York was one of maneuver on land and sea. During the late summer of 1776, the British landed on Long Island and forced the Continental Army back to the Island of New York (Manhattan), where they faced a stalemate at Harlem Heights.

After the fighting at Harlem Heights, General George Washington’s Continental Army continued to hold on to upper Manhattan. By mid-October, Washington learned that the British were again on the move, planning to land in what is now Westchester County and surround him. Washington moved most of his forces across the Kings Bridge, leaving a garrison of some 1,500 under General Nathanael Greene to hold Fort Washington. The British landed at Pell’s Point and there began a cat and mouse game as the British advance was slowed by a series of holding actions by valiant American riflemen. Eventually Washington determined on a stand against the British, who were pushing west towards the North (Hudson) River that would cut Washington off from his supply line. He established a defensive position in the hills of White Plains, where the terrain might favor a defensive stand. The armies were about evenly matched, although Washington’s force of 14,500 men were in no way as well trained or equipped as Howe’s force of 13,00 British regulars and Hessian professionals.

Gen George Washington's initial overlook
of Chatterton Hill gave the British an opportunity

A Place of Battle

Present-day White Plains offers few reminders of the American Revolution. In this Westchester County suburb of New York, office buildings and a bustling downtown are surrounded by residential neighborhoods. It was in White Plains that the youthful version of your author took the road test for his driver’s license. At the time, I, like the thousands who live and work in the city, had no idea that nearby was once a bitterly contested battlefield.

Washington 's HQ wasat the Elijah Miller House in North White Plains

Washington Decides to Stand His Ground

Col Joseph Spencer
By October 28 1776, Washington’s forces occupied a crescent shaped three-mile line between the Bronx River to the east and the Crotton River to the west. Washington established his headquarters at the Elijah Miller House in North White Plains and chose a defensive position that he fortified with two lines of entrenchments. The trenches were dug on raised terrain, their right flank protected by the swamps near the Bronx River, and steep hills further back as a place of retreat. Divisions under Israel Putnam, William Heath are placed on the right and left flanks. Washington himself held the center. Beyond the right flank of this defensive line lay Chatterton Hill, which dominated the ground over which the British would have to advance. Curiously, Washington initially had posted only some militia companies under Connecticut Colonel Joseph Spencer to guard this obvious piece of key terrain. He would soon have to send more.

White Plains

Sir William Howe
Around mid-morning, word reached Washington of the British approaching in two columns along the East Chester Road. When they arrived, the British army deployed in an open area about one mile in front of the American line where their array was quite visible to the defenders. Was this an attempt at intimidation by the British commander, Sir William Howe to subvert American morale? Who knows what the delay cost him real terms. Could another Bunker Hill be in the offing? This was always Howe’s fear since he played a key role in Britain’s Pyrrhic victory outside Boston. That coupled with his hope of reconciliation with the rebels seemed to hold him back from a massive attack that could cost both sides.

Seize the Good Ground

This time Howe made a series of good decisions. He scanned the American defenses to his front. He realized he had the manpower and firepower to make a frontal assault. But Howe quickly recognizes there is another way - a way to move Washington without a blood bath. The lightly defended high ground known as Chatterton Hill over on Washington’s right is the key to the battlefield. Seize that and the Americans are bagged! Howe conferred with his staff and decided the main attack would go against Chatterton Hill while the rest of the army kept the main American line occupied. He began preparations to storm the hill, giving the attack to General Alexander Leslie (See the Yankee Doodle Spies blog on Leslie), with two British infantry regiments supported by a force of Hessians. Soon a bloody if inconclusive fight would ensue.

View of White Plains from Chatterton Hill

At last, Washington realized the danger he faced if the British seized the key terrain. He rushed to reinforce the heights with another 2,000 men under Colonel Joseph Reed. The critical outpost on Chatterton Hill eventually would be held by some 4,000 men under the overall command of Colonel Alexander McDougall. His force would include two New England militia regiments under Colonel Rufus Putnam and Spencer's men. Even as Howe and his staff conferred, his Hessian artillery opened fire on the hilltop. A force of 1500 skirmishers under Colonel Joseph Spencer is arrayed along the front. The American defenses seemed sound. But when the British finally launch their attack, they quickly brushed aside the skirmishers, who scattered before the attackers. But the arrival of McDougall and his brigade helped to rally them, and a defensive line was established, with the militia on the right and the Continentals arrayed along the top of the hill.

Washington rushes reinforcements to the heights

Although he now faced a well-orchestrated onslaught, McDougall made a game defense of it. He managed to pin Leslie’s column at the ford, repulsing several attempts to cross the Bronx River. In response, Howe ordered up more men while a force of Hessian infantry under Colonel Johann Rall, supported by British dragoons, moved on the American right flank. The Hessians manage to ford the river and charge up the steep slope, but the desperate and well positioned Americans drove them back. Not to be outdone by die Rebellen, Rall rallied his men and organized a second attack with more firepower. The artillery fired up the Americans defending the crest of the hill, which sent the militia troops to run. But despite the intense barrage the Continentals stubbornly held on until the Hessians finally turned their right flank, forcing them back as well.

Hessians advancing under fire

A Timely Retreat, An Untimely Pause

With his flank exposed and crumbling, Washington ordered a retreat and the Americans withdraw from the hill. Unfortunately for the British, William Howe stays true to form and does not follow up his success with a vigorous pursuit that might have destroyed the Continental Army and ended the war. Instead, he awaits reinforcements from the rest of his army and simply bivouacs his men on Chatterton Hill. This gave Washington time to move his army to stronger positions at nearby North Castle a few days later. Although the Americans lost the Chatterton heights along with some one hundred thirty killed and wounded, taking the heights cost Howe some two hundred fifty irreplaceable British and Hessian troops killed and wounded. In a sense, Howe came out ahead in that Washington ultimately evacuated New York and abandoned the defenders of Fort Washington to their ultimate demise. But the war of posts would now morph into a war of maneuver, this time across the Jerseys.

A  Halloween Connection?

Little remembered in history, the action at Chatterton Hill has a connection to American lore and the eerie celebration of Halloween. Washington Irving’s story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and the film, Sleepy Hollow, are centered on the haunting by a “Headless Hessian Horseman.”  By some accounts Irving based the story on an incident during the Battle of White Plains when a Hessian soldier, decapitated by a cannon shot on Chatterton Hill, roams the Westchester night seeking vengeance. so Chatterton Hill leaves a legacy of little military importance but an eerie contribution to American folklore… oh yes, and your humble author passed his road test - first time.

A Hessian's death at Chatteron Hill may have inspired
one of America's earliest legends - Sleepy Hollow

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Things: Fort Mifflin

A War of Posts

Over eight years of struggle, the American Revolutionary War lurched from guerrilla war to limited war, and occasionally a war of maneuver. But the exigencies of 18th century warfare in an expansive area of operations characterized by rough terrain, dense forests, and uncooperative rivers made it at almost all times, a war of posts. A war of posts is often like a chess match, with deliberately placed defensive positions aimed at securing supply lines, blocking an enemy advance and securing critical regions. Think of the game Risk, but with real men and sweat and toil, not little wooden or plastic markers. The struggle for North America had several key engagements involving fixed fortifications. In many ways these defined the war: West Point and Ticonderoga come to mind. But there were many with temporary or hastily built fortifications. These proved crucial as well. Fort Moultrie, Stony Point and Yorktown provide examples.

Fort Ticonderoga

The Siege

The war included several key sieges. Most were of short duration with one side capitulating or the other breaking off the siege due to external factors such as weather, supply or advancing reinforcements. Fort Stanwix, Savannah, Charleston and Newport are examples. Yet even a short-lived defense of a post  could buy precious time for a commander to gather forces, regroup, maneuver to advantage or just get the heck out of Dodge. That is one reason that a commander, when forced to a long investment of a post, or more importantly, forced to storm a post, harshly treats the defenders and any hapless civilians left at the end. Ironically, those occasions where the British treated the defenders harshly merely fed rebel propaganda, which played no insignificant part in the struggle. Not only were the American populace keenly observing things - the entire world was watching. That is material for another post, however.

Fort Stanwix

Fort Mifflin

Arguably longest active defense of a post under siege in the war was also one of the least celebrated. We will try to move the needle in the direction of celebration. Fort Mifflin lies on the Delaware River, in today's South Philadelphia, at a place called Mud Island. Construction on the fort began  in 1772 to bar the approach to the city.  Ironically the original construction  was under the famous British engineer officer Captain John Montessor. The fort was completed in 1777 under the direction of American Major General Thomas Mifflin, from whom it draws its name. It protected a line of water obstacles that stretched across the river to sister fort, Fort Mercer, in New Jersey.

Maj Gen Thomas Mifflin
finished construction of fort that bears his name

Most Formidable Defenses

A fort covering a sea approach needed more than stout walls and good fields of fire. So Philadelphia built a series of chevaux de frise, placed in "tiers" beneath the waters of the Delaware between Forts Mercer and Mifflin. They were built into wooden-framed boxes, 30 feet square, made from huge timbers lined with pine boards. The engineers sunk these frames into the riverbed. Each box was filled with 20 to 40 tons of stone to anchor in place. Each frame had two or three large timbers tipped with iron spikes set underwater and facing obliquely downstream. These chevaux made for a powerful obstacle that posed a danger to unwitting ships. The string of chevaux had gaps so friendly shipping could pass. The location of these safe passages was a highly guarded secret. Any British ship not impaled on the spikes or caught up in the chain still risked trained fire from the forts themselves.

Sketch of chevaux crates filled
with stones

A Strategic Position

The British captured Philadelphia in September 1777 by an overland campaign that avoided the fortified Delaware approach. But the British commander in chief, General William Howe now faced the need to open his line of communications to the sea.  He needed the protection of the Royal Navy and an open supply line or his position in Philadelphia could become a liability. The British commander realized that their command of the sea was an invaluable advantage over the Americans that must be used to maximum advantage. Howe's brother, Admiral Richard "Black Dick" Howe, commander of the Royal Navy in America, had already begun reducing American defenses down river. But brother Billy could not wait for their arrival. He needed to move overland against Fort Mifflin and save the navy for Fort Mercer on the Jersey side.

Control of lower Delaware River and bay
was crucial to British success

Doughty Defenders

Samuel Smith
But  the American commander in chief, General George Washington, also recognized the value of  the Delaware. Driven from the vicinity of the capital after his defeat at German town, Washington prepared for a long series of operations aimed at disrupting British plans to solidify their hold on Philadelphia. On 23 September , Washington sent Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Smith of the 4th Maryland Regiment with a detachment of Continentals into the fort on Mud Island on the Delaware River. Readers may recall I profiled this first patriot in an earlier Yankee Doodle Spies post. Smith's initial force numbered 200 soldiers plus Major Robert Ballard of Virginia, Major Simeon Thayer of Rhode Island, and Captain Samuel Treat of the Continental Artillery. Resolved to thwart British efforts at whatever cost, the Continentals went to work preparing the defenses while summoning more troops for the defense. Eventually they would have 400 men, not nearly enough to adequately garrison a fort of Mifflin's size. This was a problem that plagued other forces attempting to hold forts Ticonderoga and Washington. Yet Smith and his men resolved to make the most of the fort.

Fort Mifflin plans

The British Approach

John Montressor
General Howe ordered a move on nearby Providence Island on 10 October, 1777. Washington's land forces resisted, but were quickly driven off and soon heavy siege guns were set into battery facing the American fort. Formidible as it was, Fort Mifflin had not been heavily fortified for a threat from Philadelphia. In no small bit of irony, Captain John Montresor, earlier designer and builder Fort Mifflin, planned and built the siege works used against his fort. Things were certainly stacked against the rebels. Soon, heavy balls came crashing into the American positions. The pounding against that side of the fort was horrific, but the American fought back gallantly, inflicting heavy damage on several British ships that tried to force their way up river. The British mounted guns on floats, forming water batteries that edged closer to the beleaguered outpost. American casualties mounted and supplies dwindled over the month of horrific bombardment and deprivation.

The Royal Navy Engages

"Black Dick" Howe -
so named for a swarthy complexion
But Billie Howe's brother,  "Black Dick", would have the last say. He was finally able to unleash the Royal Navy. On 10 November, a floating battery of twenty-two heavy 24-pound guns closed to within 40 yards of the fort. At point blank range, the British gunners could have their way, big time. This turned out to be the heaviest bombardment of the Revolutionary War.  Shot and shell pounded walls and buildings to pieces. Defenders had limbs torn away or crushed. The battle was tilting toward the besiegers but Smith and the defenders were determined to defend the fort. The cold weather was coming early and if they could hold
until the Delaware froze the British supply line might be cut, forcing Howe's army to abandon the recently captured capital. On the British side, word of the catastrophic surrender of Major General John Burgoyne's army at Saratoga put pressure on both Howe brothers. A victory over the stubborn defenders would helped offset the obvious drop in morale. The stakes were high for both sides!

The Pennsylvania navy (yes, they had a navy) came to the aid of the forts guarding the Delaware approaches.  Commodore John Hazelwood, with a sizable fleet of galleys, sloops and fire-vessels launched several raids on British positions on shore and constantly harassed British river operations while patrolling the waters around the fort. But British naval strength eventually held sway. Rebel resistance continued. Cold, ill and starving, the garrison, reduced to much less than 200 the original 400-450 men, refused to give up. Under the direction of French Major Francois de Fleury, an engineer of extraordinary energy, the Americans worked each night to repair the damage of the day. Fleury himself was wounded in the battle.  A British ship of the line and sloop o' war both ran aground under the pummeling fire from Mifflin's defenders. But British naval superiority virtually guaranteed a bad outcome. Under cover of the murderous fire from the big guns of the floating battery, the British naval vessels closed in and soon British marines were sniping at the fort from high up in the rigging. With almost all their guns knocked out of action, the Americans were running out of options - but not out of gumption.

Fort Mifflin aka Mudd Island
was the key to the Delaware

The Final British Assault

Clear weather on 15 November gave the British a chance to turn up a final blast of heat.  They sent two ships,  Vigilant and Fury, with nineteen guns up the back channel to the west of Fort Mifflin.  At the same time, three large ships armed with 158 cannon anchored directly offshore of the fort, in the main channel of the Delaware. To the east, three more vessels armed with some 51 guns ensured Mifflin's enfilade from all sides. A trap of smoke, fire and iron.

The Royal Navy had to commit
massive resources to subdue the fort

To counter this British juggernaut, the defenders of Fort Mifflin had only ten cannon left. Soon, hundreds of cannon balls began blasting what was left in the fort. The large caliber 18 and 24 pound balls tore through the defenders in another shower of smoke and fire. During the heaviest hour of the bombardment, some 1000 shot were fired into the fort. To add to the defenders' misery, British Marines climbed to the crow’s nest of Vigilant toss grenades at the fort's defenders. The defenders bravely fought on but suffered for it as casualties mounted. They returned fire until all their guns were silenced by the heavier British shot.  Lieutenant Colonel Smith was seriously wounded and had to be evacuated. The end was near.

The End

Nightfall found the surviving defenders exhausted, cold and out of ammunition. But not out of options. The new commander of the fort, Major Simeon Thayer decided to evacuate the now indefensible Mifflin. Under the cover of darkness. the garrison rowed their way with muffled oars to Fort Mercer. Forty men volunteered to stay on and set fire to what was left.  Their work done, around midnight, they too crossed the Delaware to the safety of New Jersey. But Thayer decided on one last act of resistance. So as the last of Mifflin's valiant defenders rowed to safety they would see it ablaze - but they would see the flag still flying in a final gesture of defiance.

The unusual looking flag that flew over Fort Mifflin during
the long siege and in a final act of defiance

The Result

During the siege, some 400 American soldiers held off more than two thousand British troops and 250 ships. The Americans suffered over 250 killed and wounded and lost the fort. But the time and resources expended by the Howe brothers to take the fort and control the Delaware enabled Washington to deploy his army to White Marsh and ultimately get to the safety of winter quarters at Valley Forge where a new American army was born.

A new American army would emerge from
the hard winter at Valley Forge


Fort Mifflin was rebuilt after the war and used for many years as a US base, providing (of course) one of the strategic harbor defenses for Philadelphia. Later it became a historic site. But of the original Fort Mifflin, only the white stone walls of the fort still survive today. The pockmarks in these stone walls give evidence of the intensity of the British bombardment of 1777. Local residents know this siege and massive bombardment as the Battle of Mud Island. But this once critical piece in the defense of the Delaware and Philadelphia never again saw military action.